‘The boys in prison asked me, “You are not a stone pelter, you have opposed stone pelting, so why has the government jailed you?” And the truth is I had no answer’
Srinagar: During the civilian uprising in Kashmir this year, the government has used the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA) indiscriminately against those it claimed were disrupting the peace. Surprisingly, the list of around 500 PSA detainees included a prominent human rights activist, Khurram Parvez, who has been working with the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society for the past 17 years.
Parvez’s travails began not when he was in Srinagar – not even when clashes between Kashmiri youths and the security forces were at their peak – but when he was scheduled to travel to Geneva to attend an event on the sidelines of the regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
On September 14, he was stopped by the immigration authorities at Delhi airport and prevented from boarding his flight to Geneva. A day later, back in his Srinagar home, he was arrested by the police. After spending 76 days in Kotbalwal prison in Jammu, Parvez was finally released after a local court quashed his detention under the PSA.
In an interview with The Wire, the 39-year-old human rights defender talks about his experience in jail with other inmates from Kashmir and the struggle against human rights violations in Kashmir. His main takeaway after speaking to dozens of stone-throwers inside the jail should serve as a wake-up call for the government: If the government doesn’t stop torture and humiliation of the youth, they will end up taking to militancy.
Excerpts from the interview:
What was your first reaction when you were arrested and when the Public Safety Act was slapped on you?
When I was arrested, I was not told that I have been detained under the PSA. I was told by the concerned officer that they have to take me in and I have to stay for one night at Kothi Bagh police station and then I was taken to Kupwara jail for five days. Then the district court decided in favour of my release. After that, I was booked under the PSA.
I was not sure and I’m still not sure why the government had to detain me and link my arrest to the present uprising. So I don’t know the exact reasons why I was arrested but what I suspect is that the government does not feel comfortable with our work because of what I have been doing for the past many years – so this is the only feedback that they have. Like, for example, in the past, our other colleagues were attacked – Parvez Imroz [chairman of the JKCCS] was attacked several times – and this time, the feedback came in the form of my arrest under PSA. We have been documenting human rights violations and have been campaigning in the courts. We have been taking these cases to the UN. Also, because we are an organisation that has a political opinion, which doesn’t decontextualize the human rights abuses. We have a political opinion that Jammu and Kashmir is a dispute. Because of that clarity – the political opinion that we have – I think that also added to the provocation for the government to arrest me and detain me under the PSA.
First you were stopped from going to Geneva and then arrested. What do you think the state wanted to achieve by that?
I think they wanted to put pressure on my organisation and me not to do this work but also through my arrest they wanted to create a scare among the young educated people who are getting involved in the human rights work in Jammu and Kashmir. They wanted to scare people and, to a certain extent, they did succeed. These arrests are temporary measures by which they can scare people but in the longer run I don’t think so. For me personally, it has not stopped me continuing what I was doing before.
Can you tell us exactly what happened at Delhi airport?
I reached the airport at night. At the immigration counter they asked me, ‘Do you have the court’s permission to go?’ I said I have been travelling normally. They said there is a look out circular and they were looking for me. Then I was kept there for two hours and they told me that I couldn’t go. I asked them if they could give me in writing that I can’t go but they didn’t provide me any written material. I asked the immigration officers at the desk if there is a senior officer whom I could talk to but no one came forward. No one wanted to talk to me. They returned my passport and told me that they want me to go back home , that there is nothing against me – only that they will not let me go out of the country.
So I stayed in Delhi for a day and the next day, on September 15, I returned to Kashmir. In the evening, the local police from Ram Munshi Bagh police station had come to my home asking for me but I wasn’t there. Then I spoke to them over the phone and they told me that they would like to take me to a Superintendent of Police, who wants to meet me. I told them that I would call the SP directly and speak to him because I am not at home. So I called the SP and he told me that he wants to meet me. I told him that I am away and I will come next morning and he agreed. I reached home late and at midnight, they came and insisted that I should go to the police station. I went to the police station in my own car and there I was told that I have been arrested.
After you were stopped at the airport, there were stories being floated that you were instigating stone pelting etc. What happened to those allegations?
I think those allegations have been found invalid by the courts but besides that, the high court has ruled in my favour, I don’t know why the government had to resort to this lie. Many people know that I have never been involved in promoting any kind of violence.
