Under a somber gray sky, red signs and electrifying chants shook the air in front of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on Sunday afternoon. More than a hundred people wearing red shirts reading “Free Kashmir” stood in the rain.
“Azaadi, freedom,” they chanted in Urdu.
“Gates Foundation, hear our plea, no award to BJP,” they called out, referring to India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political party, Bharatiya Janata Party.
The gathering organized by Stand with Kashmir – Seattle protested an award by the Gates Foundation to Modi for his public health work. Protesters say that the Gates Foundation award ignores Modi’s policies in Kashmir, where the government has enforced a communication lockdown and further militarization in the already politically unstable region. Schools have been shuttered, roads blocked. Internet and phone lines are at a standstill. As protests and violence have broken out, even seeking medical treatment has become risky.
Many of the protesters have family in the mountainous South Asian region. Some have not heard from their parents and grandparents since the lockdown began in August. Others, including members from Sikh and Hindu communities, joined Muslims and Kashmiris in solidarity to protest Modi’s treatment of minorities and his crackdown on free speech.
In an email statement to The Seattle Globalist, the Gates Foundation confirmed that they will be presenting Modi with a Goalkeepers Global Goal Award for the Swacch Bharat Mission, an initiative to increase sanitation throughout India. The award is “for the progress India is making in improving sanitation, as part of its drive toward achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Sanitation is a key factor in improving the health and well-being of millions of people, especially women and children,” read the statement.
(The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided major funding to The Seattle Globalist.)
India has long struggled with public health and sanitation. Many people living in rural areas prefer open defecation. Modi ran for election on the promise of creating a more sanitary public health space. The Gates Foundation’s statement says their decision to award Modi is about the importance of recognizing sanitation work in India.
But around the US, citizen groups, such as local Stand with Kashmir Seattle, feel the award overlooks the human rights violations, marginalization of minority populations, and authoritarianism that his ruling party, the Bhartiya Janata Party, has incited.
Advocacy groups, and an op-ed by Arjun Sethi in the Washington Post, say that if the foundation truly wants to honor sanitation work in India, the Gates Foundation should recognize the efforts of local NGOs and citizen groups.
“If you want to give an award for a project, give it to the NGOs, the people on the ground who are actually working on it, not some government official who is miles away,” said Council for Islamic and American Relations – Washington’s Executive Director Masih Fouladi.
CAIR-WA is working with other organizations across the country to mobilize against awarding Modi and to bring awareness to the current situation in Kashmir. Modi’s government has put policies in place supporting a Hindu nationalist agenda, and has curtailed the rights of minorities and free speech in the world’s largest democracy.
A short history of Kashmir
The Kashmir conflict has a long history and dates back more than 70 years. Prior to the partition of India and Pakistan, the snowcapped, mountainous region was a princely state, which meant it was not controlled by the British in the same way as the rest of the subcontinent. When India and Pakistan split with the withdrawal of the British in 1947, Kashmir’s ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh chose to cede the state to India.
When the constitution of India was written, Indian-controlled Kashmir was given special status as an autonomous region through Article 370, which allows Kashmir to set its own laws pertaining to citizenship, rights and property ownership. For instance, Indian citizens cannot purchase land in Kashmir.
Other parts of the region have been divided between China and Pakistan, each administering a certain amount of control. In the early 1990s, a separatist movement sparked violence, leading to an exodus of Hindus, who were in the minority in Kashmir. While many of the Kashmiri Hindus want to return, many don’t feel safe going back, and their cause has been used in India to gain support for ending Article 370.
All of the provisions of Article 370 have been revoked since Aug. 5. Modi’s government also imposed a communication blockade, and the deployment of more troops to an already heavily militarized region. The Indian government argues that without Article 370 there will be more opportunities for development and economic prosperity in the region.
This has been especially hard for the local Kashmiri community. Maryam and Moumin Gani are University of Washington students and are both Kashmiri Americans. Most of their relatives are still in Kashmir, except for their uncle’s family. Recently, the sibling’s parents traveled to Kashmir to check in on family.
Moumin Gani remembers childhood trips to Kashmir where he’d notice Indian soldiers everywhere. Driving through the street, he recalls checkpoints and barbed wire borders.
“It didn’t really register with me until later [that] soldiers on the street with guns, that is not normal,” he said.
“We were desensitized to it,” said Maryam Gani.
Both siblings strongly identify with their Kashmiri culture and identity. When they heard about Kashmir’s special state status being revoked “it was like a part of me was missing,” said Maryam Gani.
For Moumin Gani “it’s like my identity was erased.” He says that it’s one thing to hear about similar conflicts in other communities — he points to Palestine and the Cham community. But this conflict feels entirely different to him.
Mounting international pressure
Fouladi of CAIR-WA says there needs to be transparency around what is happening in Kashmir, and that with increased media attention from US media outlets, there is a way to mobilize. However, because information from Kashmir has been tightly limited and journalists no longer have access, it has become difficult to understand what is currently happening in the region.
Fouladi sees stark parallels between the exclusionary rhetoric propelling the Modi administration’s actions in Kashmir – and most recently an effort to build detention camps in the northeastern state of Assam — and civil rights issues in the United States under the Trump administration. In fact, Trump and Modi shared the stage at an event in Texas this past weekend.
Maryam Gani says there are efforts nationwide for “teach-ins” about the conflict in Kashmir. She and Moumin say many people don’t even know where Kashmir is located on a map. With organized action, social media posts and protests, Fouladi says CAIR-WA and partnering groups can mount pressure on US senators and congresspeople to make statements on behalf of their constituents. Already two Congressional representatives from Washington state — Adam Smith and Pramila Jayapal — have made statements about the communication lockdown in Kashmir.
“There is a lot more that needs to be done for constituents right here in Washington and I would hope again that our elected officials, our foundations, other NGOs will start to bring attention to this,” Fouladi said.