Organizing from the Outside

Members of the Kashmiri diaspora in Oregon find connection in protest as they mobilize against India’s military occupation of the region

Heldáy de la Cruz

On his most recent trip to his hometown of Srinagar in late July 2019, thirty-one-year-old Adil Sheikh had plans to hit the hiking trails. A city of 1.2 million people, Srinagar is the capital of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and sits along the Jhelum River, which also crisscrosses into India and Pakistan. Srinagar is nestled in the Kashmir Valley between the forested mountains of the Pir Panjal range to the southwest and the Himalayas to the northeast. A number of lakes edge up against the mountains nearby, and hiking trails are plentiful.

Adil has visited Kashmir nearly every summer since he moved to Oregon in 2013 to work for Nike. “It’s a busy life here. You go to work, you come back. It’s a full day,” he told me when we met this past winter. “And then whatever days off you get, you try to spend it back in Kashmir with your family. That was my life for six years.” Last summer, Adil’s friend Muneer Mubashir also traveled from Portland to visit family in Srinagar, and he and Adil had been planning to go for a hike together on August 5. 

As evening approached on August 4, Adil and his family were just returning from a trip out of town to Gulmarg, a hill station and popular ski resort thirty miles west of Srinagar. Around midnight, they noticed that their broadband internet connection at home had been cut. Adil had a sinking feeling that he wouldn’t be able to reach Muneer the next day. By the morning of August 5, when the internet, cell phone signals, and landlines still had not been restored across J&K, the reason became clear: speaking in Parliament, Amit Shah, India’s home minister and right-hand man to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, announced the decision to revoke Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which had outlined the terms of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir’s special autonomous status. 

The Indian government imposed a curfew that severely limited travel within the city; the only way Adil’s family could hear news updates was via the Indian state radio station, All India Radio. “And on the radio they said, ‘The people of Kashmir have welcomed the taking away of Article 370.’ I was like, this is such a lie,” Adil told me.

Article 370 went into effect as part of the Indian Constitution in 1950, three years after the Indian independence movement pushed the British out in 1947. The subcontinent was violently divided between Pakistan and India in an act known as Partition, and the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was given the option of joining Hindu-majority India or Muslim-majority Pakistan. Since the 1930s, the Muslim-majority population of J&K had been mobilizing against their Hindu rulers in search of greater political representation and an end to the economic exploitation of Kashmiris. Following an uprising in late 1947, paramilitary forces led by the Hindu ruler Maharaja Hari Singh carried out a massacre of Muslims in the Jammu region. The violence heightened the religious divide, and Pakistan intervened at the request of Muslim Kashmiris. In exchange for protection from Indian troops, Singh struck a deal with New Delhi that later became Article 370. In theory, Article 370 allowed Jammu and Kashmir to create its own laws, except in the areas of defense, foreign affairs, and communications, which would be administered by India. This agreement was made between two sovereign entities and was signed under the condition that the people of Kashmir would have a chance to decide their future via a vote. But Article 370 was rendered mostly symbolic as early as 1954. 

The promise of Kashmiri autonomy had eroded over the years thanks to the Indian central government’s efforts to exert control over the majority Muslim region. The Indian government spent years installing political figures in Jammu and Kashmir who would support Indian rule, and beginning in the late 1980s, as the Kashmiri resistance to India grew bolder and the anger and bitterness of the Kashmiri people spilled over into an armed insurgency, the Indian government responded with a full-blown military occupation of J&K that continues to this day. More than seventy thousand Kashmiris have been killed since 1989, and thousands have been disappeared. Between five hundred thousand and seven hundred thousand Indian occupation forces, both soldiers and paramilitary, remain stationed in Jammu and Kashmir and have committed widely documented human rights abuses with impunity. The ratio of Indian soldiers to residents of J&K is one to seventeen, meaning the region may be the world’s most densely militarized zone.

