Junaid’s father approached his school in Kashmir, which doubled as a site for the Indian army. As a teacher, he regularly entered the academic part of the building through a separate gate.
These occupied spaces are nothing new for the people of Kashmir.
In 1947, the region became a contested one as the colonies of the Indian subcontinent broke free from British control. As princely states split off to create a border between Pakistan, China and India, Kashmir — a Muslim majority state — did not make a decision to join any of the three countries.
For over 60 years, Kashmir has been partially administered by those neighboring countries with the promise of one day having a vote to choose its fate. In the meantime, Article 370 of the Indian constitution guaranteed semi-autonomous rights for the valley.
In the meantime, the live border of the region has resulted in conflict — including several wars — between its powerful western and southern neighbors.
A constant military presence in Indian-administered Kashmir and the increasingly Hindu-nationalist rhetoric of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India have left the citizens of the Muslim-majority state on edge.
One day in 1995, Junaid’s father was asked to enter the school building through the gate used by the military. He didn’t dare disobey.
Junaid, who requested his real name not be used for the safety of his family and himself, would later find out why his father did not return home from school that day.
The situation of fear and obedience of a 900,000-troop Indian occupation in a region roughly twice the size of Ohio hasn’t subsided. If anything, the flashpoint conflict has become more volatile.
On Aug. 5, 2019, Article 370 was revoked with a presidential order by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a resolution passed by the BJP-majority Indian Parliament — and with it, all the rights of the Kashmiri people to make political decisions for themselves.
Before the decision, which was made without the consent or knowledge of the Kashmiri people, Indian security forces enacted a curfew and communications lockdown in the region. Kashmiri political leaders were put under house arrest, and the citizens of Kashmir were cut off from the world.
Junaid, now a student at Aligarh Muslim University, has no idea if his family is dead or in jail.
Even as some phone lines are restored to the valley after 70 days of a communication blackout, operational landline phones are mostly in government offices and few Kashmiri own mobile phones, Junaid said. Internet is still not up and running in the valley.
“There is no access to news. People do not know what’s happening in the world,” he said, frustrated.
Meanwhile, the world is struggling to know what’s happening in Kashmir. International journalists were barred from the region, and the Indian state has denied allegations of human rights violations on multiple accounts despite reports from the United Nations, the BBC, Al Jazeera and other news organizations.
While Kashmir is nearly 7,100 miles from BGSU’s campus, the violence in the valley hits close to home for some.
John, a former BGSU international student and Junaid’s friend, worries about those he knows in Kashmir.
“The realities in Kashmir is like you cannot even capture it. It’s death, torture, rape, people vanishing, people behind bars,” John, who asked that his name not be used because he fears for his family’s safety back in India, said.
Human Rights Watch, a group of experts that investigates global instances of abuse, reported India has denied Kashmir the right to peaceful assembly and mobility through the enforcement of a curfew, access to religious spaces through the closing of mosques, communication resources through the blackout and other acts of violence. A 43-page United Nations report from July 2019 condemned the 1,081 civilian casualties from illegally authorized killings by Indian security forces between 2008 and 2018.
The United Nations has been active in calling attention to the human rights violations in the valley. It also recognizes the deaths and injuries of non-Kashmiri laborers as armed activists aim to prevent the movement of Indian citizens into the region.
We are extremely concerned that the population of Indian-Administered #Kashmir continues to be deprived of a wide range of #HumanRights and we urge the Indian authorities to unlock the situation and fully restore the rights that are currently being denied: https://t.co/e2rdapIosY pic.twitter.com/wU6N7b6grh— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) October 29, 2019
Atul Sanjay, a BGSU graduate student studying applied statistics, is a Hindu from Sikkim in northeast India. He’s observed the conflict in Kashmir with a critical eye for the Indian state.
“Armed conflict has no solution, Indian government should restore talk and peace process,” he wrote in an email. “But no one is concerned about 6.3 million Kashmiri people who have been pushed into darkness.”
These circumstances are why John fears for Junaid and his family.
In a phone conversation between the two friends, Junaid shared the story of what happened to his father for the first time in the pair’s eight-year friendship.
After entering the military gate of the school, his father was taken captive without any word of charges. He was hung upside-down for 48 hours.
