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How students are raising awareness around human rights abuses in Kashmir

Students in front of a poster on the BC plaza at the “Unpacking the Occupation of Kashmir” awareness event.
Students in front of a poster on the BC plaza at the “Unpacking the Occupation of Kashmir” awareness event.

Awareness is the first step to change: a mantra that students raising awareness for the Kashmir issue firmly believe in.

“Unpacking the Occupation of Kashmir,” a half-day event organized by the Pakistan Students Association and Duke Diya (the South Asian Students Association), sought to highlight and create greater awareness on campus about the situation in Kashmir.

Students walking across the Bryan Center plaza Feb. 17 encountered graphic images depicting current human rights abuses and information detailing the region’s broader conflict and history. One of the photos, a close-up of a man’s face shot by pellets, complemented a caption that 6,000 Kashmiris were injured by pellet guns after the whole region of Indian-occupied Kashmir militarized and went into lockdown in August 2019.

The organizers came together over a month ago to discuss bringing the event to fruition, compelled by the gravity of the situation in Kashmir, the desire to use their respective organizations to engage in deeper political discourse and the general lack of awareness about the issue both at Duke and internationally.

Throughout the event, they hoped to raise awareness, start a broader conversation and get the ball rolling for change in Kashmir.

From 1971 to now

A flyer that organizers handed out to students on the BC plaza noted that after British decolonization, Kashmir, a Muslim-majority area with a Hindu ruler, became heavily contested between India and Pakistan. The two countries have fought a series of proxy wars over Kashmir, and in 1971 they established a heavily militarized border between two areas: India-occupied Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

According to the flyer, in August 2019, Indian-occupied Kashmir issued a legal ruling taking away Kashmir’s right to self-governance and autonomy.

First-year Ayesham Khan, vice president of the Pakistan Students Association, said one of the consequences of this is that Indian citizens can now buy property in Kashmir.

“If you read up on the history of even broadly settler colonialism, that’s how it starts,” she said. “It starts in a way that's very benign and it starts in the name of development and industrialization because that's what the Indian elite class is saying they'll do for Kashmir is that they'll go and build hotels and tourism. But that's really, in the subtext, that means ‘We are going to take over.’”

In response to Kashmiri dissent, the government put the entire region under lockdown, which is still under effect today. According to the poster at the event, Internet and phone service were cut off for six months, 700,000 troops were moved into the region, movement in and out of Indian-occupied Kashmir was restricted and Kashmiri government officials were arrested.

Senior Kinza Khan, president of the Pakistan Students Association, said that initially when the lockdown was instated, there was a massive international uproar aimed to stop it.

“But after that, as is the case with any issue, there was this looming passivity where nobody was really talking about it because there was no change occurring in the situation,” she said. “So, the voices kind of died out.”

The process and inspiration to mobilize

Students at the “Unpacking the Occupation of Kashmir” awareness event. Special to The Chronicle

Students were inspired to mobilize due to the gravity of the issue. First-year Rana Raffay, treasurer of the Pakistan Students Association, stressed that this was a humanitarian crisis that could escalate into a global catastrophe.

Ayesham Khan added that her goal coming in as a first-year was to change PSA’s focus from purely cultural to more political and activist. Aware of her responsibility to create change and inspired by powerful activists in her hometown, Lahore, Pakistan, she said she felt a “longing” to be part of that at Duke as well.

“I think I’ve always felt the responsibility to be engaged with politics because I'm aware of my privilege as someone who's able to study at a place like Duke and as someone who can understand English, who can access social media,” she said. “And because of that, I've always felt the need to take what I learn in academia and actually apply it to service work or activism… I feel that the bare minimum we can do is at least inform ourselves as a first step to actually impacting the situation on the ground in Kashmir.”

Seeking a balanced, unbiased perspective on the issue, PSA reached out to Diya to get involved with planning. Kinza Khan said that the group sought to be “the voice for Kashmiris independent of both countries, India and Pakistan” to paint a holistic perspective of all the institutions that played a role in propagating and perpetuating the Kashmir conflict.

Ayesham Khan emphasized that for example, as a Pakistani, “we can’t just criticize the Indian government because this issue is a product of India and Pakistan.” She added that they couldn’t just blindly romanticize the Kashmiri struggle because there are also Kashmiri militants “who may or may not always have people's best interests in mind.”

