By Richard Liddle
“We are trying to make sure their voice is not lost or hidden,” says Fozia Shaheen as she addresses supporters gathered around the steps of Bradford City Hall. It’s October 27, with the city centre adorned with decorations celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali, but to the people gathered here the date has a darker significance: Kashmir’s “Black Day”, commemorating 72 years since India assumed its controversial control of the region.
Red lights illuminate the City Hall, in solidarity with the people of the Kashmir Valley, who for over a hundred days now have been held under strict curfew by the Indian government. Gathered in front of the steps are people from around Yorkshire who have come to express their support, many also wearing red.
On August 5 this year, the Indian government passed a bill to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, a previously semi-autonomous state in the northern Indian subcontinent and the subject of a long dispute between India, Pakistan and China. The region was flooded with Indian troops as part of the clampdown, with estimates stating that there was one Indian soldier for every 30 Kashmiri civilians in the region. Internet access and mobile coverage was blocked, hundreds of politicians and community leaders were arrested, and a blanket of silence descended.
Over 100 days later, the situation remains much the same. The country remains on lockdown, with a huge military presence and an estimated 3,000 people arrested, some as young as 11. India has defended its actions, claiming troops are there as a necessary deterrent to extremism in the region; but there are numerous reports of abuses such as arbitrary arrests, torture within detention centres, and soldiers raping civilians. Genocide Watch has even placed an alert on the region.
The communications ban has been eased slightly, with an estimated 4 million mobile phones reconnected to the network, allowing families to reconnect and stories to slowly make their way out of the region. Another 2.6 million phones are still offline, though, as is the entire region’s internet connection, making it difficult for the media to gain a clear idea of the situation.
Hence Fozia Shaheen’s words at the vigil: “You people are the voice of our brothers and sisters in Kashmir,” she says. “We need to send a clear message not just to Bradford but to the whole world.” There’s a particular focus on the need to stand up for women and children in the region; near the end of the event, Fozia, Labour councillor for the Toller Ward in Bradford, tells me: “We wanted women and children to have a voice because women and children are being affected most by what’s happening in Kashmir, and we didn’t want their voice to be lost.” She says that she is here at the vigil not as a councillor but as a community activist, stressing that she views the situation in Kashmir not as a political issue but as one of human rights.
“This is a human issue, not just for those in Kashmir,” she says. “It’s not about being part of Pakistan or India, it’s about giving people their freedom.”
Sasha Bhat, another of the organisers, was visiting family in Indian-administered Kashmir when the lockdown began and spent three weeks in the curfew before being allowed to return to the UK. She echoes the need for a voice, saying that there had been remarkable press silence surrounding the region even before the clampdown. “We need to keep pushing people to speak up,” she says. “We want to raise awareness and pressure the government to find out what is going on.”
Others also shared their stories. Umar Raj, 21, has family in Kashmir and travelled from Leeds to attend the vigil. Like others, he’s disappointed with the lack of mainstream coverage of events in Kashmir, particularly surrounding the earthquake that ripped through the region on September 24. The ongoing lockdown made it difficult to find out if families like Umar’s were safe or not. “For me, action needs to come from the top,” he says.
But those at the top remain quiet on Kashmir. Numerous petitions have been raised in Parliament asking for government action, but so far none has been taken. Boris Johnson did raise the issue in a call with Narendra Modi, India’s far-right, Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, but only expressed the government’s official stance that Indian and Pakistan should engage in dialogue to resolve the Kashmir issue.
More tellingly, though, a Downing Street spokesperson said that Modi had talked of “immense possibilities for the UK and India which would increase prosperity in both countries”. With Brexit looming, the government will be keen to look for such “immense possibilities” with new trading partners, and is clearly wary of pushing Modi and India away by intruding too far into their business in Kashmir.
With the government remaining inactive whilst the Kashmir crisis continues to bleed the region dry, it has fallen to individuals and grassroots activism like the Bradford vigil to try and raise awareness of the situation. “When you’re comfortable it’s easy to ignore things that are going on elsewhere,” says Khausar Mukhtar, Labour Councillor for the Tong ward, at the vigil. Kashmir is a wider issue than just regional politics: “We need to change the economics around war… You can’t use violence to create peace.”
Bradford isn’t alone in its support. Campaigns such as StandWithKashmir are using social media to spread awareness to an international audience, demonstrations continue, and perhaps most importantly, Kashmiri citizens have given testimonies directly to a US congressional hearing in the hopes of spurring action. As Kashmir continues to bleed in silence, it has fallen on the rest of the world to provide them with a voice.