The thundering noise of 50,000 Narendra Modi supporters resounded through a Houston stadium as the Indian Prime Minister and the U.S. President Donald Trump stood shoulder to shoulder and clasped their hands together in an appearance of unity. The slogan “Shared Dreams, Bright Futures” flashed on a screen behind them.
Held on Sept. 22, this rally was hosted by the Texas India Forum, a nonprofit tied to Hindu nationalists, to greet the prime minister before a scheduled meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Modi used the occasion to, in part, defend his government’s recent actions in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the nation’s only Muslim-majority state.
“Howdy, my friends,” Modi said. “When you say ‘Howdy, Modi’, my answer is that everything is fine in India.”
In contrast to Modi’s messaging, thousands of demonstrators gathered, right outside the stadium, to protest a range of concerns from the situation in Kashmir to caste-based abuses. For them, and numerous other activists across the globe, all is not fine in India.
“[The] moment when Mr. Modi [and] Mr. Trump held hands and went around … watching it and reading about what was happening in India on that day, viscerally to me, took me back to the rally grounds in Nuremberg,” Research Anthropologist Professor Angana P. Chatterji said. “It feels that India is somewhere between 1933 and 1936.”
Beginning in 1923, the Nazi Party held rallies in Nuremberg. Once Adolf Hitler rose to Chancellor of Germany, the rallies were held annually, mainly for propaganda purposes, from 1933 to 1938.
On Oct. 16, Chatterji read from “Kashmir: The Subject of Rights,” narrating some of the history leading up to the Aug. 5 siege on Kashmir. She shared her own struggle to bear witness to the human rights abuses occurring in J&K and discussed some of the events behind the region’s complex realities—past and present.
“I am … from Kolkata,” Chatterji said. “I actually like saying that I’m of India; ‘being’ from India is increasingly laden with more and more complexities.”
Kashmir is a mountainous region that spans into both Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. J&K is the Indian-controlled portion of this larger area. It used to be a princely state, but soon after the end of British rule, in 1947, the Hindu ruler acceded his land to the Dominion of India.
India and Pakistan continue to claim Kashmir and the region has been the subject of much dispute. Territorial tensions have resulted in three wars and led to ongoing conflicts and military standoffs.
India has accused Pakistan of supporting a long-running separatist insurgency group in J&K, an allegation the neighboring country has denied. Instead, Pakistan claims it is providing moral and diplomatic assistance for Kashmiris wanting self-determination.
Muslims are an estimated 14.2% of India’s 1.3 billion population. In J&K, reports of human rights abuses against them include political repression, extrajudicial killings, involuntary disappearances, torture and rape. Involuntary, or enforced, disappearances occur when state officials, or those with their consent, seize people and their whereabouts are unknown; it is a crime under international law.
In 2008, Chatterji and human rights lawyer Parvez Imroz assembled the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir (IPTK) to investigate and record crimes committed in the Indian-administered portion. In a first, both Muslim residents and Hindu Pandits welcomed IPTK and offered their help.
Hindu Pandits, also known as Kashmiri Pandits, are members of the only Hindu community native to the Kashmir Valley, a mountainous part of J&K. Chatterji explained that the ongoing conflict has also impacted them. For instance, in the 1990s, between 209 to 765 of them were killed and over 150,000 were displaced.
“We learned from people’s daily struggles, their grief and isolation, and their innumerable and courageous acts for justice and accountability,” Chatterji said. “In excavating the living conditions induced by militarized governance and the failures of a powerful state, we moved between fact finding, bearing witness and creating context for engaging local knowledge and understanding the social dimensions of pervasive oppressions and the human rights violations they induce.”
The Indian government reported that, from 1989 to 2008, more than 47,000 people were killed in the area. In high contrast, the IPTK found the number to be closer to more than 70,000 deaths for close to the same timeframe.
In their 2009 report “BURIED EVIDENCE,” Chatterji and Imroz documented 2,700 unknown and unmarked graves, including mass graves, that contained more than 2,943 bodies. Their findings were based on investigative research in 55 villages throughout three districts.
Of those buried in the 2,700 unknown and unmarked graves, records are only available for 49 of them. Indian forces listed all of the 49 buried as militants or foreign insurgents; there is an additional record for someone that had been drowned.
Chatterji also pointed to more than 8,000 enforced disappearances that could correlate to the number of unmarked graves.
“I have walked through the graveyards that hold the unknown dead and met with grieving families,” Chatterji said. “I’ve listened to the testimony of a mother who sleepwalks repeatedly to the grave of her son, trying to resuscitate his body.”
In the report, an unidentified gravedigger detailed witnessing the burial of 206 people that had been killed extrajudicially between 2002 and 2006. She added that, since 2009, 6,000 of those masked graves have reportedly been identified and require verification.
“I began to understand that militarization was a vehicle for human rights abuses,” Chatterji said. “That the purpose was to perpetuate such abuses in order to create Kashmir as a collective internment camp in which people would live, in which their spirit would wear down, and either forcible assimilation or death could occur.”
For instance, in 1990, the Indian government declared J&K a “disturbed area” based on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
“AFSPA is among the impunity laws deployed in Kashmir that allow soldiers to question persons, raid houses, make arrests without bringing charges, overlook custodial violence, permit protracted detentions without due process, and even shoot and kill based on unverified suspicion, citing ‘national security,’ while being immune from prosecution,” Chatterji said in an emailed statement.
