As protests over Kashmir intensified around the world after India’s dilution of Article 370 last year, Stand With Kashmir — SWK — became an essential voice of the anti-Indian movement in the US. But while this “grassroots group” is represented publicly by academics who, somewhat reasonably, appear to discuss the question of Kashmir’s self-determination, the organisation’s actual intentions look far more sinister. The Middle East Forum has uncovered that the SWK also works to lionise and defend violent Islamists committed to the murder of Indian troops and civilians.
Across the US, the SWK can be found forming university chapters, organising protests, sending representatives as guest-speakers to events, and working with various Islamist organisations, such as the US proxy for Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamic Circle of North America. The SWK has rapidly become one of the most influential voices in America on the subject of Kashmir. But behind the humanitarian appeals for Kashmir and Kashmiris, lies a dangerous agenda.
Support for extremism
While the SWK lists neither founders nor employees on its website, it does offer the names of dozens of its “experts”, some of whom frequently represent the movement at events. Many of these so-called experts are academics at American universities who specialise in subjects such as human rights, colonialism, and gender studies. As could be expected, the SWK and its experts frame their support for Kashmiri resistance to India using the topical, Left-leaning language of today’s social sciences – insisting on the area’s “indigenous” population, praising women’s role in the resistance, generally portraying the conflict as a struggle against an imperial power, and even – somehow – linking it to “climate change”.
But unabashed extremism is found amid the progressive niceties. Despite the obscurity surrounding its organisational structure, SWK is very active on social media. Along with regular posting of poetry, drawings, and articles, it also paints terrorists as victims. On Twitter, the organisation recently tweeted about a Kashmiri named Riyaz Naikoo being “killed” and his house destroyed, failing to mention he was a senior commander in Hizbul Mujahideen, a Kashmiri terrorist group designated as such by the US government and tied to the South Asian Islamist movement Jamaat-e-Islami.
The SWK “calls for the immediate release of all Kashmiri prisoners,” whom they present as inoffensive activists – arrested merely for benign political beliefs. In reality, several of these prisoners have been involved with dangerous terrorist organisations, while one has even met with al-Qaeda members and openly declared Islamist aspirations for Kashmir. These violent extremists are profiled and venerated by the SWK online.
‘Angel of death’
The most compelling example is that of Asiya Andrabi, whom the SWK simply presents as a “sociopolitical activist” who has been unjustly jailed. In fact, Andrabi is a notorious Islamist activist and founder of the India-banned outfit Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Nation), which The Economist notes “supports terrorists” and advocates jihad. Some in Kashmir refer to Andrabi as the “angel of death”.
In one interview, Andrabi explains that she has met with al-Qaeda officials and told them that if “you belong to Sheikh Osama’s al-Qaeda then you are very welcome because he was a legitimate leader of Jihad”. Andrabi describes the possible arrival of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Kashmir as “our brothers […] coming to help us to liberate us from India”. In another interview in 2001, Andrabi expresses her support for the killing of “not only the [Indian] police, but all the Indian politicians, too.” When asked about “a call made by a Kashmiri militant group for the assassination of India’s prime minister”, she replies that “we’d be very happy, inshallah [God willing] ….”
As for her eight-year-old son, according to the 2001 interview, Andrabi “would like him to be a jihadi, and fight for Islam anywhere in the world.”
While the SWK experts insist on the importance of Kashmiri self-determination, Andrabi argues that it is “purely an Islamic struggle”. Andrabi does not appear to favour an independent Kashmir, instead saying “we want Pakistan” and “then it will be our first and foremost duty to Islamise Pakistan”.
Not an inclusive dream
Stand With Kashmir’s academics, meanwhile, claim that Kashmiri culture is threatened by India, and highlight the issue of feminism in Kashmir. SWK expert Huma Dar even led a discussion on “the resistance of women, queer and non-binary gender Kashmiri”. It seems unlikely, however, that any “queer” or “non-binary” Kashmiri would be accepted in the Islamist Kashmir envisioned by Andrabi, who has affirmed her opposition to “traditional Kashmiri culture” and intends to “return our women to Islamic culture”.
