Hundreds of voices fervently repeated this same word over and over; the extent of emotion and weight behind the sound was profound. Translating to ‘freedom’ in Kashmiri, ‘azadi’ encapsulates the plight of a people forced to fight for their liberty and fundamental rights. Trafalgar Square was adorned by vibrant splashes of orange and green as protestors waved Kashmiri flags; others grasped boards with messages such as ‘Kashmir bleeds’, ‘End the Occupation’ and ‘Our Kashmir will be Free’ sprawled across them in black lettering.
On the 15th of August, whilst Indians worldwide celebrated their 73rd Independence Day, hundreds of protestors congregated in the heart of London in solidarity with a region whose independence has been brutally infringed upon. The protest was coordinated by Kashmir Student Action, a group of London university students, in an endeavour to take action against, and attract wider attention to, the human rights violations happening in Kashmir. Speakers highlighted the severity of the current situation and emphasised the importance of condemning the recent acts committed by the Indian government, raising awareness and exhibiting support and solidarity with the people of Kashmir at this time.
On the 5th of August 2019, Narendra Modi’s Indian government illegally revoked Article 370, stripping Kashmir of the rights it has held for over 70 years. Tens of thousands of Indian troops were deployed in the area to suppress potential revolts; the Indian military now have complete control of Kashmir after imprisoning all elected political leaders. Millions of innocent civilians are left terrified, helpless and isolated; the situation in which they are living is one of horror. The imposition of a crippling 24-hour curfew has left Kashmiris imprisoned within their own homes. Schools, universities and shops are closed indefinitely. Many people are suffering due to food shortages and are unable to obtain vital medications. Civilians live in fear of harassment from the military; reports have surfaced of midnight raids during which hundreds of young boys are abducted from their beds and women are molested by armed forces. Mass arrests have torn families apart as over 4000 innocent people have been illegally detained. Footage has emerged of soldiers swarming peaceful protestors with pellet guns and tear gas, blinding and injuring many. Villagers have described being ‘beaten and tortured’ by the Indian army for no reason. Civilians have been killed in unprovoked attacks; the exact number is unknown amidst attempts by Indian officials to hide the true figures. The Indian government denies everything, claiming that Kashmir is ‘back to normal’.
All internet and telecommunications have been blocked. Whilst this has been justified by Modi’s government as a necessity to ‘maintain peace’, it seems rather to be a veil behind which to commit atrocities without the world watching, and a weapon with which to further oppress and isolate. Kashmiris are left unable to contact each other and the outside world; incapable of expressing their oppression and grief, they have been robbed of their basic freedom of speech. The economic impact is devastating as many businesses have been forced to close. The Kashmiri diaspora face heartache and anxiety as they are unable to contact their relatives to confirm their safety. Kashmiri TV, newspaper outlets and journalists have been completely censored. Almost every basic human right has been violated as civilians live in seclusion and terror; the nation has been left suffering, anguished and voiceless. A statement from a Kashmiri man in Safadakal has emerged: “The Government has treated us Kashmiris like slaves, taking decisions about our lives and our future while we are captive. It’s like forcing something down our throats while keeping us bound and gagged, with a gun to our heads.”
Kashmir had a ‘special status’ under Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which was a specific term of Kashmir’s accession to India. This provision guaranteed the Kashmiri people numerous fundamental rights such as their own constitution, flag and freedom to pass legislation. It also ensured that only Kashmiris can buy and own property in their state. This honoured Kashmir’s desire of self-determination, and also served to preserve the unique Kashmiri demographic, culture and identity. This autonomy, although gradually eroded in practice over the years, was completely disregarded when India revoked Article 370 in August. The move was completely unconstitutional; the former Kashmiri chief minister commented that the action marked ‘the darkest day in Indian democracy’.
