The worst thing I ever did on Twitter was follow Shehla Rashid. From the moment I did so—or at least from the moment she first retweeted me—I have had a front-row seat at the shitshow that is Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist, social media, especially when it’s out for blood. I have been accused of being a Pakistani spy, a Communist, and a terrorist sympathizer. I have been charged with overlooking the plight of Kashmiri Pandits—the region’s Hindu minority, which according to some has faced ethnic cleansing at the hands of its Muslim majority—and of slandering the Indian nation.
Rashid and I are friends on Facebook as well, though the level of abuse there is comparatively muted: her account on that particular platform is private, and has been since the rape threats she received there became too numerous, too credible.
It was amazing to think that the young woman I found myself sitting across from at Srinagar’s Chai Jaai Tea Room, reading a secondhand copy of Nandita Haksar’s The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism when I arrived and quick to order us a round of salty pink noon chai once I had, can inspire such insurmountable hatred. (“People don't hate me,” she told me on Twitter a few weeks before closing her account. “Only Twitter trolls.” “I hate you,” responded a Twitter troll immediately.)
But then Rashid represents a unique threat as far as India’s right wing is concerned: not only is she a proud Kashmiri Muslim, she’s also a socialist and, perhaps worse, an outspoken woman as well. The only thing I found disturbing about her was how quickly she could turn from laughter to righteous indignation.
“On the ground, people feel that we are being targeted for our faith,” she told me at one point during our conversation. (We had spoken for an hour before she said: “Right. We can start the interview now.” I had already been recording it. All her quotes come from the second hour.)
“Forget international relations, the larger geopolitical situation. People here feel that we’re being targeted because we’re Muslims. That’s a very powerful narrative here, and the national government is doing very little to suggest that it’s untrue.”
In south Kashmir, I had been struck by the Islamist rhetoric of the militants’ families. But it remains true that a secular, non-violent separatist movement also exists in this part of the world. It coexists uneasily with its militant counterpart, but remains inevitably bound to it. That tends to happen when movements that differ on means, and even occasionally on ends, share at least an enemy in common. But those differences nonetheless exist.
“There is obviously a question about what exactly it is that we’re fighting for here,” Rashid said. ”Some people talk about an Islamic system, something closer to Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. I don’t think there is much agreement or clarity on that front.”
“For the insurgents, the struggle may not necessarily be one to establish a separate nation,” she said. “Jihad is a fight against injustice. You simply fight against an unjust system, without being bothered about questions like the viability of a new nation-state. But there is certainly a growing consensus in Kashmiri society that we’re being targeted because of our faith, and as a result that we can and should take strength from it.”
She nevertheless finds certain aspects of the militants’ narrative disturbing.
“Many people now feel that they can find liberty in death, or dignity in death,” she said. “People don’t surrender now. They’d rather now die than surrender. In that respect, Kashmir has become a society with a death wish.”
She mentioned Saddam Hussein Paddar’s mother, Feroza Bano, and the gun salute that Bano performed at her son’s funeral a few weeks earlier. That was a seminal moment, she said, even a kind of tipping point.
“That was quite shocking. I had never seen anything like that. This is the kind of celebration of death that is now common in our society. It can only be explained as a lack of faith in government and democracy, and I don’t know how the government, or those of us who believe in a political solution to the conflict, can convince people to come back from that.”
“The government will have to do something really revolutionary to make any political headway now. There was a time when it seemed possible. There was a time when autonomy was a demand that had great currency here, but you won’t hear people talking about it today. The government doesn’t seem very interested in it, either. It is very difficult to see a way forward when this is the case.”
“The army and the security agents don’t seem to want it,” she said. “Among other things, the military-industrial complex here is a huge source of employment. If militant funerals create more militants, that can only be a good thing for them.”
As ever, Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi loomed large in our conversation. “Hate has been normalised under this government,” Rashid told me. “It is totally acceptable now to talk about killing Muslims in mainstream conversation. The number of beef lynchings [mob murders of people accused of selling beef] has increased exponentially every year of Modi’s prime ministership and he is aiding and abetting this.”
“His supporters have tasted blood, in a sense, and they’re not going to back down any time soon. If anything, they want him to be more violent towards Muslims.”
