Skip to main content

Lessons from BLM, Kashmir: Empowering youth in conflict zone, grassroots democracy

By Dr Nyla Ali Khan* 

Considering electoral processes in my state of adoption, Oklahoma, are healthier than they are in my state of origin, Jammu and Kashmir, I remind millennials to identify important issues to them as voters, so they are inspired to make a significant difference by participating. I will not deny the feeling of hopelessness that sets in when one sees the implementation of an inequitable law or a policy that legitimizes the deployment of state violence. 
How can structural violence be addressed? How can progressive social and political change be facilitated? Can we recognize the structural aspect of oppression and further emancipatory goals instead of sentimentalizing pain?
On June 1, 2020, I chose to witness grassroots democracy, so I decided to attend the "Demand Justice Protest Rally: Black Lives Matter (BLM)" in OKC. Several of my friends, leaders of faith communities, and current and former elected representatives were there as well. I was keen on showing solidarity with African-American friends who believe that the community can organize and mobilize for social change.
The elected representatives at the rally talked about the importance of diligently working to engage African-Americans in Oklahoma in the processes of democracy. I would argue that in doing so, they furthered a democratic political project in which minority groups were not required to legitimize their identities as victims. On the contrary, they espoused an effective oppositional politics that critiqued exploitative politics, structural inequities, and did not dwindle into sentimental politics. I did not perceive a fetishization of others’ pain or a pathological obsession with violence at that event.
The speakers also underscored the importance of standing up as well as the value of the vote, as opposed to indulging in “the public fascination with torn and opened bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound” (Seltzer 3) It was a rich experience for me to see elected representatives identifying issues that are important to voters, so they are inspired to make a significant difference by participating. No one belittled the importance of community and institution building. And now “public opinion polling,” as Sociologist Alexander points out in his interview with Gudavarthy, “has stunningly demonstrated... white American opinion has come to support BLM and racial justice by a far higher percentage than in the first wave of BLM protests in 2013.”
My understanding of the complex historical labyrinth that Oklahomans are still navigating was enhanced by Suzette Chang, founder and CEO of “Thick Descriptions.” “Thick Descriptions” comprises a team of individuals whose mission is to provide OKEE, Oklahoma Educators Evolve, “a tailored and instructional platform for teachers that lack effective methodologies and/or pedagogies for historically overlooked youth.”
OKEE is in response to a rich community of European-American female teachers who offer investment and great intentions; it is this framework that overlooks the experiences of historically marginalized Oklahoma youth (e-mail to author, August 6, 2020). In an additional program, Elephant in the Room Unboxed (EITRU), a monthly conversation that addresses uncomfortable and present topics, I learned about EITRU when Chang invited me to speak at their "teach-out" on “women and Incarceration in Oklahoma.” The program encompassed a critically engaged panel discussion comprising scholars, women that had been incarcerated, “Thick Descriptions” staff, and local officials.
Our shared values and interests regarding social justice, political enfranchisement, calling out systemic discrimination, and working in the community to advocate for peace and justice led me to pose the following questions to Chang: How does family resilience enable them to rebuild their lives? Can education have an impact outside the classroom?
Chang contextualized the multi-layeredness of the history of African-Americans in Oklahoma, the impact of formal and informal education, and self-reliance or lack thereof, and recounted her interactions with the residents of a historic rural Black town in Oklahoma, Boley, “which was once a thriving mecca for African-Americans” (ibid). She observed that because of economic challenges, racial discrimination, and segregation that removed African-Americans from predominately white spaces, the residents of Boley were autodidacts who learned through “observation, conversations and hands-on learning.” “Traditional learning,” she adds, supplemented the knowledge gained at home.
Younger generations emulated the values of the generations that preceded theirs, which girded “their education.” The skills that young people cultivated by imbibing the fortitude and stoicism of their predecessors grounded “them to withstand adversity during the 21st century” (ibid). Chang reminds me that in the late 1800s the nation-wide “Black town development was marked by a sense of self-respect and completion.” African Americans aspired “to outdo white towns” by laying a strong foundation and building an impregnable fortress on it.
After Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907, a Black town like Boyle “served as an opportunity for African Americans to gain autonomy and be self-sufficient,” but it couldn’t escape the insidious influence of racism, which stretched its tentacles into every institution. It wasn’t long before the dawning of the realization on Boley’s residents that they would have to take the bull by the horns and “manage and control what they were responsible for, meaning land, economy, education, politics, and Boley pride.”
A strong collective identity and a well-fortified sense of self ensured that Boley had a progressive educational system, participatory politics, cohesive social system, and political autonomy, placing it ahead of several white Oklahoma towns in the early 1900s (Johnson 2002). Strategies deployed to suppress the black voters of Boley, which is still a common practice vis-à-vis the African-American community in the United States, did not discourage the commitment of “Boley residents to be self-sufficient, vote and run their affairs in their town” (Chang, e-mail to author, August 6, 2020).
