As India and Pakistan addressed the world this morning from the podium at the United Nations General Assembly, what was estimated to be thousands of protestors gathered just outside. Enclosed by metal barricades several blocks away from the UN’s diplomatic VIP entrance, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs raised signs in support of Kashmir, the disputed region claimed by both countries since 1947.
Narendra Modi spoke first, with a message of “harmony and peace” with emphasis on India’s development achievements and multiple calls to fight terrorism. The Indian Prime Minister, who has embraced the UN’s focus on climate and environment, also dedicated a large part of his speech to India’s environmental sustainability, including a campaign to rid the country of single-use plastic.
“All our endeavors, are centered on 1.3 billion Indians,” Modi said. “But the dreams that these efforts are trying to fulfill, are the same dreams that the entire world has, that every country has, and that every society has.”
He did not mention Kashmir – a tactic that Syed Akbaruddin, India’s permanent representative to the UN, described at a press conference earlier this week as “soaring high” if Pakistan “stoops low” by raising the uncomfortable issue: On August 5, Modi’s government stripped autonomy from India-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, sent in tens of thousands of additional troops, and imposed a strict communications blackout and curfew on citizens living there. New Delhi has said that the change would aid in the fight against terrorism, bring economic benefits to the region, and that the lockdown would be gradually lifted.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has been accused of promoting Hindu concerns to the detriment of Muslims and other minorities in states like Jammu and Kashmir, and in Assam, where the local government recently left nearly 2 million residents off a citizenship list. The closest that Modi got to broaching these sensitive national debates over territory, nationalism and identity on Friday was his quote of an ancient Tamil poem: “We belong to all places, and to everyone.” “This sense of belonging beyond border is unique to India,” he added.
About an hour later, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan responded with passion, citing a different 1.3 billion figure. “There are 1.3 billion Muslims in this world,” he said and warned the assembly against rising Islamophobia. “We in Muslim countries watch this Islamophobia traveling abroad and it’s getting worse,” he said.
Echoing earlier speeches this week, Khan also referenced the Rohingya crisis, and denounced India’s crackdown in Kashmir – a Muslim-majority state – as a step toward an eventual “blood bath.”
Citing the curfew imposed on Kashmiri residents, arrests of their political leadership, and the alleged rounding up of thousands of men and boys in the region, Khan told the great hall that Kashmiris under state pressure could end up radicalized. While India has told the world that unrest in the state is minor and that life is returning to normal, suspended communications mean few reassurances are coming directly from residents, and rumors abound.
“I picture myself… I’m in Kashmir, I’ve been locked up for 55 days, I’ve heard about rapes, Indian army going into homes, soldiers. Would I want to live this humiliation? Would I want to live like that? I would pick up a gun. You’re forcing people into radicalization. When people lose the will to live, what is there to live for?” asked Khan.
He also warned that India’s actions in Kashmir could provoke nuclear war between the two countries and called on the UN to intervene.
(Despite his broadside on Islamophobia, Khan did not mention Xinjiang – a region of China not far from Pakistan’s border – where the Muslim-majority Uighur population is closely surveilled and funneled into camps that state describes as vocational training centers. Khan has previously dodged the Xinjiang issue, and China is a major trading partner for his country.)
Several protestors outside the UN told CNN that they had listened to both speeches (all General Debate speeches can be livestreamed) and approved of Khan’s message. “The way he raised his voice for Kashmir was incredible,” said Naila Khan, 31.
Born in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, she had joined the crowds packed into Manhattan’s 47th Street to protest India’s actions in Kashmir. “We are here to protest against India in the Kashmir dispute,” she said. “Let Kashmiri people decide which country they want to be with.”
Protestors Qastiya Ali, 63, and her husband Mohammed Ali, 70, said they had multiple relatives in Indian-controlled Kashmir, including an uncle and a son-in-law in the city of Srinagar, and had not been able to get in touch with them for weeks. Referring to Khan’s speech, both said they would not support a war between Pakistan and India.
Not all protestors were in support of the Pakistani Prime Minister – or each other. Small groups could be seen squaring off and shouting over corruption in the Pakistan government, its treatment of Afghans, and of Christians, while others unfurled prayer rugs and protest banners on the ground in preparation for an afternoon prayer.
One of the organizers, rights advocacy group Sikhs for Justice, estimated that more than 10,000 protestors had gathered by noon on Friday.
Allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir have dogged Modi throughout a whirlwind tour meant to showcase his global leadership. Just before he kicked off his time in the US with a 50,000 person “Howdy Modi” rally alongside US president Trump in Texas, two US residents of Kashmiri origin and an activist group announced the filing of a lawsuit against him, alleging that relatives had been injured in the Aug. 5 crackdown. India’s mission to the UN did not respond to requests for comment about the lawsuit.
Later that week, as Modi embarked on an unprecedented number of appearances around the United Nations in New York, process servers for the lawsuit followed him around, attempting to serve the Prime Minister a paper summons, with little success. Nevertheless, Modi’s star doesn’t seem to have dimmed among the world’s political and business leaders. He was among the first to speak at the UN’s special summits on climate change and universal healthcare. He gave the keynote address to CEOs at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum, and was honored for his development work at the Gates Foundation’s Global Goalkeeper Awards, despite the protestors just outside.
In total, Modi’s schedule at UNGA this week included meetings with 75 different heads of states or foreign ministers, Akbaruddin says, which he credits to more nations looking to form strong “south-south” relations with Modi’s India. No meeting between Khan and Modi was planned during this week.
CNN’s Elizabeth Joseph in New York and Bethlehem Feleke in Atlanta contributed to this report.