A dialogue designed to generate conversation surrounding conflict in Kashmir, hosted by the South Asian Student Alliance (SASA) and the Muslim Cultural Students Association (McSA) on Tuesday, did not begin with a discussion of politics — but rather, with a reading of poetry. Northwestern professor Dr. Inshah Malik, who herself is from Kashmir, read several pieces of her original work to the group of students, sitting among them in a circle of plastic chairs.

Students listen closely as Dr. Malik (second from the right) reads aloud her poetry inspired by the Kashmir conflict. Photo by Maya Mojica / North by Northwestern‌‌

“We could discuss for hours the issue of Kashmir and we could totally forget there are actual people who live there and are suffering in that region,” Malik said. “My sense is to really come at you with, ‘What does it mean to be human and relate to an issue at a very human level?’”

Following Malik’s poetry, she prompted students with several questions pertaining to the sources from which they obtain information about Kashmir, how these sources color their view of the issues and whether they have stopped to consider possible biases. Students were then asked to break into small groups where some spoke about the media’s representation of Kashmir and how this differs from country to country.

In her small group, Medill first-year Alexi Sandhu said she felt like a Kashmir point-of-view was lacking in the mainstream media, something that dehumanizes the conflict. Another common theme among group discussions was a shortage of international stories in the U.S. media. One student mentioned that she felt as though she had to hunt to find relevant information about the issue from U.S. news sources.

Kashmir, a region sometimes associated with the sweater, has been a central location of conflict for a really long time — since 1947, to be exact, the year India and Pakistan gained independence from Great Britain. At that time, Kashmir, a princely state, chose not to become a part of either nation — that is until then Maharaja (or prince) Hari Singh signed an agreement with Pakistan, which eventually led to violence between the state and the country. In order to combat this, Singh signed an Instrument of Accession with India, making it the only Muslim-majority state in the country.

Since then, the region has experienced a long history of tension and violence. In February of 2019, at least 40 were killed in an explosion in Indian-administered Kashmir. This act of violence resulted in an Indian retaliation and increased military activity from both sides. Now, with Kashmir existing as the world’s most militarized zone and India and Pakistan both believing they alone have ownership of the state, the conflict is far from being resolved.

Kashmir region. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

This means that personal perspectives on the issue differ greatly between Indian and Pakistani individuals, another topic that was addressed by students in the dialogue. Weinberg first-year Saqib Siddiqi, a member of the SASA executive board and co-facilitator of the dialogue, asked students to contemplate the role of nationalism in the Kashmir conflict. Siddiqi explained that this focus on either Indian or Pakistan, but not Kashmir, can remove the spotlight from the actual suffering experienced by Kashmiri individuals themselves.

“Whenever there is an escalation along the border, it’s always Pakistani troops firing on Indians and killing innocent Kashmaris in the crossfire,” he said. “This isn’t for the benefit of the Kashmiri people. This really is just a contest of… toxic masculinity between these two very large… countries.”

Siddiqi said that this issue is of particular importance to him because one of his best friends growing up was an Indian Muslim from the region of Kashmir. Although he was Indian, Siddiqi said his friend had a very “anti-Indian” sentiment surrounding the conflict, one that influenced Siddiqi's own view. Now, Siddiqi, who is of Pakistani origin, said he is glad to expand his perspective alongside his co-facilitator Akash Palani, who is of Indian origin.  

A desire to expand understanding was expressed by many students at the dialogue. SASA Educational Chair and Weinberg second-year Anisha Bhattacharya said she contributed to the organization of the dialogue to better connect students to cultural issues, especially ones that relate to them on a more personal level.

“With the recent attacks… this is a particularly sensitive topic and something that South Asian students living in the U.S. don’t have a lot of exposure to just based on the kind of media sources they’re exposed to,” Bhattacharya said.

The way the media influences how students think about this conflict was particularly apparent when students were asked via an online anonymous poll to write the words that first came to mind when they thought of Kashmir. Among these descriptions were “complicated,” “uncertainty,” “tension” and “conflict,” but also — “beautiful place destroyed by politics.”

“Your knowledge about the region is premeditated by certain sources of information that you have inherited,” Malik said. “How do we rethink about thinking about politics?”  

Dr. Malik will be speaking on resistance politics in Kashmir at a talk hosted by SASA and McSA from 6 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 28 at Harris 107.