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'We are extremely worried': Lockdown concerns Kashmiri-Canadians in Toronto

After an Indian government makes legislative change revoking constitutional status and resulting in a telecommunication shutdown, Kashmiri Canadians are expressing concern for loved ones in the Himalayan territory.

Tensions between India and Pakistan are escalating and Kashmiri-Canadians can't reach loved ones abroad

Toronto family doctor Nanky Rai's extended family is in Kashmir. (Supplied by Nanky Rai)

With Kashmir on a security lockdown, Canadians with ties to the disputed Himalayan territory are concerned.

On Tuesday, the Indian government dropped constitutional provisions that allowed the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir to make its own laws.

This week, in an address to Parliament, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan accused India of undermining regional peace and security. The neighbouring country is warning India that its actions in Kashmir could lead to war.

Toronto family doctor Nanky Rai's extended family is in Kashmir.

"It feels very eerie and very distressing," Rai said. She called it "very systematic," without context of why the change occurred.

Telecommunications and Internet have been cut off and the region is on lockdown. Kashmiri Canadians like Rai can't reach loved ones as a result.

The move by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist-led government came as a surprise to the majority of the international community. The government dissolved a constitutional provision, known as Article 370, which gave Kashmiris exclusive hereditary rights and a separate constitution.

"The fact is that India made a unilateral decision and furthered the militarization of the region, put an entire group of people into full curfew and communication blockade," Rai said.

'We are extremely worried'

Both India and Pakistan lay claim to the mountainous region, which has caused decades of unrest. This time it feels different, according to Binish Ahmed, a Ryerson University PhD student who was 11 years old when her family fled Kashmir.

Wednesday, the United Nations issued a statement that said the Indian government's actions take "what was already a pattern there to a new level."
PhD student Binish Ahmed is seen here in Kashmir last summer. (Supplied by Binish Ahmed)

Ahmed described memories of lockdowns and curfews when she was a child, but she said this time, "the Indian government made some aggressive choices," and that's unusual for her to see.

"We are extremely worried for our family members," she said.

The United Nations' statement referred to its report from July 8, 2019 that noted other recent incidents in Kashmir when the Indian government cut off telecommunications "to muzzle dissent."

This time, there appears to be more "blanket telecommunications restrictions" than before, according to the statement, and the international agency is "concerned the latest restrictions will exacerbate the human rights situation in the region."

Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard during curfew in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. (Dar Yasin/The Associated Press)

Zafar Bangash, co-ordinator of the Friends of Kashmir Committee Canada, said Canadian officials need to take the situation seriously.

"People have been under lockdown for the last four days now. We don't know how they are surviving. We don't know how they are coping," he said.

Rai said heightened awareness is crucial.

"We're going to make sure Kashmiris around the world amplify the voices of our loved ones there," she said. "We are watching. The world is not going to ignore this."

Rai, Bangash and Ahmed are members of Kashmiri Canadian groups planning rallies for the coming weeks to raise awareness and spur international governments to act.

About the Author

Stephanie Matteis is a senior reporter with CBC News, filing stories for television, radio & online. She's a pathological truthteller and storytelling junkie whose work appears on CBC Toronto, The National and Marketplace. Contact Stephanie: stephanie.matteis@cbc.ca and @CBCsteph on Twitter.

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