Diaspora pitches in

Print edition : July 03, 2020

At a protest on Hollywood Boulevard on August 31, 2019. Photo: by special arrangement

The Kashmiri diaspora protested against the continuing lockdown in Kashmir, in Los Angeles on August 18, 2019. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The Kashmiri diaspora gathers strength to internationalise resistance against the government’s political incursions in the Kashmir Valley.

THE Kashmiri diaspora, so far seen as a politically inconsequential and scattered community, is making serious efforts to organise itself and launch a sustainable, multiple stakeholder-led campaign against the Narendra Modi government’s political incursions in the Kashmir Valley. The diaspora played a significant role in highlighting the post-August 5 excesses in Jammu and Kashmir, after the State’s semi-autonomous status was revoked. As the Kashmir issue set a feverish debate the world over, with major members of Parliament and rights bodies condemning Modi’s “muscular policies” vis-a-vis the disputed valley, the diaspora believes the time is now ripe to counter the well-oiled Hindutva machinery that has long dominated the narrative abroad.

Soon after August 5, Majid Butt, Wajahat Dedmari, Nadeem Reshi, Art Ashai, Zeeshan Khan and Ehtisham Ashai among other Kashmiri Americans geared up to internationalise the clampdown imposed by the government on Kashmir and the health care and economic exigencies it entailed. They held back-to back meetings with Senators and members of the House of Representatives in the United States.

They were instrumental in lobbying with California Congressman Brad Sherman, who is the chairman of the House of Representatives sub-committee on Asia, the Pacific and non-proliferation, which held a hearing on Kashmir on October 22, 2019. The Kashmiri diaspora played a keen role in the selection of witnesses to testify at the hearing. It also briefed Congressmen on New Delhi’s crackdown on Kashmir’s mainstream and separatist actors before its August 5 action and the high-handed quelling of dissent that sporadically erupted across the Valley in its aftermath.

Buoyed by the world’s renewed interest in Kashmir, Majid Butt, Wajahat Dedmari and Nadeem Reshi floated Justice for Kashmir (JFK), which will be the diaspora’s vehicle for advocating the rights of the Kashmiri people and “raising awareness against the injustice, crimes, and atrocities being committed in Kashmir”. The JFK, which has been registered as a non-governmental organisation (NGO), is collaborating with eminent figures from among the U.S.’ intellectual, administrative and political elites to counter the growing cacophony of Hindu nationalism through its proxy bodies nestled abroad. The diaspora is hopeful that the JFK will help streamline its on-going efforts aimed at building important relationships in the U.S. Congress and around the world and use diplomatic leverage to quell India’s “hard-fisted” policies in Kashmir.

Majid Butt, founding member of the JFK who spoke to Frontline over the phone from Los Angeles, shed light on the diaspora’s post-August 5 initiatives, the role it played in pressing the House subcommittee for a hearing on Kashmir and the necessity to structure these endeavours. “August 5 was a turning point for all Kashmiris, including Kashmiri Americans. We have been raising the Kashmir issue over the past 10 years but our efforts lacked coherence. The time has come to amplify the message of Kashmir,” Butt said.

In the weeks that followed the revocation of Kashmir’s special status, the members of the diaspora held a series of meetings with influential American politicians, who included 25 Congressmen and three Senators, notably Democratic Party veterans Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. 

Three meetings were held with Brad Sherman in August and September 2019. Information on the historicity of the Kashmir struggle, the phases of betrayals by India as it incrementally eroded the guarantees given to the State under Article 370 were shared with him during these meetings. Presentations were made on the cycles of violence, illegal detention and crackdown on religious figureheads that have emerged as a persistent feature of the Modi years. As per the information available, Pakistani-origin Democratic Party leader Asif Mahmood was instrumental in facilitating the meetings between the members of the Kashmiri diaspora and the U.S. politicians.

When contacted, Mahmood told this reporter: “The Kashmiri voices needed to be heard, so I decided to extend all possible support that I could, in their pursuit to freedom, justice, and liberty, which are important values enshrined within our [U.S.] Constitution. We held a series of official meetings with congressional leaders that proved very productive and helped us yield a significant response in the form of a historic congressional hearing.” 

Briefing on Kashmir

Ahead of the congressional hearing, the diaspora held a major briefing for Congressmen in Capitol Hill. Said Majid: “India has dominated the narrative for very long. India’s framing of the Kashmiri struggle as a proxy war thrust by Pakistan, with an overt Islamist character and end goal, has prevented informed debate on the issue of right to self-determination. We held a briefing for over 150 Congress staffers. We shared feedback on the excesses of the Modi government and distributed handouts on why the decision to abrogate Articles 370 and 35A were constitutionally unviable.”

The effort paid off. The congressional hearing riled the Modi government by rebutting its policies vis-a-vis Kashmir. Ilhan Omar, a Somalia-born Democrat from Minnesota berated the “Hindu nationalist project” of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). She noted that Modi’s exclusivist policies shook the very premise of the partnership between India and the U.S. “At what point do we no longer share values with India? Are we waiting for the Muslims in Assam to be put in those [detention] camps?” she asked. Brad Sherman, who made the opening remarks, questioned India for denying permission to Senator Chris Van Hollen to travel to Kashmir.