Through her conversations with members of the local community, she discerned that “what resonated within each interviewee is an informal learning methodology, a practice among Boley residents that pushes against traditional learning styles and stems from historical understandings, observations and cultural intelligence” (ibid).
Their practice does not suggest that love for literature is absent in their daily lives. In fact, it is their strategy of formal and informal learning that strengthens their collective and individual woven identities. Their cultural intelligence is a collaboration of innate and factual awareness of who they are as young African Americans that live in a historic black town, and are geographically surrounded by communities that do not value their humanity. 
Nyla Ali Khan
She underlines the agential capacities of this marginalized community, who are the “authors and creators of their identities, strategically grounding their understanding of resilience and knowledge.” Their resilience is a combination of reflective memories and identical experiences of their ancestors, which for many is inhumane; however, for this community, each memory is a sustaining factor (ibid).
All of us crave a world in which social justice, political enfranchisement, cultural pride, and self-actualization are the order of the day. The rhetoric of hatred that is palpable the world over undermines rule of law and political accommodation in democratic nations. All well-meaning people are doing their bit to repair divides created by such rhetoric. It was good to see broad-based grassroots politics in action at the rally. I thought it would take me hours to make my way out, but everyone was courteous and people made way for one another.
Should those of us who write on youth movements, people’s movements, and conflict zones accord the authorities more leniency because, legally, the state can claim to have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force? Or should we hold the state and its appendages to a higher standard than militant and vigilante groups? These questions cannot be answered by those invested in the erasure of indigenous histories and asphyxiation of critical thinking.
It is important to explore these questions through personal reflection, because as Nussbaum points out, “the real ‘clash of civilizations’ is not ‘out there,’ between admirable Westerners and Muslim zealots. It is here within each person, as we oscillate uneasily between self-protective aggression and the ability to live in the world with others.”
At the end of my book, “Educational Strategies for Youth Empowerment in Conflict Zones” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), I’ve come full circle and return to where I started: Jammu and Kashmir. Furthering its project of erasing the indigenous history of Jammu and Kashmir, Prime Minister Modi’s BJP government has dropped July 13 (Martyr’s Day) and December 5 (the birth anniversary of the first Muslim Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah) from the calendar of public holidays of the now-Union Territory.
The project of the BJP and its appendages to ride roughshod over the history of Kashmiri nationalism and the evolution of political consciousness in Kashmir, which began much before 1989, continues unabated. Such erasures must not be allowed to excise the historical memory that includes humanitarian and pluralistic endeavours of South Asian leaders after the independence and partition of India (Khan, “Erasing Indigenous History of Kashmir”).
I reiterate that this book, in taking multidisciplinary approaches to human rights issues, is a dynamic interplay between activists, academics, and clinicians. It reminds me that faith is much greater than mere dogma or tradition. As Anderson observes, “education should expand critical thinking, empathy, and the sense of personal responsibility. If it does these things, silence and injustice exist as anathema to the basic concept of the Common Good” (e-mail to author, September 4, 2020).
To that end, I have contributed to the statewide and discussion program "Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma", organized by Oklahoma Humanities. Kelly Burns, Program Officer of Oklahoma Humanities, points out, with guidance from humanities scholars, librarians, museums, universities, and prisons utilize this program in an effort to explore the human experience through literature. This program opens minds to new perspectives, engages critical thinking, encourages self-reflection and empathy, and a model for civil discourse. (e-mail to author, June 14, 2019)
According to the LM Davis et al’s report for RAND Institute, inmates who participate in any kind of educational program behind bars are up to 43 percent less likely to return to prison. Every dollar invested in correctional education, RAND concluded, saves nearly five in reincarceration costs over three years.
As an Oklahoma Humanities Scholar, I have given lectures at Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility, which is an Oklahoma Department of Corrections prison for women (“Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, August 24, 2018; Jonathan Tropper’s “This is Where I Leave You,” April 6, 2018; Robert M Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” May 17, 2019). My emphasis in those lectures was that faith is the courage to bridge divides and to pave the way for the education of the younger generation, which focuses on pedagogical reform.
Faith is the ability to organize and mobilize for social change, which requires the creation of awareness not just at the individual level but at the collective level as well. Burns notes that through evaluation forms, participants from Mabel Bassett Correction Facility from McCloud, Oklahoma, revealed that they felt “empowered” by my talks and that “they learned how to better recognize their value as women.” They also observed, Burns points out, that I “genuinely listened to them and cared about what they had to say.”
Comments indicated that my sessions made them feel that “although they came from different backgrounds, they have a lot to learn about and from each other; they don’t have to bear their struggles alone, and that people who are different can still come together as a family” (email to author, June 14, 2019). I was gratified that, as they revealed in the evaluation forms, they felt I gave them “a safe environment for self-expression” (ibid).
---
*Author of several published articles, book reviews and editorials, Dr Nyla Ali Khan has edited Parchment of Kashmir, a collection of essays on Jammu and Kashmir, and has written  several books

