“A Test For India and Its Future”: Philadelphia Stands With Kashmir

Nick Millman
Twitter: @n_millman

Photo: Nick Millman

Two weeks ago, on August 5, India’s right-wing ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), unilaterally revoked Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution. These articles protected the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir, a contested region in northwestern India that borders the Himalaya mountains, Pakistan, and China. Kashmir has historically been a site of intense territorial and political dispute since the Partition in 1947, which split British-administered territory on the subcontinent into the Muslim-majority Pakistan and the Hindu-majority India. Articles 370 and 35A allowed Kashmir to retain limited administrative rule and the right for Kashmiris to own and inherit ancestral land, though the Indian state has progressively chipped away at these provisions throughout the years amid escalating geopolitical tensions. There is a long history of conflict in Kashmir, from multiple wars fought between India and Pakistan since decolonization to the constant presence of the Indian army that earned Kashmir the title of the “world’s most militarized zone” in 2016. Yet, the recent annexation of Kashmir and the simultaneous mobilization of over 35,000 troops to the area represents an unprecedented degree of aggression by the Indian government, one that has worldwide ramifications. 

The Indian military has clamped down hard on Kashmir after the repeal of these articles. The army shut down all communications in Kashmir on August 5, and the majority of the 12.5 million people in the region still remain without access to internet, cell phone, or landline connectivity. The police has also enforced permanent curfew, suppressed media reportage, restricted the mobility of civilians, cut off medical supplies to hospitals, and summarily arrested political leaders, journalists, and even children, without due process. Fact-finding groups confirm these multiple violations of international human rights law and note increased sexual violence against women and use of pellet guns on protesting civilians. Genocide Watch, a George Mason University-based progressive think tank, formally issued a Genocide Alert for Kashmir on August 15, claiming that the “stages of the genocidal process…are far advanced.” The lockdown happened days before Eid, an Islamic high holiday, and made it impossible for Kashmiri Muslims to participate in what is normally one of the largest celebrations in India’s only Muslim-majority state

The Kashmiri diaspora and political allies across the globe are condemning the actions of the Indian government. Organizers immediately coordinated an international week of solidarity, mobilizing under the slogan Stand With Kashmir. Non-violent protests have taken place across the world in Berlin, London, Birmingham, Los Angeles, New York City, Washington DC, Norway, Detroit, and other cities. People are continuing to take a stand beyond the designated week of solidarity, and these protests are a challenge to Syed Akbaruddin, the Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, who announced that the conflict is “entirely an internal matter to India” after a recent UN Security Council meeting.

Photo by Nick Millman. Protestors display homemade signs.

Philadelphia is now a dedicated part of the global protest against the Indian occupation of Kashmir. On Saturday, August 17, the Philadelphia South Asian Collective (PSAC) organized a non-violent demonstration to support Kashmir’s right to political self-determination. A number of participants—including those from PSAC, the Philly Socialists, Philadelphia residents with family living in Kashmir—decried the communication and media blackout, condemned the numerous human rights violations committed by the Indian military, and clarified facts about the August 5 annexation. Around 150 protesters participated in the August 17 action, carrying posters, distributing informational leaflets to passersby, and chanting “Free Kashmir!” or “Azadi!,” a rallying cry that means “freedom” and is closely associated with Kashmir’s freedom struggle. Many were clothed in red, which symbolizes solidarity with Kashmir

Protesters gathered peacefully outside the Chestnut Street entrance to Penn’s Landing at 2:00pm and remained there until 4:00pm. PSAC organizers held the action at this date and time to disrupt city’s Festival of India, a cultural event sponsored by PECO’s Multicultural Series and the Council of Indian Organizations (CIO), which did not make an official statement about the situation in Kashmir. During one of the performances on stage, protesters peacefully entered the public event and unfurled a banner that displayed “Stand With Kashmir.” 

Photo by Nick Millman. Members from PSAC and protestors display banner.

An organizer of the protest from PSAC, who requested to go by Poonam, explained that one goal of the protest was to interrupt the festival’s celebration of the 73rd anniversary of Indian independence and to remind the community that struggles for political self-determination in the subcontinent are still ongoing. Another aim was to “politicize those who are non-political,” and to unite people from all backgrounds.  

The protest united people across a range of political tendencies, racial and religious backgrounds, as well as generational divides. Six-year-old Zehran Qazi attended the protest with his parents and his brother. He described seeing the presence of the military during previous family trips to Kashmir to visit his relatives, but he believes the occupation is a decisive moment that represents a “test for India and its future.”

“I believe Kashmir needs justice in order to have freedom,” Zehran said, “and I want to see the rest of the world help.” 

Photo by Nick Millman. Image features Zehran Qazi holding a cardboard poster.

