Thousands Rally at UN for Kashmir Rights

Article by Kenneth Sousie, Photos by Ricardo Vargas and Sousie

Protesters rallied outside the United Nations as the General Assembly met inside. (Photo by Kenneth Sousie)

As Indian Prime Minister Marenda Modi addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Friday, thousands of Indian-Americans gathered outside to condemn his government’s recent crackdown in the disputed region of Kashmir.

Demonstrators, some holding signs accusing Modi of fascism, shouted chants that called for the end of military occupation of Kashmir and what they saw as acts of Hindu nationalism against Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region. A smaller group of Modi supporters also gathered in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza outside the U.N. headquarters in Manhattan.

Modi, in his remarks to the General Assembly, made no mention of Kashmir, a region in northern India, which has enjoyed semi-autonomous status since 1947. In early August, the Modi government revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which had protected Kashmir’s autonomy. The legal move and the deployment of Indian troops to Kashmir have heightened tensions with Pakistan, which also seeks sovereignty over the region. Kashmir is divided among three countries–Pakistan, China and India, which controls the largest portion.

Participants march toward the United Nations. (Photo by Kenneth Sousie)

One organization leading the U.N. protest was the Coalition Against Fascism in India, which in a news release said Modi’s government had “disenfranchised seven million Kashmiris. It has also rendered nearly two million people stateless and is building detention centers to imprison them.” 

Many of the protesters, including Mohammad Jawad, national general-secretary of the Indian-American Muslim Council, spoke of a rise of the ideology of Hindutva, or extreme Hindu nationalism.

Muslim-Americans joined the Kashmir protest in solidarity. (Photo by Ricardo Vargas)

“The Modi government has been clear in its message that criticizing Hindutva comes with increasing risks, which makes the scale and diversity of the current protests all the more astonishing,” Jawad said. “We are not anti-India, or anti-Hindu, we are only demanding the basic human rights that the Constitution of India guarantees for all its citizens.” 

Sunny Jain, a renowned composer and drummer and head figure of the South-Asian-American jazz movement, performed with his band and addressed the crowd.

“We are protesting Modi’s occupation in Kashmir, his marginalization of minorities in Kashmir, namely Muslims. We’re against the ideology of Hindu nationalism,” Jain said before he was stopped by the shouting from approaching pro-Modi demonstrators.  

Musician Sunny Jain performs at the rally, which was organized by the Coalition Against Fascism in India. (Photo by Ricardo Vargas)

Also participating in the protest were members of the New York chapter of Black Lives Matter, led by Hawk Newsome. “It would be inhumane if we didn’t stand up. We talk about intersectionality and we must all come together and fight fascism in every country,” Newsome said.

Linda Cheriyan, an Indian-American who is director of operations for the New York chapter of BLM, drew comparisons between the treatment of residents of Kashmir and people of color in the United States.

Linda Cheriyan, director of operations for Black Lives Matters of Greater New York (left), joins protesters outside the United Nations. (Photo by Kenneth Sousie)

 Kashmiri people “have had to deal with segregation in schools and public spaces, voter suppression, mass incarceration, separation of families and caging children in concentration camps, and domestic terrorism;” Cheriyan said. “We see parallel human rights issues violated within India — the practices of ethnic cleansing to get rid of non-Hindus, Islamophobia, violating the rights of indigenous people by evicting them from their own homes, and disguised nationalism tops the list of their criminal activities.” 

Pro-Modi protesters hold a counter-rally outside the United Nations. (Photo by Kenneth Sousie)

Pro-Modi groups were met with coverage from Indian television news. Anti-Modi groups were not. Modi has also been praised by President Donald Trump as “the father of India” and traveled to greet him personally in Texas on Sept. 22 in front of 50,000 Indian Americans at the event “Howdie Modi” held at a stadium in Houston.