Kashmiri Americans organize to put a human face to the crisis in their homeland

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (RNS) – As Kashmir faces a security lockdown and widespread media blackout, U.S. Kashmiris are kicking up a new wave of activism focused on 'azaadi.'

Kashmiri Muslim women shout slogans and march on a street after Friday prayers in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, on Aug. 9, 2019. A strict curfew in Kashmir in effect for a fifth day was eased Friday to allow residents to pray at mosques, officials said, but some protests still broke out in the disputed region despite thousands of security forces in the streets as tensions remained high with neighboring Pakistan. (AP Photo/ Dar Yasin)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (RNS) – On Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival of the sacrifice, Huma Dar began with a request for a prayer for her people.

“Nobody knows the meaning of sacrifice more than the Kashmiri people,” she told the standing-room-only crowd gathered on Sunday (Aug. 11) in the Democracy Center, a meetinghouse in Harvard Square, to learn about new developments in the Kashmir crisis.

Then Dar, who teaches South Asian studies at the University of California at Berkeley, raised her hands to her face in silent supplication: That her country might finally achieve azaadi, or “freedom” — its decades-long rallying cry for a fair referendum on its independence.

Across the U.S., members of the Kashmiri diaspora are leading a solidarity movement called Stand With Kashmir to oppose the Indian government’s abrupt move on Aug. 3 to scrap the special semi-autonomous status granted the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which India and Pakistan both claim in full and currently rule in part.

People attend a meeting about the Kashmiri crisis at the Democracy Center, a meetinghouse in Harvard Square, on Aug. 11, 2019, in Cambridge, Mass. RNS photo by Aysha Khan

Last week, hundreds of Kashmiris and their supporters gathered outside India’s Consulates in New York and Chicago as well as the Indian Embassy in Washington in what activists called an “unprecedented” wave of support for the Kashmiri cause. More are joining the Justice for Muslims Collective in D.C. on Tuesday (Aug. 13) to learn about the region’s escalating tensions and how to support Kashmiris.

Since India’s Hindu nationalist leadership abrogated its special status, Muslim-majority Kashmir, already one of the world’s most heavily militarized zones, has been living through a communications blockade and what the region’s Indian administrators called a “security lockdown.”

“We urge people of conscience to come out and show support and solidarity for the people of Kashmir as authoritarianism and Islamophobia rise around the world, from India to the United States to Europe,” said activist Sameera Fazili, who organized a march Saturday in downtown Atlanta. “Come show your support for human rights, international law and democracy.”

The disputed Jammu and Kashmir territory on the border of Pakistan, India and China. Map courtesy of Creative Commons

U.S. Muslim organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Sound Vision, Burma Task Force and the Islamic Leadership Institute of America, are helping to lead the activism.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed the move would curb “terrorism” and bring stability and “development” to the region. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called it an illegal effort “to change (the) demography of Kashmir through ethnic cleansing” and said Pakistan – like India, a nuclear power – would “go to any extent” to fight against the changes.

Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian Constitution promised Kashmir its own constitution and decision-making powers outside the areas of foreign affairs, communications and defense. They also barred Indians from outside the state from buying land in Kashmir.

But Dar argued that India’s oversight of Kashmir amounted to “a de facto colonial occupation,” she said in Cambridge. She and other speakers at the Democracy Center event, hosted by Aazaad Lab and the Coalition for a Democratic India, begged outsiders to focus on the growing human toll of the crisis, from mass graves to personal stories of trauma.

“Everybody has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” one woman in the audience said tearfully at the event. “Why not Kashmir?”

Several speakers were quick to back up Dar’s characterization of India’s rule. Rashid Butt described finding his elderly father beaten by Indian security forces and left for dead in a paddy field. Anthropologist Ather Zia, founder of the Kashmir Lit journal, questioned the purpose of the lockdown and media blackout and agreed that the term “occupation” was accurate.

Cardiologist Tariq Bhat spoke at the Kashmiri crisis informational meeting Aug. 11, 2019, in Cambridge, Mass. RNS photo by Aysha Khan

Tariq Bhat, a local cardiologist born in Kashmir, decried the Indian forces’ shoot-on-sight orders during the lockdown, recalling similar conditions growing up in Kashmir.

