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“We Need Peace”: NL Kashmiris Await News of Loved Ones

in Featured/Interview/Journalism by

Yaqoob Qureshi, a physician who had moved with his family to Canada, will never forget his first trip to St. John’s. A little over a decade ago, he was completing a fellowship at the University of Ottawa and looking for work. He was offered a job at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, and they invited him to visit in order to get a feel for a province about which he knew very little.

He brought his family along, to gauge whether St. John’s was somewhere they would like to live. The verdict was still out when it came time to leave. They had an early morning flight back to Ottawa, and as they tried to get to the airport, the GPS on their rental vehicle stopped working. It was still dark and they had no idea how to get to the airport, where their flight was leaving in less than an hour.

Desperate, Yaqoob stopped at a residence downtown, where he had seen a man get out of his car and go into the house. He knocked on the door, and asked the startled resident for directions to the airport. The man tried to describe the route, but Yaqoob had no idea what streets he was describing.

“Then the man realized, he said, ‘ You don’t understand,” Yaqoob recalled for the Independent. “I said, ‘No.’ He said ‘Okay, come on, follow me.’ And he drove us to the airport, and he dropped us there. That touched my heart. Because you don’t see that sort of thing. Not in many places would you see such a gesture of love and caring and help, that is offered to others that you don’t know. That was something that definitely stayed in my heart, and I said ‘Okay, this is a good place. This is a good start.’”

That was in 2008, and since that first visit his family has called St. John’s their home. Yet their thoughts are now focused on Kashmir, where their family has been cut off from contact, trapped under curfew in one of the most militarized regions on the planet.

A Complex History

The state of Jammu and Kashmir, as it is officially known, is one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world—and since the beginning of August things have taken an unprecedented turn for the worse.

When the British left India in 1947, Kashmir was what was called a ‘princely state’, with a Hindu ruler but a majority Muslim population. While other princely states chose to either become part of secular (yet Hindu-majority) India, or Muslim Pakistan, Kashmir attempted to remain independent. But it was soon invaded by fighters from Pakistan, who seized part of the country which is now known as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The ruler of Kashmir reached out to India for military aid, and signed an agreement granting India rights over certain domains—foreign affairs, defense, telecommunications—but guaranteeing local autonomy in other areas. A later United Nations security council resolution was supposed to ensure an eventual plebiscite in the region over whether the region would formally join India or Pakistan, but that has never happened.

With occasional outbursts of violence in the region—including a significant insurgency that erupted in 1989—Kashmir’s constitutionally-protected autonomy has been a target of Hindu nationalist politicians in India. This includes the current government led by Narendra Modi, which won re-election earlier this summer on a militantly nationalist platform. Despite claims they would respect Kashmir’s autonomy, the government rapidly put a very different policy into practice.

At the beginning of August, the Indian government flooded the region with an additional 50,000 soldiers (on top of the nearly 700,000 troops already stationed there), imprisoned hundreds of local politicians, and cut off all communication between Kashmir and the rest of the world. On August 5, the governing Hindu nationalist party used its parliamentary majority to revoke Articles 370 (which guaranteed a strong degree of local political autonomy to Kashmir) and 35A (which reserved the right to own land in Kashmir to residents of the state) of the Indian constitution.

In a region which has witnessed over 100,000 violent deaths in recent years (according to some human rights organizations; groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch among others have repeatedly slammed the Indian government for atrocities committed by its army in Kashmir), thousands of disappearances as well as documented mass rapes by Indian troops, the lockdown and cutting off of all communication has left Kashmiris outside of the country fearful for news of their families.

Newfoundland and Labrador may seem about as far away from Kashmir as you can get, but that has only intensified the fear and worry local Kashmiris feel for their friends and loved ones at home.

“You feel helpless”

“All the basic human rights were taken away,” Yaqoob told the Independent. “People were confined to their homes, they were put under curfew, shoot-on-sight orders, they could not gather, they could not go out of their homes, and no communication with the outside world. Landlines, mobile phones, internet, television, everything was cut off. For the last twelve days almost everybody outside Kashmir has had no communication with anyone inside Kashmir, whether it is with their families or friends or whatever.”

Yaqoob’s mother, who lives in Kashmir, is 82 years old, and suffers from Parkinson’s. He normally talks to her every day by telephone.

“When I get up I talk to her for two, three minutes, five minutes. And for the last twelve days, for the first time, I have not been able to talk to her. There is no way of communicating with my brother, his family who live with her, or my friends or other relatives. Whatever information I have about Kashmir is through BBC.

