‘Take a position’: Kashmiri-Canadians urge Canada to lend stronger voice amid lockdown

Kashmir Conflict: What revoking special status means

It’s been 10 days since Kashmiri-Canadians were last able to contact relatives living in the besieged region — and some say the Canadian government’s response to the escalating tensions has not been strong enough.

On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland released a statement on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, where the Indian government has blocked all lines of communication after revoking the state’s special status under the country’s constitution.

Freeland said in the statement that the Canadian government is closely following the developments in the Muslim-majority region.

“In recent days, I have spoken to many Canadians — including Canadians of Kashmiri descent who have family in Jammu and Kashmir — about this important issue. Like them, Canada is concerned about the risk of escalation, infringements on civil rights and reports of detentions,” the statement read.

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Freeland’s statement added that Canada is encouraging “meaningful discussions and consultations with affected communities.”

WATCH: Why Kashmir is at the centre of the India-Pakistan dispute

Waterloo, Ont., resident Idrisa Pandit, whose family lives in Kashmir, told Global News she’s grateful Freeland issued a statement but that it was not satisfactory.

Pandit noted that Freeland’s statement didn’t mention India — the country at the centre of the issue.

“It doesn’t name India at all. Who are the unnamed parties?” Pandit asked.

“It’s just one party who is doing this right now, and they should have the courage to name that.”

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In an email to Global News, Freeland’s office said it has no further comment on the situation within Kashmir beyond the statement already issued.

The situation in Kashmir has been ongoing since Aug. 5, when India announced in a surprise political move that it would strip Kashmir of its autonomy under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Hours before that, thousands of troops were deployed in the Indian-controlled region, and internet and phone services were cut without warning amid a 24-hour lockdown.

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India’s Modi says they will hold state assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir

Kashmiris, who identify as a distinct Indigenous society, fear India’s move will alter the region’s demographics and cultural identity. India said its decision to revoke Kashmir’s special constitutional status and downgrade it from statehood to a territory would free it from separatism.

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Following the rescinding of Article 370, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government said the move would usher in an era of a “new India.”

Modi said in an address to the nation last week that the move would free the territory of “terrorism and separatism” and accused Indian arch-rival Pakistan of fomenting unrest.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, and both claim the region in its entirety, although each of them controls only part of it. Two of the three wars the nuclear-armed neighbours have fought since their independence from British rule were over Kashmir.

Amid the political uncertainty, Kashmiri-Canadians have sought guidance from Canadian officials.

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Kashmiri Canadians worried about family during blackout

Pandit, an academic at Wilfrid Laurier University, has written to Freeland demanding four actions in particular. First, she wants Canada to push India to end the lockdown and backtrack on the removal of Article 370. She is calling on the Canadian government to condemn ethnic and religious discrimination in India as well.

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The academic also wants the parliamentary foreign affairs committee to hold a hearing on Kashmir and the potential threat of a nuclear war. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed nations.

Lastly, Pandit says she hopes Canada will push in the United Nations for Kashmir to be given the right to self-determination.

“Kashmiris have been silenced at gunpoint; let the conscientious people of Canada take a principled stand, prioritizing the fundamental rights of the people of Kashmir over economic and strategic interests,” she wrote in her letter to Freeland.

Global Affairs has advised Canadians to avoid all travel to Jammu and Kashmir “due to sporadic terrorist activity and violent demonstrations.”

It added that Canadians currently in Kashmir should follow the instructions of local authorities.

“At present, 12 Canadians in the Kashmir region have registered with the voluntary Registration of Canadians Abroad service. As registration is voluntary, this is not necessarily a complete picture of Canadians in the region,” the statement explained.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2016, there were a total of 3,115 Canadians who identified as being of Kashmiri descent.

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Binish Ahmed, a Toronto resident who spoke to Global News last week about difficulties she has experienced in contacting her family, said she still has not been able to reach anyone in the region.

Ten days later, she said she and other Kashmiri-Canadians are feeling “burnt out” from the struggle of trying to contact families and pleading for officials to take action.

“We are all really distraught and grieving, we are dealing with a traumatic and unprecedented situation,” she said.

“Our family has been essentially taken off the world radar by the Indian government, caged, without means of communication and the world is not outraged.”

Ahmed said the Canadian government’s response to the issue so far has been disappointing. She explained that beyond helping the Kashmiri-Canadians affected, she wants the government to take a stand on basic human rights concerns.

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Pakistanis protest in Islamabad against Indian action in Kashmir

“We need to see concrete action, we need for them to take a position,” she said.

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There have also been concerns that the situation in Kashmir has the warning signs of a genocide.

On Tuesday, Pakistan called for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council, saying the situation in Kashmir threatens international peace and could lead to ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Poland holds the council presidency this month, and Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said members would discuss the letter.

Several other Canadian residents who have family in Kashmir are also calling on the Canadian government to take more definitive action.

Taimoor Elahi, who lives in Toronto, hasn’t been able to reach his grandparents and extended family since the lockdown began.

“Our immediate concern is medicine for my old grandparents who, just like any other elder, have a laundry list of deficiencies and life-threatening ailments. Our second concern is a food shortage,” he told Global News.

“Not being able to communicate with your loved ones, who happen to be in the most militarized region in the world, is a suffocating feeling.”

Elahi said he’s been attending as many protests and rallies as possible, asking for officials to take some action.

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“The general feeling at the moment is that the Canadian government has been eerily silent on this issue,” he said.

— With files from The Associated Press

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