When a Kashmiri Muslim asked Hindu nationalists tough questions

On 22 November, the Hindu Student Council at Rutgers University in New Jersey organized an event on Kashmir featuring Indian film maker Vivek Agnihotri.

26-year-old Kashmiri American Shajei Haider decided to attend the event. This is his account of what happened there.

Last week, I got word the Hindu Student Council at Rutgers University was hosting Vivek Agnihotri to speak on “hidden truths” on the Kashmir dilemma.

The proposed event was met with an uproar. Agnihotri, an Indian film director, has been accused of sexual harassment as well as spewing anti-Muslim hate.

Some students at Rutgers University demanded Agnihotri’s invitation to speak on campus be rescinded.

After letters were petitioned and some Rutgers professors spoke out publicly against the university hosting him, the event was canceled on campus. No explanation was offered.

However, this did not stop the Hindu Student Council from hosting Agnihotri.

They just moved it to a temple in Edison.

A friend of mine informed me of the location and we registered for a seat.

We went to the event for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the event was advertised as a forum where students and young adults can listen and learn from a keynote speaker. We wanted to listen to Vivek Agnihotri out of pure interest.

Secondly, we wanted to hear “the other point of view” without any reservations.

I have asked this question before and I will ask this question again: What is freedom?

For generations, the Kashmiri people have been chasing freedom.

Unfortunately, the call for freedom has been falling on deaf ears.

And this seemed to be a place where the other side of the Kashmir dilemma, would voice their concerns and rationale behind their motives.

But the moment we walked in, we were met with hostility.

I was asked to put my phone away. I was told to “act accordingly. This is our event.”

There were very few students or young people at the venue.

This did not have the feeling of a student driven event.

It felt — to me at least — as though the Hindu Student Council’s event had been hijacked by a crowd that wanted to push a Hindu Nationalist agenda.

However, it was imperative that my friend and I remained composed.

We were in a temple, after all.

We had to respect a house of prayer just as what we would want in a mosque.

For about an hour, I heard anti-Kashmiri Muslim rhetoric.

I heard the crowd give thunderous applause while Agnihotri called Muslims ”barbarians”.

Agnihotri’s hate speech did not stop there. He deliberately overlooked the systematic issues in Kashmir.

He blamed poverty rate in Kashmir on Muslims. This is a right wing talking point. The Hindu newspaper showed in an article in September that Kashmir’s poverty rate is far lower than most states in India. (Jammu & Kashmir’s Human Development Index is also higher than Gujarat — Editor)

He also insinuated that all Muslims are “Jihadis”.

He described the forced migration of Pandits as the only human rights violation in the Valley.

He insinuated that ethnic cleansing of Muslims of Kashmir was the only way to return Kashmir back to normalcy.

The diversity that has been a hallmark for Jammu and Kashmir seemed to be an afterthought for him.

The crowd cheered on his hate speech while my friend and I were forced to put on poker faces.

After the speech, Vivek opened the floor for questions from the younger audience.

Since there were very few young adults, my hand was raised in a sea of older gentlemen glaring at me.

I thanked him for visiting New Jersey and asked two questions:

What do you plan on doing with the Muslim population in Kashmir and what does the UN plebiscite calling for Kashmiri self-determination mean to you?

Both of my questions were dismissed with no real answer. The crowd heckled me as I stated my questions while Agnihorti claimed that the Kashmiri land is not for the Muslims that live there then described the UN resolution that called for a referendum to the dispute as “wrong”.

This is when the tide changed.

He called me to the front and asked me where I was from. I softly responded by saying I am from Kashmir.

He asked where was Kashmir located. I softly responded by saying Kashmir is in Kashmir.

The crowd was infuriated and Vivek was caught off guard.

The strong Kashmiri identity rhetoric was puzzling for him and his crowd.

Their reaction was daunting.

One of the leaders of the event went towards my friend to ask him to stop recording. Naturally, he pushed back. She grabbed his phone and stopped the recording. We were separated by the crowd. I kept my calm, telling myself this is a temple. I was mobbed.

On my way out I was cursed in what seemed to be a million languages. I was being escorted by the event organizers but a good fraction of the crowd stood up to meet me as I was heading towards the exit. Hands were put on me. It was a struggle to keep moving forward with all the bodies in front of me. I was greeted with curses in Hindi, Gujarati, and English.

I kept hearing words that claimed how I should be thanking the Indian army for some reason. I even was punched in the back of the head on my way out. I turned around to ask who hit me, but no one stepped up. There were so many men in front of me, the punch could have come from any one of them. I was steadily pushed out the hall.

My last statement to the crowd:

“I have been hit, mobbed, and cursed on my way out. Not once did I curse back in your temple. Free my people.”

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