Keepers of Collective Conscience

  • Naseer Ahmad
  • Publish Date: Apr 1 2016 2:55PM
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  • Updated Date: Apr 12 2016 12:43PM

Have India's human rights defenders failed Kashmiris?


Nearly two years ago, when Khuram Pervez spoke about Kashmir’s mass graves to some of India’s leading civil society actors at a seminar in Delhi, their response was telling. They insisted, the human rights activist says, that “such issues” are better taken to the local police for investigation, a subtle hint that it shouldn’t be raised in international forums. Khurram wasn’t surprised by the response: “I am used to it.”

For India’s civil society, Khuram says, Kashmir is an issue of management. “Whenever protests erupt in Kashmir, they construe it as a crisis and come here not as human rights defenders but as crisis managers.”

He points out that even when mass unmarked graves were unearthed in Kashmir, India’s press and intelligentsia, with a few admirable exceptions, looked the other way.

The State Human Rights Commission, which is controlled by the J&K government, had launched an investigation into the presence of unmarked graves in north Kashmir in April 2008 after being alerted by human rights groups, including the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons led by Khurram. In August 2011, the SHRC reported that it had found at least 38 mass graves with 2,730 bodies in Kupwara, Baramulla and Bandipora districts.

The SHRC said the bodies had been handed over to the local people for burial by the police, who had claimed these were of unidentified militants.

Of the 2,730 bodies, 574 were later identified as those of local residents. As for the rest, the SHRC suggested they could be of Kashmiris who had been subjected to “enforced disappearance” by the security forces.

Khurram says the SHRC’s report was “just the tip of the iceberg” given that 8,000 people have disappeared in Kashmir after being taken for questioning by various security agencies.

Yet, he adds, “the Indian civil society actors and human rights activists and, of course, the media were concerned about one thing only: that we shouldn’t take the case to an international forum”. “Barring a few activists,” Khurram complains, “the main concern of the Indian civil society actors over the years has been to safeguard India’s image before the international community.”

This despite the fact that Kashmiris have been subjected to untold suffering by the Indian state. No less than 70,000 people have been killed and 8,000 or so “disappeared” from custody – the state claims only 14,000 civilians and 23,000 militants have died – since the armed conflict broke out in 1989. And torture by the military has been so rampant – one of every six Kashmiris has been tortured, according to the APDP – that people don’t even talk about it, Khurram says.

The APDP has documented 1,500 cases of men becoming impotent from electric shocks to their genitals, and hundreds of cases of rape and sexual violence by the army and the paramilitary. One of the most horrifying stories documented by the APDP is of a 60-year-old man who was held in solitary confinement for a month and forced to eat the flesh cut from his own body. A similar case was narrated by former National Conference MLA Mir Saifullah in the state assembly in 2010 while talking about human rights abuses by the security forces in Kupwara. “A man was taken away by the army and the next day a piece of his flesh was returned to his family,” Saifullah had told a shocked assembly. But his revelation never made news. Even a sitting MLA, Engineer Abdul Rashid, has approached the SHRC seeking compensation for months of bonded labour he was forced to do by the army in Kupwara.

The J&K High Court Bar Association regularly reports about undertrial prisoners turning insane in custody. Shafqat Hussain, a lawyer at the high court, says he alone has fought cases of over 50,000 people booked under the Public Safety Act over the years. There is no record of destruction of property during gunfights with militants as the military usually blows up the buildings the militants take shelter in.

“In spite of such largescale human rights violations, the concern of a majority of India’s human rights activists has remained that the role of the Indian state is not scrutinised. With the exception of a few, most of them have proved and are proving themselves to be ultra-nationalists when it comes to Kashmir,” says Pervez Imroz, the patron of the APDP.

He echoes Khurram’s view that right since 1990, the Indian intellectuals have only been concerned about managing the crises for their country in Kashmir.

“They don’t have a commitment to human rights,” Imroz says, adding that even the Supreme Court of India has not provided any relief to the Kashmiris who have knocked on its door for justice. Imroze cites Masooda Parveen’s case as an example.

In May 2007, the Supreme Court rejected Masooda’s writ petition seeking compensation for the custodial killing of her husband Ghulam Mohi-ud-din Regoo by the army on February 3, 1998. A review petition filed by Masooda was also rejected in October 2007. Rigoo, according to Masooda, was picked up by the army on February 1, 1998. Two days later, they strapped explosives to his body and blew him up. She had argued in her petition that her husband had died while in the illegal custody of the army, which made it liable for his death. But the Supreme Court, after keeping Masooda waiting for nine years, rejected the plea on the ground that Regoo was a “militant” although there was no evidence to this effect except his alleged “confession” to the army.

Imroz says the Supreme Court refused compensation to Masooda presuming it would amount to indicting the army.

Imroz says Pakistan’s involvement in Kashmir is one of the reasons why India’s human rights activists don’t see the suffering of Kashmiris from a “humanitarian angle”.

Gautam Navlakha, however, rejects this assertion. The human rights activist, who has worked in Kashmir for long, says the perception of many Kashmiris about Indians isn’t entirely correct. He points out that Rohith Vemula, the Hyderabad Central University scholar whose suicide has sparked a major debate about rights and freedoms in India, was also charged with supporting Kashmiris’ right to self-determination. And at Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, the students invited the state wrath by shouting slogans in favour of Kashmir’s struggle and against India on the death anniversary of Afzal Guru.

“Just because the Indian media shuns those who are critical of what the country has done in Kashmir,” Navlakha argues, “does not mean that no one speaks up for Kashmir, whether regarding the commission of war crimes or their right to self-determination.”

He adds that after the pro-Azadi protests in 2008, a growing section of the Indian intelligentsia is making itself heard on Kashmir. This is “noticeable”, he adds, in the criticism of characters such as Anupam Kher from within the Kashmiri Pandit community, the most recent example being Ajay Kaul’s piece in Scroll.

Navlakha also says that Kashmiri students, even while facing hostility and even violence in different parts of India, have helped create awareness about the situation in the state. “This interactive experience and by and large robust articulation by Kashmiri youth has created an awareness which did not exist earlier. The new generation of Kashmiri youth is not diffident, but bold and lucid in their reasoning. This has also had its impact.”

Navlakha says it’s sad that experiences of suffering of different people are being compared and contrasted. “It’s absolutely justified to slam the Indian civil society for its indifference to the war in Kashmir and its horrific nature. But it’s also important to note that today the Indian government is primarily guilty of essentialising the suffering of Kashmiri Pandits while being cruelly indifferent to the suffering of the Muslims. The point is that if they had better grasp of what is happening in Kashmir, the attitude of Indians would be marked by more nuance, if not solidarity.”

Mansi Sharma, a rights activists based in Delhi, says that not just Kashmiri Muslims, the Pandits too have complaints against the Indian civil society. “I have heard the Pandits say that the Indian intellectuals have always sided with Kashmiri Muslims and not uttered a word on the exodus of the Pandits, or their condition today. There’s much literature on the post-1990 situation in Kashmir written by non-Kashmiri authors, but I hardly find any literature on the Pandit exodus except what is written by the Pandits themselves.”

India’s civil society, it appears, has plenty to answer for.