With Article 370 struck from the constitution, the Indian government, under the rule of right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) Prime Minister Modi, declared Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh (up until then a part of J&K) to be two separate union territories, not states, that would be ruled by the central government. The government in New Delhi would have direct control over the police in the two territories. Non-Kashmiris would be allowed to buy and settle on land in Jammu and Kashmir, opening the pathway to a major demographic shift in the region. By stripping Kashmir of its special status, India could make stronger claims that Kashmir was an “internal” matter to India, silencing international outrage at the extrajudicial killings and disappearances that had become commonplace under the occupation.

The long-promised and persistently deferred plebiscite by the residents of J&K on the question of self-determination—a direct vote called upon by the United Nations Security Council in 1948—felt even further out of reach.

Adil and Muneer spent the rest of their time in Srinagar confined to their families’ homes. As early as two weeks before August 5, the number of Indian soldiers in Kashmir had ballooned by at least thirty thousand, adding to the already outsized military presence on the streets. “Before August 5, there was already an army bunker on every corner in Srinagar, and a soldier sitting inside pointing a gun at you all the time,” Adil said. As Eid al-Adha, one of the two most important Muslim holidays, approached, celebrations were constrained, and families were forced to celebrate apart from one another. 

“The last time I had celebrated Eid in Kashmir, I was younger than my son, who’s fourteen,” Muneer told me. Eid stretched from the evening of August 11 to 15, and Muneer, who had traveled to Kashmir with his wife, spent it away from her. “I could not go to my in-laws’,” he continued. “My mom and I tried to go, but we missed the one window when we could travel—5:00 a.m. To travel nine miles.”

Adil’s return flight to the United States was scheduled to leave on August 13. Without an internet connection, there was no way he could change his ticket to stay longer. “A part of me was like, stay,” Adil remembers. “And a part of me was like, what are you going to do even if you stay? I’m caged. Maybe I can support my family better, or the people of Kashmir better, by being outside than by being in Kashmir.”

 

On the afternoon of September 7, 2019, I stood with a few friends along the eastern edge of Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. We were among a larger crowd of around forty people who had gathered to demonstrate against India’s siege in Kashmir. 

We had learned of the demonstration from a post in the Portland Mercury’s solidarity calendar: “Wear red and join this protest in solidarity against fascism, settler colonialism, occupation and human rights violations by the Indian government in Kashmir.” We showed up in various shades of red with signs reading “End Genocide in Kashmir” and “7 Million Under Lockdown.” Adil, Muneer, and a handful of others were gathered near some folding tables set up on the edge of the plaza. Posters set atop the tables described the history of Jammu and Kashmir and what had taken place on August 5. A few of the organizers carried piles of red T-shirts around the plaza, handing them out to people who had stumbled onto the demonstration. Among them was forty-one-year-old Meher Malik.

Meher, who grew up in Srinagar until the age of fourteen, had moved to Portland from Dallas, Texas, on August 3, along with her three children. Her husband had started a job in the Portland area a few months prior. Now she was in a brand-new city, far from friends, suddenly cut off from her family in Kashmir and surrounded by unpacked boxes.

“Kashmiris are very tight-knit. Anywhere we go or move, the first thing we do is we’ll look for other Kashmiris,” Meher told me. She remembers feeling heartened that others had shown up to the protest.

As the energetic crowd thickened, Muneer took the microphone. A powerful public speaker, he gestured confidently as he spoke of the injustices he’d witnessed on his latest visit home. “This is a question of demanding basic human rights,” he proclaimed. Muneer had spent nearly two weeks under curfew with his parents that August. “It was surreal. We felt like we were back in the 1990s,” he told me when we met this winter. 

Muneer, who is forty-three years old, was born in Srinagar and left Kashmir in the mid-1980s, when he was eight. His family relocated to Saudi Arabia, but then moved to Toronto rather than returning to Kashmir as the violence escalated. Muneer later lived in several cities across the United States, including Cleveland and New York, before settling in Portland in 2012.

Having left Kashmir before the beginning of the insurgency, Muneer was far away as the brutal Indian occupation escalated. “I had kind of given up on Kashmir until August 5,” Muneer told me. “When I was away, I would not check local news. I didn’t even know who Amit Shah was. I was more American. I didn’t want to be part of that political landscape,” he confessed. 

