This weekend it is my pleasure to interview scholar and author Farhana Qazi. Secrets of the Kashmir Valley is her recent release.
Me: Will you tell us little about your relationship with Kashmir?
Farhana: My grandmother was from Kashmir and I talk about her ancestral ties to Kashmir in the book; she migrated to Pakistan after the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. She never forgot the valley and her homeland. I learned about Kashmir through my grandmother and mother.
Me: What inspired you to write, “Secrets of the Kashmir Valley”?
Farhana: When I visited Kashmir, I was moved by the immense beauty and tragedy of this pristine valley. Western travelers have called Kashmir “Paradise on Earth” and “Wonderland.” But in Paradise, there are over 800,000 Indian soldiers—that’s one soldier for every eight civilians. Kashmir is the world’s most militarized zone and I wanted to meet the women to understand their struggles and sacrifices. My book is a collection of their stories because they cannot tell them for fear of being killed or arrested. Thus, the book is the secrets of the valley.
Me: You have traveled the world to explore political Islam, origin of violent extremism and woman in war. What according to you sets the Muslim countries apart or makes them similar to the western countries?
Farhana: Muslims want what everyone wants: basic human rights. Islam is a religion of peace, compassion and mercy and this is what I have found in countries like Malaysia, for example, or parts of the Gulf. Of course, there are violent groups acting in the name of Islam and they have distorted a religion of peace. I talk about Islam and violence in my award-winning book, Invisible Martyrs.
Me: An insight into a conflict zone from the perspective of women is something really intriguing and powerful. What made you pen down their narrative of survival considering it is mostly ignored?
Farhana: There are many books on the politics of war and so few about the people inside war. The only way you can understand any conflict/war is to talk to its people and know them—their love stories, dreams, tragedies, fears, and hope for the future. A people make a place, not the other way around.
Me: Are you still in touch with them?
Farhana: Some women have died; others are in jail. Some are in hiding. Now that India has imposed an extreme lockdown on Kashmiris, it’s difficult to know where they are. These women live inside my book.
Me: I see you say ‘India-occupied Kashmir’. Isn’t it a bit explosive or incorrect to say, considering Kashmir is a part of India and not really occupied by it?
Farhana: Famed Indian human rights activist and author Arundhati Roy has been speaking against Indian policies in Kashmir for over a decade; I agree with her when she says that India has committed gross human rights violations. Human Rights groups and all the United Nations reports have documented state-level violence. And yes, 800,000 troops in a small valley is an occupation.
Me: What was the most memorable or impactful moment of the trip for you?
Farhana: I met a woman named Mugli, who was once called “the lonely mother” and she spent nearly 20 years looking for her son, who went “missing” during the 1990s uprising. The truth is her son was among hundreds of young men that the Indian Army captured—arrested and killed. Mass graves were discovered years later and her son could have been one of those graves. She never found her son and after I completed the book, I found out she died. She touched me deeply. If you are a mother, you will understand the fear and dread of searching for your missing child. I cannot imagine living this way. Her son was not a militant or political activist. He was just a math teacher. When I left her, Mugli said to me, “I just want to hug his grave.” That is the most powerful statement in the entire book for me.
Me: How did gathering these stories and writing this book change you as a person, as a scholar, and/or as an author?
Farhana: Kashmir forever changed me. When you meet women (and men) living on the edge, trying to survive another day in conflict, you feel so humbled and blessed for what you have. I was born in Pakistan and grew up in America. I have every luxury here, from a private school education to access to health care. I can go out; I can speak freely without being tortured. The Kashmiri people do not have these basic civil and human rights. I can never forget these people. They taught me two things: to speak up for truth and to be grateful to God every single moment for what I have in America.
Me: What are some of the most common myths or misunderstandings that you come across about Kashmir, and/or the women of Kashmir?
Farhana: Many people see Kashmir as a traditional, conservative society where most women wear the headscarf. They see village women. What they do not see is that in all of India, Kashmiri women are the most literate and that’s a fact. Most girls go to school, and then college. They are some of the brightest and most intelligent women I have met, and I admire their activism. One woman, whose son also “disappeared,” started the silent protest movement and other women like her hold photographs of their loved ones (dead or alive, no one knows) in silent protests. That is so powerful. Another woman, who was falsely accused of terrorism and in jail for five years until her release, started a political activist organization for women. She said to me, “I am married to the cause of freedom.” These are brave women, who are not sitting in their kitchens or raising families. Even those with families come to the streets and protest, calling for freedom and the right to self-determination.
Me: Your book tells the stories of women from all walks of life across Kashmir including mothers, daughters, activists, widows, fighters, martyrs, prisoners and more. Are these women all so vastly different or is there a commonality they share that’s being expressed in different ways?
