Tag Archives: Muslim

After 370: Glimmers of Hope

Amrita Kar who was only four years when she became a refugee, now lives in Philadelphia and carries vivid memories of flying a kite with her sister and vignettes of her lost house. Ruchi Kolla from the Bay Area still remembers her childhood, the dolls she left behind in their mad flight in 1990 and nurtures a dream to take her children back to their home. Shakun Mallik, who lost her childhood home when her family was forced to leave Kashmir, now lives in Washington DC but wishes to go back. 

Since being forcefully evicted 30 years ago, the Kashmiri Hindu community has had to make a new life for itself. Today they can be found scattered in towns and cities all over India and the world. Thousands live in USA and Canada. While many years have elapsed, the pain for some is as raw today, as it was in those dark times three decades ago, when they witnessed their long time neighbors and friends turn on them.

For Kashmiri Hindus who have been exiled from their homes for decades, the one-year anniversary of the nullification of Article 370, is a poignantly political and personal milestone.

Women carry especially painful memories of those nights that echoed with slogans demanding Kashmiri Hindus leave the valley but leave their women behind. I caught up with three Kashmiri women who had been forced to leave their homes, now living in USA, to find out how the repeal of Article 370 has influenced their hopes for the future.

Last few remaining Hindu temples in Kashmir.

During their 30-year exile, Kashmiri Hindus have seen two generations of senior family members pass away with unfulfilled desires to return home. A new generation of kids has grown up cut off from their roots. Yet hope persists and got a fresh boost as they watched the Indian government finally abolish article 370 and take steps to redress some basic inequities.

The ladies interviewed were delighted at the change in J&K’s residency laws which are already showing results – just a few months in. With the grant of domicile certificates to long-time residents of the state, Dalits in Kashmir (also known as Valmikis) now have a chance to get access to better education and employment instead of being held as semi-bonded labor in janitorial jobs.

Homosexuality is not illegal anymore, removing a Damocles sword that hung over the LGBTQ community. They are also seeing Kashmiri citizens now finally protected by the many progressive laws that had been kept in abeyance by Article 370—everything from restrictions on child marriage and instant divorce to labor protections, affirmative action, and anti-corruption laws.

Part of the Kashmir Overseas Association’s executive team, Shakun and Amrita visited Kashmir in February 2020 and spent a week traveling through the state including Srinagar, Tulmul, Gulmarg and more. Shakun has been a regular visitor to the state since 2012, even when terrorism was rampant, because she felt that it was her right. It was, however, Amrita’s first time in Kashmir since she had fled. Growing up, Amrita had evinced little desire to visit her former home as a tourist – the memories would have been just too painful.

Shakun and Amrita in Kashmir Feb 2020.

“When I got out of the airport, I was really scared,” Amrita said. To make things worse, the women had chosen to visit right around the time the state was more than normally tense, observing the anniversary of both Afzal Guru’s execution and Burhan Wani’s death. Despite warnings, they pressed ahead. “While shops on the main thoroughfares were shuttered, life seemed normal on the smaller streets. Folks we talked to were tired of the turmoil they had lived through. There seemed to be a strong craving for peace-for more tourists and a chance to make a better living for their families.”

According to Shakun, “while it’s too soon to expect too much change, repealing Article 370 was important to integrating Kashmir more fully into India.  Really no place should have special rights purely due to religion to begin with, especially in a secular country,” she said.  “I feel the emotional pull of my homeland. I want to go back. I hope more steps are taken so I can feel safe 

ID card only valid till marriage for women in Kashmir.

“As women we now feel more empowered,” said Ruchi, celebrating the demise of the unequal laws that stripped Kashmiri women (but not men) of their rights to residency or property in the state if they married outside the community. “I have heard of girls who are struggling financially after divorce, but since they had married outside the community, they could not return to live or work in Kashmir, or even claim their parental property.” Kashmiri men, of course, were always allowed to marry as they pleased, without consequence.  

“As someone who has married a non-Kashmiri, abrogation of 370 impacts me very personally. It’s a restoration of my rights and my very identity,’’ added Ruchi. She is also heartened to see family members, who have found new jobs in the past year and now live and work in Kashmir.

Aside from positive changes on the ground, the repeal of Article 370 has led to structural change, giving a new lease of life and renewal to the dispossessed refugees who have languished in silence for 30 years. There is a glimmer of hope – it is now possible to envision a path to going back home.

It’s also been a cathartic experience for the community. “I think many people who were forced out, had suppressed their pain and not shared their stories – even with their own children,” said Amrita.  “Speaking for myself, it was only after August 5, 2019, that for the first time, I heard my parents open up about their harrowing experiences at length. I cried. We talked at length with a psychiatrist who said it was a critical step to coping with our grief and loss.”