Large-scale civilian protests arose at different points from 2008 to 2018, and officials branded these demonstrations as acts of terrorism. In 2016 alone, according to Chatterji, more than 100 Kashmiris were killed and close to 6,000 injured, of which more than 1,100 had been blinded by pellet guns.
From 2006 to 2009, she traveled throughout J&K and interviewed more than a thousand locals.
Chatterji narrated the account of then 19-year-old torture survivor Beebak. During street protests in 2009, police detained him for more than 10 days. Other (survivors) reported being waterboarded and threatened with sexual violence during their confinement.
“Refusing to admit the crimes he had not committed, Beebak was locked up in isolation, where he was beaten again. He recounts how, taking turns, two officers held him down while a third struck him with a baton, the butt of a rifle, and an iron chain,” Chatterji read. “Beebak tells me, ‘In the jail, in the dark … I lose consciousness.’”
Compounding matters further, on Aug. 5, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah informed Parliament of government plans to annul Article 370 and, therefore, strip J&K of its special status. Less than 24 hours later, both legislative houses cemented Shah’s announcement and passed a measure that turns the state into a union territory under greater control of the central government.
“Kashmir has always been an integral part of India but this decision will ensure that there will no more be [two flags, two constitutions] in J&K,” Shah tweeted. “This decision is a tribute to all the patriots who made the supreme sacrifice for a united India. Congratulations to the entire nation.”
Concurrent to these parliamentary changes, Modi’s administration launched a security crackdown affecting 7 million people, and hundreds of thousands of additional troops flooded the region. Officials cut off communications, detained political leaders and imposed other harsh restrictions designed to hinder movement and gatherings.
The Associated Press spoke to more than 50 Kashmiris in a dozen villages and heard numerous accounts of violence and intimidation from Indian soldiers. Residents detailed raids on their homes, being beaten and electrocuted, being forced to eat dirt or drink unclean water, finding their food poisoned and livestock killed.
Despite the restrictions and military presence, hundreds of protests and police clashes have broken out.
“If India wants us to believe that it’s a democracy, they are fooling themselves. Kashmir has long had an uneasy relationship with India [but] our special status was the bridge that joined the two,” Rizwan Malik said to BBC Reporter Geeta Pandey. “By scrapping it, they have taken away our identity. This is unacceptable to any Kashmiri.”
Article 370, added to the Indian Constitution in 1949, granted J&K near autonomy—its own constitution, a separate flag and freedom to legislate. India’s central government, in New Delhi, retained administration of communications, defense and foreign affairs.
In a later added provision to the article, 35A authorized J&K legislatures to define permanent residency, and therefore determine property ownership and other fundamental rights. These rules have also meant that the state can bar Indians, outside its borders, from purchasing land and settling in the area.
“Taking away Kashmiris’ right to their land erases their right to self-determination,” Chatterji said. “They have no case to say this is our land, and our dreams are connected to the land.”
Long opposed to Article 370, Modi and the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) included repealing it as part of their 2019 election platform. Their argument: this revocation is needed to integrate J&K into India and encourage regional development.
Modi first became Prime Minister of India in 2014 and won a landslide re-election in May. Despite a downturn in India’s economy, he has embraced right-wing populism and continued consolidating power. Critics fear that Modi is fomenting Hindu-Muslim tensions and becoming an autocrat.
“I would say that the first term of the current BJP government, from 2014 to 2019, was prepping the state, creating the conditions, infiltrating into institutions, slowly taking them over to precipitate the conditions for a majoritarian state, and to embark on the 2019 elections,” Chatterji said. “But here, one must acknowledge that the electoral mandate was actually greater for Mr. Modi’s government in 2019.”
“I would say 2014 to 2019 was prepping the state, creating the conditions, infiltrating into institutions, slowly taking them over to then come to the 2019 elections,” Chatterji said. “But here, one can’t simply say that we didn’t know and he took power, because the mandate was actually greater for Mr. Modi’s government in 2019.”
Founded in 1980, the BJP is rooted in Hindu supremacist thought. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is regarded as the political party’s parent organization; it is a Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer group. The RSS desires for India to be defined as a Hindu nation, and Modi, like many BJP leaders, is a long-time member.
“In Kashmir, in phases, events of immense intensity have taken place since 1989,” Chatterji said. “But then it abates, or it doesn’t actually abate but it becomes routinized … and then again another episode occurs.”
On Oct. 31, the former state of J&K officially split into two union territories: a rebranded state of Jammu and Kashmir, able to elect its own legislative assembly, and Ladakh, that won’t get its own legislature.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan stated that the country will make the “fullest possible response” to India’s actions in Kashmir.
“We are ready to give sacrifice for our Kashmiri brothers, will fulfill our duty till last bullet, last soldiers and last breath,” Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said. “And we are prepared to go till any extent.”
Close to three months since the lockdown of Kashmir began, New Delhi has begun to ease restrictions: releasing some Kashmiri detainees and turning on some modes of communication. Despite this, fear and unease among residents remain.
Chatterji is co-chair of the Political Conflict, Gender and People’s Rights Initiative, and research anthropologist at the Center for Race and Gender at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to co-convening the IPTK in 2008, her numerous accomplishments include publishing “Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India,” “Conflicted Democracies and Gendered Violence,” and “Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present.” She is also a co-contributor to the anthology “Kashmir: The Case for Freedom.”
The Oct. 16 talk by Chatterji was hosted by Mills’ Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Transcultural Francophone Studies, The Center for Leadership, Equity and Excellence and the South Asian Students Alliance.
For more information about the IPTK and to read their reports, visit http://www.kashmirprocess.org.