Senior Manish Kumar, political chair of Diya, was eager to help. Passionate about human rights and also hoping for Diya to fill a more active political role on campus, Kumar expressed that it is impossible today for individuals with marginalized identities to be apolitical.

He added that the Kashmir issue is a “very South Asian issue,” and though current events are rightfully focusing on the Indian government for its actions in Indian-occupied Kashmir, Kashmir is a region occupied by several countries and India, Pakistan, China and the West have all played a role in the conflict’s history.

Although this is a critical political issue with far-reaching global implications, Raffay noted that the issue was also very personal for many of the organizers.

“More likely than not you’ve had family who fought in one of the three main wars that were fought for Kashmir,” he said. “It’s a personal issue for most of the people here.”

All students expressed that they were inspired to organize the event because they were initially shocked at how little people knew about the issue and how little attention and mainstream media coverage there was about it.

“You don't see a lot of activism for it, you don't see a lot of people talking about it,” Ayesham Khan said. “And I think I felt, as a South Asian person broadly, that if I don't, who else is going to speak about it?”

Raffay said that because Duke doesn’t have a South Asian studies department, unlike other peer institutions like Columbia University and Harvard University, there is a general lack of awareness about South Asian political events on campus.

Awareness is the first step towards change, Kinza Khan stressed. Only with awareness can people unite to form a collective voice and pressure to protest the issue and talk about it.

No flyers to spare

At the event itself, organizers from Pakistan Student Association and Diya circulated around the BC plaza from noon to 5 p.m., handing out flyers and talking to passersby who stopped to listen. They stood by three large posters with visuals that were intentionally graphic to both depict what was actually happening and entice people to talk to them and learn more, Kinza Khan said.

“We had 150 flyers and more than 150 people stopped by to ask questions and talk to us because we ran out of flyers by the end,” she said. “We talked to so many people and I feel like more people were made aware, more people left really shocked that they had never heard about this issue even though such massive human rights violations are occurring there.”

Kinza Khan and the other students expressed how although they were surprised at how many students were unaware about the issue, she also appreciated that most people were extremely open to hearing multiple perspectives and actively learning more.

Kumar recalled encountering someone from Ladakh, a region in Indian-occupied Kashmir. Although she had not been directly affected by what was going on since Ladakh, as a primarily Buddhist and sparsely populated region, has not been historically very involved in the conflict, he felt that it was important and interesting to gather her perspectives about the issue.

Ayesham Khan hopes that through the event, Duke students and academics will not only become more aware of the issue, but also recognize that there are issues in international politics that “deserve to be seen through a more humanistic and more globalist sense.”

“The point of view of American foreign policy strategy is not the end-all be-all of international politics,” she said. “And as an international student, it can be incredibly frustrating for our issues to constantly be portrayed from the perspective of what benefits American national interest, because there are people's lives and livelihoods at stake.”

Raffay hoped that the event would create a cycle of whereby people telling other people about the issue and also inspire additional topics to explore for individuals interested in activism and human rights.

Ayesham Khan noted that although handing out flyers didn’t save anyone in Kashmir, she thinks the more people know, the more likely it is that “one out of 100 people may make some sort of change that a Kashmiri person can actually feel.”

From posters to a possible national-level conference

Kinza Khan emphasized that they don’t want this event to be “a one-event thing” and never talk about the issue again. Instead, she said that people should understand “how their awareness can play into actually creating change.”

She said that they plan to organize a “Kashmir 101” panel talk in which professors and experts present the history of Kashmir, the current situation in the region and possible ways for people to get involved. Raffay mentioned that—possibly next year—the group hopes to organize a larger, national-level South Asian conference at Duke in which they reach out to and collaborate with other South Asian student organizations across the country.  

Among other things, Kinza Khan also hopes to foster better discussion between people of all nationalities to talk about issues, as the issue is currently divided.

“You see such biased views between the two countries and a lot of the hate throughout the countries is for the same reason,” she said. “So just the fact that Pakistanis and Indians, for example, are uniting in order to talk about this issue in order to try to move forward, they're cooperating for that purpose, I think that says a lot—even symbolically that says a lot.” 


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