By MARGARITE CLAREY
India’s 73rd Independence Day was yesterday met with controversy over its government’s recent decision to revoke autonomy from Jammu and Kashmir, a muslim-majority state.
The division was felt as far away as Federation Square in Melbourne, where hundreds of Kashmiri protestors rallied on Saturday.
The protest was timed to clash with a Bollywood dance competition commemorating Indian Independence Day.
Demonstrator Saba Fatima, 34, said the dance celebration in the middle of Melbourne was offensive to Victorian communities affected by the Kashmir crisis.
“To see an Indian flag, with Indian people enjoying Bollywood, it makes this very stressful time for us so much worse,” Ms Fatima said.
On August 5, the Indian government announced the annulment of Article 370 of the constitution, which retracted the state’s ability to draft its own laws.
In the lead up to the announcement, India detained political leaders and sent thousands of troops into the disputed territory.
Residents were placed under strict curfew and internet and phone lines were shut down.
“I haven’t been able to speak to my family for the last five days. I don’t know if they are ok,” Ms Fatima said.
She said her mother had warned her not to return in the days leading up to the decree.
“She told me: ‘don’t come here, we don’t know if we get food’.”
Demonstrators and those there to celebrate Indian Independence Day each reported the volatile political situation in Kashmir had caused racial tensions to flare in Australia.
A 20 year-old Indian-Australian, who asked not to be named, told MOJO News she rarely received derogatory comments, but had recently been subjected to racial slurs.
“A Pakistani taxi driver asked me where I’m from, when I said India, he told me that we are enemies,” she said.
“It was very uncomfortable.”
Ms Fatima said social media taunts and in the workplace had further frustrated and upset her and other Melburnians with ties to Kashmir.
“Why are they dealing with it so insensitively?” Ms Fatima asked.
“We would expect Indian people to stand up and say 'this is not right, these are violations of human rights',” she said.
“Instead they are dancing.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended his presidential decree during an Independence Day speech from New Delhi.
He said the One Nation, One Constitution strategy would foster investment and development in the troubled region and that the issue could not “be nursed nor kept pending” any longer.
However, United Nations Office for Human Rights (OHCHR) spokesperson Rupert Colville was concerned the latest restrictions would worsen the human rights situation in the disputed region.
“The fact that hardly any information at all is currently coming out from Indian-Administered Kashmir is of great concern in itself,” he said.
A recent OHCHR report revealed the number of casualties reported across both India-and-Pakistan-administered Kashmir in the past year were the highest in more than a decade.
“These restrictions will prevent the people of Indian-Administered Kashmir and their elected representatives from participating fully in democratic debate about the future status of Jammu and Kashmir,” Mr Colville said.
Former Kashmir resident Aetesam Khwaja joined the Federation Square protest because he was outraged by the Indian government's decision.
“You can’t pass a law against a state by putting all the people there under house arrest and curfews. That’s not democracy,” Mr Khwaja said.
“We want the future of Kashmir to be decided by the Kashmiri people. That’s what we are here for.”