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Minnesota residents who hail from the Indian-administered territory of Kashmir are worried about the safety of their families back home after the Indian government revoked the Muslim-majority region’s decades-old special status guaranteed under India’s constitution.
Kashmir, a Himalayan region of more than seven million people that both India and Pakistan claim as their own, had been under a security lockdown and communications blackout amid soaring tensions since the Indian government revoked the region’s autonomy on Aug. 5.
A day later, Arshid Ahmed, 35, a medical professional in the Twin Cities who is from Kashmir, was supposed to leave for his annual visit to see his parents back home. He canceled his tickets at the last minute.
Kashmiri citizens such as Ahmed have not been able to hear from their families and friends. They are anxious and frequently check for updates on social media and news outlets which remain their sources of information.
“I hope they are fine,” said Ahmed who lives in Minneapolis with his wife and their five-months-old son. “They would hope that I am okay. What else can you do amidst information blackout?”
In the backdrop of severe restrictions, more than 100 people have been injured in clashes with the paramilitary forces.
For Kashmiris living away from home, this means a long period of uncertainty. They are worried for their loved ones.
Many Kashmiri citizens living in Minnesota declined to be interviewed by Sahan Journal. They were concerned that talking to media may put their families in Kashmir at risk or it could jeopardize their visa status. Those who talked to Sahan Journal were not willing to share specific details about their lives, where they work or how long they have been in Minnesota.
Iftikhar Kullo, a cardiologist from Kashmir living in Rochester, Minn., said the repeal of Kashmir’s autonomy without taking into account the will of its people damages the secular and democratic ideals on which India was created.
“Kashmir is one of the most beautiful places on earth but its people have suffered greatly over the last several decades,” he said in an email. “The shutting down of phone lines and internet has led to a humanitarian crisis with businesses closed and people unable to communicate or access healthcare.
“Many of the Kashmiri diaspora in the U.S. have not been able to communicate with their family members for the last several weeks.”
Sameer Dagga, a 35-year-old information technology professional in Minneapolis, is trying to galvanize support against the removal of Kashmir’s autonomy.
Dagga sent an email to the community leaders in Minnesota urging them to raise the issue with government representatives.
“This is barbaric,” he said. “Like anyone else, people in Kashmir also need basic amenities such as food and access to health.”
Aug. 4 was the last day Dagga spoke with his family members in Kashmir.
“This move will throw the region in further turmoil,” he said.
On Thursday, a State Department spokesman at the American Embassy in New Delhi said the U.S. government was “very concerned about reports of detention and the continued restrictions on the residents of the region.”
The source of the controversy is Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which allowed Jammu and Kashmir state autonomy to form its own laws except in the domains of finance, defense, foreign affairs and communications.
The state also had its own constitution, flag and barred outsiders from buying property.
With Article 370 removed, the federal government can exert direct control over Jammu and Kashmir.
Anticipating backlash and protests over the abolition of Article 370, the government imposed a communication blackout, instituted curfew, detained thousands of people, put political leaders of the state under house arrest, and deployed additional troops in the region.
Earlier this week, Minnesota DFL U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar criticized the clampdown in Kashmir.
“We should be calling for an immediate restoration of communication; respect for human rights, democratic norms, and religious freedom; and de-escalation in Kashmir. International organizations should be allowed to fully document what is happening on the ground,” Ilhan tweeted.
The Indian American Muslim Council, the largest advocacy organization of Indian Muslims in the United States, has also criticized the move.
“The Bhartiya Janata Party or BJP [the ruling party in India] has openly espoused the creation of a Hindu India where non-Hindus, including Muslims and Christians, would be second-class citizens,” Ahsan Khan, president of the council, told Sahan Journal. “The decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir strongly suggests that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration is bent on delivering this Hindu supremacist agenda.”
While people from Kashmir are angry over the removal of the special status, they are not surprised as removal of Article 370 was mentioned in the election manifesto of the current government.
“Anyone who closely follows the news and politics of Jammu and Kashmir region could see it coming,” Ahmed said.
The ruling party has never accepted the idea of special status for the state of Jammu and Kashmir and its vision of India as a strong, united nation functioning under a common set of laws is at odds with the provisions of Article 370, said Arijit Mazumdar, associate professor at the University of St. Thomas’s Department of Political Science.
“Fulfilling a controversial election pledge is also seen as helping the BJP in both the short-term and long-term as a party that delivers on its electoral promises and also prove its nationalistic credentials to voters,” Mazumdar said.
Mudassir Mehraj, a scientist from Kashmir who worked for the University of Minnesota and recently moved to another state, is one of the lucky ones who could speak with his family in Kashmir.
Mehraj’s brother reached a local police station in Kashmir and called one of Mehraj’s friends in New Delhi, who, in turn, called Mehraj and shared the landline number.
“The conversation was very short and selective,” Mehraj said. “All I could hear was that my parents were fine. I also enquired about my grandmother who has some old age health issues. Luckily she is doing fine.”