Suvir Kaul, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and scholar of Kashmiri poetry and culture, spoke to protestors about his familial ties to Kashmir. Since the communication shutdown on August 5, he has been unable to directly contact his sister, aunts, and uncles who live in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. Claiming that “oppressions everywhere need to be challenged,” Kaul denounced how right-wing Hindu groups exploit the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, a Hindu minority with ancestral connections to Kashmir that fled the region due to violence in the 1990s, as a way to legitimate the takeover of the predominantly Muslim Kashmir. He insisted that the “systematic violence in Kashmir is not isolated from the rest of the world,” and that resistance to the occupation requires alliances across religious, ethnic, and racial groups, and across national borders.

Photo by Nick Millman. Suvir Kaul (center) and Abhar Khiyabaan (left) rally the protestors.

Abhar Khiyabaan, a Kashmiri who lives outside Philadelphia, also has several family members living in Kashmir whom she cannot contact due to the communications blockade. “The occupation was never directly announced to us,” Abhar said. “We learned about the blackout only when we realized couldn’t reach our family through cell phone.” 

When Abhar first learned about the occupation and media blackout, she felt despair. Abhar explained that right-wing Hindu groups in power, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and affiliate, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), openly exalt Hitler and the “Final Solution” as a model for the treatment of Kashmir and minorities in India. “Unlike Hitler, India did not send millions to a concentration camp,” she said. “Instead, it has made all of Kashmir into a concentration camp, an open prison. They made it a living hell.”

Because “corporate India has taken over everything,” according to Abhar, media outlets controlled by these political entities have not adequately addressed the violence taking place in Kashmir. “We need human rights observers, we need allies,” Abhar added. “Kashmiris are peacefully reaching out to world, asking for help.” 

Tahir Qazi, a Kashmiri who lives in the Philadelphia suburbs, also highlighted the global scale to the conflict. “Kashmir is a nuclear flashpoint, which affects the whole world,” Qazi stated, referring to the fact that both India and Pakistan are rival nuclear powers. The use of paramilitary groups has fed a “religious persecution” of Muslims in Kashmir, and the acquisition of the land and opening up the territory to Indians for settlement is “taking the shape of a settler colonial project,” Qazi added.  

Farhat Mir drove six hours from Albany, New York to attend the demonstration and to be in political fellowship with Kashmiris and allies. He noted the significance of Philadelphia as the location for the protest; the city is the historic birthplace for constitutional democracy in the United States, an ideal and political practice under serious threat in India. He also acknowledged Philadelphia as a hub for “progressive and inclusive organizing” around local and international issues, which is capable of bringing together communities from diverse political and social backgrounds to raise awareness. 

Photo by Nick Millman. Large crowd gathers outside Penn’s Landing.

Members from the Upper Darby Islamic Center (UDIC) learned about the protest via a notice forwarded through WhatsApp. They expressed concern over the crisis of secular democracy in India, now overtaken by right-wing Hindu nationalist organizations and political parties. One member feared that annexation of Kashmir may galvanize anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the world, indicating that Greater Philadelphia is home to one of the largest communities of Muslims in the United States. Incidences of anti-Muslim hate crimes are becoming more frequent in Philadelphia since Donald Trump began his 2016 election campaign. “Kashmir is a matter of human rights,” Rabiul Chowdhury, a member of UDIC, said. “Showing up means we defend those rights for everyone.”  

Anti-fascist organizers also voiced support with Kashmir. Nazia Kazi, a member of Philly Socialists and PSAC, said that collective political action is necessary to combat the “rising tide of global fascism.” She likened the situation in Kashmir to Israel’s occupation of Palestine and Gaza, and also drew parallels to the routine attacks against racial and religious minorities in Trump’s America. 

Ania Loomba, a Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, encouraged protesters to join the newly-formed Coalition Against Fascism in India (CAFI) and to continue mobilizing. CAFI is a newly-formed global alliance of progressives that understand the occupation of Kashmir in the context of emergent fascism in India. A statement produced by CAFI highlights the ways in which state-sponsored paramilitary pogroms, violence against women, ecological devastation, corporate privatization of resources, persecution of Muslims and other ethnic minorities, religious Hindu supremacy, and a crisis-prone globalized economy work together to make fascism a reality in India. These forms of violence in India, according to the statement, “are not too different” from recent white supremacist actions taking place in an America led by Donald Trump. 

Photo by Nick Millman. Ania Loomba speaks with protestors.

CAFI is organizing to protest the forthcoming visit of India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to the United States. He is scheduled to attend the United Nations General Assembly session in New York City the final week in September, and also plans to speak with supporters in Houston. Modi is responsible for overseeing the 2002 anti-Muslim attacks in the state of Gujarat, and India has witnessed a spike in anti-minority violence since his ascendancy to Prime Minister as a BJP candidate in 2014. He has increasingly relied upon supporters abroad, including international celebrities, such as Priyanka Chopra, social networking magnates, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Indian diasporic communities in the U.S. as a shield for his policies. For these reasons, CAFI aims to build a stronger international coalition, and to show up and challenge Modi during his U.S. visit.    

“The struggle against fascism will be long,” Loomba said. “But we are all fighting the same fight.”

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