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South Asian community mobilizes to support Kashmir after brutal sexual violence

A rally calling for justice for Asifa Bano at Union Square in New York on April 18. (WNV/Sainatee Ninkhong)

Earlier this month, the War Resisters League launched a discussion series focused on zones of conflict that are neglected in American anti-war circles. The first event centered on Kashmir, the site of the world’s longest running military occupation, dating back to the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Both countries make territorial claims in the region that clash with Kashmiri demands for self-determination and drive settler colonial violence. The South Asia Solidarity Initiative, or SASI, used this opportunity to draw attention to violence in the region, such as the brutal rape and murder of eight-year-old Asifa Bano, a Kashmiri Muslim girl.

Asifa was a member of the Bakarwal Muslim community, which relies on herding livestock in the Kathua district of Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Her alleged perpetrators were Hindu nationalists. She was kidnapped in January and held in a local Hindu temple, where she was drugged, gang raped and beaten to death.

The identities of the alleged perpetrators were confirmed in March by a Special Investigation Team. Reports say they meant to terrorize her community in order to drive them from the area. Sanji Ram, a former bureaucrat who has been named as the mastermind behind this attack, has a history of violence aimed at Bakarwals in Kathua. Ram’s record as a bigot and agitator includes sexual violence and inciting Hindus in Kathua to deny Bakarwals access to land. Attempts to displace Kashmiris based on religious and ethnic identity date back to 1947. More recently, the Bakarwals have been subjected to a boycott pushed by Hindu nationalists aiming to undermine their livelihoods.

As details of the case came to light, local Hindu nationalists tied to India’s ruling party, the chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, scrambled to defend a posse of eight men who were arrested over connections to the rape and homicide. They mobilized a campaign called the Hindu Ekta Manch aimed at obstructing justice in this case. Lal Singh Chaudry, a former BJP politician who threatened Kashmiri Muslims with ethnic cleansing in 2016, joined a rally defending the alleged perpetrators.

Over the past few months, SASI has aimed to mobilize South Asian communities against both the Hindu right’s salvos and the ideology justifying Kashmir’s occupation. On April 18, the organization partnered with Equality Labs, a tech startup led by South Asian activists from marginalized communities, to rally people to New York’s Union Square. Around a hundred people showed up to decry the atrocities perpetrated against Asifa Bano and her community.

A Kashmiri activist who was invited to speak at the mobilization called on attendees to see Asifa’s death as part of an occupation that “continues to use sexual violence as a weapon of war, continues to brutalize Kashmiri bodies and erase Kashmiri identity.” This activist, who asked to remain anonymous, said that India’s vision of Kashmir as part of its territory is a crucial factor in that brutality and erasure.

Self-identified Hindu progressives and adherents of a more secular nationalism tended to view the atrocity perpetrated against Asifa as a “social-sexual” crime linked solely to religious hatred. On April 16, Sadhana, a group describing itself as a “coalition of progressive Hindus,” held its own “Against the Rapes in India” rally in Union Square. Asifa’s story was shared alongside those of Indian rape victims in Unnao and Surat. Board member Sunita Vishwanath responded to the BJP, specifically addressing the Hindu Ekta Manch. “Ekta is [a] word that’s very important to the Hindus,” she told India Abroad. “[I]t means oneness, it means unity, and we will not let such words that are sacred to us be co-opted by hate mongers and rapists.”

Responses like this, however, have been criticized for characterizing Asifa as an Indian victim. Including her in a list of Indian victims erases the fact that she was a Kashmiri victim of India’s occupation. One of SASI’s goals in the coming months, explained organizer Robindra Deb, is to challenge and unpack the ways in which Indians treat Kashmir — as if it were part of India irrespective of how Kashmiris feel. One Kashmiri organizer contended that the effect of calling Asifa an Indian victim was to “selectively erase the decades of violence that Kashmiri women have suffered and the persistent use of sexual violence against Kashmiri individuals across the gender spectrum.”

Furthermore, historian Hafsa Kanjwal has noted that “when Kashmiri women get raped … and when young Kashmiri girls are … killed” by the Indian army “there is no liberal outrage in India.” Kashmir is one of the world’s most militarized areas, with a ratio of one soldier for every 20 civilians. Over 700,000 Indian soldiers have been deployed to the region in response to mass movements for Kashmiri self-determination and as part of an exercise of power directed at Pakistan. This military presence is known for responding to protests and demands for autonomy with extreme violence.

As in other conflict zones, sexual violence towards Kashmiris is a constant feature of the Indian occupation and is used to “punish, intimidate and degrade Kashmiris at large,” Kanjwal explained. The 1991 siege of the villages of Kunan and Poshpura — during which the Indian army allegedly raped up to 100 women — along with the alleged rape and murder in 2009 of two women by police in the town of Shopian illustrate this dynamic. “Kashmiri civil society groups have documented 7,000 cases of sexual violence that also include violence against men in custody, including sodomy,” Kanjwal said.

Both Kanjwal and Mohamad Junaid, a Kashmiri scholar and activist, note how the suffering of Kashmiris in Jammu and Kashmir is obscured because India claims them as citizens. “In Kashmir, the Indian government claims the people it shoots down, blinds and treats with cruelty are Indian citizens,” Junaid said. “This confuses people who are not so familiar with what is going on in Kashmir because they think Kashmiris are Indians when they are facing the same kind of cruelty and atrocity as Palestinians.”

SASI hopes to illuminate these dynamics for a broad audience. This objective underpinned the teach-in that SASI co-hosted with the War Resister League on June 3, which covered both the history of occupation and movements for self-determination in Kashmir. Hafsa Kanjwal and Mohamad Junaid discussed these issues and were joined by a third speaker, Palestinian activist and member of the Decolonize This Place collective Amin Hussain. Hussain explained how the dearth of attention paid to Kashmiri resistance undermines the positions of those purporting to oppose other occupations, such as the Israeli presence in Palestine.

The teach-in drew upon groundwork that has been laid for transnational opposition to the occupation of Kashmir. “When you are from Palestine, or are a Tamil from Sri Lanka, or a Kurd — when you are any other nationality who has had a war imposed upon you or are living under an occupation — [Kashmir] instinctively resonates,” Juniad said prior to the event.

Amin Hussein attested to this during the teach-in when he talked about a longstanding affinity between self-determination movements that link Palestine and Kashmir. Recalling how he has been active in the Palestinian resistance since the age of 12, Hussein said he was “raised knowing about Kashmir.” He situated the struggles against settler colonialism in Kashmir alongside the Ferguson uprising and Standing Rock, calling each of these struggles for self-determination part of a “spirit that has been coming back.”