Azadi Movement in Kashmir and Transnational Activism: Interview with Dr. Dustie Spencer

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Dr Dustie Spencer is currently a visiting assistant professor at Pusan National University. Her area of expertise is Global Studies - an interdisciplinary field in which she teaches Feminism and Gender Equality, Social Movements, Humanitarianism. We talked to her about transnational activism for Kashmir, for which she drew on the knowledge she gained through her PhD titled “Azadi Activists Abroad: Transnational Activism in the New Kashmiri Freedom Movement”, which she completed in 2019 at the University of Edinburgh.  

TLS: Could you briefly introduce us to the Kashmir conflict? 

Dr. Spencer: There is always the issue of how complex the situation is. So essentially Kashmir is a “disputed territory” between India and Pakistan (and China). The Kashmiri people have been advocating for freedom from both India as well as Pakistan despite the fact that it’s been administered now by both countries since 1947 when the British left the subcontinent. There was a move for freedom, they wanted self-determination for Kashmir even before partition which has successfully continued throughout today, but the strategies of that have been quite different.  

TLS: To what extent is it a symmetrical conflict, with Pakistan and India being symmetrical powerholders or abusers?  

Dr. Spencer: First of all, in high-level politics, every negotiation has been between India and Pakistan as if Kashmir does not exist or does not have any kind of voice of its own to speak about what their wishes are. This is despite the fact that the UN mandated that they should have the self-determination to initially choose between India and Pakistan. Therefore, there was and has always been a move for independence from either country. Second, in another sense, there is an asymmetry especially on the Indian side between the government and the militants they claim to be fighting. The people of Kashmir perceive themselves to be ‘occupied territory, in that they have very limited resources with which to go up against what many estimates conclude is a 700,000 strong army. There are checkpoints, there are curfews, and these are not just like you have to be home at 10:00 o’clock or something like during COVID – they are 24-hour curfews that last for days and days and days. People just do not have any freedom to go out and get even basic necessities. The people protesting are mostly unarmed, non-violent people who are demanding rights. But they are being met with pellet guns, tear gas, and sometimes live rounds. There have been lots of cases of extrajudicial killings and mass graves have been uncovered – I mean, the list of human rights abuses can go on. But the way that it is framed is as if there is some big terrorist upsurge or militant uprising. The reality is that people, by and large, do not have access to weapons, let alone the same kinds of weapons or financing that India has. That is why it is an absolutely asymmetric conflict. 

TLS: To what extent are Kashmiris a homogeneous entity? 

Dr. Spencer: ‘Kashmiris’ is always with quotations in the air. They are not at all a homogeneous entity. ‘Kashmiri’ as an identity is one of many identities. We all have different identities, whether that is our ethnic, gender, or religious identity, and any one of these identities is in a pool waiting for us to be activated. So, what happens with the ‘Kashmiri’ identity like all other identities, is it can become politicized or it can be used as a rallying point if there are a bunch of cases of say, human rights abuses, that people can rally around. They can use that as a kind of an overarching identity to be in solidarity with one another.  

TLS: For women, the Azadi movement means Azadi from patriarchy, for some people it means self-determination, for others, it means choosing either side. So Azadi has different notions for different people. What does Azadi mean for ‘Kashmiris’? 

Dr. Spencer: I asked this question to a lot of respondents and I remember the very first person said it means he can wear a Che Guevara t-shirt and raise the Kashmir flag and expect that nobody is going to arrest him. For somebody else, Azadi meant that he could go from his workplace to his home without being stopped at some checkpoint. And then like you said, for women, it means freedom from patriarchy, freedom from being molested, freedom to have an education. It can be rather mundane actually, a lot of people when I asked them that question, they were just like, “I just want to be left alone”! Their everyday experiences are just so restricted in every aspect. There are bunkers and troops everywhere, and ‘Kashmiris’ are not living what other parts of India would consider a ‘normal’ life. They are constantly living in oppression. They never take for granted the ability to go out. Women never take for granted their safety. 

TLS: To what extent does this match the view that a lot of people have Azadi being this ‘terrorist’, ‘separatist’ movement? Is that in any way accurate or is that way too simplistic and hostile towards the actual breadth and diversity of the Azadi movement? 

