Nearly 400 people gathered in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, on Sept. 22, 2019, to condemn human rights abuses and security crackdowns in India. Credit: Mukhtar M. Ibrahim | Sahan Journal

Nearly 400 people crowded the sidewalks along a major street in the Twin Cities on Sunday afternoon as part of a nationwide day of action protesting the Indian government’s security crackdown in a Muslim-majority territory, and alleged human rights violations under the country’s ruling party.

Majority of the protesters who were from India said their home country is led by a Hindu nationalist government that’s targeting religious minority and ethnic groups such as Muslims, Christians, Adivasis and Dalits, and clamping down on dissent.

Protesters gathered outside Filfillah Mediterranean Grill on Central and 43rd Avenues Northeast. Some of the protesters declined to give their full names, citing concern for the safety of their families back in India; others wore masks to protect their identity. 

Mohammed, who declined to provide his full name, said he came to the protest to raise his voice on behalf of those whose voices have been suppressed.

“I’m not against India. I’m not against Hindus,” he said. “I’m here to stand up against oppression.” 

The Twin Cities protest was held after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared at a massive rally in Houston on Sunday morning along with President Donald Trump. Modi is in the United States this week to meet with the Indian diaspora and to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Modi is a polarizing figure among Indian Americans in Minnesota. Those who attended the protest allege the prime minister is cracking down on opposition figures, becoming increasingly authoritarian and sowing division between Hindus and Muslims. 

In early August, Modi’s ruling party stripped the disputed Kashmir region of its semi-autonomy and placed its political leaders under house arrest, launched a security lockdown and communications blackout. Kashmir is a Himalayan region of more than seven million people, the majority of whom are Muslims, that both India and Pakistan claim as their own.

The rally on Sunday was organized by the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Anti-War Committee and the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. 

“There are people who I know from my childhood in India who have become so negative about Muslims and minorities. People are turning against their neighbors. People are turning against their friends. People are turning against the people who they grew up with,” Mohammed, the protestor, said.

“Right now the status of Indian Muslims is such that people are afraid to even speak up because of the way the government is acting,” he added. “There are people who came to this rally who had faces covered because they are so afraid to be in a rally in a free country like the U.S.A.” 

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Ddhar, who is from Kashmir and also declined to provide his full name, said he has only sporadic communication with his family back home.

“It’s very difficult to get hold of our family,” he said. “People feel like they are being punished just because they are Muslims.”

Dawn Madland, principal at Star of the North Academy in East Bethel, Minn., attended the protest after she heard about it from colleagues.

“It’s important to be present on issues that matter globally that especially have an impact on the people in the community that I live in and that I serve,” she said.

Richa Nagar, a University of Minnesota professor who spoke at the rally, said the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has split the Jammu and Kashmir region into union territories that are run by the central government.

“The ruling party announced this presidential decree without consulting Kashmir’s state legislature while keeping Kashmiri citizens under a communications blackout,” she said. “Prominent Kashmiris, including leading politicians, were placed under house arrest. Some 45,000 extra military personnel were deployed to this region, which is the world’s most heavily militarized region.”

After gathering on Central and 43rd Avenues Northeast, protesters, including children, walked toward 37th Avenue Northeast, and then made their way back to Filfillah Mediterranean Grill. They chanted “Modi needs to go” and carried placards that said “End Kashmir blockade” and “Modi is terrorist.”

When they reached the restaurant, it was drizzling. Protest organizers put the placards in the trunks of their cars and went home.

Imam Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said the Kashmiri community is worried for their families back home.

“There are really clear parallels between the Modi government and the Trump regime, and the rhetoric, the tactics, the types of things they are doing, they are all similar,” Zaman said.

He urged the protesters to contact their elected representatives.

Mukhtar Ibrahim is the founding publisher and CEO of Sahan Journal. He previously worked as a staff writer for the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio News. He has also written for the St. Paul...