Kashmiri American, Social Activist, prominent Architect designs Namal university master plan in Pakistan, and a friend of Imran Khan – for BJP all the ingredients to call him an ISI agent. Tony Ashai opens up on how he moved from wining and dining with top stars to advocating Kashmiri cause post-August 5.
GVS: I would like to start with a tweet you did a couple of weeks ago, where you expressed your disappointment with Kashmiris, and you talked about how much the diaspora was doing versus Kashmir, what was on your mind?
Tony Ashai: Well actually, the way the whole thing started was that someone sent me a little video clip in which two Kashmiris were fighting over petty things in Kashmir, like a job or something.
I got thinking that big things are happening in Kashmir and these people are so involved in little things, and here we are jeopardizing our business, our social contacts and working hard. And I felt at that time that Kashmiris could do more in terms of non-violent protest or something like that.
GVS: By non-violent protests, what do you have in mind, coming out on the street or keeping a fast?
Tony Ashai: It could be any kind of non-violent protest, social disobedience, such as refusing to go to work, because you do not agree with current laws being imposed by the administration. Kashmiris could boycott the people who are in that administration, especially those that live in your neigbourhood, socially boycott them.
So I felt that there were things that Kashmiris in Kashmir could do, but they were not doing, or we don’t see that. And here in America and London, Kashmiris are going out on a limb and propagate their cause and be the voice for Kashmir.
Read more: Challenging Times for Kashmir
GVS: Can you walk us through what kind of things have you done and how successful have you been?
Tony Ashai: we have done a lot of advocacy in the U.S. Congress and Senate, and now with the presidential campaigns going on, American Kashmiris have been supporting both parties, but largely backing Biden, with some for Trump! We have worked with a lot of Congressmen to pass bills and so on.
To give you one example, Dr. Mubeen Shah, was imprisoned for ten months, he was the president of a business group in Kashmir, and he was released because there was a lot of pressure from the U.S. Congressmen on the Indian government. There are other many unjust arrests, and we have been putting pressure on India. India completely underestimated the diaspora and what they could do.
GVS: Recently, ads supporting Kashmiris and highlighting their siege were put up in Times Square in New York. Are you trying to increase the general American public awareness or more specifically targeting legislators or congressmen?
Tony Ashai: We are targeting legislators because as far as the average American is concerned, they don’t care one way or the other. But Congressmen have the power to make an impact with the Indian government. Our goal was that after August 5 happened last year, and how Modi cut everyone’s internet and television, and in effect imprisoned them.
We felt that we are free, we should raise our voices, and that is when the American Kashmiri diaspora got together. We held a lot of meetings, and we raised a lot of funds, and we invited a lot of legislators, Congressmen, and Senators. I invited a few to my house. Everybody came and met, and they listened, and not a lot of these people had an idea.
Why do I feel that Kashmiris living in Kashmir could do more but they aren’t? Ever since Aug 5 last year I see Diaspora here in US and elsewhere working day and night to advocate the cause but I don’t see the same energy among Kashmiris in Kashmir. Why?
— Tony Ashai Design (@tonyashai) July 21, 2020
I remember the first time I met with one Congressmen, who was a supporter of Modi, and then when I told him who Modi was, that he belonged to the RSS and I told him RSS was like a Nazi group in India.
They hate Jews, and they hate Muslims. He didn’t believe me and asked me to send him some documentation, and then I sent him a lot of documentation, and he understood, and refused to meet Modi in Houston, and supported our cause.
I want to clarify one more thing, the tweet you talked about in the first question, when I tweeted that I received a lot of opposition from Kashmiris, saying you don’t know anything, you live in America, that is when I realized that in Kashmir it is very difficult to do civil disobedience or even to socially boycott these people, especially those related to the administration.
There is a journalist, Qazi Shibli when the whole Indian media was labeling me as an ISI agent and Pakistani; he wrote an article in his newspaper ‘Kashmirwala’ saying that “Tony is just being used to silence Kashmiris.” Next day he was called in by the police, and he got arrested, and he’s still in jail just for writing an article.
GVS: So tell us about your evolution, you have been in America since 1990’s – how actively have you been working on the Kashmiri cause – recently after August 5 or have you been at it for a while?
Tony Ashai: I will be honest with you. I never got involved in politics. I have friends all over the world, in India and Pakistan, I never discussed politics, even when I met Imran Khan 15 years ago, knowing he was getting into that direction.
But what happened on August 5, 2019, it was an awakening for all of us, that this could happen in this century, in this day and time that a prime minister of a democratic country, can imprison 8 million people.
So you get upset at this, and what else could I do? So I started tweeting. Before that, I never used the platform even though I set it up several years ago and had around 600 followers; now, I have almost 30,000 followers.
GVS: Do you find social media effective at advocating the Kashmiris case? How are you finding it?
Tony Ashai: I am a little disappointed because a lot of the times people are doing this to cater to their ego, but the big question is, does it bring any change? I follow a lot of Kashmiris, so I put a tweet out, stating that I have been doing this for over a year now, and I don’t see change taking place on the ground. Is it worth it? Why should I continue doing this? To which everybody said – you must it gives us hope.
