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My interests and activism on issues of peace and human rights, and my work as a travel consultant and travel writer, first intersected for me on a 1989 trip to Kashmir.
My mother's parents and grandparents spent most of their lives as expatriates in South Asia, where my grandfather and great-grandfather taught at American-sponsored universities. My mother was born in Lahore, Punjab, in what was then a province of British-ruled India and is now Pakistan. Until the independence and partition of India and Pakistan, they spent their summer vacations in the Kashmir Valley. Kasjmir would later become a major tourist destination, but at that time, there were still relatively few foreign visitors or tourists there.
After Partition, they spent most of their summer vacations around Murree, in the portion of the former Kashmir "state" on the Pakistan-controlled side of the "Line of Control" (cease-fire line) dividing the portions of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan and by India. But I grew up with my grandmother's watercolors and stories of their summer camp on Nagin Lake in Srinagar. It was with joy that I first went there in 1989, together with my partner and and my Lahore-born but USA-raised mother. We visited both sides of the Line of Control in Kashmir on that trip, as well as other parts of both India and Pakistan. In the Kashmir Valley, we were hoping for a restful vacation within a longer trip that had included some hard traveling elsewhere.
As it happened, our arrival in the Kashmir Valley in 1989 coincided with the outbreak of the latest stage of the Kashmiri nationalist struggle. It started mainly as a movement for self-determination, and its tactics were those of nonviolent civil disobedience. But as the Indian government responded with crude repression, it increasingly became a campaign for human rights and simple survival. An army of half a million Indian soldiers, police, and spies now occupies most of Kashmir and enforces martial law over ten million Kashmiris. At least thirty thousand and perhaps as many as seventy thousand Kashmiris have been killed since 1989, including many medical and human rights workers and Kashmir's most-respected spiritual leader. Despite some attempts at armed retaliation by Kashmiri guerrillas and terrorists, most of the killing has been done by Indian soldiers, police, and death squads.
While in Kashmir, quite by chance, I met and talked about the situation with the "Mirwaiz" (a title of spiritual leadership unique to Kashmir) of Kashmir, Mohammed Farooq. I was extremely impressed with his modesty, deference to the will of the people, and recognition of the distinction between his roles as spiritual and political leader. About six months later, Mirwaiz Mohammed Farooq was assassinated by an Indian army death squad. No public funeral was permitted, and an unauthorized funeral procession was machine-gunned by Indian troops, killing more than a hundred people. After the assassination of Mohammed Farooq, his son, Umar Farooq, succeeded him as Mirwaiz.
In the years of martial law that followed, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq used his position, and the minimal tolerance of the Indian regime for religious gatherings even during periods when all other popular gatherings were prohibited (common under martial-law regimes), to catalyze the formation of the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference (APHC) as an umbrella nationalist organization and shadow government, of which he was selected as chairman.
Unlike the Dalai Lama of Tibet, with whom he might be compared as the spiritual and political leader of a nation under occupation, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq remained in Kashmir even after his father's assassination. This is commendable, and has kept the APHC much more responsive to the Kashmiri people than it would have become in exile. But it has severely hampered his ability to promote the Kashmiri cause to the world. In April of 1999, for example, with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq under house arrent by the Indian authorities, a delegation of other representatives of the APHC was detained at the airport in New Delhi (India permits no direct air service from Kashmir to anywhere outside India) and prevented from boarding a flight to Geneva to present the Kashmiri case to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. And again in September 1999, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq and another senior leader of the APHC were detained at the airport in New Delhi, their passports and tickets confiscated, and prevented from boarding a flight to New York to present Kashmir's case to the world and the American people.
If anyone is interested in what Mirwaiz Umar Farooq of Kashmir, and other representatives of the Kashmiri people, might have said, had they been allowed to travel to the U.S. and the U.N. and to speak to us directly, here's a transcript of an earlier address to a U.N. subcommittee (several years ago, but unfortunately the situation has not improved since then).
As for the voices of more ordinary Kashmiris, Jashn-e-Azadi, a documentary film by Sanjay Kak (himself from a Hindu "Pandit" family of Kashmiri ancestry), provides one of the best available opportunities to hear Kashmiris speak for themselves, with footage both from interviews in 2004-2005 and anonymous archival "home video" from the 1990's. Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night: One Kashmiri Journalist's Frontline Account of Life, Love, and War in His Homeland is a down-to-earth memoir of growing up in the Kashmir Valley during the waxing and waning of the Kashmiri struggle, and its shifts of tactics, since 1989.
Kashmir's struggle for freedom continues, but with little support or awareness abroad, especially in the USA. In part, that's because there are so few Kashmiri-Americans, which is why I think it's so important for concerned on-Kashmiris like myself to speak up.
In 2008, while Mirwaiz Umar Farooq renewed his call for setting aside armed struggle to give nonviolent political tactics another chance, Kashmiris came out on the streets en masse for the first time since the early 1990's, with repeated marches of hundreds of thousands despite (again as in the early 1990's) repeated arrests and detention of political leaders and police and army firing on peaceful protesters.
The policy of the USA on Kashmir, as on other regions, is shaped more by the economic and "strategic" interests of the USA than by concern for democracy or human rights. Since 11 September 2001, India has been increasingly successful in portaraying its military occupation of Kashmir as part of its alliance with the USA in a "war on terror" (even as others see this as an ideological alliance, or at least a commonality of interest, between Hindu fundamentalists in India, Christian fundamentalists in the USA, and Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, united in a new Crusade against Islam that manifests itself in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan... and Kashmir).
India's government continues to betray its long-standing promises of self-determination, promises made not only to the Kashmiri people but also to the United Nations. The region called "Jammu and Kashmir" is neither homogenous or unified, and it remains unclear what choices Kashmiris in different parts of the region would make. But as a friend of Kashmir, India, and Pakistan, I try to do what I can to call attention to the moral and political entitlement of the Kashmiri people to determine their own destiny, not to have it decided for them by India, Pakistan, or any other foreign power.
Some Indian nationalists will probably think me anti-Indian for my views on Kashmir. But while I deplore the Indian occupation of Kashmir, I actually think that India and modern Indian political thought deserve more, not less, attention and respect in the USA and the rest of the North. It's sad that India's Kashmir policy sullies India's record and is one more obstacle to foreigners realizing how much they could learn from India and Indians. I'm pretty cynical, but I was appalled when I found that a friend's doctoral degree program in political science at a well-reputed research university in the USA did not require any familiarity with Gandhi, Nehru, or any other Southern political thinker or statesperson.
Some will also think me a Muslim dupe for supporting Kashmiri self-determination. I don't think I'm biased toward Islam. I think it's just that, as an atheist, I'm less biased against Islam than is mainstream Christian opinion in the USA. Not all that's bad, or good, about countries where most people are Muslim is attributable to Islam, any more than all that's bad or good about the USA is attributable to Christianity. Religion is only one of many influences. I'm not a fan of religions in general, but I'm fairly neutral among different religions. In any case, I try to base my judgements on what people do, regardless of their beliefs -- or lack thereof. Interestingly, the Kashmiri nationalist organization which had the most widespread support was the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which was secular, socialist, and as opposed to Pakistani occupation as to Indian. The same is true of what has been the principal voice of Kashmiri opinion in the USA, the Kashmiri American Council.
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