“In my own childhood, I have seen more funerals, and taken more bodies to be buried, than I have seen babies born,” Bhat said. “At night when I was studying for exams I had to cover the windows with blankets so the army wouldn’t come to ask if I’m building bombs in the night.”

With India’s escalation of the tensions, Bhat noted: “I think we’re in a juncture where we really may end up in genocide. And it’s going to burn everybody, not just Kashmir.”

Hours before the event, many of the attendees had gathered with dozens of other activists in Boston’s Copley Square to show their support for Kashmir as Eid prayers were taking place across the city.

Since the nationalist Modi’s election in 2014, U.S. South Asians have been increasingly divided, over Kashmir and other issues of race, religion and caste. The Hindu American Foundation has applauded Modi’s most recent move.

“As a secular pluralistic democracy, it is vital that all citizens of India enjoy the same rights and are subject to the same laws, regardless of where in the country they reside,” the organization’s managing director, Samir Kalra.

Kalra said the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A “will help better integrate” the region’s residents and pave the way for resettlement of the Pandit community, native Brahman Hindus of the Kashmir Valley who were forced to flee their homeland after an insurgency against Indian rule in the mid-’90s.

Speakers at the Cambridge event acknowledged the plight of the Pandits.

Kashmiri engineer Arshad Iqbal speaks at the Kashmiri crisis informational meeting Aug. 11, 2019, in Cambridge, Mass. RNS photo by Aysha Khan

“I don’t think you’ll find any Kashmiri who will say that was not a terrible tragedy, what happened to them,” said Arshad Iqbal, describing his friendship with local Hindu children and his Hindu neighbors in the city of Srinigar. “But when I talk to a Kashmiri Pandit today, they call me a ‘bloody effing jihadi.’ The level of hatred in India toward minorities, toward Muslims, toward Dalits, it is unacceptable.”

The ongoing media blackout — no internet, cable TV or mobile phones, and no landlines except the scattered public telephones made available by the Indian government — leaves the potential for abuses against those minorities to go unreported, human rights advocates say.

Since the blackout began, none of the U.S. Kashmiris gathered in the room had heard from their families. Eid al-Adha felt like a day of mourning instead of a one of celebration, several said.

“This is probably the first Eid that I am not able to call my family on Eid,” Iqbal, an engineer who lived in Kashmir for 25 years, said. “This is the worst thing that can be done to us. Beyond this, they can only drop bombs over our heads.”

Media reports indicate that Indian forces kept the region largely locked down on Eid in an effort to avert protests. Many major mosques and shops in Srinigar remained closed on a day that is usually filled with jubilant festivities, while officers in riot gear stood at checkpoints along the streets. Tens of thousands of additional Indian troops have also been deployed into the small region.

Muslims walk past Indian paramilitary soldiers after offering prayers during Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, in Jammu, India, on Aug. 12, 2019. An uneasy calm prevailed in Indian-administered Kashmir on Monday as people celebrated a major Islamic festival during a severe crackdown after India moved to strip the disputed region of its constitutional autonomy and imposed an indefinite curfew. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

Ever since physician Manejeh Jahan moved to the U.S. 15 years ago, not a day has gone by that she has not spoken to her mother once in the morning and again in the evening. She and her husband took time off work and have spent days frantically dialing phone numbers and sending text messages over and over again to their parents, cousins, siblings and friends, all in vain.

“I cannot sleep, I cannot eat, I have no idea what’s going on,” Jahan said. “I have no idea if my father is able to get to his dialysis twice a week. Of course I put my trust in Allah, but I have no idea whether my father is alive or not.”

Jahan was in Kashmir for four weeks taking care of her elderly parents until just two days before Modi made his announcement. At that point, everything seemed normal – or at least normal for Kashmir, she said. But the sudden, “draconian” communication block has left her and the rest of the world feeling utterly in the dark.

“Why would they cut them off and cage them?” she asked. “Maybe the Indian government is telling the truth and maybe everything is fine there. But then why don’t they show it to us so we can believe them?”

Kashmir’s status as a nuclear flashpoint only amplifies her fears.

“These terrifying prospects are going through my head day in and day out,” Jahan said. “Are we going towards another Rwanda or Bosnia? I don’t know.”

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!