Nitasha Kaul, London-based novelist and academic specialsing in international relations, who testified in the hearing, said that “for the millions of people in Kashmir who have been affected for decades by this protracted political problem and its human rights dimensions, it [the hearing] was a time of hope that the international community can do things better.” Nitasha, a Kashmiri Pandit, speaking to Frontline about her experience at the hearing, said: “It was a rare opportunity to speak truth to power, put forward ideas that bring together the voices of peace and justice from different sides, and have an impact on the practice of critical international relations.” She is upbeat about the diaspora’s efforts to engage with and involve more and more international players in the Kashmir discourse.

Wajahat Dedmari, the JFK’s team leader in Washington, D.C., said they had to bank on a friendly U.S. NGO to send out invites to guests. “It was at that point we felt the need to create our own platform.” The JFK plans to highlight that a resolution of the Kashmir conflict is integral to sustaining peace in South East Asia. “Unless Kashmiris are given a right to decide their future as per the United Nations Security Council Resolution 47, there will not be any peace in South East Asia. The on-going stand-off between India and China in Ladakh which is a part of Jammu and Kashmir has made it imperative upon the entire world to come forward and help in resolving the Kashmir issue, otherwise we may have three nuclear powers—India, China and Pakistan—heading for a showdown,” he said.

The JFK’s core idea is to challenge the optics set by New Delhi’s “narrative controllers”. In the U.S., the Hindutva groups’ acquisition of political prominence is a fascinating story spanning over several decades. A section of the Indian-American diaspora is understood to have closely worked with Modi since the middle of the 2000s. As early as 2005 when Modi, who was Gujarat Chief Minister, was denied a visa by the U.S. State Department to address a convention of Asian American Hotel Owners Associations in Florida, some influential Indian-Americans began to put their act together to limn an “investor friendly” global image of him. A significant step towards this direction was taken in 2007 by Bharat Barai, assistant professor of medicine at Indiana University’s Medical School. He organised a videoconference for Modi to address the Indian diaspora. That same year, Ramesh Shah, another influential Indian-American, organised a major rally in Houston to celebrate Modi’s re-election as Gujarat’s Chief Minister for the third time in a row.

A report released by the South Asia Citizens Wire in July 2014 stated that between 2001 and 2012 India-based affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of BJP, received funds to the tune of $55 million from its U.S.-based wings that exist as tax-exempt non-profit organisations. 

In January 2014, four months before Modi captured power at the Centre, the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP) held a global meet in New Delhi with 160 delegates from around the world. Simultaneously, in Houston close to 700 volunteers kicked off a phone-banking initiative to press for Modi as the next Prime Minister. Of late, groups such the Republican Hindu Coalition, chaired by the Indian-American business tycoon Shalab Kumar, have been allegedly promoting the Hindutva agenda in the U.S. Among other such outfits is the Hindu American Foundation, known for its aggressive tactics to influence political discourse in favour of Hindutva ideologues.

Angana Chatterji, a scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, said the environment now was conducive for “a growing movement of Kashmiris and allies, calling for justice and accountability”. “The conditions on the ground in Kashmir have led to increasing and urgent concern among political leaders across the spectrum for the sanctity and security of Kashmiris, and regarding the stability of the region and India’s capacity for democracy,” she told this reporter over phone from San Francisco.

Angana Chatterji is the author of Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India. She is involved with the JFK team and testified in the October hearing. She is of the opinion that Modi’s unrelenting Hindutva push unwittingly brought his government under the international scanner. “Unremitting militaristic and legal hostility toward social dissent have become characteristic of the BJP’s governance. The more proximate to harsher realities, the more intensified the targeting, and this makes people fearful. Since December 2019, peaceful civil society protests [with few exceptions] have taken place across the country in dissent to the CAA [Citizenship Amendment Bill], NPR [National Population Register], and NRC [National Register of Citizens],” she pointed out.

Indeed, the Modi government has been in the line of fire. This year, six resolutions were tabled ahead of the European Union Parliament plenary, which began in Brussels on January 29. They dismissed the CAA as “fundamentally discriminatory in nature”. In June 2018, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report which questioned, among other things, the arbitrary use of the Public Safety Act (PSA) by the Indian state. 

The U.N. report titled “Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Kashmir: Developments in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir from June 2016 to April 2018, and General Human Rights Concerns in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan”, revealed that more than 1,000 Kashmiris were held under the PSA between March 2016 and August 2017.

It is not a coincidence that highlighting the practice of unlawful detentions is one of the JFK’s key areas of focus. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the JFK has launched a “Set Them Free” project. It will revisit the policies and statutes governing the functioning of prisons in Jammu and Kashmir and the condition of prisoners thereof. The ultimate aim of the project is to prepare a dossier on the desired prison reforms, which will be presented to various stakeholders on the completion of the project and provide free legal aid to maximum number of detainees. It will ensure comprehensive legal aid to undertrials and inmates, right from applying for bail to the conclusion of trial and filing appeals against convictions, if any.

Post August 5, illegal detentions became rampant in Kashmir. The Centre in November informed the Rajya Sabha that 5,161 people were detained after Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy was withdrawn on August 5, 2019. But this could be a conservative figure. As per an AFP report, at least 4,000 people were arrested in the two first two weeks after the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir.

Majid Butt says that the Set Them Free initiative would be an effective starting point to augment the existing information on the state of human rights in Kashmir and consolidate world opinion for a just and honourable resolution of the Kashmir conflict. “For the past few decades, India has been using different strategies and lobbying against Kashmir not only in the U.S., but the world over. They have always misrepresented facts and deliberately spread misinformation. We have facts on our side and the need of the hour was to put more effort, so that we could counter India’s false narrative.”