UChicago Students Gained Hands-On Human Rights Experience on Service Trip to India
As Winter Quarter finals receded into memory and spring break began, six University of Chicago Law School students set off on a research trip halfway around the world from Hyde Park and worlds away from their everyday lives. The law students, as well as two University of Chicago social work students, were selected to participate in the Law School’s inaugural international spring break of service trip organized by the Human Rights Law Society. Those students included Kelly Albinak, ’11, Subha Chauhan, LLM’11, Laura Jean Eichten, ’13, Audrey Gilliam, ’12, Maya Ibars, ’11, Deanna Lesht, SSA’11, Megan McDermott, SSA’12, and Angus Ni, ’13.
The Law School, University student government, and other student organizations, most notably Spring Break of Service, generously supported the trip. The trip was designed to provide students, already well accustomed to working with the theoretical, an opportunity to gain hands-on experience in the human rights world. To that end, they traveled to Jammu, a city in the North of India close to the Pakistan border, to investigate the ongoing plight of the Kashmiri Pandit migrants.
Kashmiri Pandits are a small sect of Hindu Brahmins that had been living alongside Kashmiri Muslims in the foothills of the Himalayas for centuries. When violence erupted in the Kashmir Valley in late 1989, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits were forced to abandon their homes and businesses. Some fled to New Delhi or even abroad, but most fled to the city of Jammu, one of two seasonal capitals of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Those who fled intended to return home as soon as the violence abated. Most expected it would be no more than a few months. More than 20 years later, however, most are still living in the migrant camps initially established for their temporary residence.
The students’ objective was to investigate the living conditions of the migrants and the services they are provided by the government, as well as the likelihood of their eventual return to the Valley. Accordingly, they arranged meetings with academics, legislators, and policymakers in order to gather information from across a broad range of perspectives. The students interviewed politicians charged with safeguarding the welfare of the migrants and sustaining a political dialogue aimed at resolving the Valley’s security issues once and for all. Numerous scholars from the University of Jammu also shared insights into the history and culture of the Kashmiri Pandits and described the legal implications of their current state of limbo. In essence, the Pandits face a dilemma–their ties to their historical homeland have been severed, but they have yet to entirely commit to living as a diaspora.
The highlights of the trip were excursions to the migrant camps where the law students, assisted by University of Jammu students volunteering as translators, met and interviewed Kashmiri Pandit migrants. Many of the migrants invited the students into their homes, offered them tea, and patiently answered questions about their standard of living, level of happiness, and desire to return home. The Kashmiri Pandits proved to be an open people, more than willing to share with strangers even the most painful details of their personal stories. The students were able to interview men and women of all ages and, in many cases, several people per family. Notably, while older generations of Kashmiri Pandits spoke fondly of their homeland and would happily return were it safe to do so, the younger generation had only memories of the migrant camps. Very few have even visited the Valley. Instead, the younger Kashmiri Pandits are increasingly integrated into Jammu society and less interested in moving to a homeland they do not know. Ultimately, the migrant interviews will form the foundation of the trip report the students are currently compiling in the hopes of raising awareness about one example, although not the only example, of how India is grappling with issues of forced migration.
Another central aspect of the trip was the fostering of institutional connections, most notably with the University of Jammu. The University provided trip participants with complimentary room and board throughout the trip, transportation throughout the area in a University vehicle, and facilitated numerous interactions with student groups. The University of Chicago students were invited to attend a meeting of the National Service Scheme (NSS), a national service organization that facilitates public service by Indian university students, where they received honorary plaques and memorabilia. The trip leaders, Maya Ibars and Subha Chauhan, also traveled to New Delhi to participate in an alumni reception being held in conjunction with an academic conference marking the opening of the University of Chicago’s new institute for advanced study in India. They shared news of the human rights efforts with alumni in India and gave Professor Martha Nussbaum and Dean Michael Schill a real-time update on the trip activities, while fostering greater ties with Maroons on the other side of the globe.
Last, but certainly not least, the trip also provided the students with an opportunity to partake in an unparalleled cultural experience, including the celebration of the spring festival of Holi. Holi is a joyous holiday commemorated by smearing powdered dyes on the faces of friends and family members. The students celebrated the day at a picnic along the banks of the Tawi River with newfound friends and photographed the changing color palettes of their faces throughout the festivities. Holi, however, was just one of many unique and formative experiences the students had the privilege to enjoy throughout their 12-day trip to India. The report chronicling their work in greater detail will be available this summer.
Go to this slideshow to see photos from the students' trip.