“You feel helpless! It’s frustrating! You could get disconnected from a particular area, the phone lines might be dead because of a typhoon or some natural calamity. That’s different. It happens all over the world. That’s normal. You accept that. But this is not. You know that someone else is doing this to hurt you.”

Political violence has erupted periodically since 1989 in Kashmir. But what also concerns Yaqoob is the gradual erosion of the region’s autonomy and the democratic human rights of its residents. As in other parts of the world, security concerns have been used by the Indian government as an excuse to curtail civic and human rights.

“My childhood and youth was as normal as anyone else elsewhere in the world or other parts of India. I don’t remember any period where there was so much violence, I mean no empathy. Now a time has come that there is no empathy, there is no sympathy, we don’t see tolerant people.

“Most of the Indian media which stood up against the establishment is now under the thumb of the present government… the worst thing is that people have become less and less tolerant to the other’s views. That’s the sad part.”

Inspired to Act

Yaqoob’s daughter Nabila, who is presently pursuing a Master’s degree at Memorial University, has spent much of her life growing up in Canada, and for her the present crisis has rekindled a deep interest in her cultural heritage. Having spent summers in Kashmir as a child, she is now able to look back and recognize how the experience impacted her growing understanding of the world.

“A feature of Kashmir as I grew up has always been seeing military on the road,” Nabila told the Independent. “I never understood why they were there when I was growing up, I actually thought that that is what a country needs to look like. Every so many metres you would see a little bunker that is made of sandbags, or some kind of barbed wire, and these personnel just standing and observing and policing with weapons in their hands. I thought it was normal. But now obviously when I look back at that time, that is not normal. That is definitely not normal in a country that calls itself democratic, that calls itself progressive, that calls itself secular.

“The government in India says this was done for the benefit of the Kashmiri people. If it was done for the benefit of Kashmiri people then why are Kashmiri people in an open prison right now? Why are they not allowed to talk to their loved ones? Why are they not allowed to communicate?

“India takes pride in celebrating its cultural diversity. India is diverse from north to south, from east to west there is a different language every so many kilometres, a different type of cuisine, a different type of attire every few kilometres. So if that is true, and if a group of people is actually saying: ‘please, we are different, we have a different culture, a different history, a different language, everything is different about us,’ acknowledge that! Give us our voice back and let us decide if we want to be a part of you! That becomes problematic because if you start questioning that in today’s time, you are called a traitor. You are called anti-national, you are told to go to Pakistan—which has never made sense to me—and many other things.”

Cut Off, but Not Alone

Ahmad Qadri, whose friends call him Addie, came to Newfoundland last year to study engineering at Memorial University. Although he grew up living in a variety of places, his family made sure to spend every summer back home in Kashmir. This is the first year he hasn’t made the trip home, as he was taking summer classes at university.

Not only is his immediate family in Kashmir, but his extended family is there as well. Aunts and uncles and cousins living in England, Australia and elsewhere all journeyed to Kashmir for a family wedding this summer.

And now Addie has lost contact with all of them.

“It’s really tough,” he told the Independent. “I haven’t spoken to them. My mum is the type of mum you need to call every day, she needs to talk to me every day—not even texts, she needs to call me every day. But since around two weeks, I haven’t spoken to any of them. I haven’t been in contact with any of them. My uncles, aunts, no one.”

He spoke to his mother just before communication was cut off, and she warned him something was about to happen. He told her to stay inside and stay safe, expecting to hear from her in a day or two. Instead, there’s been two weeks of silence. The next thing he heard was from a friend on Instagram, who had driven from Delhi to Kashmir and told him the place was under lockdown.

“He said ‘From what I’ve heard from the outside, on the outskirts of Kashmir, it’s pretty bad.’ And what I’ve heard from those places is really bad. People dying, people come out on the streets, stone-pelting at the army and the police, and it just keeps going. Police shoot back, fire back.”

He notes that his family lives in one of the safer parts of the city and that gives him hope that they’ll be all right. But the silence, coupled with the rumours that are seeping out, make him worried.

“It is very difficult. Because you have no idea what’s going on. It’s my first time that my family is there and I’m not. Normally I’m in there with them, so I know what’s on the go. You don’t even know how intense it is. Because I’m here, I don’t know… but from what I’m hearing, it’s not good.”

While his family lives in one of the safer parts of the city, many of his friends in Kashmir do not.

“I’m worried about my friends… I got a lot of friends from downtown, from south Kashmir, and those places are really bad. So I’m worried for them, and my family. There is no contact. There is only one place, that’s the airport, and a couple of houses near the airport that get internet connection, because the airport needs it. But that’s about it. There are no direct calls, no indirect calls, nothing is going in. Communications are shut off. I believe that this is just done to stop people recording the human rights violations.”