Farhana: Women in any place and conflict will have their differences, but despite this, the common thread for all Kashmiri women is freedom. Again, freedom is a basic human right guaranteed to all of us by the Geneva Convention and the United Nations. All people can agree that freedom is a right that should never be denied to a people. Kashmiris are under extreme lockdown today and they are not allowed to move outside their homes; they are trapped in a giant prison and the Indian Government justifies this in the name of a “New Kashmir” and peace and development. But the Kashmiri people do not feel at peace in their own homes. On August 5, 2019, their special status was taken away from them by Prime Minister Modi, India’s far-right Hindu extremist leader. India is no longer secular but an extremist government that oppresses Christians and Muslims—the violent ideology of Hinduvata justifies the subjugation of Kashmiris and all Muslims and Christians throughout India. Kashmir is one of many conflicts in India today.
Me: What is your opinion about the abrogation of Article 370?
Farhana: Excerpt from the book:
On August 5, 2019, Kashmir went dark. The Indian State banned phone and Internet service indefinitely. Kashmir was subjected to a new form of cruelty. India forced an entire population into debilitating silence—a mental, physical, social and psychological lockdown. Although lockdowns were common in Kashmir, the extent of this silence was unprecedented.
A week before the communications blackout, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won his election by encouraging anti-Muslim bigotry, flooded Kashmir with thousands of troops, detained hundreds of prominent Muslims, and asked foreign tourists to leave the valley. Kashmiris had no clue of what was about to happen.
And so, without warning on that summer morning, the Indian State revoked Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution that had protected Kashmir’s special status as a Muslim-majority state. The article granted Kashmiris some autonomy and special privileges as a people, such as the right to buy and own their land. The Permanent Residents Law or Article 35A prevented outsiders from owning property or landing a state job in Kashmir. Under the article, decisions on foreign affairs, defense, and communications remained under the jurisdiction of Kashmir’s central government. That changed on August 5th when the Indian State declared that the fundamental rights of Kashmiris no longer mattered.
Kashmir was forever changed.
So why now? Some claim that Modi and the supra-Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had long opposed Article 370; that the Indian PM had promised the article’s dismissal in his 2019 election manifesto; that Modi and his party-supporters had long intended to integrate Kashmir into the rest of the country; and that the PM believed he could bring economic growth to the valley and long-lasting peace. Perhaps India’s move was designed to change the demographics of the valley and threaten the very identity, interests, and integrity of Kashmir. In a New York Times op-ed, “Silence Is the Loudest Sound,” famed Indian activist Arundhati Roy wrote:
“[India] turned all of Kashmir into a giant prison camp. Seven million Kashmiris were barricaded in their homes, Internet connections were cut and their phones went dead…For Kashmiris, this has been an old, primal fear.”
The dismissal of Article 370 forced Kashmiris to abide by the Indian Constitution. Kashmiris were thus required to comply with all Indian laws much like the people of other states, while non-Kashmiris were given the right to buy land in the pristine valley—a move that Hindu right-wing groups welcomed with joy. Indian leaders publicly promised development to the region and justified their actions in the name of democracy, an artificial word to Kashmiris who have been tortured and traumatized by India and its false promise for decades.
India’s decision to implement a policy of forced isolation is arguably the worst form of control and coercion. For months on end, the communications blackout destroyed the way of life in Kashmir.
Me: How do you intend to impact readers with your book?
Farhana: Spread awareness. My hope is to educate so that the world can restore basic civil rights to the Kashmiri people. The first step is global education.
Me: Are there any new projects underway?
Farhana: Yes, writing a love story (fictional book) on Kashmir to help readers connect with Kashmir in a light-hearted way.
Farhana Qazi is an award-winning author, instructor and scholar. Qazi is also a certified world affairs lecturer on cruises.
Her focus is global conflicts, terrorism & violent extremism, as well as women in war and peacekeeping.
For nearly twenty years, she has traveled throughout the Muslim world to understand political Islam, local drivers of extremism and the roots of conflict. She offers a variety of training courses to the U.S. military and addresses the worldwide threat.
For her service to the U.S. military, she received the 21st Century Leader Award, presented by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York; and the Distinguished Humanitarian Award for her research on women in war from Southwestern University, her alma mater.
She is the author of Secrets of the Kashmir Valley, a human-interest story focused on the protracted conflict between India and Pakistan (2016). Her second book titled Invisible Martyrs: Inside the Secret World of Islamic Female Radicals explores the reasons why Muslim women and girls turn to violent extremism (2018). Qazi received The Benjamin Franklin Book Award in non-fiction for her second book.
As an expert on Islam, Farhana has appeared in the mainstream media: CNN, BBC television and radio, Public Broadcasting Service, National Public Radio, Fox News, C-Span, Bloomberg, ABC News, MSNBC, Canadian national television, Voice of America, Al-Jazeera, The Daily Ledger Show and more.
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