FREERUNNER

KASHMIRI YOUTH TURN TO ART AND ACTIVISM TO NAVIGATE A TURBULENT HISTORY.

More than 50,000 Kashmiris have died in the last 25 years because of a long political conflict. The scale of violence in Indian-administered Kashmir has decreased in the last decade but heavy-handed security tactics and a lack of enquiry into state-sanctioned violence continue to widen the trust deficit between Kashmiris and the Indian state.

Local and international human rights organizations accuse India of a legacy of extrajudicial killings, torture and rape. The armed forces killed more than 40 Kashmiri civilians in protests this July.

Today’s young Kashmiris have grown up with the effects of militarization in their homes, schools and streets. Many have picked up pens, spoken out and created art.

“Whenever there was a security force clash, I was the first person to run out of there,” says Zahid Shah, a 23-year-old Kashmiri freerunner. “Some people call me a coward but I know the difference between stupidity and bravery.”

Shah grew up in Kashmir, India and says if he was caught in a protest, he feared the state may withhold his passport or harm his visa prospects. As a young practitioner of parkour – a type of freestyle street gymnastics – he’s determined to improve his skills outside Kashmir if opportunities for the sport don’t improve in the valley.

As a child, Fahad Shah witnessed gun battles between militants on his route to school. He wondered why his teachers never taught him about Kashmir’s history.

Shah turned to journalism. Today, he has published an anthology on Kashmir and written about the valley for local, national and international outlets.

As a child, Latief would cringe when army officers stormed into her carpeted home with muddy boots. The Indian military frequently conducted crackdowns in the nineties to seek out armed militants fighting for independence. Once, Latief says, the army used her older brother as a human shield. He was physically unharmed.

Latief aspired to be a judge to “deliver justice to the people.” Today, after conducting legal research for The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons as part of her work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, she is uncertain. “Laws are used as tools of oppression against us,” Latief says.

Kashmir is shared between nuclear neighbors, India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars over the valley. The conflict dates back to 1947, when the British left the Indian subcontinent, which then split into two. The rulers of each state chose which nation to join. Muslim-majority regions typically acceded to Pakistan and Hindu-majority regions joined India. Kashmir’s accession was complicated because it was a Muslim-majority state geographically contiguous with both nations and ruled by a Hindu Maharajah.

The valley’s ruler at the time, Maharajah Hari Singh, was indecisive and Pakistani tribal raiders invaded Kashmir. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the Maharajah if he acceded to India he would send the army for protection. Singh accepted and this marked the arrival of Indian troops into Kashmir.

The terms of accession specified India only controlled external affairs, defense and communications – limitations that many Kashmiris argue have eroded. The legitimacy of accession has been questioned due to a lack of clarity about when the document was signed and the role of duress. However, at the time, popular Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah backed India over Pakistan. Abdullah became Prime Minister of Kashmir in 1948 but his vision for Kashmiri independence is said to have caused his eventual imprisonment by the Indian state.

In 1948, India approached the UN about Kashmir and stated they would be in favor of a plebiscite in which Kashmiris chose which country to accede to on the conditions that Pakistan vacated Kashmir and India established law and order in the valley. The vote never occurred.

Discontent with the Indian presence led to an armed rebellion in 1989, in which most Kashmiris wanted independence and some wanted to accede to Pakistan. Human rights groups accuse the Indian state of excessive brutality as they crushed the resistance. As part of their strategy, the Indian government created a vicious counter-insurgency unit called the Ikhwan, a group made up of former militants, supplied and protected by the army. At this time, the Hindu Pandit community also fled Kashmir, fearing persecution and violence.

Directed and Produced by Roberto Drilea and Sanya Mansoor

Cinematography: Roberto Drilea

Text: Sanya Mansoor

Creative Advisor: Brent E. Huffman



Music: Kai Engel, Will Bangs, Will Zabriskie and Jon Luc Hefferman



Special Thanks:

The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University

Zahid Shah

Farhana Latief

Fahad Shah

Khurram Parvez

Baba Umar

Wiqar Bashir

Mohammad Sayeed Malik

Mei-Ling Hopgood

Jenna Braunstein

Leah Varjacques

Katherine Nagasawa

Mohammad Muneem

Owais Manzoor

Adil Shalla

Meraj Uddin (Associated Press)



Additional footage and photography courtesy of: The International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice

Khurram Parvez is the program coordinator for the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society – an umbrella organization that investigates human rights abuses in Kashmir. His team has uncovered 2,400 mass graves and named 972 alleged perpetrators of crimes in the state apparatus.

Parvez recalls meeting a young boy who was certain he would learn about his disappeared father’s whereabouts once the organization pledged their support. “It was his innocence but we often don’t have answers for these questions,” he says.