Life Under Occupation: The Students Of Kashmir

Italics Magazine was able to contact two young women from Kashmir living in Italy.

Why is Italy a destination for young Kashmiris?

It is in difficult times that we realize the true nature of our country, where — despite our differences — we are all united and ready for what the future might bring. However, this is also a moment when we can take some time to look introspectively into our society and see nuances that were hidden or unnoticed before. In 2020, more than 5 millions foreigners reside in Italy. Of them, a tiny percentage belongs to a small but vocal region, Kashmir, a region in south-western Asia. The Himalayan region is a center of long-standing conflict among India, Pakistan, and China. When the British colonists left Asia in 1947, the partition of the newly born India and Pakistan was decided on the basis of religion. All Kingdoms across India and Pakistan were asked which partition side they want to join, some joined India and some joined Pakistan, with Kashmir’s ruling king deciding to remain independent. 

However, few months later, in November 1947, thousands of Muslims were massacred in Jammu district of Kashmir by mobs and paramilitaries led by the Hindu army of Dogra ruler Hari Singh, an action that became known as the massacre of Jammu

The killings triggered a war between the two newly independent nations of India and Pakistan, giving birth to the Kashmir dispute, an ongoing armed conflict. During the war, a referendum was promised to the people of Kashmir to decide on the fate of the region, and the dispute was then referred to the United Nations. A resolution was signed in 1948, asking both India and Pakistan to withdraw their forces; the UN called for a plebiscite in the region once hostilities ceased. However, the plebiscite never took place, troops were never withdrawn, and this remains the root of the issue, even more than seventy years later.

Today, Delhi and Islamabad both militarily control two territories recognised internationally as Indian-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and the conflict continues.

On August 5, 2019, the whole world reported the tragic news that the Indian government had unilaterally signed a decree abolishing the so-called Article 370 of the constitution, an article that gave a measure of autonomy to the Himalayan region. In this way, all promised rights guaranteed to Kashmir, including the right to its own constitution and autonomy to make laws on all matters except defence, communications and foreign affairs, were revoked. This means that Kashmir no longer has a separate constitution but must abide by the Indian constitution like any other state in India, a decision that P. Chidambaram, a senior leader in the opposition Congress Party, described as a “catastrophic step.”

Moreover, tens of thousands of additional Indian troops were deployed in the region, reaching a shocking figure of 1 Indian military for every 8 inhabitants. This makes Kashmir one of the highest militarised areas in the world. The army has been accused over the years of human rights abuses against the Kashmiri people, among which mass rapes and mass graves, firing open on the streets against those who were protesting, as well as innocent civilians as young as 5 years old. From August 5, a crippling curfew was imposed in the region, cutting down all communication services, locking a whole nation in their own homes and unable to tell the world about this tremendous injustice. 

As a consequence of this lockdown and communication blank out, the Kashmiris living abroad were not able to speak to their families for more than five months. This time of suffering, insecurities and fear triggered Kashmiris to speak up against these unjustifiable measures in many cities in Europe. 

“I’m in Italy, my heart is in Kashmir”

Italics Magazine was able to contact two young Kashmiri women living in Italy: Zulkifl, former Master’s student at Politecnico di Milano, and Munaza, currently studying at Politecnico. Zulkifl first reached Italy in 2017 and lived in Milan for almost two years. Afterwards, she moved to Germany for work. As she proudly specifies, her previous education was in Srinagar, former capital of Kashmir, where she also studied for her Bachelor’s and spent her childhood. Similarly, Munaza was also born and raised in Kashmir and moved to Milan in August 2019.

We asked them how many Kashmiris reside in Italy. Indeed, because Kashmiris are forced to hold their occupiers’ passports, it is extremely difficult to count or to get information on the number of Kashmiris abroad. Zulkifl mentions there are many Kashmiris in the main Italian cities like Rome and Milan, but also in Genoa and Turin.

But why is Italy, a country on the other side of the world, a destination for young Kashmiris? Munaza explains that most Kashmiri people coming to Italy and Europe do that for education purposes. Zulkifl, for example, was granted a scholarship by Politecnico di Milano. Before her, there were two or three seniors from Kashmir who were also studying at Politecnico. After finishing her studies, Zulkifl motivated other people to apply. Zulkifal explains that all Kashmiris she met abroad were highly educated, most of them were pursuing their doctorate in Europe. She talked about how  Kashmiris students are enjoying studying at prestigious universities in Italy, for example La Sapienza di Pisa, Politecnico in Turin, and also in Genoa. Munaza also asserts that many Kashmiris are excelling in Europe in higher studies and doctoral positions, as families do not feel safe to send their children to India for studying, so Europe becomes an interesting destination for Kashmiris who want to pursue higher education in a safer country.