GVS: Do you think you are realistic, though? You mentioned you have been doing it for a year and you started expressing your disappointment? What about the people who have been calling for change past 70 years? Do you think you are too early in expressing your disappointment?
Tony Ashai: My disappointment is towards social media, not necessarily towards the issue. I am saying there are two ways to get involved in any issue in this day and time, one is social media; actively involved through social media, and the other is quiet diplomacy; you could be working behind the scenes.
I don’t know which one is more effective? One caters to your ego, by all the people you are interacting with, and the other is the quiet guy – nobody knows him but who behind the scenes meets the people and works with the Congressmen, Senator and the President. So I am not sure that social media brings about the change.
GVS: Do you think that other Kashmiri Americans have also been propelled since August 5 to work and actively support Kashmiris in India or were there already significant numbers working on this before?
Tony Ashai: No. I think I would say the majority of them got activated after August 5, 2019. There was a small group that was always working and had made associations, Kashmiri American groups and so on. But, they were not active on social media or specifically for a cause, they would meet for a good dinner and a chat, etc., but actively working on an agenda is seen after the August 5.
GVS: You mentioned the U.S. elections are coming up, do you think one side might take a stronger position on Kashmir versus the other? Trump has mentioned that he would like to mediate on the issue. Is there a clear difference in Kashmir between the presidential camps?
Tony Ashai: In the past, we have had Republicans as supporters, Congressmen Dan Burton from Indiana in the late 1990s, he was the spokesmen for Kashmir, we all wrote checks for him. But unfortunately, the party has got hijacked by right-wing neo-Nazi groups, that hate everybody, especially all brown people.
So everybody has kind of shifted towards the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party accepted them and became more vocal about their cause. Donald Trump is a unique case; I have worked with him in the past when he was a developer. He is a strange person. He doesn’t go by what the party wants him to do. He says what he has to say. Trump could be a great asset, great help for Kashmir!
GVS: So do you recommend Kashmiri Americans vote for Trump then?
Tony Ashai: Yeah but the thing is that we could vote for him, but he could go for Modi! Nobody can force Trump to be in a camp he doesn’t want to be in, he can change. So he is really unpredictable.
GVS: You have been recently vilified, a week ago the BJP and Indian Media strongly attacked you for your links to Pakistan and alleged you were and ISI agent! Does this mean that you were more successful on Twitter than you thought you were?
Tony Ashai: I don’t really know it could be a lot of things. They associated me as an ISI/Pakistani agent, and then they connected me with Shahrukh Khan. I don’t know whether they were going after Shahrukh Khan or me?
I got threatening emails and calls, in many words, basically threatening to kill me. People sent me emails saying they would do to me, what they did to my uncle, Dr. Farooq Ashai, who was assassinated by the Indian Forces in the early 1990s for Human rights work.
I had to change my phone number; they got my number, Whatsapp, etc. I asked people why me? So many people tweet about Kashmir, people in India who tweet against Modi. Somebody told me it is because of my proximity to Imran Khan.
GVS: How do you see the way forward? What does American Kashmiri diaspora need to continue doing to highlight the issue? The fact that now you have faced some of the threats to some extent, you can empathize with Kashmiris even more now, with what they are going through.
Tony Ashai: Absolutely, This dawned on me, that tweet I did, now I understand why they are not doing it. They are just scared out there. There is zero tolerance for any dissent from any Kashmiri for Modi.
They will tolerate from other places, but in Kashmir, no voice can speak against Modi or his administration. If they did, they would be arrested, killed, or their houses were blown up, and the people they get scared. Plus there is no leader out there.
GVS: What role does the diaspora play in highlighting this issue and bringing it to some kind of resolution, do you think you can play an active role like that?
Tony Ashai: Most people who live outside Pakistan or India, they understand that this issue cannot be resolved between India and Pakistan. No matter what Pakistan does, India will not accept it because India is sitting on this plot of land and has occupied it, and even though you have all the documents, in that part of the world that doesn’t mean anything.
In the final stage, the only way Kashmir will ever get resolved is if there is international pressure on India and that pressure has to be built up. I advised Imran Khan that this is only going to happen if there is pressure from other countries.
The pressure should be put on India to come to the negotiating table. The diaspora can play a role to convince their government, in whichever country they live in, to put pressure on India to come to the table for talks between Pakistan and India.
GVS: What are your thoughts on the new political map Pakistan introduced, that incorporated IOK, with this being subjected to the U.N. resolution? What do you think of this strategy?
Tony Ashai: I think it’s a good strategy, but it needs to be followed by something. I think it has to be the first step to multiple steps. I don’t know what their strategy is but if it is just a map, and throwing it out there, would not do anything.
But if it’s a map that justifies an action that Pakistan is going to take whether it is political or in support of Kashmiri’s based on this map, then it would be a good step. I agree with the fact that Kashmir should have a right to choose their destiny; that is what our struggle is for. Whether they choose Pakistan or not, that should be their right.
I believe that majority of Kashmiris will choose Pakistan and that is why India is afraid to hold a plebiscite and will never do a referendum until it is sure that the majority will choose India because they know that the majority wants Pakistan.