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Kashmir Is Everyone’s Problem: Do Human Rights Matter Anymore?

BY MANISHA GANGULY

On November 13, Khurram Parvez, Kashmiri human rights defender and Chairperson of Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) was awarded the 2016 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award for his continued work on enforced disappearances in the conflict zone. Khurram is currently incarcerated, booked under the Public Safety Act by the Indian state on specious grounds with no evidence. 

The circumstances behind his arrest, like the occupation of Kashmir by Indian Army, is rooted in a gross and illegal violation of human rights. On 15 September 2016, Khurram was invited to speak at the 33rd UN Human Rights Council Session in Geneva, on behalf of AFAD, to brief the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and member governments on the state-licensed atrocities and violence meted out by Indian Armed Forces against Kashmiri civilians. Along with being barred from leaving the country, he was booked under the Act which allows for detention of people on vague claims without evidence for up to two years, without judicial review.

khurramA poster demanding the release of human rights activist Khurram Parvez

Human Rights Watch has previously declared the law to be “vague and overbroad” due to usage of terms such as “security of the state” and “public order” that are not clearly defined and thus “does not meet the requirement of legality under international law”. Khurram was not offered any legal assistance, nor brought before a magistrate after his arrest, as is required in court procedure; in fact, there were no clear charges read against him. On October 19, a special appeal to the Indian government was sent, signed by  Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly. The letter stated that his arrest suggested “a deliberate attempt to obstruct his legitimate human rights activism.” The Indian government responded with silence.

Today marks the 70th day of Khurram’s detention, and the 139th day of curfew in Kashmir- the longest running curfew in Kashmir in Indian history.

The curfew, which was imposed after the killing of rebel leader Burhan Wani, has resulted in indiscriminate arrests of over 10,000 civilians under the Public Safety Act, over 100 civilian deaths by the Indian Army – and most shockingly, the blinding of 17,000 civilians, half of whom are children. The extent of blinding by so-called “non-lethal” pellet guns have been such that the government has been considering making Braille compulsory in schools to accommodate for the generation that has been violently handicapped in the state-sponsored conflict.

However, this violence is not new to Kashmir: the Kashmir Valley holds the world record for being the most highly militarised zone in the world (more than Gaza) with around 1 million troops as recorded in 2013, and is “the longest pending dispute on the planet earth” according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

With recoveries of mass graves, civilian disappearances and mass rapes, it remains the bloodiest unresolved conflict with an indiscriminate violation of human rights: so why isn’t international media talking about it?

The numbers of civilians disappeared during the conflict are enough to provoke an international debate for a resolution. Around 8000-10,000 people have been estimated to have been disappeared by the Indian Army by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), founded in 1994 by Parveena Ahangar. Ahangar’s 17 year old son has been missing since 1990, after being detained in a night raid. Known as the “Iron Lady of Kashmir”, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her fearless work and constant activism, which includes organising sit-ins every week to remind the state of disappeared civilians.

“I went to Europe and gave them the list of disappeared persons, and they attempted to pressurize India, but there was no response. Every human rights defender who works here is in trouble. Our local journalists have been beaten, arrested, humiliated. The Kashmir Reader got banned. We demand Khurram’s immediate release and press attention on the violence in Kashmir. The Indian Media has blacked out everything happening here.”

The curfew conditions in Kashmir have not been given the coverage in mainstream Indian media that it deserves. Parveena says that there is no clear number of exactly how many have been injured by the pellets. Even now, houses are being ransacked, there is an extreme shortage of food and medical supplies, and the subsidised price of rice made available to the locals in Kashmir is unaffordably expensive, so most in the Valley are starving. Civilians are beaten indiscriminately, even if they need to go to the hospital, where further raids take place. In this summer’s curfew, police firing of pellets upon ambulances and injuring medical personnel was a common sight.

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Blood on the streets after clashes between protesters and police/ Photo: The Varmul Post

“This time no one has gone missing. They are getting killed, maimed, blinded in broad daylight and nobody can stop the Indian government. They are experimenting- using new power shells for tear gas that makes us unconscious upon inhaling. Modi [the Prime Minister] is trying to commit a genocide. But I am not scared of anything. My son has been missing for 26 years. I will not give up. I fight for truth,” she says, her voice choking up with anger on the phone.

A report, titled “Buried Evidence“, prepared by APDP, was presented at the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights & Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir (ITPK). It not only listed the intimidation faced by investigators from Indian military personnel, who denied them access to the mass graves, but also contained interviews by Kashmiri civilians who were witnesses to bodies of disappeared civilians being dumped in the river. Most of the bodies recovered had undergone torture and could not be identified. Many of the disappeared were also transported to the Indian state of Gujarat where they were then executed and buried in unmarked graves.

