‘There is strong security response to violent protests in J&K, while elsewhere, those responsible for injuries and deaths are yet to be properly prosecuted’

  • Majid Maqbool
  • Publish Date: Jun 17 2017 8:41PM
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  • Updated Date: Jun 17 2017 8:41PM
‘There is strong security response to violent protests in J&K, while elsewhere, those responsible for injuries and deaths are yet to be properly prosecuted’

Human Rights Watch  works in over 90 countries, defending the rights of people and spotlighting abuses to bring perpetrators to justice. Over the past several decades, HRW has produced a number of reports and statements on the rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir.

In an email interview with Majid Maqbool, the South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly wants an end to the populist political  encouragement to the human rights excesses in Valley. She takes exception to the “senior officials, ruling BJP supporters, even journalists” often failing to make a distinction between those armed with stones and those armed with guns. 

 

EXCERPTS:

How does HRW look at the present Human Rights scenario in Kashmir? 

The situation in Jammu and Kashmir, the spiralling violence with complete disregard for human rights, is one of unprecedented tragedy. What is particularly sad is the level of harsh rhetoric that fuels anger on all sides.

Kashmiris have already long been victims of militant attacks, and there is no condoning of abuses by armed groups, or those, including in Pakistan, that enable these abuses.

However, senior officials, ruling BJP supporters, even journalists, often appear unable to make a distinction between those armed with stones and those armed with guns. Rock throwing is serious, but the response needs to be proportionate. These street protesters are young Kashmiris who have grown up in a debilitating environment of violence and human rights violations, and their grievances need to be addressed: the authorities have repeatedly failed to ensure accountability for security forces abuses, whether it is bullying at checkpoints, or more serious crimes like torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, thus diminishing faith in justice and rule of law.

While the security response should be proportionate and rights respecting, those organizing protests also need to be accountable. We have seen in a recent India Today report that many of these violent protests appear to be instigated. It is incumbent upon the leaders to ensure that protests are peaceful and to publicly discourage criminal acts.

Above all, it is crucial that children are not placed at risk. Too often, we have seen images of young children hurling stones, and too often, we have seen them injured, even killed, in security forces firing. In some cases, children too have ended up detained. Indian authorities have to make sure that children are not incarcerated in prisons with adults.

The government should discourage troops from using schools as temporary barracks. At the same time, targeting of schools by alleged anti-government actors, with over 30 schools already under arson attack, should end. Local authorities must take urgent measures to make sure children have safe access to education.

 

Since last year more than 100 civilians have died in Kashmir as government forces used live ammunition against protesters and civilians in which  many kids and teenagers, including girls, were blinded. Many political detainees continue to remain in prison since last year and PSAs continue to be slapped against many political activists and youth. What is HRW’s response?

Mob violence is ugly whether groups are demanding Kashmiri rights or the protection of cows. What is worrying is the difference in approach by the authorities. There is a strong security response to violent protests in Jammu and Kashmir, while elsewhere, those responsible for injuries and deaths over the consumption or trade of beef, are yet to be properly prosecuted.

Rock-throwing and threatening violence are serious crimes, but troops should only use force when unavoidable, do so in a proportionate manner, and use lethal force only when absolutely necessary to save lives. Instead, scores of protesters, and even bystanders, have been injured and killed. Indian authorities should credibly and impartially investigate police use of force.

Arbitrary detention under PSA has long been criticized by human rights groups. Courts have found many of these detentions to be illegal and overturned them.

Human rights violations, and the failure of accountability, fuels the cycle of violence. The chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, was vocal on human rights protections when she was in opposition, and should now take the lead in upholding those standards.

 

The Indian army recently awarded the Army Major  Nitin Leetul Gogoi who used a civilian as a human shield. Given support  for this act has come from the government and the  Army Chief  General Bipin Rawat praising the Major for being “innovative”, there are apprehensions that such rights violations will continue to occur. Has HRW taken up the human shield incident with the government and the army so that such acts are not encouraged and repeated in future?

The army claims that Maj. Gogoi was trying to handle a situation where poll officials were besieged by a violent mob. Major Gogoi has said that he saved lives because he did not use lethal force. His actions, including the fact that he held a civilian hostage as human shield, and then chose to parade him tied on to the bonnet of a military vehicle for several hours, are and, of course, should be investigated.  Such abuse undermines the stature of the military. We understand from media reports that there are apparently orders to ensure that it is not repeated.