In custody, were you told why this action was taken against you?
No one told me why I was arrested but of course what was written in the PSA dossier was indicative of what was behind this – like for example they had said I’m instigating Hurriyat. You know there is this issue, the government on the one side has been saying that this is a leaderless agitation – they have been saying that the Hurriyat is irrelevant, the people are doing this on their own. If that is true and if Hurriyat is irrelevant, then even if I was instigating them, how does it matter? I don’t think that the government was even clear about what is happening, why things are so bad in Kashmir. So, they didn’t want to pay attention to the truth.
In my case, I think [they have acted] because I have been trying, as a Kashmiri civil society activist, to help in changing the situation. None of us wanted this conflict to continue –there are people who are being killed and maimed. So we did raise our voice at different times, like for example, we did have a campaign against the use of pellets. Before that, we also involved people in other campaigns. So our main aim was always that this conflict should get transformed, the situation should get eased, so for that we have been meeting people across the board – the National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party, the Hurriyat and everyone.
I also know that there are people in Hurriyat who have issued statements against us. So, when the government says in its PSA dossier that we have a prominent position there, how do they explain those public statements that have been issued against us? How do they explain other accusations that were made against us?
For example, one accusation people have against us is they say that we [JKCCCS] are trying to build the credibility of the Indian judicial process here – which is part of the Indian government, which is involved in perpetrating violence on the people of Jammu and Kashmir. So, people have been saying we should not go to the courts, but we still go to the courts. So who is undermining the credibility of these courts now – the government itself. One of the things which I heard that people in the government were not happy with is the Handwara case. What did we do in the Handwara case? We went to the courts. The government is not happy that we went to the courts and there are elements in the society who were also unhappy.
So I think that there is a little commonality here between some elements in the government and some pro-freedom elements – who don’t want us to pursue this struggle where we have been trying to fight for the people rights. A conflict like ours makes everyone suspicious and that is the success of the government. Now the government is living in a web it has created, where it has made everyone suspect everyone else.
The government counsel defended the use of PSA against you in court by saying that you wear “foreign clothes” and live a “cosy life” – suggesting that government’s case was quite weak. Is this usual in other such cases too, where people are in jail without any concrete evidence against them?
If you see in the court, there are very few lawyers who are fighting these PSA cases. The most prominent lawyer is Shafqat Hussain, who has been doing this work and is responsible for quashing more than 8000 PSA cases over the past 26 years. He will explain to you the kinds of charges that the government levels against people and in most of these cases that have been filed in the courts, detention under PSA finally gets quashed because the government doesn’t have evidence to support its allegations. But it is because the government doesn’t have evidence that they rely on draconian laws like PSA and don’t file criminal complaints against people. Here they don’t have to prove anything and they also protect the officers who file these allegations against us.
In my case, the first place where I was held in District Jail Kupwara – my name is mentioned as Khurram Manzoor but my actual name is Khurram Parvez. But they say Khurram Manzoor son of Manzoor Ahmad, which is all lies as my father’s name is Sheikh Parvez. They say that he was at a particular shrine in Sonwar area and I have never even visited that shrine and mosque in the last 12 years. They are saying that he was instigating people. Both the people who are witnesses in this case are policemen. They don’t even know my name properly – if they detained me with a false name this tells me what is the level of intelligence that the government has against the people whom they want to book.
I’m not the only one. You will see many other people who have been arrested, charged or detained under the PSA. he government doesn’t have clear information about them. In the dossier against me, they have also mentioned that I’m 35 years old while as I’m 39, and that I had founded an organisation called Human Resources in 2004. I don’t know this name. I was never part of any other organisation except the JKCSS, that too from June 2000 – the year when it was created, and since then I’m part of it. They are saying that I have been involved in the conspiracy with the pro-freedom groups where our aim is to malign the government of India. The question is that we have been doing this work for the past many years. If I have been such an incorrigible person then why has a case never been lodged against me ever in the last 17 years? This is the first time I have been implicated in a few open FIRs that are obscure. There has been no case against me ever. I have been meeting government officials. I have been doing my work very publicly. If I was part of any conspiracy in the last so many years, then why was I not taken to task, why was I not held accountable?
You have been fighting against human rights violations of people and have run campaigns for others. What impact has this imprisonment left on you as a human rights defender?