“August 5 made it very real,” he said. “I was taking a shower that day and thinking, I have never felt as humiliated in my life. And here’s a guy who visits Kashmir after six years.” 

Having returned to Portland, where they have the relative freedom to speak out against the injustices of the Indian state, Muneer and Adil felt the weight of a new responsibility. “Kashmiris are facing an existential threat, and I will not sit around and not do anything to change it,” Muneer said. “I can’t say, ‘Not my problem,’ which I’ve kind of said in the past.”

Muneer and Adil began meeting with other Kashmiri families in the Portland area, including Meher’s. They gathered at each other’s houses, shared meals, consoled each other during the most difficult moments, and started organizing.

One of the first targets was their local Congressional representative, Suzanne Bonamici, who took to Twitter within days to publicly express her deep concern over human rights violations in Kashmir. She went on to cosponsor House Resolution 745, which urges India to “end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir.”

Next, the Portland-area organizers began making plans for a demonstration at Pioneer Courthouse Square, following the lead of Stand with Kashmir, a global citizen-action group that emerged as an important organizing network, centering the voices of Kashmiri activists in the diaspora as they call for an end to the occupation and support the Kashmiri right to self-determination. 

Adil, Muneer, Meher, and other organizers were nervous in the lead-up to that first protest. “I was like, what if nobody shows up?” Adil recounted. “Okay, at least we’re four people. We’ll make it work.” Muneer counted around nine Kashmiri families in the greater Portland area, stretching from Salem to Vancouver, Washington. Together they designed fliers and spread the word through those families and via colleagues at their workplaces, including Nike and Intel. Some of the organizers traveled to local mosques and handed out fliers to those who were there to gather and pray. 

On the day of the protest, more than fifty people came out in support, including a small delegation of Punjabi Sikh leaders from the Gurdwara Dasmesh Darbar in Salem, who had arranged for vans to drive constituents to Portland to join the protest. Midway through the demonstration, several of the Gurdwara members shared a statement of solidarity. 

But alongside the show of solidarity, a counterprotest of around fifteen people holding a large Indian flag had coalesced across the square. They seemed to be local supporters of the Modi government and held signs claiming that Kashmir was an integral part of India. As the counterprotesters circled the perimeter of the square and came closer to where we stood, Adil began leading the chant, “We will not be silenced / in the face of violence.”

Indian American support for Modi and the BJP is widespread, and although a handful of Indian Americans with whom Adil had spoken expressed their support for Kashmiris, some told him that they did not want to come to the demonstration. “They didn’t want us to say anything anti-India,” he told me. 

Indian historical accounts have continued to claim J&K as an integral part of India and framed any challenges to that claim as anti-Indian, effectively erasing the possibility that the people of Kashmir could choose a different path—one of independence and azadi (freedom) from either Indian or Pakistani rule. In the years that followed Partition and the accession of J&K to India, Kashmiri calls for azadi were pushed underground, undermined and muffled by the incarceration of leaders who spoke to the will of the people. 

Adil grew up in Srinagar on the campus of the University of Kashmir, where his father was a professor of German. I asked him about the historical narratives that dominated his youth. “Until the early 2000s, the idea of Kashmir for people in India was, oh, there are people in Kashmir who really want to be a part of India. But there are these terrorists sent by Pakistan, and the Indian army is there to save the people of Kashmir.” 

But the Indian army’s brutal violence is what Kashmiris remember the most. Meher also grew up in Srinagar; her family owned a hotel in the heart of the city. When she was just eleven years old, Meher’s father was shot and killed by an Indian soldier in front of their hotel. I sat down with Meher this March and spoke to her about the years that followed. “That’s something that lives with us forever,” she told me. “The pain of losing somebody like that . . . I don’t know how to express that feeling. It gets more intense.” 

India’s military occupation has led to the enforced disappearance of at least ten thousand Kashmiris, extrajudicial killings, torture, and illegal detentions. Although much of the violence has been documented, it has been legally sanctioned by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (ASFPA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA), two laws that give the Indian military the power to maintain public order in what they term “disturbed areas” through often-lethal force, with immunity from prosecution.