In the Kunan Poshpora rape case, the Indian Army has been accused of mass-raping women in two Kashmiri villages and repeatedly obstructing the judicial process, from intimidation to tampering and disappearance of clinching evidence. In a book titled, Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?, four Kashmiri women have attempted to document the legal obstacles faced in gaining justice for the victims, as well as record the nature and extent of the rapes, described by the Indian Army as a “hoax orchestrated by militant groups to discredit the security forces by indulging in false propaganda with a view to jeopardize the conduct of counter insurgency operations.”

In an interview with Carol Anne Grayson, Essar Batool, one of the four petitioners in the Kunan-Poshpora case recounts: “That night the soldiers raped between 40 to 100 women aged 13 to 80 years and tortured men in storehouses of the village. Women were repeatedly gang raped and men severely tortured. For the next few days the villages were placed under cordon to avoid any legal process by the villagers or to allow the medical examination of the women.”

Despite all the evidence, the Indian government has maintained that the placement of Indian troops in Kashmir under AFSPA are necessary for maintenance of law and order and for curbing “anti-India” militant activities.

Described by the UN as a draconian law, Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) gives power to any warranted or military officer to open fire upon any civilian suspected of “disturbing public law and order”- a vague phrasing that can be modified to defend extra-judicial indiscriminate killings of civilians.

kashmirIndian troops in Kashmir/ Photo: The Varmul Post

In London, a small group of activists are trying to raise awareness about Khurram’s illegal incarceration and the Kashmir curfew. A protest by Kashmir Solidarity Moment Society was organised on 18th November outside the BBC World Services offices in London to garner international media attention, but was called off due to a law and order issue as they did not have police permission.

Ifat Gazia, 24, a graduate of SOAS who organised the protest, is from Srinagar (the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir) herself. “We are gathered outside the BBC World Service because there has been global media silence over the human rights crisis ongoing in the Valley for decades. We want to highlight the crisis to international media platforms and alarm them regarding the situation in Kashmir and Khurram’s arrest. We want to tell them, through this symbolic protest, that they are biased. This is not a small issue -this international conflict deserves attention.”

Ifat had worked with Khurram in 2011 while making a documentary on Kashmir. “I was born in conflict, raised in conflict. Between 2009-11, when I was doing my undergraduate degree for 3 years, we only had 46 days of class. We would go out in the morning and not know if we would return at night.”

The international media silence on the human rights violations is troubling: the BBC has published only one article regarding the mass blinding, preferring to focus on the diplomatic conflict instead, while the Guardian has given it slightly more coverage, with 7 articles, including a long read on the pellet injuries and mass blinding. An attempted genocide by a rogue government that has lost all sense of humanity needs to be called out by the international press and human rights organisations. The latter, however, has also come under attack.

In August of this year, Amnesty International was slapped with a “sedition” charge for organising an event to raise awareness about human rights violations in the Valley through first-person accounts of survivors. The charge, filed by ABVP – the student wing of the ruling far-right party BJP- mentioned ‘unlawful assembly’, ‘rioting’ and ‘promoting enmity’. In response, Aakar Patel, the Executive Director of Amnesty International India, said that “merely organising an event to defend constitutional values is now being branded ‘anti-India’ and criminalised.”

Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and 50 other international activists, scholars, writers and lawyers wrote an open letter earlier this year, demanding the immediate release of Khurram Parvez, and an end to the violence in Kashmir, but this too has fallen on deaf ears. Booker Prize-winning writer Arundhati Roy was slapped with a sedition charge for criticising the Indian occupation of Kashmir and raising the issue of self-determination of the Kashmiri people: these were alleged to be “anti-national” sentiments. If convicted, she could face life imprisonment.

Historically, Kashmiris have only been treated as citizens when the sovereignty of India has been called into question: to mark the territory as an integral part of India, despite the referendum promised to the citizens during the partition of India in 1947. The case for Khurram is a case for Kashmir, and the limits of freedom. In a fractured society over-run by an authoritarian, oppressive, soul-less state, Kashmir remains the land of blood and sorrow: unresolved, unescapable, forever scarred. To turn a blind eye to it would be to sanction the mass blindness of civilians by the Indian State- and confirm, that indeed, some lives matter less than others.


Special thanks to Rayees Rasool and Suvangana Agarwal for translations from Urdu to English
Featured image: Handwara, The Varmul Post

If you’re in London and interested in knowing more about the Kashmir struggle, Professor Dibyesh Anand of the University of Westminster has organised “Kashmiri Politics of Identity/Art/Resistance”, a talk by authors/activists/artists/scholars from Kashmir on Friday 25 November. Register  here. 

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