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As repression worsens, Kashmiri activists call for international solidarity

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by Matt Meyer

A protest in Kashmir in 2010. (Flickr/Kashmir Global)

While the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to those who work for an end to the heinous violence of using rape as a weapon of war, those who cry out about the same practices in Kashmir face silencing and repression. Despite the fact that the use of rape has reached epic proportions in the Indian-occupied territory, and that a robust nonviolent movement against the occupation appears to be growing, the international community is largely unaware of these issues. This is due to the success that India has had in portraying itself as the “world’s largest democracy” and the land of Gandhi and nonviolence, while simultaneously preventing foreign journalists from even entering Kashmir and subjecting Kashmiri resisters to prison time or worse.

Hameeda Nayeem, who is chair of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Developmental Studies, is well aware of the process. Her husband Nayeem Ahmad Khan is one of the political prisoners who has been repeatedly jailed since 1984, in part for calling for peaceful strikes and mass mobilizations protesting the heightened militarization and gang-rapes carried out by the Indian armed forces.

“Under India’s Public Safety Act, which has been used time and time again against people who disagree with them, we see the law used as instruments of torture and instruments of repression,” Hameeda Nayeem said.

Throughout Kashmiri society, there is a strong and worrying sense that things are soon likely to get even worse as the right to dissent is being increasingly challenged. “Elections are not the real democracy for us here,” noted human rights defender Khurram Pervez, program coordinator of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, or JKCCS. “Dissent is the real test of democracy for us here. In Kashmir, all of the dissenters have been jailed, killed, persecuted. No dissent has ever been tolerated.”

With foreign journalists no longer allowed into Kashmir and activists from Kashmir barred from getting passports or permission to leave, the fear is that even more intense crackdowns are being planned. JKCCS members, though steadfastly committed to “militant nonviolent resistance,” have not been immune from the violent repression. While monitoring the 2004 elections as part of a JKCCS project, Pervez had his leg blown off in a car explosion near the remote town of Kupwara, alongside his colleague Asiya Jeelani and their driver Ghulam Nabi Shaikh, who were both killed in the blast.

JKCCS President Parvez Imroz, a lawyer who has defended many Kashmiri activists, believes that there is still a window for social change, but that it is steadily shutting. International solidarity, it is felt, is urgently needed if further violence is to be curtailed.

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“The role of civil society here is to expose the lies of the government and the atrocities being committed by a government in the name of peace,” Imroz explained. “From 2000 onwards, we have been campaigning against the torture and disappearances, and looking at how we can engage international civil society to help us fight to create a space [for Kashmiri freedom].”

It is a bitter irony that even in progressive and apparently pro-Gandhian sectors of Indian society, information about and support for Kashmir is minimal at best. “We are committed to nonviolence,” Pervez asserted, “and we were very happy when we saw a huge transformation in the Kashmiri struggle: the mainstream expression of Kashmiri society became nonviolent.”

But peace movement support for an end to Indian colonial control of Kashmir has been muted by the carefully constructed global perception that India is a model democracy based on the pacifist ideals of Gandhi.

The Swaraj Peeth Trust, which is chaired by Rajiv Vora, provides some exception to this “not our problem” policy. They have held dialogues and trainings looking to revive the “peace army” practices first explored by followers of Gandhi in the late 1950s. Focusing on areas facing communal violence, disciplined nonviolent cadre would put their bodies on the line separating groups of armed civilians, or civilians facing off against the military. The most successful forms of these unarmed teams formed “peace brigades” to support communities working for justice in extremely violent contexts.

More recently, but under similar circumstance, Vora helped develop a four-stage method of cultivating and organizing these brigades, including focus on community-based empathy, awareness, training and action. In Kashmir, this methodology was used alongside education campaigns utilizing Gandhi’s 1909 classic “Hind Swaraj,” his primary book on Indian “home rule” as a means of achieving full independence. The peace brigades’ work helped bring together communities within Kashmir, successfully opening conversations in several towns and organizing over a dozen meetings about methods of social change.

But while dialogue on nonviolent strategies and tactics within Kashmiri civil society has been seen by many as a positive development, violence within the occupied territories, initiated and maintained by the Indian military and local police, has only increased. One policeman, requesting anonymity and indicating a desperate desire to leave the force, noted that “every day we are asked to oppress our own people.”

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Vora admits that Kashmir is still in great need of some “pure goodwill intervention” from the global community of peacemakers. In fact, no amount of dialogue or even goodwill is going to resolve the situation without full independence and sovereignty for a people who need first to be recognized as the only arbiters of their own destiny. Second, they need complete and uninhibited freedom — in other words, basic human rights — to re-build their own society along whatever lines they choose.

The complexity of the struggle lies in part on the long history of varied take-overs of the land inhabited by Kashmiris. With a Muslim majority in Kashmir, a Hindu occupying army, and the vast majority of the land under Indian control, India is correctly seen as the key culprit. But is not the only force standing in the way of full Kashmiri independence, as both Pakistan and China control parts of Kashmir as well.

Things are also complicated because, as one journalist told me, the genocidal policies towards Kashmir are cloaked in slow, “gradual annihilation.” The economic, political, cultural, social, land-based, and military take-over of Kashmir will require years of recovery even after an end of occupation. Today, Kashmir Life reports that things are moving in the opposite direction, with human rights abuses approaching the level of overt “war crimes” and that 2018 was the worst year in over a decade as far as loss of life.

According to recent polls, 90 percent of Kashmiris want an immediate end to the occupation. The longing and desire are almost bursting out of everyday conversations. In a shared taxi ride, seemingly unable to contain himself, one Kashmiri who is now living abroad told me, “I love Kashmir! I have everything I could want here: my home, my mother, my family, the means to survive. I have everything here, but freedom.”

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