Kashmir: A story of voices unheard

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Whenever I answer the question that is widely understood as problematic yet still universally asked, “Where are you really from?” I’m usually met with either one of two responses. “Oh, like the sweater?” or “I love that Led Zeppelin song.” Since coming to Berkeley, the responses have overwhelmingly been the latter.

But Kashmir, sometimes known as simply the Valley, is neither one of these things: It is the world’s most militarized zone and also a spot on the map I can point to and say, “One hundred percent of me comes from here.” A disputed territory fought over by India and Pakistan for more than seven decades, Kashmir has an estimated 700,000 Indian troops for 7 million Kashmiris, with a ratio of one soldier for every 10 Kashmiris. Why then do people, and not just people but students at one of the best public universities in the world, still confuse Kashmir for a ‘70s rock song?

Kashmir’s news coverage has historically been sparse and framed as a border dispute between India and Pakistan. Recent violent escalations in the Valley have led to an increase in its international news coverage, yet many Americans are still unaware of the bloody conflict. Such ignorance further burdens Kashmiris: We aren’t able to just worry about our relatives and the future of the Valley but also face isolation with our pain and the task of educating our communities about a tragedy that seems difficult to put into words. A brutal military crackdown in the Valley has led to increased news coverage, but Kashmiris themselves are often absent from these narratives, leading to a distorted image of the conflict and the erasure of a Kashmiri voice.

As with most things in the United States, major news outlets are often dominated by white men. While reading much of the Western media coverage on Kashmir, I have been struck by how the news paints Kashmir as a two-sided conflict by people who seem the least qualified to give their opinions on it.

A brutal military crackdown in the Valley has led to increased news coverage, but Kashmiris themselves are often absent from these narratives.

In an article published by The New York Times, foreign correspondent Roger Cohen wrote that through the “revocation of an article” — referring to Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which acknowledged the special status and autonomy Kashmir held within India — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “offers a better future” to Kashmir. What’s most disappointing about this statement is the ignorance Cohen appears to have on the subject. The revocation of the special status of Kashmir is the Indian government attempting to colonize Kashmir. The article strips away Kashmiris’ rights as being the only ones to own land in Kashmir. Now, wealthy foreign buyers can buy property inside the Valley, effectively diluting Kashmiris’ presence and leaving them and their property at the mercy of a larger, nationalizing Indian identity.

I was in the third grade when I realized Kashmir wasn’t a widely known place referred to like Japan or France. During our school unit on India, the teacher did not mention Kashmir once. We talked about Mohandas Gandhi and the British Crown, and we drank lots of tea, but not until I pointed it out as the little hat on top of India did Kashmir get one second of air time.

It wasn’t childhood innocence or spite against the region that kept Kashmir out of people’s heads, they simply had no idea and had not met a Kashmiri before me. It was hard to get all the precise details out in a five-minute conversation.

“It is not a country; it is a disputed territory.”

“Oh, so it’s not part of India?”

“OK, it technically has been annexed by India, but Kashmiris want a free state.”

“So is India the bad guy — wait, what happened to Pakistan?”

It wasn’t childhood innocence or spite against the region that kept Kashmir out of people’s heads, they simply had no idea and had not met a Kashmiri before me.

I felt like a broken record, spurting out all of my verses as fast as possible just to have a chance at singing the chorus — that was where I packed most of my punches. But my repetitive ballad got exhausting, and after a while I lost my third-grade idealist tenacity. Maybe Kashmir wasn’t important. If it was, wouldn’t people actually care?

Much of the news Americans are receiving about Kashmir is tied to how the U.S. views India, taking away from a Kashmiri narrative while looking at India through a stereotypical and problematic lens that does not align with modern-day India. I see such thinking embedded in the day-to-day things I hear from friends: “I just want to backpack through India after graduation, all the yoga will really help me find myself. And I love Bollywood.”

India is still highly romanticized for its culture that Americans have appropriated: A place with cute monkeys and snake charmers cannot be the site of such violence. Yet, we also stereotype India to push our own narrative over what constitutes a successful government. As the world’s largest democracy, India is supposed to symbolize that democracy is the best form of governance. But no member of the Indian military in Kashmir has ever been held legally accountable for the human rights violations committed. U.S. President Donald Trump helped a joint rally with Modi in Houston. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded Modi with a humanitarian award, while thousands of Kashmiris live under a strict curfew and communications blackout and are disappearing from their homes.

