Speaking out on Kashmir and Palestine in the US

Kashmiri protesters throw stones at paramilitary soldiers and police during a protest in Srinagar, September 2010. (Rouf Bhat/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)

The United States has become a battleground for both the struggles of the peoples of Palestine and Kashmir, for freedom from military occupation and for justice. Awareness amongst the US public is broadened as the repression of both struggles grows ever more violent, and meanwhile those wishing to stifle debate on these issues in the US resort to harassment and intimidation.

The same day that renowned activist and writer Arundhati Roy commented that “Kashmir was never an integral part of India,” for which her home was later attacked, I was subjected to harassment here in the US while I spoke about the human rights situation in Kashmir. Though not threatened in the way that Roy was, what we both experienced were attempts to silence us. Forces sympathetic to the same right-wing ideology as those who attacked Roy mobilized their ranks by putting out an alert stating: “An Indian Muslim Woman is speaking about azadi [freedom] of Kashmiris and we should protest.”

After my presentation at the main public library in San Jose, California last month, I was told by one member of the audience that “You are the very reason why we Hindus hate Muslims,” and that comment was followed by many that were worse. I was called an extremist and told “Your presentation is a lie; this is India-bashing.” The abuse I received will be familiar to those who have been on the receiving end of the backlash when speaking about the Palestinian cause.

Indeed, a week earlier, Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa was called an extremist by Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz at the Boston Book Festival after she presented well-established facts about Palestine. He resorted to name calling and ad hominem attacks.

Israel and India are often represented in US media as bastions of democracy in the Middle East and South Asia, respectively. Supporters of the policies of both governments delegitimize any resistance or criticism and discourage revelation of the truth through intimidation and personal attacks.

Kashmir is the most militarized zone in the world with close to 700,000 Indian troops. According to Professor Angana Chatterji of the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), between the years of 1989 and 2000, “In Kashmir, 70,000 are dead, over 8,000 have been disappeared and 250,000 have been displaced … India’s military governance penetrates every facet of life. … The hyper-presence of militarization forms a graphic shroud over Kashmir: detention and interrogation centers, army cantonments, abandoned buildings, bullet holes, bunkers and watchtowers, detour signs, deserted public squares, armed personnel, counter-insurgents and vehicular and electronic espionage” (“Kashmir: A Time For Freedom,” Greater Kashmir, 25 September 2010).

Because she has spoken out, Chatterji has become a target of right-wing Hindutva groups — those espousing an exclusivist Hindu nationalist ideology in India that often denigrates and denies the legitimacy of non-Hindus in India. Hindutva groups in the US and India have attacked her because of her work tracking funding to Hindutva groups from the US after the 2002 pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat and more recently as co-conveyer of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir. Chatterji told me: “I was threatened with rape by Hindutva groups in 2005. Since announcing the Kashmir Tribunal in April 2008, each time I have entered or left India since, I have been stopped or detained at immigration.” Richard Shapiro, her partner and chair and associate professor at CIIS, was banned from entering India on 1 November 2010.

Hindutva groups try to scuttle any broader discussion about human rights violations in Kashmir, the conditional annexation by India in 1947 or right to self-determination by limiting it to the issue of the displacement and killings of the upper caste minority Kashmiri Hindu Pandits in the late 1980s and by insisting that Kashmir is not an international issue.

Similarly, Zionists seeking to draw attention away from Israel’s abuses of Palestinians’ human rights often focus exclusively on suicide bombings or the rule of Hamas. Their aim is to silence any discussion of the historic Palestinian demands for the implementation of the refugees’ right of return, an end to the military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and equality for Palestinian citizens in Israel.

And the front line in the battle to influence US public opinion towards both the Kashmir and Palestine struggles can be found at the university campus.

“There is a well-orchestrated and funded campaign of intimidation and harassment by Zionist and Hindutva groups on campuses to target academics,” says Sunaina Maira, Associate Professor at the University of California, Davis campus. Zionist academics tried to pressure the University of California, Berkeley to cancel an event last month titled “What Can American Academia Do to Realize Justice for Palestinians,” organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine. In a letter to the school’s chancellor, the groups urged him to withdraw official university sponsorship of the event and publicly condemn the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israeli apartheid at the school’s campus.

A similar attempt was made in 2006 by Indian American members of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, when they tried to cancel a panel titled “South Asian-Arab solidarity against Israeli apartheid” at Stanford University. The objective was to bring South Asians and Arabs together to take a unified stand against US imperialism and Israeli apartheid and speak up against the Zionist-Hindutva alliances. Despite the attempts by outside groups to stifle free speech, both these events eventually did take place on the campuses and were quite successful.

The attempts to silence those who speak out in the US are not the only thing that Kashmir and Palestine have in common. Both Kashmiris and Palestinians are struggling for justice and freedom against highly-militarized occupations. The recent protests by stone-throwing Kashmiri youth drew comparisons to the first intifada in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And it is perhaps the linking of these struggles that those who stand in the way of freedom for oppressed peoples fear the most. Notably, Zionists and Hindutva advocates have adopted a similar Islamophobic language and worldview that considers any grievances or struggles by Muslims to be simply a cover for “jihadism” or “wahhabism” and thus justifies treating all such movements for justice — however they are conducted — as “terrorist.”

While the situations in Kashmir and Palestine are not completely analogous, in recent years India and Israel have fostered political and military links, including arms sales, joint intelligence, trade agreements and cultural exchanges.

Historically India has been supportive of the Palestinian struggle. But in 1992 India established diplomatic relations with Israel and ties were further strengthened in 2000 when India Home Minister L.K. Advani visited Israel; Advani is considered the architect of the rise of the Hindutva movement in the 1980s and ’90s. Today India is the largest buyer of Israel’s arms and Israel is training Indian military units in “counter-terrorist” tactics and urban warfare to be used against Kashmiris and resistance groups in northeast and central India.

The repressive governments of both India and Israel enjoy a warm relationship with the the US. Bilateral defense ties between US and India — based on the new strategic realities of Asia — is one of the objectives of US President Barack Obama’s current visit to India, according to the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), a Washington-based think tank. The US also gives $3 billion in military aid to Israel annually.

Such alliances between states, which aim to perpetuate injustice and maintain regimes that are rejected by those forced to live under them, underscore the need for education and solidarity among supporters of those long denied their freedom, equality and self-determination.

Those in the US who defend the status quo may resort to tactics of intimidation. But just as state repression in Kashmir and Palestine has failed to quell those struggles for freedom, those of us in the US concerned with justice in Palestine and Kashmir — and the US government’s role in each — will not be intimidated into silence.

Yasmin Qureshi is a San Francisco Bay Area professional and human rights activist involved in social justice movements in South Asia and Palestine. Her article on Kashmir, “Democracy Under the Barrel of a Gun,” was published in June 2010 by CounterPunch and ZCommunications.