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Kashmiri activists present to students, draw hecklers

Hecklers shouted at Kashmiri activists in the Student Center theater, forcing UHPD to be called. | Trevor Nolley/The Cougar

Hecklers shouted at Kashmiri activists in the Student Center Theater, forcing UHPD to be called. | Trevor Nolley/The Cougar

Shouting erupted Thursday in the darkness of the Student Center Theater as guest speakers reviewed the history of the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir. The uproar forced the event to be placed on hold as organizers waited for University police to arrive to the theater.

In recent months, Kashmir has become one of the most militarized regions in Asia following the revocation of an article in the Indian Constitution designed to give the region autonomy in its own governance.

The event, hosted Sept. 26 and dubbed “Beyond Nationalism: What’s Happening in Kashmir?” featured activists who spoke of the rising tensions in the region and was met with bitter shouting from some attendees.

“The ultimate goal of it was to educate the community about it and give people content and empowerment,” said anthropology junior Shawn Jafri. “They can then be a voice for the people who don’t have voices.”

The presentation consisted of discussion and a series of slides depicting the Kashmiri history and politics of the region. At one point, graphic photos were projected onto the stage featuring Kashmiri protests from 2016.

“This is a school teacher,” said Kashmiri activist Muzaffar Hussain, as a photo flashed on the screen. “He was tortured, and he was killed.”

Local surgeon Dr. Wasim Dar, another speaker at the event, recently visited the region and explained what he saw as a lack of access to medical care and scant resources for the people of Kashmir, pointing the blame to India.

“There is a critical shortage of medicines and supplies that people were not able to access,” Dar said. “The medical situation in Kashmir is dire, critical and is 100 percent a function of the actions of the Indian government.”

While the event aimed to educate, it faced countless interruptions as several members of the audience let it be known they disagreed with the speakers’ perspectives.

Facilitators urged spectators of both sides to maintain decorum, even while repeated heckling put the presentation on hold twice.

“Be respectful to the speaker, be respectful to the organizers and volunteers and to your fellow audience members,” said political science sophomore Wasiq Javed, taking the stage after the interruptions. “It’s not going to help if we keep provoking each other.”

The event, jointly organized by more than half a dozen student organizations, was originally scheduled for Sept. 19 but was postponed when Houston faced flooding from Tropical Storm Imelda.

“It really shows the solidarity that UH students are not only willing to give, but want to give,” said biology sophomore Nathaniel Schendel-Barajas. “The students of UH are really committed to wanting justice everywhere, not just here.”

Last month, President Renu Khator attended “Howdy Modi,” a community summit headlined by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump.

During the event, Khator made several social media posts, including at least one where she was seen alongside Modi in a series of photos.

“I have been proud to help implement PM Modi’s higher education agenda for several years. Welcome to Houston!” the tweet said.

Students expressed frustration with her attendance at the summit, linking Modi and his political group, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to the broader issues Kashmir is facing.

“She is the president of one of the most diverse universities in the U.S.,” said political science and economics junior Syed Naqvi. “I viewed it as a slap to the face.”

Modi, who in 2005 was the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, was barred from entering the U.S. after a series of riots left hundreds dead. The ban was subsequently lifted in 2014 by President Barack Obama.

The University said in a statement that Khator’s work as an adviser to the Indian government has spanned across multiple administrations, not solely under Modi’s.

“President Khator has advised India’s Ministry of Education on its higher education system for the last 10 years,” the statement said, ”beginning with a request under former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh focused on policy. Her work continues today under PM Modi.”

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