Comments

TRENDING

Vaccine nationalism? Covaxin isn't safe either, perhaps it's worse: Experts

By Rajiv Shah  I was a little awestruck: The news had already spread that Astrazeneca – whose Indian variant Covishield was delivered to nearly 80% of Indian vaccine recipients during the Covid-19 era – has been withdrawn by the manufacturers following the admission by its UK pharma giant that its Covid-19 vector-based vaccine in “rare” instances cause TTS, or “thrombocytopenia thrombosis syndrome”, which lead to the blood to clump and form clots. The vaccine reportedly led to at least 81 deaths in the UK.

'Scientifically flawed': 22 examples of the failure of vaccine passports

By Vratesh Srivastava*   Vaccine passports were introduced in late 2021 in a number of places across the world, with the primary objective of curtailing community spread and inducing "vaccine hesitant" people to get vaccinated, ostensibly to ensure herd immunity. The case for vaccine passports was scientifically flawed and ethically questionable.

'Misleading' ads: Are our celebrities and public figures acting responsibly?

By Deepika* It is imperative for celebrities and public figures to act responsibly while endorsing a consumer product, the Supreme Court said as it recently clamped down on misleading advertisements.

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

Magnetic, stunning, Protima Bedi 'exposed' malice of sexual repression in society

By Harsh Thakor*  Protima Bedi was born to a baniya businessman and a Bengali mother as Protima Gupta in Delhi in 1949. Her father was a small-time trader, who was thrown out of his family for marrying a dark Bengali women. The theme of her early life was to rebel against traditional bondage. It was extraordinary how Protima underwent a metamorphosis from a conventional convent-educated girl into a freak. On October 12th was her 75th birthday; earlier this year, on August 18th it was her 25th death anniversary.

Palm oil industry deceptively using geenwashing to market products

By Athena*  Corporate hypocrisy is a masterclass in manipulation that mostly remains undetected by consumers and citizens. Companies often boast about their environmental and social responsibilities. Yet their actions betray these promises, creating a chasm between their public image and the grim on-the-ground reality. This duplicity and severely erodes public trust and undermines the strong foundations of our society.

'Fake encounter': 12 Adivasis killed being dubbed Maoists, says FACAM

Counterview Desk   The civil rights network* Forum Against Corporatization and Militarization (FACAM), even as condemn what it has called "fake encounter" of 12 Adivasi villagers in Gangaloor, has taken strong exception to they being presented by the authorities as Maoists.

No compensation to family, reluctance to file FIR: Manual scavengers' death

By Arun Khote, Sanjeev Kumar*  Recently, there have been four instances of horrifying deaths of sewer/septic tank workers in Uttar Pradesh. On 2 May, 2024, Shobran Yadav, 56, and his son Sushil Yadav, 28, died from suffocation while cleaning a sewer line in Lucknow’s Wazirganj area. In another incident on 3 May 2024, two workers Nooni Mandal, 36 and Kokan Mandal aka Tapan Mandal, 40 were killed while cleaning the septic tank in a house in Noida, Sector 26. The two workers were residents of Malda district of West Bengal and lived in the slum area of Noida Sector 9. 

India 'not keen' on legally binding global treaty to reduce plastic production

By Rajiv Shah  Even as offering lip-service to the United Nations Environment Agency (UNEA) for the need to curb plastic production, the Government of India appears reluctant in reducing the production of plastic. A senior participant at the UNEP’s fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4), which took place in Ottawa in April last week, told a plastics pollution seminar that India, along with China and Russia, did not want any legally binding agreement for curbing plastic pollution.

Mired in controversy, India's polio jab programme 'led to suffering, misery'

By Vratesh Srivastava*  Following the 1988 World Health Assembly declaration to eradicate polio by the year 2000, to which India was a signatory, India ran intensive pulse polio immunization campaigns since 1995. After 19 years, in 2014, polio was declared officially eradicated in India. India was formally acknowledged by WHO as being free of polio.