“So many people have died,” Adil said. “I have an uncle who died in 2011 in a blast.” Even earlier, when Adil was nine, the effects of the violence hit home. “My mom, she was in a market,” he said. “My brother was six or seven months old. He was home, and she was shopping. There was a blast, and a splinter hit her. It was a narrow escape. It just missed her heart.” Adil’s mother went through a long recovery. “She could not move her arm for a long time,” he said. She is still affected, he told me. She cannot lift her arm fully, and so her body stores a memory of that day. 

 

I sat with Adil in a coffee shop off of Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway in January. During our conversation, he pulled out his phone to show me photos he had taken during his trip home in July and August. “This thing archives everything,” he said with a chuckle as he scrolled back to photos from last summer. The one he pulled up was of himself, his parents, and his brother posing in Gulmarg, in the middle of a hilly field thick with green grass, the place he and his family had visited just before August 5. 

In the days leading up to their trip, he recalled an eerie sensation his whole family shared—something was not right, something was going to happen in Srinagar. “They just started militarizing the city more and more,” he said. Rumors began circulating that Srinagar would run out of gas and other essentials, and people stood in long lines to stock up. “There was chaos, because there were so many speculations.” 

Adil couldn’t reach his parents for at least one month after he got back to Portland. “I don’t know how many days it was,” he said. “I lost count.” 

By November 2019, the Indian government had restored a limited number of landlines across Kashmir, providing a sliver of hope that diasporic Kashmiris could reach loved ones. But Adil’s family had gotten rid of their landline. One of their relatives in Srinagar had a landline, but they were not able to make outgoing calls. 

Adil described the acrobatics required for the call to go through: a friend of his in Delhi would call Adil’s parents at an agreed-upon time; then Adil would call his friend, and his friend would merge the calls into a conference call. “Sometimes it would go through, sometimes it would not. That’s how I communicated with my family for about two months,” Adil remembers.

Even as it became possible for diasporic Kashmiris to reach their families via landlines, they couldn’t speak without the fear of surveillance, as Meher experienced. “It seemed like somebody was listening and tapping the phones,” she said. “You can’t talk freely to anybody. Even if the conversation starts, we self-censor, and someone will change the topic.” 

“This is not new to us Kashmiris,” Adil told me. It’s true, he admitted, that international media and people on social media are finally starting to take notice. But Kashmiris have seen these instruments of repression before. “In 2008 to 2009, we spent three months without phone, internet,” he said. 

“Curfews, lockdowns, communication blockades have always been part of Kashmir,” Meher said. “When I see the next generation coming up now, like my kids, it’s just normal for them.” But the events enacted by Prime Minister Modi and the BJP on and after August 5 felt unprecedented. 

“To this extent?” Adil remarked about the levels of repression he saw firsthand. “Where we’re not even allowed to come out of the house? And then we are stripped from every right?”

The BJP and its parent organization the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) adhere to the ideology of Hindutva, which professes that India has always been a Hindu nation and must return to its Hindu roots. According to the human rights advocacy group Alliance for Justice and Accountability, Hindutva “uses the claim of faith to distract from its economic agenda to concentrate power, land, and resources in the hands of the upper oppressor castes.” When it comes to Kashmir, Hindu nationalists have been eager to remove Article 370 from the constitution since the 1950s. Autonomy for a Muslim-majority region was a threat to the idea of a Hindu nation, and for them, Kashmir had to be reclaimed. 

The virulent anti-Muslim thrust behind Hindutva has shaped the fate of Muslims not only in Kashmir, but in India as well. India’s Parliament passed a law in December 2019 that together with a citizenship registry allows the government to render stateless anyone who cannot prove their citizenship with required paperwork—paperwork that reports say nearly 70 percent of the population do not have. For everyone but Muslims, exceptions will be made that allow people to apply to regain their citizenship. After months of historic protests against the law across India, violence against Muslims reached a peak in February, when a terrifying massacre took place in Delhi, killing as many as fifty-three people.

