Indian security personnel stand guard on a street in Srinagar on Aug. 6, 2019. Photo: AFP/Vikar Syed

It is hard to think of a time in the past 30 years when Kashmir has been featured so prominently in the international press as it has in the past couple of months. After the controversial decision of the Indian government to abrogate Articles 370 and 35A of the constitution, removing Jammu and Kashmir state’s somewhat autonomous status, and the subsequent curfew imposed on the populace, Kashmir has appeared on global headlines in a way it hasn’t since the militarization of the region in 1989. Yet amid the cacophony of voices expressing their opposition to or agreement with what Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done, the voices of the global Kashmiri diaspora have remained relatively unheard.

For much of the post-partition history, the Kashmir issue has been seen through two dueling narratives by rival states. India’s perspective presents Kashmiri territory under its control as part of its nation-state and condemns what it sees as support for extremist militants by Pakistan, which it considers the root cause of instability. The Pakistani perspective focuses on Kashmir’s status as a disputed territory, calling for granting Kashmir the right to self-sovereignty and condemning human-rights abuses committed by Indian forces on Kashmiri innocents struggling against occupation in the heavily militarized area.

However, a purely Kashmiri narrative, representative of the aspirations of the people of the region and their families in diaspora, has not been as audible in the conversation. Hence when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, ahead of leaving for his much publicized speech to the United Nations General Assembly, stated that he would act as an ambassador for Kashmir, it was an indirect acknowledgement that the Kashmiris may lack the ability to broadcast their own message by themselves on a global stage.

Despite certain parallels with the more high-profile Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the activism on the Kashmir issue has gained nowhere near the same level of traction in the geopolitical arena. Several factors have hampered the internationalization of this issue.

The first is that as Kashmir’s legal status as a disputed territory does not offer the same clarity of resolution to the conflict as the two-state solution offered in the Palestinian case, which has a broader consensus grounded in international law. Compounding this is the Indian assertion that both sides must address the Kashmir issue within a bilateral framework as per the Simla Agreement of 1972, excluding third-party intervention.

Kashmiris living outside the subcontinent, despite being a fairly well-educated and financially well-off population, have also generally found it difficult to mobilize and be an effective pressure bloc, with comparatively few solidarity organizations of note. Aside from several protests in major Western cities, much of this group has been silent.

Individual Kashmiri activists operating abroad fear possible repercussions if they become too open in condemning the actions of the Indian government. Prominent Kashmiri writer and political anthropologist Ather Zia recently was informed that Facebook would be deleting her account, without providing a reason for doing so. Stories circulate among Kashmiri diaspora circles of youth who are arrested when they return home based on their social-media postings under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA).

The views of Kashmiris at home and abroad are also split along religious and ethnic lines. While the majority Muslim population are strongly critical of the actions of the Modi government and have long been assertive of the demand for self-determination, there is also a vocal minority of Kashmiri Hindu pandits who welcome the removal of Article 370 as a possible precursor to their return to the Kashmir Valley, which they fled in the 1990s.

With more than two months having passed since the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A, Kashmiris are now engaged in a silent civil disobedience campaign that has ground civilian activity to a halt. Despite the unprecedented media attention, more than 7 million people in the area continue to be cut off from telecommunications access and in effect remain isolated as much of the global community has conceded the Indian narrative of this being an internal state affair. As this is a potential powder keg that could blow up at any point, the Kashmiri diaspora continue to hold their breath while struggling to find their voice.

Saqib Sheikh

Saqib Sheikh serves as project director of the Rohingya Project, a grassroots initiative for financial inclusion of stateless Rohingya worldwide, as well as adviser/co-founder for the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, a network of 14 refugee communities based in Malaysia. He received his master's in communication from Purdue University in Indiana. He currently lectures on media and communication at Sunway University in Malaysia.

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