It was a Monday night like any other at Purdue. An audience was gathered to listen to a panel. But what began as a calm lecture quickly became a heated dialogue including students and faculty that continued for several hours.
Much of the discussion focused on Kashmir — the mountainous northern terminus of the Indian subcontinent — including the roots of the current conflict and the alleged abuse of human rights taking place there.
Called “Shining A Light on Kashmir,” the event was held on Oct. 28 to illuminate the history and current situation in Kashmir, said Lea Cejvan, a junior in the College of Liberal Arts and president of the Purdue Democrats, which co-sponsored the event.
The panel included biochemistry professor Humaira Gowher; professor and director of diversity and global awareness Megha Anwer; history professor and director of the Global Studies Department Tithi Bhattacharya; and anthropology professor Mona Bhan.
It covered Kashmir’s history and how the region has been a flashpoint since the 1947 partition of British India into Pakistan and India.
The historical Kashmir was a region at the crossroads of different cultures, religions and nations, Bhattacharya said. Though often the conflict in Kashmir is portrayed in terms of religious differences, religion in Kashmir was historically syncretic and people didn’t necessarily identify as Hindu or Muslim until the colonial era.
During colonial times, Kashmir — which is about two and a half times the size of Indiana — was an autonomous princely state under the British Empire, Bhattacharya said. With the Partition, princely states could stay independent, join India or join Pakistan, which was founded as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. Kashmir was a Muslim-majority state but had a Hindu monarch, which set up Kashmir to be disputed between India and Pakistan. The ruler of Kashmir decided to join India, prompting revolts and sparking a war between the two nations.
Consequently, Kashmir was divided between regions of Indian and Pakistani control, Gowher said. Kashmir acceded to India under the condition that the Kashmiri peoples’ right to self-determination was ensured. Article 370 in the Indian constitution enshrines this semi-autonomous status of Kashmir. At that time, Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru — who was a Kashmiri Pandit, a Hindu group indigenous to Kashmir — promised to hold a plebiscite to honor the will of the Kashmiri people.
But a plebiscite — which would not have been binding — has never been held to date, and Pakistan and India have fought a few more wars over Kashmir, with the borders remaining roughly unchanged.
Gowher described her experience growing up in 1980s Kashmir as mostly peaceful with people of different religions living in harmony. But she said that the Kashmiri people feel deceived by the government because their dream of self-determination has yet to be fulfilled.
About four months ago, the Indian government revoked Article 370, marking the end of the special semi-autonomous status of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and bringing the three regions within it under centralized Indian government control as two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. This provoked protests and anger in Kashmir.
In response to the protests, the government increased troop presence in the region to nearly one soldier for every 10 people, arrested public figures and politicians and cut off internet access, Bhattacharya said. The United Nations has expressed concern about the human rights situation in Kashmir as a result of the crackdown.
Aisha, who is a student at a college in Virginia and has Kashmiri heritage, was among the panelists. She said she did not feel comfortable giving her last name. She was present in Kashmir during the revocation of Article 370 and said the crackdown left many Kashmiris in the dark.
“(It) meant no Wi-Fi, no cell service, no home phones to contact each other. You couldn’t leave your home,” she said. “People that still live in Kashmir, they still couldn’t contact each other. ... That was so difficult. And you can’t go on the streets and drive to your relatives homes because (the government) doesn’t let you out on the streets, either, so it was just a lot of isolation.”
She said that while she was in Kashmir, she saw a group of parents huddled around a police station.
“They (were) the parents of boys who were taken away in the middle of the night without any justification or answers,” she said. “So they were at the police station to try to find out where their boys are.”
But a group from the audience, including current and former faculty, disagreed with the perspectives brought up at the panel.
Some people stood up and argued with the panelists, alleging bias. Flyers had also been passed out displaying the disputing group’s perspective. Members of the disputing group objected to the inclusion of Gowher on the panel. Kaul Kamlesh, who grew up in Kashmir and stood up to argue with the panelists during the panel, said the event was totally one-sided.
“They had panelists who were only speaking one perspective of Kashmir — the Kashmiri separatists,” he said.
One of the students who helped organize the event said she believed multiple perspectives contributed to the panel.
“We had multiple perspectives and identities present,” said a student organizer from the Global Studies Department, who preferred to remain anonymous because she does not want to become the target of online trolls due to her work in social justice. “The whole purpose of this event is to give power to a narrative that isn’t necessarily able to voice their narrative.”
The event originally featured only Gowher but was expanded to a panel and rescheduled because of a letter urging the student groups not to hold the event. The event was hosted in collaboration by the Purdue Democrats, the Muslim Student Association, the Honors College and the Global Studies Department.
“I passed out the flyers because we knew we wouldn’t have a voice,” said Seema Mattoo, biology professor. “I don’t have a single picture growing up because I had to leave Kashmir in the middle of the night,” she said. She was referring to the exodus of many Pandits from Kashmir, which she said the panel did not address. “This was not democratic, this was pure propaganda.”
Tanuja Sheth, a Purdue alumna and a member of the disputing group, said she also felt the panel was biased.
“The way that this was organized was horrendous,” Sheth said.
Sheth said she contacted local members of the Democratic party to make sure they’re monitoring the Purdue Student Democrats for their involvement in the event.
Panelists raised privacy concerns at the event after members of the disputing group held cameras in front of the panelists, some of whom were worried that Aisha would be harassed if pictures were put online.
“Sometimes you don’t know what the ramifications will be,” said the co-organizer from the Global Studies Department. “(For people) tied to this conflict, sometimes it can be a visa being revoked or it can be family members being targeted.” She also said that some of the panelists had received online harassment because of their participation in the event.
Members of the audience also had their take on the event and the conflict between the panelists and the disputers.
“For me, to bring all those different perspectives, the panelists’ side and some of the audience who were actually the opposite side, it was a great opportunity for me to listen to different narratives,” said Ahmed Elkashif, a third-year doctoral student in the College of Science.
A political science professor who specializes in global politics and was not present at the panel said it may have become so emotionally charged because “there’s no version of this conflict that’s unbiased.” She was not comfortable giving her name because of the polarized nature of the topic.
Aisha said she was not surprised by audience members’ heated response, as she has experienced similar reactions at other events focusing on Kashmir.
Cejvan said she believed the disputers’ goals were to detract from and demean the event.
“I just think that this issue touches people more deeply because it’s both cultural, it’s political, it’s historical,” Cejvan said. “It’s everything weaving together all at once.”