During one demonstration this winter in Mumbai, a protester was photographed holding up a sign that read “Free Kashmir.” The photograph went viral on social media. After a complaint was filed claiming she was promoting “separatist views,” the Mumbai police department launched an investigation into the woman with the sign. “I was voicing my solidarity for basic constitutional right,” she told reporters. There is little to no space for the idea of a “Free Kashmir” in India’s imagination.

In an interview with the Intercept, historian Hafsa Kanjwal spoke to the narrow field of debate around Kashmir within India: “There was a time before Modi when there might have been some pushback from Indian liberals over these types of policies in Kashmir. That space has shrunk in recent years.”

Adil felt deeply hurt by the silence of Indians in the diaspora, liberal or otherwise, in the weeks after he returned to Portland in August. “I spent nine days in the curfew, in the blackout,” he reminded me. “I work with a lot of people from India at Nike. Nobody had the courtesy to come to me and say, ‘How is your family?’ Not a lot of people had the courage to ask. And whenever I brought it up, I was so emotional.” 

Adil plays soccer on Saturday mornings with a group of people from Nike, many of whom are Indians. During one of these Saturday pickup games in late August, Adil described the situation in Kashmir to a white American colleague. “Another Indian was sitting not far from there,” Adil remembered. “He was listening, and he goes, ‘But it’s for the good of the people, right?’”

Adil’s jaw tightened as he shared the story. The insinuation was not only that Kashmiris deserved to be under siege, deserved to be disappeared and incarcerated, but that the removal of Article 370 would benefit Kashmiris. “It’s like caging someone and saying it’s for your own good,” Adil said forcefully. “That’s the worst thing you can ever tell somebody. Cage them, take their rights away, and say it’s for your own good.”

“Muslims in India always have to prove their loyalty to India,” Adil continued. “That’s why many of them do not support Kashmir or speak openly about Kashmir. They’re scared. I see this courage only with Kashmiris who come out and speak up. Because we have lived through the misery and the injustice to an extreme extent. And we have nothing to lose. We have lost it all.”

 

In the months since August, Adil, Muneer, and Meher described new ways of relating not only to their hometown of Srinagar, but also to one another, and to those in Portland who have reached out in solidarity.

Soon after the September 2019 protest, Adil heard from an organizer with the International League of Peoples’ Struggles (ILPS), an organization that works in solidarity with anti-imperialist movements globally and holds space for political education related to struggles in Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. Adil and Muneer attended several ILPS meetings and led a session on Kashmir. “Everybody was talking about the people versus the evil government. The people versus fascism,” Adil said. “You realize that the world is changing. Everywhere you see fascism.”

As for the Kashmiri families in Portland, the organizing efforts have brought them closer together. “Because we have struggled so much,” Adil explained. “There is so much empathy, there is so much compassion among people. I did not get that compassion from anybody else. It’s you who is suffering and there’s somebody else who is suffering as well. And you understand each other’s pain.”

For Adil, Meher, and Muneer, organizing people in Portland around the injustices in Kashmir has stirred their own spirit of solidarity. “Honestly, for me, now when I learn about other atrocities and oppression going on in the world today, I want to do more,” Meher said. “Because when you experience it firsthand, you feel the pain of what others are going through, and you want to reach out and be there for them.”

Comments

3 comments have been posted.

The Article 370 this author mourns, denied basic Human rights to Kashmiri women and to the Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh minority residents of Jammu and Kashmir. Under the article 370, gay and lesbians were considered criminal -even though the law had been abolished in the rest of India. Lower caste dalit Hindus were kept in semi bonded labor as janirtors-for generation after generation. Kashmiri women who married a non Kashmiri lost rights to ancestral property and residency/ Kashmiri men ofcourse were exempt from this restriction. The aparthied state established under article 370, led to Independent India's largest genocide-the cleansing of Kashmir's Hindu population in 1990. Till date no Kashmiri has been persecuted for that sytematic campaign of targetted public executions, abduction of women, rape, torture and more.

PKush | May 2020 |

How well you write Jyothi,and what an important conversation this is!

Dina Lobo | April 2020 | WILLIAMSBURG

Beautifully written. Allah bless you, Jyothi.

Abdulla | April 2020 |

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