Dr. Spencer: ‘Terrorism’ is almost like the fetishization of the Indian media. They post news articles alongside old pictures that may even be from a long time ago as if to make people think there’s this big upsurge in militant activity. They just reuse this picture and it creates an artificial panic around the Azadi movement when really, what they want is freedom from being abused. They want the freedom to go home when they want to, they want the freedom to go out at night if they want to. I only spent a couple of weeks in Indian Kashmir and it was a harrowing experience. I would be stopped and questioned a couple of times. Everything was really calm in 2013. There’s nothing going on at that time, which is one of the reasons why I went during this time. But even then, I could only get there for a couple of weeks without looking suspicious. I had an interview with somebody and suddenly they were under house arrest. Somebody later told me they would like to open a McDonald’s in Kashmir, but that they can’t do it because there are all kinds of curfews and it wouldn’t be profitable enough. People just want the freedom to live their everyday lives and it has nothing to do at all with terrorism, it is just artificial panic created by India and Indian media. 

TLS: Especially in the last two years, there has been a backlash by European governments and western governments writing to the Indian government or passing resolutions condemning the clampdown on Kashmir. Some of our diaspora partners were involved with advocating for this, but also people otherwise uninvolved with Kashmir appealed to parliaments to speak out for Kashmiri human rights… Who are the people advocating for Kashmiri rights abroad? 

Dr. Spencer: Let me paint a picture of this. When I first became involved in the transnational Kashmir movement in 2013, there was a budding group in Scotland. The group really wanted to raise awareness about the enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings that have happened since the 1990s but had escalated in the 2010 summer of unrest in which around 120 non-violent protesters were killed. The organizers of our vigil were really active on Facebook and social media, and they got people together from a lot of different organizations and even bussed some people in for Glasgow where there is a bit more of a substantial South Asian diaspora than where the Indian Consulate is based. Everyone gathered outside the Indian consulate – despite the fact that it was February 5th, which is when Kashmir Solidarity Day is observed, and it was freezing and raining. I imagine if it had been a sunny bright day, there may have been even more people there. Either way, so many different people showed up and organized a vigil. And there were very few Kashmiris! The Arab Spring had just happened and was vivid in everyone’s minds, and Scotland was just about to have a referendum for Scottish independence so, with that as a precursor, the solidarity movements around different groups in Scotland that were present had people that were not just pro-Kashmir freedom movement, but also pro-Arab and pro-Scottish independence. There were groups like Stop the War Coalition, there were people that were quite anti-imperialism, people raising their voices against Israeli settler-colonialism, Students for Justice in Palestine, Scotland against Criminalising Communities… There were quite a few South Asians who were first-generation, second-generation, or people studying abroad. They had this solidarity around some overarching themes such as self-determination, which naturally brought people who want to support a free Scotland or people who want to support an independent Palestine to also support an independent Kashmir. There were also people who just emphasise human rights abuses and wanted the Indian Government to be more accountable for their actions, like Amnesty. It was a real eye-opener for me. I wasn’t even doing my PhD then – I was still doing a Master’s degree at the time. It was really eye-opening because I saw first-hand how in Scotland there aren’t that many Kashmiri people and yet, there were 100 people standing outside in the freezing cold in solidarity with the Azadi movement. That was quite interesting because people have their own pet causes when they come to advocate and form more allegiances with others and then they go into each other’s campaigns and lift each other up.  

TLS: What I am hearing is that people come with their pet causes – but it is not the case that it is an egoistic thing of everybody elbowing each other and trying to advocate for their issue. Rather, people recognize that everything is interlinked, and therefore come together and show solidarity. Is that correct? 

Dr. Spencer: Yes. For example, people who might be very interested in Palestine and might have been very active in Boycott Israel may have a friend who tells them about the Kashmir vigil. When they go there, they realize that Kashmir has a lot of similarities to the Palestine issue. So, they collaborate, lend strategies to one another, and assist one another in different ways. Sometimes this involves material resources, and other times, it’s just about bringing more people to symbolize that this is an issue to be taken seriously. I have worked with student groups who are actively lobbying with MPs of the Scottish Parliament, and allies are crucial for this in order to reach MPs who are sympathetic to the cause.  

TLS: You have now shown that people rally around both the Kashmiri identity, however heterogeneous it is, as well as human rights. What other themes bring people together?  