This sort of thing has affected Rashid directly, she said. It is not, it turns out, an easy thing to play a role like hers in a country quite like this.
“I remember the day that Modi became prime minister,” she said. “We went to the Student Union building.” That was at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where Rashid first came to prominence as a student union leader, most notably after the union’s leaders were arrested in 2016 on charges of sedition.
“There was a television set in the room and we were watching the results on it. India is not a perfect country—what country is?—but I had hope and naïve optimism that Modi wouldn’t be victorious. The election had taken place following major protests against corruption, major protests against rape. I believed that the Aam Aadmi Party would win, an alternative to the two main parties, the [Indian National] Congress and [Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP].
“My hope and optimism were shattered that day. It was the first time I had been explicitly aware of my identity as a Muslim. I knew immediately that things would be different for me now.
“It was just so difficult to believe that it had happened,” she said. “We suddenly had to come to terms with the fact that the country had elected a man accused of the massacre of Muslims.”
In 2002, when he was chief minister of Gujarat, Modi oversaw, and was accused of implicitly encouraging, some of the worst religious violence since independence. Over three bloody days, between 790 and 2000 Muslims were killed, as well as roughly 250 Hindus, after a group of Hindu pilgrims died in a fire at Godhra railway station.
“I mean, I’m still an optimist,” she says. “But things have certainly been different since the election. They’ve been worse. I have been called a jidhadi on Twitter by a major newspaper editor. The same newspaper ran a graphic novel that depicted a character, which many commentators said was based on me, being raped and murdered. It is deeply reminiscent of anti-Semitic propaganda leading up to the Holocaust.
“But I’m not going to stop being an activist,” she says. “I don’t know that I could stop if I tried.”
The news never seemed to stop coming in Kashmir. Every day, there was something new on hand to outrage us. On May 21, Indian soldiers attempted to host an Iftar dinner in the village of Dred-Kalipora in Shopian. The locals rejected the olive branch. In the ensuing “scuffle”—an interesting example of journalistic euphemism, given that the soldiers opened fire—a number of girls wound up getting shot.
On May 23, Major Leetul Gogoi tried to enter a hotel with a Kashmiri woman, resulting in a flurry of articles attempting to besmirch the girl’s character. It was the second time in as many years that Gogoi had made headlines. In 2017, he tied a Kashmiri man to the front of his jeep and used the fellow as a human shield during protests in Srinagar. At the time, he was actually awarded for his efforts. In August this year, a court of inquiry found Gogoi guilty of “fraternizing with a woman source against existing orders” and “leaving his unit post in an operational area without permission.” That the girl was initially reported to be underage—something that the army has since “disproved”—seemed to have been all too conveniently forgotten.
We were discussing the Gogoi affair among ourselves when Firdous’s neighbour, Mr. Nazir, made his first appearance on the houseboat. He was smartly dressed in collared shirt and slacks, his beard trimmed neat and close. He held his cigarettes with the remotest possible tips of his fingers.
The plan had been to line up a meeting with Syed Ali Geelani, arguably the most influential member of the Joint Resistance Leadership. But the 89-year-old leader of the separatist Tehreek-e-Hurriyat party was at that time under house arrest, as he has been, on and off, for years. The idea of a random Australian rocking up at his gate and announcing to the Indian guards that he sought an audience struck everyone as the fastest way to get myself kicked out of the country. Firdous and Mr. Nazir had come up instead with the second-fastest way: an interview with human rights activist Khurram Parvez of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.
Firdous had decided that he wanted to come with me. He was keen to meet the man, he said, about whom Mr. Nazir had told him a lot, though I wondered whether that was really the case. Part of me thought, and continues to think, that he was a little worried about me, too — about having a guest, who was by now also a friend, wind up on the government’s radar.
We certainly took a circuitous route to Parvez’s office, ducking down alleyways and darting up questionable looking staircases before entering a sun-dappled room overlooking the Jhelum River, where Parvez sat looking over the final draft of a new report that the JKCCS was about to release. He apologized for not standing to welcome us: with only one leg, it was easier to remain seated.
He lost that leg in 2004, when an IED took out the car in which he was traveling. One of his colleagues, Asiya Jeelani, and their driver, Ghulam Nabi, were killed in the same blast.