SWK representatives, nonetheless, prefer to offer a rather different image of Andrabi. Ather Zia is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado and one of SWK’s “experts”. In an article about the resistance of Kashmiri women, she describes Andrabi as an iconic figure of women’s resistance, and insists, while making no mention of Islam, that these Kashmiri women “are not anomalies to be objectified by rank misogyny camouflaged as religious ideals” nor should they be “patronized by men who judge their dress, language, and expressions”. Incidentally, SWK’s Zia recently mourned the death of Hizbul terrorist Riyaz Naikoo, referring to him as a martyr, and declaring: “death to Indian occupation!”
The SWK is evidently aware that Andrabi’s long history of support for violent extremism does not corroborate their portrayal of nonviolent activists facing injustice for their political views and peaceful resistance. The organisation and its academics carefully avoid mentioning Andrabi’s violent activities and associations, only noting that Andrabi was imprisoned with her two aides.
In fact, these two aides, Sofi Fehmeeda and Nahida Nasree, are mentioned in another slide on SWK’s website – described as “female political activists” involved “in the movement for self-determination in Kashmir”. The SWK does note that they are members of Dukhtaran-E-Millat (DeM), presenting it simply as “a women’s organization”. But according to the SWK, Fehmeeda and Nasree were arrested not because of DeM’s terrorist activities, but because of a sinister attempt by India to “stifle political participation”.
This astounding duplicity – from academics at prominent American universities no less – does not stop there. Another SWK-championed prisoner is Yasin Malik, whom the SWK describes as having “embraced nonviolent resistance”. The SWK does not mention that he “was arrested […] for his role in fomenting unrest in Kashmir during separatist agitations in 2010 and 2016 that was triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani”.
The SWK also does not include the fact that according to India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), Malik visited the “Lashkar e Taiba (LeT) camps in Muree in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and addressed the LeT cadres there”. LeT is a designated terrorist organisation under US law, and is best known for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which more than 160 people were murdered.
In March 2020, a Jammu court announced it had “enough prima-facie evidence” to prosecute Malik for involvement in the “killing of four unarmed Indian Air Force (IAF) officials in 1990 in Srinagar”.
Other SWK prisoners include Altaf Ahmad Shah, Peer Saifullah, and Aftab Hilali Shah. All three were arrested with other separatists in 2017 on charges of “raising, receiving and collecting funds” for terror activities. According to the NIA, the militants were “acting in connivance with active militants of Hizbul Mujahideen, Dukhtarane Millat, Lashkar-e-Taiba”. Another, Shabir Ahmad Shah, was “in touch with the global terrorist Hafeez Sayeed, chief of banned outfit ‘Jamat-ud-Dawa’ [a branch of LeT] based in Pakistan” and was reportedly given money to conduct separatist activities in Kashmir.
The true face
Stand With Kashmir is gradually wielding more and more political influence in the United States. In October 2019, it denounced an Indian investigative journalist, Aarti Tikoo Singh, before she testified in a congressional hearing focusing on the political situation in Kashmir. During this hearing, Rep. Ilhan Omar attacked Singh using curiously similar arguments and rhetoric. Six months later, the congresswoman joined SWK for an event on “racial justice” and “militarization in Kashmir”.
Are SWK’s experts – academics of purported renown – really so guileless and such negligent academics that they are not aware they are championing terrorists? Or, do they knowingly support al-Qaeda sympathisers and jihadists, deceitfully presenting them as pacifist political activists?
In any case, it seems almost certain that Stand With Kashmir itself is intentionally advocating for terrorists under the pretence of peaceful progressivism. As the SWK becomes more influential, and as its experts continue to disseminate misleading claims regarding Kashmiri “resistance”, it is imperative that the media uncovers who is really behind this organisation, and that policymakers are made aware of its true agenda.
The author is a research fellow of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. Views are personal.