When Zulkifl was asked about her thoughts on the recent events in Kashmir, she explains that for her it is “a very emotional thing.” The consequences of occupation for the Kashmiri population had a strong emotional impact on her, as she felt deprived of everything, she felt they had lost their sense of belonging and an important part of their identity. What ails her the most is that in 70 years the Indian military sent to the region have killed and hurt hundreds of civilians, with mass rapes reported in several villages and there was no accountability for their actions. Zulkifl is extremely worried about the current Indian supremacist government, which has shown a blatant anti-Kashmiri and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

As a Kashmiri abroad, since August 5 life has been a “hell experience” for Zulkifl. She was in Germany and there was no Kashmiri around, most of them were in Kashmir at that time. She felt paralyzed, until she decided to start looking for people in Europe that could share similar experiences.

That was not so easy, though. In fact, many people in Europe had no idea about the current events in Kashmir. Zulkifl recalls that, before August 2019, as she introduced herself as Kashmiri, people were always asking where Kashmir was. Now, since August, she noticed that finally more people are aware. She further narrated that most Italians show a lot of curiosity regarding the political situation in Kashmir, and she received solidarity from people across Germany and Italy. Something similar was experienced by Munaza, too. Like Zulkifl, she refuses to say she is from India, as she carries her Kashmiri identity with pride. She explains that owning one’s identity in India can have dangerous consequences, saying one is from Kashmir and a Muslim can lead to discrimination and problems.

For Munaza, the events of August 2019 were not only emotionally intense, but challenged her basic right to access to information and education. She had no internet access in Kashmir, which made it extremely difficult and costly to obtain her visa to reach Italy, a possibility that not everyone could have in Kashmir, lacking money and resources due to the constant conflict that Kashmiris have to endure every day in their lives.

After much strain, she managed to get her scholarship and flew to Milan, but she believes she was lucky, as many brilliant students across Kashmir missed the opportunity because of the lockdown.

However, once she arrived in Milan, the situation did not improve. Sadly, in the first ten days of her new life, she was not able to communicate with her parents who were still in Kashmir, surviving through a crippling curfew and completely isolated from the rest of the world. The only way they could ensure their daughter was safe was through a local police station which had a phone. Munaza narrates that her father had to wait in line for more than three hours every day just to talk to her briefly and to quickly make sure she was fine. Moreover, the few people who managed to contact their beloved were under constant pressure and were not allowed to speak freely, as it was evident that conversations were being recorded.

Munaza recalls there were so many issues in the first days she was in Milan and she could not talk to anyone, she was alone in a foreign country, she had to learn to do everything alone. She states that “being international, I say it’s hard, but being Kashmiri, it means it is too hard. It was different for me. It was not like for other people.”

Munaza is now enjoying every bit of her life as a successful Master’s student in one of Italy’s best universities. However, she cannot forget those who are still in Kashmir, and she cannot stand the injustices Kashmiri people face on a daily basis: “as a student, as a citizen, I should have been given the basic right to communication, health service, to live and go out, which I was being suppressed, this is my experience. [In Kashmir] people aren’t able to earn, the economy is crushed, I have seen people sleeping with no food, I have seen people being depressed at home and not seeing anyone, I have seen people crying abroad for their families.”

We could all do something about it

When asked about whether there is something that Italians could do for Kashmir, Zulkifl says without hesitation: “First and foremost, I request everyone to take some time to learn what is happening in Kashmir, as conditions are so hostile, and we are cut off from the rest of the world. If people around the world took some time to know more about what it is happening, this would be the first step in helping us.” Munaza agrees, explaining that Kashmir needs to get international support: “every person should know about this and raise their voice. India will not help us; they don’t want the international community to know and to intervene. Italian people can raise the issue and create pressure that can help us.”

It is astonishing and inspiring to see young girls studying, working, and advocating for their country in a foreign land with such courage and motivation, despite the hardship they went through. When asked where she finds the strength to be so vocal and motivated, Munaza has a simple but powerful explanation: “No matter where we have been brought up, we always have the instinct to elevate our own society, our own people. We must achieve a good status in life so that we can represent our community at best, we are showing to the world that we are more than colonized people. We must bring our society up and we flourish. The only thing we can do is to study and do well and have maximum participation in the international arena, this is what we can do.”

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