India, Pakistan & Kashmir: The fight for freedom isn’t over

Marking India’s & Pakistan’s independence days: Political prisoners remind us the fight for freedom isn’t over
6 min read

Maryam Kanwer and Sanaa Alimia

14 August, 2023
On the independence anniversaries of India and Pakistan, Sanaa Alimia & Maryam Kanwer reflect on the detention of Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah & continued practice of enforced disappearances to argue that freedom remains incomplete in the region.
Kashmiris have long faced repression in their fight for freedom, write Sanaa Alimia & Maryam Kanwer. [GETTY]

Since February 2022, Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah has been incarcerated in Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu. He was arrested by the Jammu and Kashmir police charged with sedition and “inciting terrorism and unlawful activities”. He is accused of publishing an article in the magazine he founded, The Kashmirwalla eleven years prior in 2011, which was deemed to incite “terrorism” and “unlawful violence”. He faces between five years to life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Repressing Kashmir’s liberation

Kashmiris have long faced repression in their fight for freedom. Before the 1947 independence and partition of British India into India and Pakistan, the Hindu ruler of the then princely state, used an iron fist to silence dissent of the Muslim majority population. After 1947, the two new states fought over Kashmir—although India controlled most of the territories under a “special status”.

Throughout, Kashmiri demands for freedom have been silenced by India and misused by Pakistan. Popular uprisings against Indian military occupation have been ever-present, especially from the late 1980s and 1990s, only to be gruesomely crushed. Death, detention, torture, rape, curfew, being blinded, all routine tactics.

Today, India’s repression of Kashmir is intensifying. When the “War on Terror'' era began, successive Indian governments labelled Kashmiri calls for “azadi” (freedom) as “Islamic terrorism”, mirroring tactics used by Israeli governments in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Today the relationship between Israel and India is growing stronger.

In 2019, the right-wing government led by Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) abrogated Kashmir’s special status. As Shah and others–from journalists to human rights activists–are rounded up, the message from Delhi is clear: anyone trying to create spaces for Kashmiri self-expression, let alone self-determination, will be silenced.

For the many of us who know Fahad Shah, his detention plagues our conscience. Moments of deep happiness to the mundane everyday moments of freedom are punctuated by thoughts of him.

Political prisoners are painfully evocative of our conscience. From Palestinian women in Israeli jails, to Steve Biko to Bacha Khan to Bobby Sands to Khader Adnan, to others lesser known, they all lead by example in speaking truth to power. But for all their courage and resolve, it is still their bodies that must suffer in corporeal and psychic terms in the face of an oppressive state.

In the Indian subcontinent the giant of Urdu and Punjabi poetry, once a political prisoner too, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, reminds us that witnessing the suffering of others, loved ones, children, and strangers is terrifying. As he says in Intesaab, “Un dhuki maon ka naam”/ “in the name of pained mothers''. It’s to thoughts of Fahad’s mother and family that we turn.


Bobby Sands, the iconic Irish anti-colonialist, who undertook a hunger strike, wrote in prison also knew the collective suffering his confinement produced, including on his mother, saying,  “[m]y heart is very sore because I know that I have broken my poor mother’s heart, and my home is struck with unbearable anxiety.”

It’s a painful irony that Shah also made the film Bring Him Back (2015) about one of Kashmir’s most famous sons, Maqbool Bhat, and his mother Shamali Begum’s struggle for justice as she fought to get her son’s remains from Indian authorities. Bhat, who founded the National Liberation Front, a precursor to the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), was executed in Delhi 1984 by hanging.

In each generation of Kashmiris, mothers, fathers, families suffer as India makes examples. Today Fahad Shah joins other imprisoned Kashmiri “examples”—past and present: Pervez Khurram, Irfan Mehraj, Sajad Gul, Aasif Sultan. The list goes on.

A region of torture

In neighbouring Pakistan, Kashmir is misused and romanticised to forge and justify Pakistan's identity and existence. In the 1990s the national government, led by Nawaz Sharif, introduced a new national holiday on 5 February, known as  “Kashmir Day”.

Indeed, from right-wing Islamists, supported by the state, who use Kashmir to recruit “the faithful” to defend Kashmiris through armed insurgency, to middle-class living room circles, to state actors, you’ll find cross-state and - societal support on Kashmir. All the while, however, there is no mention of the state’s own repression and material neglect of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

There’s also radio silence for the tens of thousands dead from the War on Terror years, which included horrific military operations on mainly Pashtun regions and peoples.


Meanwhile in Balochistan, which is a situation comparable to Kashmir in Pakistan, thousands of Pakistani citizens have been “disappeared”, snatched away in front of their children, parents, families, and friends or killed by the state. If Kashmiris powerfully tell us that theirs is a struggle against ongoing settler colonialism, with media blackouts, land dispossession, surveillance, and tyranny, we hear the same, from the Baloch in Balochistan.

Zarjan Baloch was pregnant when her husband Zahid Baloch was forcibly abducted from Quetta, Balochistan in 2014. He’s still missing. The term “half widow”, used frequently in Kashmir, has migrated to Balochistan. On this, Sajid Hussain, himself mysteriously found dead in exile in Sweden,  said: “The dead don't haunt me as much as missing do.” Zarjan still does not know where her husband is.

If colonialists had a penchant for violence, imprisonment, and the torture of anti-colonial dissidents–narratives we are often reminded of in school textbooks, public discourse, and political speeches–today, the new states and their elites that formed and reformed after they left—India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—have carried on this tradition in their own grim ways.

It’s on account of these terrible, dark, similarities in the region—and beyond— alongside our friendship with Fahad Shah, that we write today. As he joins a terrifyingly long list of people imprisoned, or worse, killed, for simply speaking truth to power, his story is a reminder that our journeys for freedom are far from over.

In Intesaab, Faiz dedicates his words to “[t]hose prisoners, in whose hearts the future shone like a pear/ But was burnt in the troubled nights of the prison/and diminished into a tiny flicker.” For Fahad and thousands more in the region and beyond, we hope the future shines again.

Maryam Kanwer is a human rights activist and researcher exiled in London.

Sanaa Alimia is an academic at the Aga Khan University.

Follow them on Twitter: @.nooremaryamk @SanaaAlimia

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.