The future has hope. “I want to visit again. I want to live there. I want to maybe even die in Kashmir,” says Shakun.

Pushpita Prasad has a passion for storytelling and Indic causes. She lives and works in the Bay Area.

Kashmir in Pain Before Article 370

Featured Image: Wailing mother of Faizan Fayaz hugs the best friend of her slain son. Faizan was killed in a firing by security forces on a polling day for Srinagar Lok Sabha Constituency in  Budgam district on April 9, 2017. PC: Bilal Ahmad

Bilal Ahmad, a freelance photojournalist from Kashmir, scrolls down the screen full of images he has clicked so far as part of his work. In his fourth-floor flat in Delhi’s Noor Nagar, he opens an image and looks at it for quite a while, as if reminded of the scene and the story behind it.

Taking his eyes off the screen, the 24-year-old photojournalist from Kashmir says, “My aim is to acquaint people around the world with the ground realities of Kashmir, most importantly, the hopelessness of a common man.”

However, Bilal’s aim hit a dead end when Narendra Modi-led government in New Delhi imposed a blanket ban on Internet and telecom services in Kashmir a night before it revoked its special status on August 5, 2019, one year ago. The state was divided into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

Article 370, which the central government scrapped on August 5, granted the state some autonomy. The erstwhile state had its own constitution, flag, and could make its own laws.

“I lower my head in disappointment when I see the people whose stories I had captured with my camera but couldn’t publish,” Bilal laments.  

Out of thousands of pictures on his laptop, Bilal has kept six of them in a separate folder named ‘Best’. He agrees to share these pictures, how he clicked them, the stories in them.

“It was after Faizan’s funeral I clicked this picture,” Bilal tells me. “There was a huge crowd of people gathered outside slain Faizan’s house. I saw women and children crying and sobbing. Amid those mourning voices, one particular voice was louder and longer,” he pauses. “It was that of Faizan’s mother in the house. I made my way into the room, though with difficulty, and found her surrounded by other women weeping and trying to console the bereaved mother. She felt suffocated and was escorted out in the open. A couple of women held her and helped her walk round in the garden. But she was still sighing and sobbing. Soon, she saw her son’s best friend coming in. She rushed to him, hugged him tightly, and cried even louder. She kept repeatedly asking him, ‘Bring back my son. You left together in the morning after coming back from Madrassa. Why have you returned alone?’ I was already in tears and did not want to click any pictures. However, I ended up channelizing my emotions into bringing her pain in my frame and do my job,” concluded the photojournalist about the picture.

The next click brings us to a group of people attending the funeral prayers of Adil Ahmad at Eidgah, Srinagar. Adil was an eighteen-year-old boy, who was mowed down by an armed forces vehicle in Chattabal area of Srinagar during intense clashes between protesters and government forces on May 5, 2018.

“It is very intriguing,” says Bilal, “to see children take part in the funerals, which sometimes erupt in fierce clashes with the government forces. They easily become targets of tear gas canisters, pellets and sometimes even get killed by bullets fired by the men in uniform. This isn’t what a child should experience. These things have a long-lasting effect on one’s psyche and take shape of nightmares as you come of age.”

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Funeral prayers of Adil Ahmad. PC: Bilal Ahmad

Amongst the turmoil, Bilal tried to capture moments of calm in Kashmir.

“It was getting chaotic after Friday prayers in Srinagar’s Soura area as youth and paramilitary forces were about to clash with each other,” recalls Bilal.

“The man in the photo was playing with his son inside his shop until he heard a loud bang of tear-gas canister fired at the protesting youth a few hundred meters away. He started panicking, grabbed his son, and came outside.”

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A father fixedly looks at his son, who enjoys a packet of snacks outside a shuttered shop in Soura on the outskirts of Srinagar. PC: Bilal Ahmad

“His son, however, proved to be stubborn and was refusing to leave the shop. The father hurriedly tore off a packet of snacks from a rope of many hanging inside the shop and brought down the shutter. The clashes were yet to turn violent and the shopkeeper let go his son sit on the other end of the shop, while he kept a close eye on him and around.”

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Nusrat reflecting on losing her eyesight. PC: Bilal Ahmad

Nusrat Jan, a 32-year-old mother of a two-year-old daughter lost her sight in the right eye after she was hit by pellets fired by government forces during intense clashes October 17, 2018 near Srinagar.

The pellet injury left a void in my heart. Now, I can see my daughter only with my left eye,” recants Nusrat.

“It seemed a tough battle for the two-year-old baby girl to see glasses on her mother’s eyes,” Bilal tells me with a heavy heart. “She tried repeatedly to remove them, probably, to see her eyes, but her mother would not let her as she kept feeding her,” he says and is reminded of what the woman in the picture told him then.