The Indian government has justified the abrogation with claims that it would enable ‘development’ of Kashmir and ‘integration’ with the rest of India. However, many argue that the repeal of Article 370 is in fact a reflection of Modi’s strong nationalist agenda as it allows Indian Hindus to acquire land, benefit from and occupy India’s only Muslim-majority region. Furthermore, in a disgusting statement made by Vikram Saini, a member of Modi’s party, it was said that Indian men should ‘rejoice’ as ‘they can now marry the white-skinned women of Kashmir’. Not only is this a blatant dehumanisation and objectification of Kashmiri women, but it also suggests that the true intentions of the Indian government are those of animalistic conquest, power and greed.
“The true intentions of Modi’s government are those of animalistic conquest, power and greed.”
Conflict in Kashmir is not a new occurrence; rather, it is etched into the region’s history. After Partition in 1947 formed the Hindu-majority nation of India and the Muslim-majority nation of Pakistan, Kashmir was one of many states granted the decision to join with either new nation or to remain independent. The ruler of Kashmir initially opted for independence but, amidst invasion attempts by Pakistani rebels, was forced to accede India in exchange for military assistance. This commenced a long stretch of localised warfare in Kashmir as both Pakistan and India relentlessly pursued their own perceived claim to the region. Conflict still continues; although the last formal war between Pakistani and Indian forces in Kashmir ceased in 2004, violence, bloodshed and unrest still persist in the region today. Over 400 innocent civilians were killed in 2018 after being caught in the crossfire between Indian and Pakistani forces. It is also of note that throughout this prolonged period of conflict, a plebiscite to establish what the Kashmiri people really want, although consistently promised, has shockingly never once taken place. With both sides embroiled in a territorial battle, the voices of the innocent civilians suffering at their hands have been completely disregarded. Both India and Pakistan have caused huge suffering in Kashmir over the years, and both sides have failed to acknowledge the wishes of the Kashmiri people.
It is vital that the current situation in Kashmir is not exploited to pursue political and nationalistic agendas. At the Trafalgar Square protest I attended, a large group of individuals began to wave a giant Pakistani flag, chanting ‘Kashmir will become part of Pakistan!’ They were quickly criticised and silenced. The focus of our efforts should be to liberate the oppressed, alleviate suffering and stop what is fundamentally a humanitarian crisis; for either side to exert any kind of territorial claim on the region at this time is ignorant and disrespectful, and this discourse serves only to distract from the plight of innocent civilians. It was inspiring to witness both Indian and Pakistani speakers at the protest united in their goal of condemning the actions of Modi’s government, helping Kashmiris and raising awareness of the situation.
Kashmir is famed for its breath-taking lakes, meadows, snow-capped mountains and natural beauty; early Mughal emperors praised it as ‘paradise on Earth’. The co-existence of many different religions in the region has produced a rich, vibrant and unique culture. Locals create their own traditional dresses, beautiful handicrafts and embroidery and delicious cuisine; traditional Kashmiri folk music, dance and poetry form a huge part of ceremonies and festivities. And yet, juxtaposed with this beauty and vibrancy is decades of suffering, bloodshed and oppression; Kashmir, a beautiful nation with so much to offer, is instead largely known only for the atrocities that have occurred within it. And today, the situation is worse than ever.
It is therefore of vital importance that we show solidarity with the suffering people of Kashmir. We must condemn the sickening human rights violations being committed by the Indian military against Kashmiris. We must speak out and raise awareness on behalf of a people who have been stripped of their voices. We must not accept the unconstitutional occupation of any region without any repercussions. We must help Kashmiri’s fight for their Azadi.
Speakers at the protest also stressed that we must also dedicate our efforts to other atrocities such as the massacre in Sudan and the murder of Palestinians in Gaza. Whilst the individual causes are different, in all cases innocent people have suffered severely. It was emphasised that we all must unite as we strive for freedom, justice and equality, no matter who the victim is.
It is our responsibility to take action against these injustices. It is imperative that we inform ourselves of these issues, educate others around us and raise awareness in any way possible; we must endeavour to give a voice to the voiceless. We must not become numb or indifferent to the suffering and oppression of other human beings; instead we must exhibit solidarity with their plight and vehemently condemn the perpetrators of injustice.