“We were deliberately targeted,” Parvez said. “We were monitoring the general elections. There had been claims of fraud, of people being forced to vote a certain way.”
Before Firdous and Mr. Nazir had conspired to get me in the room with Parvez, I had made the mistake of emailing the JKCCS about lining up an interview with him myself.
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Parvez told me. “You know they’re probably following you, yes? That they might have seen you here already?” He was talking about the Indian security services, about their communications dragnet. “Luckily, we haven't spoken on the phone, and I don’t think we ever responded to your email,” he said.
“We know that we’re being surveilled,” he continued. “We try to use our transparency as a weapon. But you know, the Indian government puts Nazi Germany to shame as far as their surveillance capabilities are concerned.”
When Shehla Rashid evoked the Holocaust, I had written it off as hyperbole. I had been reminded of Godwin’s law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” I was reminded, too, of one of that law’s corollaries: whoever mentions Hitler first immediately loses the argument. But Mike Godwin doesn’t live in Modi’s India. Mike Godwin still has both his legs.
“It is a very difficult line of work,” Parvez said of Kashmiri activism. “It’s not just our organization, either. All activists in Kashmir are at risk. Lawyers have been killed, people’s houses have been targeted, unidentified gunmen have shot at people associated with us and other groups. It’s a very militarized environment, you know?” I said it hadn’t escaped my attention.
The report that Parvez had been reading was about Kashmir’s disappeared, he said. More than 8,000 people have gone missing in the region since 1990.
“The real tragedy is that the Indian government has resolved to kill the Kashmiri people slowly,” he said. “They don’t want a Rwanda on their hands. They don’t want any international outcry.”
“As a result, they have invested very heavily in Islamophobia. They have changed the national discussion around Islam so that people don’t pay attention to what’s happening here. They say that this is an Islamic insurgency, that it’s about al-Qaeda and ISIS and groups like that. This makes what they’re doing here acceptable to the people they’re trying to convince. But 8,000 disappeared people? It’s what we might call a slow genocide.”
I was again reminded of Bano and her gun salute and brought it up in the conversation now.
“Look, there’s no doubt that Islam plays a role in what’s happening here,” he said. “The Islamization we’ve seen in recent years is real and is a direct response to the hopelessness many people are feeling.”
“But say you went to Ireland and talked to people there,” he added. “What would their discourse be? Would it be secular, or would it be couched in religious terms? The language you speak is the language you’re brought up with. People here are raised on Islam. Religion is always going to be part of how Kashmiris’ frame the situation, especially given that the Indian government has decided to frame it that way as well.”
“What people here aren’t so good at is finding ways to frame the conflict in a way that is palatable to the international community,” he said. “The international community doesn’t want to hear about gun salutes and martyrs. It is able to justify its negligence in this region, able to justify its staunchly pro-Indian stance, precisely because of this religious framing.”
Parvez said that this is where groups like the JKCSS come in. By framing the conflict in other terms—in the language of International Humanitarian Law and human rights, in drily secular reports about the disappeared—Parvez and others like him are hoping to move the conversation to a place where the international community will not be able to ignore it.
“Of course, other issues will remain,” he said. “India has important trade agreements, especially arms deals, with countries all over the world, which people don’t want to jeopardize. The Indian and Pakistani governments want the conflict to continue because it energizes their bases and helps their electoral chances. But changing the way we talk about Kashmir is at least a start.”
Activism has never been the most pleasant of vocations, the easiest of callings to answer. But it’s also been getting increasingly harder. The internet promised a lot more than it delivered to people trying to fight for their rights. It has in fact become a great boon to governments, and not only Modi’s, that wish to crack down on and curtail those rights.
It occurs to me now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I was more at-risk in Kashmir than I pretended to myself at the time. It also occurs to me that I put others at risk. Rashid and Parvez didn’t have to speak to me. They chose to, knowing full well that their words, the vast majority of them incendiary, would wind up in front of an international audience. I am lucky enough not to live in India. But India—or at least Indian-occupied Kashmir—is and remains their home. I was able to leave at a time of my choosing, and they, quite obviously, cannot. They, they told me, have to keep fighting. On the other hand, of course, I don’t know that they could stop if they tried.
Tomorrow: The Rugby Girls and Restless Resistance