But what is much more concerning is that senior government officials, including the army chief and the defence minister, did not bother to wait for the inquiry conclusions and chose instead to commend Maj. Gogoi for his outrageous actions. This conveys the message that the government is giving the security forces a carte blanche to disregard laws and commit serious abuses.

We have repeatedly urged the Indian government to ensure that security forces abide by international human rights standards, and to prosecute those that commit violations.

 

Talking about stone-throwing youth, the Indian Army chief in a recent statement said, “I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us. Then I would have been happy. Then I could do what I (want to do).” How do you see such provocative statements from the Army Chief impacting the situation on ground in Kashmir?

Actually the army chief’s comment reflects a concern long expressed by human rights groups. The army is supposed to defend India from external threats, to act in times of war. The army is not meant for domestic law enforcement. The army chief has previously served in Jammu and Kashmir, so he knows well that his men are trained to tackle border threats and armed militants, not young citizens that throw stones.

Many in the army have insisted that they continue to be deployed under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. However, several independent government appointed commissions, international groups like Human Rights Watch, as well as United Nations mechanisms, have said that the law should be repealed and replaced by one that ensures human rights protections. The previous Manmohan Singh government had recommended amendments to the law, but caved under pressure from the military. The present Modi administration now has the opportunity to repeal a law that has led to serious violations wherever it is used, whether in Jammu and Kashmir or in the northeast.

 

Did HRW write to the state and central government since last year to initiate or speed up probes in civilian killings and ensure justice for the victims? What has been the response of central and state government?

Unfortunately, the government seems to approach the situation in Jammu and Kashmir from a security perspective and not one that promotes rights. Even though the BJP is part of the ruling coalition in Jammu and Kashmir, even the Kashmiri political leadership is not speaking up to call for human rights protections.

Human rights defenders are regarded with distrust by the state, and often deemed anti-national by interest groups and populist media. Academics, activists, and other members of civil society are under pressure when they speak of rights, with alleged ruling BJP supporters attacking public meetings, and the authorities abusing laws like sedition or FCRA to silence critics.

 

After Army chief’s statements, HRW Executive Director Keneth Roth said in a tweet, “No one should defend Indian army’s use of this young man as a human shield--certainly not India’s attorney general.” Such statements coming from the army’s top brass, and the almost unequivocal support from some public figures and ex army generals on the human shield incident, sends signals that the state is at war with the people in Kashmir. Even Arun Jaitley recently said that it’s a “war like situation” in Kashmir. In such a bleak scenario, how does HRW intervene or come to the rescue of people in Kashmir who are at the receiving end of this violence on the ground?

The attorney general is the chief legal advisor of the country and he should not be justifying human rights violations because it is his job to ensure that the state prosecutes law breakers. His role is particularly crucial because of effective immunity provided under Armed Forces Special Powers Act which requires government sanction for prosecution. If any soldier is to be held accountable for human rights violations, it will be the attorney general’s office that will lead the prosecution. He thus needs to be the voice of calm and reason.

We have called upon Indian authorities to ensure justice. Please see our recent statements here:https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/04/20/no-one-should-defend-use-human-shield-army and herehttps://www.hrw.org/news/2017/05/31/india-lack-army-justice-could-provoke-new-crimes.

 

The pellet guns continue to be used against protesters in Kashmir despite hundreds of fatal eye injuries and mass blinding caused by this supposedly non-lethal weapon since last year. The subsequent outrage over the indiscriminate use of pellet guns seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Does HRW intend to intervene in this matter and call upon the government and its forces on the ground in Kashmir to desist from using these pellet guns that have resulted in life threatening injuries to civilians?

The government says it deployed pellet guns to contain violent street protests as measure to prevent casualties from live ammunition. However, these weapons have causes injuries and deaths of both protesters and bystanders. Troops have the right to use force only in exceptional circumstances and in a proportionate manner. The government has said that numerous security personnel have been injured during the stoning attacks, and only used force to protect themselves and others at risk. These incidents need to be properly investigated, and those found responsible for excessive use of force should be held to account.Troops deployed to restore order in Jammu and Kashmir should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. At the same time, protest organizers should take steps to deter supporters from engaging in violence, including attacks on law enforcement officers.

 

Are these statements released by HRW taken seriously by the state and central government when it comes to addressing the questions and concerns raised about the use of excessive force and weapons in Kashmir and the rights violations by the troops on ground?

India is very keen to be an important voice in global affairs. It is also a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. India should be promoting and protecting human rights at home, and speaking up for others around the world who are being denied their rights.