Present Day

Here in Kashmir, I caught up with Bilal again after almost 8 months since our meeting in Delhi. During this time, Bilal says, Journalists in Kashmir have been through a lot. “One is scared to work under these circumstances, especially when you see your colleagues being questioned, beaten, detained, and booked under draconian laws such as UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act). See, what happened with photojournalist Masarat Zahra,” says Bilal.

Masrat, a Kashmir-based freelance photojournalist was booked under UAPA by J and K Police for allegedly sharing “anti-national posts”. Masrat, however, denied such charges and said that these posts were part of her professional work, some of which had already been published.

Bilal is also worried about the new Media Policy which the Jammu and Kashmir administration unveiled on June 2. “It has added to the difficulties that we as journalists were already facing,” informs Bilal, resigned to his circumstance. He hopes change will come soon…

Younis Ahmad Kaloo is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir. Previously, he was a correspondent at Force Newsmagazine, a monthly magazine on national security and aerospace.

“As a Small Brown Woman With an Arabic Name” – Ramiza Koya

The Royal Abduls depicts the cost of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, through the lens of an Indian-American family in post 9/11 America. The novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Omar and his aunt Amina, an evolutionary biologist who moves near her brother’s family in Washington, D.C.after years of working on the West Coast. As Omar tries on an exaggerated Indian accent to impress his schoolmates, Amina struggles to focus on her study of hybrid zones while working in a male-dominated lab. Omar cycles through outlets for his vast curiosity and gets in trouble at school. His parents’ disintegrating relationship leaves only independent, career-minded Amina to look out for him. The Royal Abduls engages with the struggles of women in the workplace and the difficulties of maintaining relationships in a fragmented America.

Ramiza Shamoun Koya tackles subjects such as racism, misogyny and being other in America, having faced some of that herself. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of this wonderful novel, and it really resonated with me. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, addressed similar topics and I felt equipped for our dialogue. Her book is set to publish on May 12, 2020 and can be pre-ordered online. Here I am in conversation with the talented Ramiza Shamoun Koya. 

Devi: What led you to start this book? Did it start out as a short story?

Ramiza: It started out as a short story called “The Hybrid Zone”; I intended for it to be the lead story in a story collection. But then I was blessed with a two-week residency at MacDowell Colony.  The first day I sat in Wood Studio, looking out a huge window into the forest, I typed the words “Omar was happy” almost without thinking. And then I knew I had a novel on my hands.

Devi: As I read your book, I was struck by its realism. I felt there was an autobiography in this book. And yet it is a novel and not a memoir. 

Ramiza: I never intended for this to be autobiographical per se.  There is autobiographical feeling in the search for identity, in some of the experiences that Amina and Omar and their family have. But my own personal autobiography is much more complicated than anyone in The Royal Abduls!  And to be honest, I had never been interested in writing memoir until very recently – I see myself as a fiction writer and always did.   

Devi: I loved that Amina had her say and that at times Omar had his say in the book. I was particularly struck by the child’s POV in the post-9/11 world and the contrast to Amina’s and Mo’s experience. Can you discuss your choices there? 

Ramiza: Omar became very important to me. I think young Muslims were real victims of this shift towards anti-Muslim sentiment. And Omar is very much second-generation; that interested me as well.  There is so much writing on the immigrant experience. I wanted to focus on someone who was born here and feels it’s natural that they should be treated as other Americans are. When he is denied that, it’s not just confusing; it’s nonsensical.  His struggle is so very common among brown people in America, and facing up to that means facing up the essentially racist structures we live under. As I wrote the initial short story, I did not foresee that Omar would become a major character in a novel; but his voice, once I started writing in it, became so absorbing, so easy to slip into, and each new reader told me that they had fallen in love with him. So he earned his place!

Devi: I felt as though your novel was in conversation with my novel, especially as it addresses the immigrant experience one generation removed, and also by having children who were mixed-race. 

Ramiza: As I’ve gotten older, I am convinced that if we write about women, we have to write about misogyny.  To leave it out is to leave out something essential to all female experience. I wanted to have Amina face that and struggle with that and live it down.  I wanted her to find her way in spite of it. When we underplay this essential difference between male and female experience, we’re enabling it to continue.  I wanted to write authentically about sexual politics in the workplace, but I also wanted to connect some of that misogyny to Amina’s brown skin. As a small brown woman with an Arabic name, I have felt how connected misogyny and racism are.

Devi:What books have influenced you, make you want to write? What books propelled you to finish The Royal Abduls? What books have you read recently that have excited you? 

Ramiza: Books that influenced me when I was younger were by Richard Wright, Malcolm X, James Baldwin: coming of age stories by African-American writers moved me deeply.  I related to them; they made me feel like I had a story too. Then I was all about Indian literature: Midnight’s Children and Sacred Games and books by Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh; these helped me understand my own identity, my origins a bit more, and inspired me to travel in India.  More recently, I have loved Elena Ferrante, Min Jin Lee, Jesmyn Ward, Ruth Ozeki, Julie Otsuka, William Dalrymple, Hillary Mantel. The poets Ocean Vuong and Ilya Kaminsky have deeply influenced me this year. 

