Nineteen-year-old twins Ahmad and Hamza Pasha had never been to a protest before. But, for them, the crisis in Kashmir was worth giving up their Sunday.
“This is important to me and I’m willing to sacrifice the time and effort to be here,” said Hamza, holding a sign that read “end Indian colonization in Kashmir.”
“It doesn’t matter what religion you are, it’s just the fact that we’re all human, it’s about people hearing your own voice.”
The brothers were part of the hundreds of protesters gathered outside Toronto city hall Sunday for a peaceful rally to support the people of Kashmir.
Waving Pakistani flags and holding signs that read “Kashmir bleeds,” they chanted “freedom” while listening to speakers under the trees on the south side of Nathan Phillips Square facing Queen St.
The Muslim-majority region, which sits between India and Pakistan, has been divided between the two nuclear-armed countries since 1947. But in early August the Indian government revoked a section of its constitution that had allowed the state of Jammu and Kashmir — on the Indian side — control over its own affairs.
This has been followed by a security crackdown, blackout and curfew, cutting people off from the internet, phones and the rest of the world.
Speakers told the crowd about family members and friends in the state that they hadn’t heard from, and urged Justin Trudeau’s government to speak up.
The Pasha brothers, both students at Brock University, came from Mississauga on one of the yellow school buses that ferried protesters from as far away as Windsor and Niagara, organized by local community groups and mosques.
They said they didn’t have a personal connection to the region, but that shouldn’t matter.
“We’re all just people,” Hamza said. “We’re all similar in so many different ways.”
They’d both like Trudeau to make a statement condemning India’s actions in Kashmir, and the United Nations to do more.
According to The Associated Press, restrictions in Kashmir continue, despite the Indian government saying it was starting to restore phone lines and ease up on security this weekend.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has defended the changes in Kashmir. He sees them as freeing the region from separatists.
The New York Times reported on Aug. 10 from Srinagar, Kashmir’s biggest city, that residents need to have a curfew pass to leave their homes, even for medical emergencies, and essentials like milk and baby food are running out.
That’s something that worries Samreen Imran, who came to the rally from Milton with her young daughter.
“It’s a human rights issue, especially for women and small kids,” she said, holding a “Justice for Kashmir” sign. “They have no mercy.”
On the other side of Nathan Phillips Square, the India Day Festival was setting up, with musical acts practising and food trucks arriving. At one point a group from the rally, some carrying signs comparing Modi to Hitler, began marching towards that end, but they were urged by speakers to turn back, and stopped by police.
Later, a man from the India Day celebrations ran over and started yelling at protesters. But he was quickly put back on his side by an officer.
Markham teacher Maimoona Afroz, from Hyderbrad, India, thought it was important to show support for Kashmir and condemn what’s happening there. She has school friends she grew up with from the region, and has been thinking about them over the last few weeks.
“I was telling my kids, what if I wasn’t allowed to talk to my own mom? Imagine how devastating that is,” she said.
“In 2019 I don’t think this should happen.”
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May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11