“He was beaten to an extent that the army officer declared him dead,” Junaid said, his words measured and voice cracking at the pauses in his story.
When his father had finally gotten to the hospital, the doctor warned him to not let his healing be too obvious or the security forces would return for him — and make sure he did not live through the next rounds of beatings.
Four months later, shortly after returning home from the hospital, the officers came looking for him. They burst into the entrance of Junaid’s home, pushing him and his family back into the place that should have been a refuge for them.
The officers barked out, demanding his father come forward. Junaid’s aunt stepped in their path, clinging to her brother-in-law, but the officers beat her to the ground before dragging the barely recovered man out to their truck.
“When this all happened, I was a child,” Junaid said, just 9 years old at that time.
And this was not the last time his father was taken away, tortured and returned home. Over the course of more than a year, Junaid’s father faced beatings and solitary confinement for months at a time.
Now his father lives with insomnia, depression, chronic pain and irreversible fear that no doctors can remedy. Court papers show he was innocent and records of his arrests were wiped away, Junaid said.
“This is not my story alone; this is the story of everyone in Kashmir,” he said.
He said for years, all over Kashmir, groups of nearly 50 armed men barged into homes, breaking doors and windows and stealing food from kitchens. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act has enabled the Indian military to conduct these raids and arrests, and should someone try to take legal action against them, “you are sure to cost your life,” Junaid said.
John trembled as Junaid shared the story of his father. A long pause filled the room and when John finally did speak, it was in a small voice.
I didn’t know, he said.
Junaid explained he could not tell his friend about his father’s pain because of how John might react. “We don’t want to lose friends here,” he said.
The two men know what it is like to lose a loved one over the conflict in Kashmir. Just a year ago, their friend Manan Wani, a PhD geology student, dropped out of AMU to fight against Indian forces in Kashmir.
“True, that we are martyred, but occupations are born to kill, the option is to die as a fighter or as a duck. We chose to be fighters,” Wani wrote in a letter explaining his decision to put down the pen and pick up the gun.
Nine months later, he was dead.
“The sad part of when all of this happened … I couldn’t even say anything on the phone,” John said. “I wanted so much to just call, talk to other friends.”
A friend called John and asked if he thought Wani did the right thing. “Of course, I agree with him. He’s fighting for his freedom; he’s fighting for what we already have, and every human being deserves that,” John said, taking a deep breath.
“If I said yes, then I was scared that if anybody would listen to my call then my family would get into danger, and if I said no, it would break that person’s heart.”
John and Junaid were both shocked when Wani chose to fight in Kashmir, because they saw him as a scholar and did not want to lose a friend. And they fear similar fates lie ahead for young Kashmiris as India puts more military pressure on the region.
The fear of the Kashmiri people, and the reason many are opting to fight back, is that the revocation of the region’s partial autonomy will lead to demographic change in the valley, Junaid said.
Now, Indian citizens are allowed to move into the Kashmir valley, and Muslim Kashmiris fear either an exile or an ethnic cleansing of their people, Junaid said.
The Indian state is not allowing the freedom to cause change through the political process, freedom of the press and freedom of expression, Junaid said. “It leads to suffocation, and this suffocation leads to lack of avenues for people to speak up and they are forced to pick up gun.”
While Kashmiris separatists like Wani see themselves as freedom fighters, others see the act of picking up the gun against the Indian state as something more sinister.
“When the Indian state talks about armed rebels in Kashmir, it calls them terrorists,” Junaid said.
John also noted this distinction, calling it a difference in narrative, and Sanjay pondered the same question of if the militants fighting the Indian security forces in Kashmir are terrorists or revolutionaries.
“The answer might be in shades of grey, someone’s rebel is another person’s war hero,” he wrote.
Regardless of their label, the Kashmiris are outnumbered by the Indian forces and will continue to be tortured, killed, illegally detained and restricted until the world steps in, Junaid said, just as his father was.
“Should the world blame us then if they are not morally committing themselves to resolving this Kashmir dispute?” he said.
“They must make sure that they are able to tell India that this is not right that you are trampling over the rights of the people of Kashmir, this is not right that you are forcing them to become suicide bombers, this is not right that the record of human rights is going worse day by day, this is not right that the political aspiration of the people of Kashmir is not given its necessary attention. So if they will speak up, we believe that things will change.”