Devi: Did you find your book cathartic to write? I personally don’t believe in catharsis. I think I changed as a writer in the intervening years, and what I felt was relief it was to be able to write at all.

Ramiza: Yeah, no catharsis!  It’s hard work and then you never know if it’s good or bad or if it will ever be read.   

Devi:And tell me about your next book, a short story collection. Right? How has the experience of putting that together differed from writing a novel?

Ramiza:The short story collection includes my very first publication (“Night Duty” in Washington Square Review) to my latest attempts, many of which are unpublished. I’ve been building it over many years, and it’s nice because unlike a novel you can play with the order easily.  It does need an editor, however.

Devi:What is the one thing you want readers to take away after finishing The Royal Abduls?

Ramiza: I think the change in perspective, the ability to imagine life in someone else’s shoes, is one of the greatest gifts of fiction; I hope that any reader feels like they lived along with this family and gained insight into their experiences.

Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. The Atlas of Reds and Blueswinner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize—is her first novel. A former newspaper reporter, Laskar is now a poet, photographer, essayist, and novelist. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.


KOYA, RAMIZA SHAMOUN. ROYAL ABDULS. FOREST AVENUE PR, 2020.

Immigrant Rights Activists See Turning Point For All Americans

By Mark Hedin, Ethnic Media Services

Warning that the country is heading down a white nationalist, nativist path, four immigrant rights advocates issued a call to action just hours before the U.S. Senate rejected all four proposals to change U.S. immigration policy, and a second federal court found the president’s “Muslim ban” unconstitutional.

The advocates spoke at a national telebriefing for ethnic media sponsored by Ready California, a collaborative cross-sector effort led by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

“We’ve all learned to expect the unexpected,” said Sameera Hafiz, an attorney and senior policy strategist for the ILRC in Washington, DC.  “The reason we’re here is because of Trump’s decision in September to rescind the DACA program and throw the lives of close to 800,000 young people into chaos and uncertainty.

“But while the Senate was ostensibly debating the future of the DACA program,” Hafiz argued,  “the reality is that any (proposed) DACA proposals go hand in hand with eliminating the diversity visa program, severely curtailing the family immigration program and expansive border enforcement measures – far beyond what we think about when we think about border security.”

“And while we’ve been focused in DC on the legislative side, we’ve been distracted from what the administration is already doing.” Hafiz cited attacks on jurisdictions with sanctuary policies and other enforcement actions against Dreamers, mothers and activists.

Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), agreed that what is underway is an attack on legal immigration itself which she called “a white nationalist agenda (whereby) certain individuals are not qualified to come into the United States based on their country of birth and their religion.”

On average, Salas noted, “our clients being deported from Los Angeles had been in the country more than 25 years. With the crippling of various legal channels like the Central American minors program, the separation of children from parents, the ending of diversity vistas, “the list goes on,” she said –“we’re destroying people’s lives.”

“This is not just about the immigrant community any more. It’s about what kind of country we want and who we are, as Americans.”

Zahra Billoo,  executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and a civil rights attorney, hailed the decision by the Fourth Circuit which joined a chorus of courts across the country who have said that the Muslim ban is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, she noted, “Whether you are from Iran or Somalia, it does not matter what your story is, you cannot come to the US.”   Billoo quoted a Georgetown University estimate that 60000 people had been impacted in their efforts to get an education or see their families.

“We’re optimistic,” she said, but cautioned that what’s legal doesn’t always align with what’s moral.  “The court in the past has allowed many unjust things, such as the Japanese internment.”

Adoubou Traore, director of the African Advocacy Network which provides legal counsel for immigrants of the African diaspora, highlighted the dramatic growth of the African immigrant community, from 816,000 in 1980 to more than 4 million in 2016,  Largely faceless and voiceless, this population has borne the brunt of every new restrictive immigration measure, from the Muslim ban to the removal of Temporary Protective Status (TPS).   As immigrants and as Blacks, “we are the only group that has been named racially, and coming from countries that have been named in ways that I don’t even want to repeat, but we all heard it.”

Asked about the future of the immigrant rights movement, Salas noted the “tremendous mobilization by immigrant youth and this will only increase as people mobilize around the March 5 Congressional deadline for a solution on DACA.  

“But this is a call to the broader immigrant community and Americans in general,” Salas emphasized.

“We need to stand up not just to be in solidarity with immigrants and refugees, and our brothers and sisters from the Muslim community. We need to stand up as Americans, as a country saying this is not who we are or what our values are.  I think this is what’s missing.”