Relying on Friends

With his family out of contact, friends in St. John’s have proven a solid source of support. The Qureshis also reached out to him and have been very supportive, he says. For many of his Newfoundland friends, seeing what he’s going through has been an eye-opener. For a place like this province which has been fortunate to have a relatively peaceful modern history, the sort of violence that appears on news media can seem distant and untranslatable. Knowing someone who’s experiencing that suffering makes it much more real to local residents.

“My friends have helped me a lot. I live with my best friend, and my friends have been really supportive. That helps a lot.”

He has spent a lot of time in recent years studying the region’s history, to try to understand the roots of the political conflict. But whatever the political arguments on either side, he says, there are some values that are more important than partisanship.

“It’s been going on for years and people have grown frustrated. That’s why you see all the outbursts… we need peace. That’s the main thing we need. First of all we need to make sure that an 18 year old kid walking back from his classes or his tutor’s place isn’t attacked, that he’s safe on the street, he isn’t in danger. That’s the main issue. If we can get that, then we can worry about it being a country or a territory. I know it’s all related to politics but the first thing we need to make sure is that the kid walking around the corner isn’t in danger.

“Over the past twenty years there’ve been about a hundred thousand people killed in Kashmir. And the bad part is it’s not even the older people. It’s the youngsters, ranging from age 15 to 23, most of it is just them. That’s wiping out an entire generation. “

Rallying for Kashmir

As they await word from their families, those affected by the crisis in St. John’s hope to raise awareness about what is going on. With the help of friends and supporters, they’re organizing a rally to be held this Saturday in downtown St. John’s, which they encourage anyone in the city to attend.

“I really wanted to bring voice not just to Kashmiris but to those who want to comment but are unable to because they may not feel confident enough,” Nabila told the Independent. “It’s very important to emphasize that it seems like a political issue—and it is—but at its core, at its heart, what is beating and resonating is humanitarianism. So if someone cannot understand the politics behind [the rally], they can still understand the humanity behind it. That people are being killed, people are suffering, they are being bullied, and they need someone to stand up for them. If that is all that can be understood, that’s also great. That is actually the starting point to making something happen.”

“This is a chance to hug others. Being a Muslim, a big part of our culture when we have any religious celebration is to hug each other. And I feel like I haven’t hugged many in quite a few years. Not as much as I should have. This event has reminded me, I need to remind myself to hug others. Yes we do get angry, I get angry, I’m young, I have a different approach to handling things at times, but peace must prevail.”

Hope for the Future

As international awareness grows, those with family and friends in Kashmir cling to hope that the future may take a different path. Nabila says that even if her Indian friends don’t join her, she hopes they will reflect on what is happening.

“Fine, don’t come out and speak for Kashmir. But one day in life, come out and speak for something. Because if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. I keep telling that to people around me.”

Qadri hopes awareness will lead to international pressure and interventions.

“If you spread awareness, and through our government, the Canadian government, if we can raise awareness, maybe there’ll be some intervention, and intervention is definitely needed, because if we leave it up to the Indian government I personally have no hope,” he says.

“And that’s not saying I hate India—I love India, Indian people are amazing. My best friend’s Indian, a lot of my best mates, and I love them. And I am Indian. But it’s just the Indian government is not in the right hands right now. That’s the only problem.”

For his part, Yaqoob will be asking his friends and neighbours to join him at the rally as well.

“I hope that people will try to understand our viewpoint, why we feel hurt, and come to the rally to show their support. We’re hoping that the world will listen and take notice of this. I am hopeful this might invigorate lots of people who would not have otherwise risen up to the occasion. But I wish that it happens in a peaceful manner, no human life is lost in this ongoing struggle, and better sense prevails on the majority of the people who take this as a victory for the state of India. It is not. It is a defeat for the basic core values of Indian democracy.

“It’s not a question of anything against India or Indians as such, it’s a basic human right. Basic fundamental tenets of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, a right to live, a right to express your opinion, are being snatched away. An attempt is being made to crush that. I don’t think anyone with any sense of responsibility or any concern for human rights should for a second agree to accept that. Everyone should protest in one way or the other. In whatever way is feasible or available. Because today it is Jammu and Kashmir, tomorrow it’s going to be some other place, if people don’t act.”

“This is a drop in an ocean, but that’s how an ocean is formed, right?”

Photo: Yaqoob Qureshi and daughter Nabila. Photo by Hans Rollman.

For more information about the Solidarity With Kashmir rally, taking place at 12:00pm on Saturday August 24 at the bandstand in Bannerman Park in downtown St. John’s, check out the Facebook event.

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