India’s far-reaching influence even spans into our own localized communities. The Indian government has many ties to UC Berkeley that our campus still maintains. Partnerships include academic chairs, the US-India Conference and government-funded scholarships. UC Berkeley, which carries a legacy of activism and social good, is still maintaining ties and funds with a state that persecutes its ethnic and religious minorities.

Pakistan, the other half of the Kashmir equation is speaking out —  Prime Minister Imran Khan has dubbed himself “Kashmir’s spokesperson,” addressing the United Nations on the human rights violations happening inside the Valley. These issues should be brought to the forefront of the conversation, but why is a Pakistani prime minister the one doing it? Pakistan and India, two nuclear powers, have gone to war over Kashmir twice already, and, as India aligns itself closer with Western powers and expands its influence, Pakistan just so happens to voice its outrage for the Kashmiris. It seems like a calculated political move. Once again: Where are the Kashmiri voices?

Kashmiris themselves had been silenced, living under a strict communications blockade that began in early August and just started being lifted in late October. India has silenced the Kashmiri voice by disconnecting Kashmiris not just from the world but from each other. When dissent occurs, perpetrators are severely punished, leading to forced disappearances and the mass graves that litter the Valley’s countryside.

The world cannot ignore Kashmir any longer — the human rights violations have made it impossible to continue to look the other way.

Much of the news centering around Kashmir does not state the fact that one-sixth of all Kashmiris have faced some kind of torture in their lifetime. Doctors Without Borders declared that 45% of the population in the Valley shows signs of “significant mental distress,” making them one of the most traumatized people in the world.

When the news considers Kashmiris, it is often sharply skewed toward how the Valley is a potential breeding ground for terrorism. The Kashmiri insurgency has been written about with fear over potentially radicalized militants, and in a post 9/11 world, there is little sympathy for uprisings associated with Islam.

The insurgency is simply a reaction to the violence that has plagued the Valley for decades: When Kashmiris protested, the Indian government responded by shooting them with pellet guns, injuring and maiming thousands of Kashmiris, using violence to frighten civilians. Focusing on how some Kashmiris have become tinged with radical Islam fails to acknowledge how this is in reaction to a government that has taken away their autonomy over their own land.

The first time I visited Kashmir, it was not at all what I expected. I had been fed polarizing extremes: “It is like paradise on earth,” my father would continuously repeat on loop. Meanwhile my mother drearily retorted, “It is not going to be like the little vacations we’d grown accustomed to.” And it also wasn’t the “most dangerous place in the world,” as former U.S. president Bill Clinton once remarked.

Kashmir is beautiful, and objectively so: In the center of Srinagar, the capital, sits Dal Lake, a huge blue basin that sits underneath the snowcapped mountains. Adorning the lake lie brightly colorful shikara boats filled with flowers, flowing alongside floating houseboats. But it wasn’t perfect. Busy streets curving like a maze throughout the city were lined with trash and stray animals. Graffiti stained the walls. “Azadi” (Kashmiri for “freedom”) was painted in black as military tanks and bunkers invaded our views. Hands glued to the triggers, the soldiers roamed the streets.

Yet Kashmiris seemed to pay little attention to these soldiers —  for them, it was simply a part of everyday life.

The world cannot ignore Kashmir any longer — the human rights violations have made it impossible to continue to look the other way. When India revoked Article 370 in August and tensions came to a head, for the first time I began to notice Kashmir being talked about, not just within my Kashmiri family but in my daily morning news briefings and overheard in coffee shops. Outside my favorite café, Free Speech Movement Café, someone painted a red sign and scrawled the words “Stand with Kashmir” with a Sharpie. Friends sent me photos the next day of the images posted, warming my heart with the idea that one day Kashmir will no longer be an obscure conflict where people couldn’t really describe what was happening, but rather a story they empathize with.

On a Wednesday, in between two of my classes, the sun was uncharacteristically bright for late October, beating down on Berkeley. Amid the sweltering heat, I pulled my arms through a fleece-lined sweatshirt my grandparents designed in the ‘90s. “Free Kashmir” was written on the front. As my best friend hopped off her bike proudly displaying the same sweatshirt, I vividly recalled seeing the same sweatshirt on my Dadi at my first protest as she chanted on the streets of Los Angeles. Lining Sproul Hall, blood-red banners with “Kashmir” written on them hung from the windows. More than a hundred students littered Mario Savio Steps, standing together for Kashmir. And as I heard the words, “Kashmir is not a piece of land for foreign countries to fight over,” I felt immense pride for my little spot on the map.

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected].