SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Yasmeen Khan had gone to Kashmir last month to celebrate her niece’s wedding.
“It was a joyous occasion,” Khan told India-West here Aug. 17 afternoon, outside San Francisco’s Ferry Building, where more than 1,000 Indian Americans and others were protesting the Indian government’s abrupt revocation of Article 370 Aug. 3, which guarantees special autonomous status for Kashmir.
After the wedding, Khan and her family stayed back in Srinagar for an extended holiday with sightseeing in one of South Asia’s most picturesque reasons.
But on Aug. 3 evening, the Khan family’s happy vacation turned into a nightmare. “We knew that something was about to happen,” she said, noting that helicopters had been buzzing overhead all day long, as Indian military forces began thronging the city.
That night, the revocation of Article 370 was announced, along with an indefinite curfew which left people unequivocally barred from leaving their homes. All modes of communication were cut off, including land lines, mobile phones, and the internet. Access to cash was impossible as ATMs had also been shut down.
“There was an immediate panic. People started hoarding food and gas. We had staples, but not much else,” Khan told India-West on the sidelines of the large protest, which joined similar protests across the world, during a week of solidarity organized by the ad-hoc movement “Stand With Kashmir.”
The strictly-enforced curfew and significant military presence all over the streets of Srinagar meant that Khan’s brother was unable to leave the house to deliver a critically-needed medication to a relative, she said.
Because they held American passports, Khan — who has lived in the U.S. for 44 years — and her family were allowed to leave Srinagar and return home. But on the way to the airport, the family was stopped three times and body-searched, she said.
“The only reason we were allowed to leave was that we had American passports,” said Yasmeen Khan, speaking to the crowd. “Most Kashmiris don’t have that luxury.”
After returning to the San Francisco Bay Area, the Khans had been unable to reach family members in Srinagar for at least 12 days. News reports Aug. 16 indicated that communications were being restored, but Khan said Aug. 17 she still had not made contact with her family. Yasmeen Khan said she longs to return to her family home in Srinagar, “but only when Kashmir is free.”
Cancer researcher Sulaiman — India-West is honoring his request to use only his first name — was in a similar predicament: for 12 days, he was unable to reach his 75-year-old father, who is currently at home alone in Srinagar.
Sulaiman said he was able to reach him for about nine minutes one day before communications were cut off again. “My dad told me it is just insanity there. People are freaking out. They have been ghettoized in their own neighborhoods,” he said, adding: “India has snatched everything from them.”
“We just want our UN-sanctioned right to self-determination,” said the young scientist, who left Srinagar at the age of 18. “We deserve our dignity,” he said.
Under blue skies on an uncharacteristically warm San Francisco day, Kashmiri Americans, joined by leaders of several supporting organizations, called for the Indian government to return Kashmir’s autonomous status, restore communications, and demilitarize one of the most heavily-armed regions of the world.
“From the ocean to the sea, Modi must set Kashmir free,” chanted the demonstrators, alternating with “hey hey, ho ho, military forces have to go.”
The San Francisco demonstration came a day after the UN Security Council met in a closed-door session to discuss the Kashmir conflict; the body was unable to issue a resolution in which all five member countries agreed. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan phoned President Donald Trump Aug. 16 ahead of the UNSC to excoriate what he termed an undemocratic move.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also phoned Trump Aug. 19 to complain about “anti-India” rhetoric. The Ministry of External Affairs characterized the Modi-Trump conversation as cordial.
Ambassador Sanjay Panda, India’s consul general for the West Coast, told India-West: “A major misinformation campaign has been launched. This has been made to look like an India/Pakistan issue, when in fact there is no international implication.”
Panda noted that India has reorganized its states 12 times — most recently as Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh. Asked if communications blackouts, curfews, and increased military presence occurred during previous re-organizations, Panda said no, but added that such measures were undertaken in Jammu and Kashmir because of “credible cross border threats and concerns of cross border terrorism.”
“India’s growth story has been a talking point throughout the world, but economic and job growth have not touched Kashmir, despite $40 billion in investments by the Indian government,” said Panda.
At the demonstration, speaker Amina Zohra Abaid laid out the goals of the Stand With Kashmir movement. Abaid said the group wants to see an immediate de-escalation of Kashmir, withdrawing all military personnel.
The group also seeks the end of the communication blackout — which many analysts have predicted may last until October. “We have to end the human rights violations which have been going on in Kashmir for the past 12 days,” said Abaid.
Most importantly, the group is demanding a UN-sanctioned plebiscite, which would allow the region to determine its own fate.
Indian American comedian Hasan Minhaj’s parents, Seema Usmani and Najme Minhaj, attended the demonstration. Usmani told India-West on the sidelines of the demonstration that she was proud of her son for speaking out about the issue.
On his show “Patriot Act,” Minhaj said he had been considering India’s Independence Day. “Kashmir has been a political pawn, used between India and Pakistan,” said Minhaj, stating his solidarity for the people of Kashmir. The comedian’s family is from Aligarh.
Speaker Anokh Singh, of the Bhagat Singh Initiative, told the crowd: “We as Sikhs support your efforts. We know first-hand the tyranny of the Indian government.”
Speaker Bhajan Singh, representing the Khalistan Information Center, noted that thousands of Indian Americans have been cut off for several days from their relatives in Kashmir.
Singh excoriated “Indian political operatives” for “silencing the voice of Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-New York, who stated his concern about the revocation of Article 370 in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In the letter, Suozzi wrote that India's action on Kashmir "could also embolden extremists and terrorists to act" and that it risked "provoking mass social unrest.”
Suozzi withdrew the letter Aug. 12 and apologized to the Indian American community.
“Modi’s tentacles of tyranny have stretched around the world. They have bullied an American congressman who raised his voice for the voiceless,” stated Singh.
Pink smoke billowed out as the demonstration ended with cries of “azaadi” - freedom.
On the sidelines of the demonstration, Zara — who spoke to India-West under an assumed name fearing for her family who lives in Srinagar — told this publication that she had returned from Kashmir just a week before Article 370 was revoked. Her mother, mother-in-law, sister, brother and several family members all live in Srinagar.
“There were rumors flying around that something was going down. My sister told me as I was leaving: ‘whatever happens, I love you and your family.’”
“I asked her ‘why so dramatic?’ We’ve gone through many things before. She said, ‘this time, it’s going to be different, Zara.’”
“I was in a state of shock as I heard the news. How is this democratic? How do you cut off an entire state and say it’s for your own good?”
While her family had enough staples to eat, Zara’s mother-in-law had an insufficient supply of her blood pressure medicine. A neighbor close by who knows the family well shared her limited supply.
Those lucky enough to get curfew passes have gone to Delhi to bring critical supplies such as infant formula, said Zara, noting that people are sharing and trading whatever they can. “We have had to be self-sufficient people so many times before,” she told India-West.
Zara was briefly able to reach her sister Aug. 18, but on Aug. 19, phone lines had been cut again. Schools have re-opened, according to her sister, but no one, including teachers, is attending because of perceived danger.
Zara said she wants the region to be demilitarized by both India and Pakistan. Long-term, she wants a plebiscite.
“If we lose, even by one point, we lose and we have to live with it. But that is democracy,” she said.