How Activism Has Changed for Kashmiri Americans

On September 27, New York City saw the largest protest held for the Kashmir cause. (The Juggernaut)

Long contested as a region, Kashmir is wrought with undying beauty and forceful upheaval. Historically governed by outside forces — Hindu rulers, British colonizers, and then the Indian and Pakistani militia — Kashmiris have had to fight endlessly for a right to self-determination. 

Yet, for many in the diaspora, Kashmir’s statelessness had become a given. Activists from older generations banked on academia and a highly educated group of Kashmiris to elevate this discourse — until August 5, when India revoked Article 370. Almost overnight, many in the Kashmiri diaspora mobilized to collect resources and protest for Kashmir’s freedom.

“Whatever little freedom we had bargained from India was also taken away,” Dr. Ghulam Nabi Mir told me. The day was “the 9/11 of Kashmir. People remember exactly where they were that day.”

Mir, the president of Ohio-based World Kashmir Awareness Forum, was a political student activist in Kashmir when he migrated to the U.S. in 1974. He remembers his early years of activism in the U.S. as dedicated but slow, with academics and experts organizing conferences or panels on Kashmir. 

Kashmiri immigrants, like many others, moved West in search of opportunity and stability. Though most still live in India or Pakistan, some settled in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. “In the U.S, Kashmiris mostly settled in suburban New York, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and the Bay Area,” said Hafsa Kanjwal, an activist and professor born in Srinagar, but now based in New Jersey. 

Earlier movements were partly stunted due to smaller numbers fighting for the cause abroad. In the 2016 census, 3,000 Canadians reported being of Kashmiri descent. In the U.S., Kanjwal estimates that there are between 5,000 to 7,000 Kashmiris. The complex identities among Kashmiris — like the many Jammu Muslims who do not identify as Kashmiri — also mean that activism means different things to different people. 

Some in the diaspora celebrated the removal of Kashmir’s special status, particularly Kashmiri Pandits, Hindus who were forced to leave Kashmir in the the ’90s after Muslim revolts. Many Kashmiri Pandits believe making Kashmir formally part of India could lead to safer conditions and open up the opportunity to return home. In September, Kashmiri Pandits gathered in Houston during India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to laud the Indian government.

Kanjwal said some came to the U.S. as early as the ’60s, when immigration became less restricted, to pursue higher education. A few of these immigrants were political dissidents, fighting against militarization by India. Many were medical professionals or engineers. But it was during the armed rebellion in the ’90s, when separatists revolted against the Indian government for self-rule, she added, that the U.S. saw a second wave of Kashmiri immigration. 

Mir talks about the diaspora’s ingrained desire for freedom. Even before Partition, Muslim-majority Kashmir had fought for the right to self-determination. The region has seen an influx of many empires — Mughal, Sikh, and Hindu, among others. In the 1930s, Kashmiris fought against the Dogras, the state’s princely Hindu rulers who had bought it from the East India Company in the 1840s. And since the departure of the British, Kashmir has become a pawn in the creation of India and Pakistan. “Kashmir has always seen upheaval — it ebbs and flows,” Mir said.

The activism today is at unprecedented levels. “Initially when I got here, there was a small group of people I could count on the fingers of my hand,” Mir said. “But it wasn’t at the same scale it is now.”

Kanjwal is part of a national movement that opposes the occupation of Kashmir. Led by Stand with Kashmir, the movement is a platform for activists and an educational hub for all, and was officially formed in February after the Pulwama attacks, when Kashmir first took center stage as part of Modi’s 2019 reelection agenda.

“We saw that much of the world’s focus on Kashmir wasn’t really on Kashmir and how it has actually been living in a state of war for a really long time, but rather on a potential India-Pakistan war,” said Kanjwal. “We felt that Kashmiri lives and voices were being erased.”

(The Juggernaut)

I attended an emergency meeting organized by Stand With Kashmir in New York just a few days after Modi’s August 5 announcement. Kanjwal was on stage, speaking to an audience of about 150, all stuffed inside The People’s Forum in downtown Manhattan, desperate to do something.

Before the emergency meeting, Stand With Kashmir had only held a few New York events, including a speaking tour of Kashmiri professors and webinars for the diaspora. They had a website and an email listserv. The small organization would soon see their Facebook grow to 50,000 followers, their Instagram to around 14,000, and their Twitter to about 7,500.

In the meeting, Kanjwal updated the crowd on the little information available due to Kashmir’s communication lockdown, and split the crowd into smaller groups. The first group included journalists and those with contacts in media. The second focused on social media. The third discussed ways to mobilize at the grassroots level, such as on college campuses. And a fourth explored ways to contact elected officials and create congressional pressure. 

The activism that Stand with Kashmir saw afterwards was unmatched for the decades-long history of the fight for Kashmiri self-determination in the United States. 

Hundreds of Kashmiris and their supporters gathered outside Indian consulates and embassies. People attended educational talks

On September 27, New York City saw the largest protest held for the Kashmir cause: thousands attended a demonstration outside the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly, where Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan were to speak. 

Protestors were joined by the Black Lives Matter movement and Code Pink — a women-led organization working to end U.S. militarism — as well as Indian, Pakistani, South Asian, Muslim, and interfaith groups — all “allies” as Kanjwal said. “We wanted this to be seen as integral to all these other progressive movements.”

Mir reflected on the growth in support, and how it’s been needed for a long time. “If we had had the number of people we had in the last couple of days, we could have had more success. But back then, people were somewhat comfortable and complacent,” said Mir. “We’re hoping the stakes are much higher as we see them now.”

(The Juggernaut)

Kanjwal also acknowledged the importance of decades of Kashmiri scholarship. Stand with Kashmir lists Kashmiri scholars in a list of “experts” shared with their email listserv of over 4,000. These experts help public discourse by talking about Kashmir outside the confines of a bilateral dispute.

“People finally wanted to understand the nuances of what is happening,” Kanjwal said. “Right now, there’s a global understanding that if you’re going to talk about a place, you should talk to the people that actually know that place,” she said. “If you’re talking about Kashmir, why would you have an Indian or Pakistani explain it?”

Despite the progress, Kanjwal knows there are limits to fighting for a cause from 7,000 miles away.

“Sometimes there can be detachment from what’s happening on the ground even within the diaspora,” she told me. “A lot of us came from a privileged background and did not necessarily feel the brunt of the occupation in Kashmir,” she said. 

“The Indian American lobby has a lot of money and power,” Kanjwal said. As the Howdy! Modi rally showed, Hindu nationalists are vocal. In September, Modi supporters gathered in Washington, D.C. to protest The Washington Post’s reporting on Kashmir. Kanjwal was verbally abused at several peaceful sit-ins; moderators had to escort counter-protesters out of the event. At the U.N. rally, Modi supporters also protested, a block away. 

But the diaspora knows the challenges they face are manageable compared to those faced by people in Kashmir. 

“We knew there was a communication lockdown so people in Kashmir wouldn't be able to get their story out,” Kanjwal said. Instead of Indians and Pakistanis just talking past each other, Kanjwal hopes that the diaspora will be able to help clear a path for Kashmir’s voices.

Jeevika Verma is a poet and writer from India, currently based in New York as a journalist.

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