Dr. Spencer: In one of my PhD thesis chapters, I talk about how Kashmiris bond quite a lot with other subaltern groups that also feel themselves as being a subjugated minority. They attract student movements, they attract Muslims from South East Asia, they also attract people who are second-generation Indian but are Christian and experienced some kind of racism in mainland India. There’s a collaborative effort and solidarity that grows an identity based on shared experiences. Empathy also makes it a more sustainable collective mobilization effort. 

TLS:  Such empathy may be why despite all their different visions for Indian occupied Kashmir and Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, organizations and different actors do not fall apart or clash internally. Have you observed any conflicts over such issues which were then resolved through reminders to this collective experience of pressure? 

Dr. Spencer: In the very first event that I ever went to, they were showing the BBC documentary on Kashmir’s torture trials, which followed a human rights lawyer in Indian Kashmir. They were interviewing different people who had experienced torture and abuse – that really pulled at a lot of people’s heartstrings. There were people there from India, from Pakistan, people related to the Palestine movement – it again had kind of a similar make-up in that it was quite diverse. At the end, they had a discussion and I remember they pulled out some maps of the region and started to look at the divisions. There were a lot of audible groans, and then they quickly put those maps away and said, “OK, let’s not talk about territory”. I haven’t seen any of them pull out maps since that time, other than to show where Jammu and Kashmir is. But they didn’t try to have conflict resolution experts recommend where to draw lines – they all agreed that human rights abuses are bad, and left it at that. So, this was a really good rallying point for everybody to come together, so even the people who thought Kashmir should be a part of Pakistan didn’t necessarily contest it. They overcame those divisions by just rallying around human rights abuses. 

TLS: It is this wonderful that there’s this collective awareness that we all need to work together and the minimum denominator is not being met. If we do not have our human rights respected, there is no way that we can get those basic freedoms of being able to represent our own opinions in a democratic way. Before we can come together and discuss issues – like how to realize Kashmiri Azadi – properly, human rights need to be met everywhere. That is a good realization. 

Dr. Spencer: Yes, one reason why Azadi is such a big component of that is that however you re-draw boundaries, the idea is that they are never going to have any kind of freedom if they are being occupied by India. A major reason why the self-determination movement has been sustainable even among people who do not necessarily agree on how to re-draw those boundaries is that first and foremost, the oppression needs to stop. 

TLS: That shows that the recent move two years ago to get rid of Kashmir’s special constitutional status, is a blow to the stomach of the Azadi movement its allies, and that big coalition that you described.  

Dr. Spencer:  Absolutely. COVID has had a huge impact because after the abrogation, for several months there was no internet in Kashmir, people couldn’t contact their families, people were really scared that’s kind of where I left off. The whole period, it was just dark, you didn’t know what was going on, the outside world couldn’t tell exactly what was going on, and then as soon as they lifted that ban, COVID happened which led to more curfews. People in Kashmir have been living in curfew for the better part of two years now. They haven’t experienced even what little freedoms they had before the abrogation. 

TLS: There has been an increased realization that international advocacy or advocacy from abroad on women’s rights issues sometimes has a very paternalizing ring to it. This can be done by Western actors, as it has been in Afghanistan with the rather colonial call to save Afghani women, as well as by settler-colonial actors such as the Indian State in Kashmir. At the EU-India People’s Summit in May 2021, we had an event by the South Asia Solidarity Group on this topic, and particularly on how the Indian media invokes women’s rights in an Islamophobic way. You already highlighted the Indian media – after the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A, the media even wrote that finally, everybody can marry Kashmiri women! What has your experience been with Kashmir and a women’s rights lens? 

Dr. Spencer: At the very core, there would be no transnational activist movement for Kashmir if women were not part of it.  It wouldn’t exist because women started it, women have organized it, women have carried it on. The organization APDP wouldn’t exist without women!  Women have been instrumental in writing reports on human rights abuses – take, for instance, the book ‘Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?’ in which women open up about their experiences. 

