In late July, Tahir Ashraf Bhatti, an Indian police official with a checkered history of alleged human rights abuses, tweeted a photo of himself in the U.S. He had come to Houston, according to the tweet, to attend an FBI training.
Back home, Bhatti, a top cop for criminal investigations in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, ran a detention site where civilians have reportedly been interrogated and tortured for what they’ve posted on social media. Now he was sharing on Twitter a photo of himself standing in front of an unclassified FBI slide presentation titled “Operation Catch Me If You Can.”
“Continuous learning is the minimum requirement for success in any field,” he wrote in the tweet. A few days later, he posted a photo holding a souvenir FBI badge and wrote: “Appreciation is for now, gratitude is forever. Thank you @FBI.”
Continuous learning is the minimum requirement for success in any field. pic.twitter.com/fmb3AVmMQA— Tahir Ashraf (@Tahir_A) July 30, 2022
Until last year, Bhatti oversaw the regional police’s anti-terror unit, which has been accused of torture and extrajudicial killings, including while he was chief. Bhatti was also the top official at the cyber unit, which critics have alleged uses intimidation and violence against Kashmiris in custody in retribution for social media posts critical of the Indian government.
Bhatti himself has been accused of assaulting a social media user, according to past reporting by The Intercept, who said he was taken to Cargo, a notorious detention facility in Kashmir, after posting a tweet mocking Bhatti. Bhatti, in response to queries at the time, denied the allegations against him, as well as claims that people were abused by him or forces under his command for expressing their political views online.
The FBI’s provision of training to Bhatti raises tough questions around the U.S.’s security relationship with India. In particular, the move to train Bhatti may run afoul of two statutory provisions known as the “Leahy laws” that prevent the U.S. government from providing assistance to foreign security forces known to commit human rights abuses.
“The U.S. government claims that this partnership is founded on shared values, including commitments to democracy, global institutions, and multilateral organizations,” said Haley Duschinski, a professor of anthropology at Ohio University whose research specializes in militarization and impunity in South Asia, with a focus on Kashmir, “but these words ring completely hollow in light of India’s refusal to fulfill its obligations under international human rights law.”
The Houston division of the FBI declined to comment for this story. Bhatti did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. considers India a major partner in its military and national security operations, grounded in a “shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to a State Department website. The two countries established a defense relationship after the end of the Cold War and grew closer under the George W. Bush administration on the basis of combating the shared threat of jihadist terrorism.
Over the past decade, the United States has sold over $4 billion in arms to the Indian government. The U.S. and India have also cooperated on counterterrorism, including to target Pakistan-based terrorist organizations that have carried out attacks in India. The U.S. also increasingly sees India as an important security partner in confronting China.
Because of this close relationship, political will in the United States to raise human rights issues with an ally like India has often been lacking, said Ria Chakrabarty, the policy director at Hindus for Human Rights. Chakrabarty advocated for conditioning U.S. aid to India on human rights grounds in a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine.
“There is always a narrative in D.C. that you have to walk a thin line between having a closer relationship with India and raising human rights concerns there. It is based on a fear that going too hard on India over human rights might anger the government such that they may not cooperate with the U.S. against China,” she said. “The U.S. cannot be afraid to raise human rights issues with India out of fear of China, because India will calculate that it has an interest in containing China regardless.”
Chakrabarty said that a Leahy law review of cooperation with Indian security forces is warranted in light of ongoing reports of human rights abuses. In a statement, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who has been vocal in Congress about India’s rights violations in Kashmir, called on the FBI to provide transparency about its engagement with Bhatti, as well as Kashmir police forces more broadly.
“This individual is credibly accused of some of the worst human rights abuses in Kashmir, including alleged torture of journalists and citizen dissidents. It is my sincere hope that U.S. agencies are in no way cooperating or training serious human rights violations and suppression in Kashmir,” Omar said. “The FBI owes Congress — and the public — an explanation as to what if any involvement they have with Ashraf and the Jammu & Kashmir Police.”
The FBI conducts training for foreign law enforcement through several partnership programs. Indian police and commandos have received FBI training in the U.S. during the post-9/11 global war on terrorism.
A Kashmiri journalist living in exile in the West said that any support Bhatti or his unit receive from the U.S. today would inevitably be used to further suppress free speech in the region.
“The FBI has the capacity to safely carry out advanced investigations in the United States,” said the journalist, who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation against family members in Kashmir. “But when they train Kashmiri police in the same tactics, there is no doubt that those powers will end up being used against Kashmiri civilians.”
Appreciation is for now, gratitude is forever. Thank you @FBI pic.twitter.com/9eq3p6YMvw— Tahir Ashraf (@Tahir_A) August 3, 2022
The crackdown against journalists, activists, and civil society in India and Kashmir has been justified as a counterterrorism measure, but human rights activists say it has become a catch-all term used by the Indian government to target dissenters. The justification has been routinely deployed to support policies enacted in Kashmir.
A recent report by Amnesty International documents “drastically intensified” repression in Kashmir since the 2019 abrogation of the region’s special status, including the use of anti-terrorism laws to target academics, journalists, activists, and lawyers seen as critical of the Indian government.
“There is an environment now where there is no space for protest.”
“There is an environment now where there is no space for protest. If there are abuses which any journalists choose to report, a series of things can happen: Their homes can be raided, they can be taken in for questioning, they can be blocked from traveling, or then they can be arrested,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Counterterrorism and sedition laws are now deployed routinely against activists, even though there is not much evidence for the charges produced.”
There is also a documented history of human rights violations by Indian security forces in Kashmir, including torture, mass killings, and widespread use of sexual violence as a “counterinsurgency tactic,” according to Human Rights Watch. Since Kashmir’s local autonomy was revoked in 2019, repression has increased and local reporting has been all but snuffed out by security forces, turning the region into what Duschinski, the Kashmir expert, described as an “information black hole.”
Bhatti himself has taken a hands-on approach to suppressing Kashmiris’ speech. As head of the cyber unit, he reportedly surveilled local media outlets and, on numerous occasions, has been accused of abusing members of the press during interrogations.
In 2020, the same year The Intercept reported on Bhatti and the cyber unit, a Kashmiri journalist named Auqib Javeed was brought to the Cargo detention facility after publishing a story about police intimidation of Kashmiri social media users. Javeed was assaulted by a police officer and then taken to Bhatti’s office where he was “berated and verbally abused” over his reporting, he said. Bhatti was also involved with the detention of a photojournalist, Masrat Zahra, that year over her posts that were critical of the Indian government — an incident that generated media attention due to parallels with some of Bhatti’s own past online criticism of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Kashmiri journalist living in the West told The Intercept they were also held at Cargo by security forces under Bhatti’s command. They described Bhatti as a notorious figure among local journalists, known for threats, abuse, and intimidation.
“As head of the police cyber force unit, Ashraf has gone hard against people in Kashmir who have publicly criticized the government. The police have sought to teach people a lesson and put fear down their spines so that they won’t speak out in future,” the journalist said. “Ashraf is someone who has been willing to go all the way to please his bosses, and that means targeting anyone who voices an opinion against the Indian state.”
Another Kashmiri journalist who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation from Bhatti and forces under his command expressed disappointment that the FBI would host Bhatti despite the well-known public allegations against him.
“We hoped that with the Biden administration there would be more focus on human rights, but that hasn’t been the case,” the journalist said. “We don’t have any expectation of justice from India, but we are surprised that institutions in the United States like the FBI that talk about defending journalists and human rights would host someone like Tahir Ashraf for training.”