‘Spurring dialogue’: Ashoka raises funds for Kashmir Relief Fund through Diwali

Marc Ridgell | Contributing Writer

Dancing, expression, fashion, music and skits will all combine at the Diwali showcase this weekend, Nov. 8 and 9. Diwali, a typically Hindu festival celebrated by individuals across the South Asian diaspora, started on Sunday, and the holiday will last throughout this week. Ashoka, the South Asian Student Association at Washington University, puts on their annual showcase of the same name.

Ashoka not only provides students with a beautiful showcase to conclude the globally celebrated “Festival of Lights,” which emphasizes a history of shining light over darkness and practicing good over evil, the group chooses a philanthropic initiative to coincide with each production. This year Ashoka is planning to donate all revenue from Diwali that is not used to cover the costs of the production to the Kashmir Relief Fund (KRF).

The KRF provides resources to affected people living in the Kashmir Valley, Jammu and Kashmir territory, which surrounds the India and Pakistan border. The conflict has lasted in the region for about 70 years. However, with violence suddenly increasing in the last year, “around 8 million people are in a technology blackout,” junior Belal Jamil, one of the philanthropy chairs of Ashoka, said. “So, the reason we chose [Kashmir] is because a lot of people don’t understand how severe the situation is there. Like, it’s [the] most highly militarized area in the entire world.”

“People will call it [an] open-air prison,” junior Siddhi Vora, the other philanthropy chair of Ashoka, said. “And I know traditionally people don’t like to talk about Kashmir because there’s so much nationalist fervor around it.”

Even though there are conflicts among individuals when it comes to opinions about the Jammu and Kashmir region, Ashoka chose to donate to the KRF because they focus on “bringing access to basic needs such as healthcare, education opportunities, housing, orphans, providing basic shelter, food and provisions,” Jamil said. “We [were] very intentional with the charity we chose because we didn’t want to be tied to either side of the conflict. So, we chose helping a relief and development [organization], which, even though it is a Pakistani charity, their mission statement states how they just want to help as many people in Kashmir as possible regardless of political stances.”

Ashoka’s mission is to fundraise for people suffering across the South Asian diaspora through philanthropic efforts, as they see it as a duty to use the opportunity they have to raise awareness.

“We feel that we have such a big platform right now,” Vora said. “And it would be a waste of our efforts not [to] do something while we’re doing that (Diwali).”

“While we do love that we’re able to donate this money into Kashmir, we also realize just throwing money at issues isn’t the way to solve them,” Jamil said. “The way that we find rewarding…is just by spurring dialogue in conversations about this. We all agree that [it’s] the best way to have actual change happen. So, if we’re able to kind of defuse the tension over Kashmir and realize that, regardless of what side you’re on, there are people unjustly suffering in this region.”

Ashoka’s philanthropic outreach greatly represents the ability to provide light in historical and current tensions. Furthermore, the cultural representation that this weekend’s showcase will bring to campus this year holds value.

“For this year’s Diwali, both the cultural chairs responsible for its organizing and running the entire show [are] both Muslim,” Jamil said. “And in the past, I do believe that [Diwali] has been more Hindu and Indian-centric. But that’s something that Ashoka has worked really hard at trying to fix, and making [sure] that Diwali is a performance [and] place for anyone who’s interested in South Asian culture or identifies as South Asian.”

With this cultural representation in mind, Vora made the decision to present their charity of choice through a performance instead of their typical presentation.

“So traditionally…the PHILSAs (Philanthropy Social Awareness Chairs) usually go out there [on stage] and…give a presentation [about the philanthropic efforts]. But this year, we’ve decided to, because Kashmir is such a taboo topic, do a performance this year, and we’re really excited to show people.”

The artistic expression behind this performance has contextual and significant meaning, as it draws on Hindi culture and phrases.

“There’s going to be a video playing in the background; there’s going to be dancers and a live singer. And the song is called ‘Jaggo,’ [which] means ‘wake up’ in Hindi. It’s a metaphor for, you know, pursue the information yourself, [and] find out what’s actually happening. Don’t listen to propaganda and, in an age of fake news, go out there, do your own research [and] form your own opinions.”
This style for Diwali is unlike any style they have performed before, and this is especially “poignant,” as Vora said, because this is the showcase’s 30th anniversary.

All the philanthropic efforts, cultural significance and creativity that the Diwali team has implemented are reasons to see this beautiful showcase this weekend.

“Especially with the performance…This is something that we’ve never done before,” Jamil said. “And just like seeing the initial reactions, we really thought it was impactful. So yeah, I’m super excited.”

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