Within the movement that I have worked with, they collaborate a lot with the feminist society and academic groups on raising awareness surrounding the sexual abuses that happened and continue to happen in Kashmir by Indian security forces. Women also speak out against some of the more patriarchal norms within Kashmir. If you look at theoretical framing there’s almost an overlap between self-determination for Kashmiris and self-determination for women. It is Kashmiri women themselves saying, “We want more freedom”. I think that that is the key when you are talking about Afghan women – do not impose what they want. Ask them what they want, let them speak, and give them the opportunity to speak for themselves. Western society didn’t dream up women’s rights. Every woman has rights, to not have rights to me is an abnormal thing. To avoid being patronizing about it, just give them a voice. Saying we need to save them is patronizing, but equally bad is saying no, they don’t want freedom. 

TLS: You said that in Scotland, many people turned up in solidarity. Do things like these have any impact on movements in India, or any kind of coordination with civil society in Kashmir (for example, APDP and JKCCS)? 

Dr. Spencer: It is so much easier to organize in the UK than it is organized in Kashmir, where they have these laws against people assembling in public. If so, many people assemble in public, the police and paramilitary will disperse the protest. I think APDP might actually be one of the only exceptions to that because they are maybe not seen as very threatening, because it is more of like a vigil for people who are trying to push for very specific things, like the recognition of mass graves. In the UK, there were people who were advocating for APDP, like getting people to collecting funds, but also highlighting why APDP exists – because of draconian legislation like the Public Safety Act, which is primarily responsible for the fact that people can be picked up and forcibly get disappeared.  

When I went to Indian Kashmir, I had the opportunity to talk to a couple of students who had been picked up by police and tortured. They told me they were fortunate they were not disappeared. They just pick up anyone, send them to jail, their parents don’t hear from them for a long time, then they try to extort money. It then becomes almost like a business. What seems like the root of a lot of the issues of disappearances and extrajudicial killings is that security forces are acting without impunity, there’s no penalization for them. Through these stories, we can better advocate abroad and disseminate what local groups are closely documenting. 

There has been some coordination from abroad on trying to help with legal advocacy. For the most part, though, it has been raising awareness about these kinds of actions so that they can lobby and get people together to lobby their governments, to write to UN Human Rights Commission, to get this on the floor to be debated.   

TLS: This reiterates just how detrimental the internet shutdowns are. India is a world champion in imposing internet shutdowns and by far most of those are indeed internet shutdowns in Kashmir, for the alleged reason of stopping ‘terrorists’ from communicating with each other. Whereas, as you are showing, the shutdowns mean that not only are Kashmiris not able to communicate with their relatives, but it also stops the ability of local human rights advocates or just average citizens from communicating their life stories abroad to raise awareness.  

Dr. Spencer: Yes absolutely. To conclude, I think any progress was really pushed back because of the abrogation of the articles, because of the shutdown of the Internet, and then because of COVID. It set back a lot of social movements. Idealistic people like me may think that we can get together as a global community and work together to solve the challenge – but this is just not happening. For example, here in Korea, everybody has to be under a two-week quarantine, even if you’ve gotten a vaccine abroad. It doesn’t count unless it is a Korean vaccine, even though we’re using the same vaccines here as abroad. There is a rise in xenophobia, even in Korea, which I am telling you from my own experience. People might send you away if you’re a foreigner. Rather than coming together as a global community, we have drifted apart. Fake news and hate speech have gotten even worse.  

But the positive about it is that Kashmiri activists have made a lot of progress raising awareness about Kashmir. Now when I say that I work on Kashmir, people don’t ask what that is – this is actually quite a big win. Raising awareness about Kashmir has always been the first step in moving towards strategic ways for building an activist community that can maybe lobby. They can have some funding and resources for trying to put pressure on India to do something different. They now have the option to pick up that with that momentum and build those resources. I’m not a positive person without reason – for instance, Pakistan has been quite stable lately. When I first became interested in the Kashmir conflict in 2008, they said Pakistan is a failing state. Everybody thought that it would fail. And now, it is actually doing well, it is being more progressive, and they are even more willing to talk about Kashmir freedom independent from Pakistan. This opens up more political space for Kashmiris to speak about what’s going on and also for the transnational activist community. 

TLS: So, your conclusion is that broad coalition-building is needed especially in times of division through ethnic discrimination and COVID?  

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I think that is beautiful how you’ve summed that up. 

TLS: Thank you for talking to us about your research, and telling us about your experiences in Kashmir.