You know, I consider this jail and detention of 76 days as feedback from the government – and the feedback is that our work does affect them. Sometimes we feel that our work is not being heard and there is no response from the government. So this is the response from the government! Unfortunately, the response is still violent. So this violent response only strengthens my resolve and my understanding that a lot more needs to be done to change and improve the human rights scenario in Jammu and Kashmir. This arrest has helped me… it is encouraging to know the government is paying a lot of attention to what I am doing. It is affecting them but maybe not enough where we could persuade them to allow judicial processes to deliver justice in Jammu and Kashmir, where we could persuade them to allow the people of Jammu and Kashmir to exercise their political and civil rights. So this jail period of 76 days has helped to understand that I need to do more and be more focused.
How did you spend your time in the jail?
I think the first night was difficult for me. It took me one full day to come to terms with the fact that I have been arrested. I couldn’t believe it for the first day. But then I think, from the day two onwards I did accept that this is what I have to live with and I had kept in my mind that it is not going to be a short jail period. It is probably going to be longer than expected by my friends. I was busy reading newspapers and books most of the time in jail. Also, everybody in the jail offers prayers five times days, so I was part of the people involved in all that. I had discussions with lot of young people, activists, stone pelters and political activists. I was talking to them, understanding them, giving them my own understanding and also learning from them how they have been abused.
You met other inmates in jail, mainly young boys arrested for stone-throwing, and political workers. What understanding did you get from them about the situation in Kashmir?
I think a lot of these young people very clearly express how disgusted they feel about the situation. These people want a change – change in the attitude of the government of India. They are not people who are habitual stone pelters. They are not people who like getting involved in stone pelting and then being abused by the police, tortured or humiliated. They don’t want all this to happen. But they think this is how they can provoke the government to change its attitude. They want the government to allow space for politics because it has choked all the space for political dissent.
So they think that getting involved in protest demonstrations or stone pelting is a way by which they will be able to assert themselves. We had disagreements. I did have disagreements with them and I was trying to give them my opinion that I feel maybe this might not help. And they disagreed with me. I was trying to make them understand that there could be other peaceful means by which they can contribute to the Kashmiri movement and enhance the political space. But one of the questions they had was – you are not been involved in stone pelting and have been opposing the stone pelting, now if you are also in jail despite using all peaceful means and we have used stone pelting, what is the difference?
The government doesn’t discriminate between a person who is wielding a gun or a person who has stone in his hand or a person who is a human rights activist or a person who is asking for peaceful means of protest. The government is completely indiscriminate and has arrested all kinds of people. Unfortunately, the truth is that I didn’t have an answer to their questions. Yes, I am satisfied that I have personally not been involved in any way by which I have harmed anyone. But I don’t think that sells well amongst the stone pelters.
How do the authorities, particularly in the Kotbalwal jail where you were lodged, treat inmates?
The inmates there told me that the situation was very bad before I arrived. One Hurriyat leader, Dr. Ghulam Mohammad Hubbi, who was associated with the People’s Conference earlier – he was instrumental in fighting and negotiating with the jail authorities for change. He persuaded the jail authorities to stop all those violations that were taking place. Like for example they were involved in forcing the inmates, particularly the PSA detainees, stone pelters, Hurriyat activists to cut the grass and do other kinds of work in the jail, which is illegal. They should not be forced to do any kind of work. It can be classified as forced labour. Some boys also alleged that when they entered in the jail on the pretext of frisking they were stripped naked. People were also kept in solitary confinement for 8-10 days. But when Dr. Ghulam Mohammad Hubbi went there, he persuaded the jail authorities to stop this and most of it got stopped – also the quality of food started improving and things became better. The jail authorities led by the SP were amenable to discussions, flexible and did make changes. But for me personally, both the jail authorities and also the inmates treated me very well. Everyone was trying to be helpful to me.
Going back to the earlier question, there is the talk that the current situation in Kashmir will result in the rise of new age militancy. Did you feel this while talking to the stone throwers in the jail?
I did tell the jail authorities that if they continue to abuse these children who are being detained under the PSA in jail on allegations of stone pelting, if they are not treated well, the government is pushing them towards militancy. It appears that the government is not conscious of what they are doing to these boys. So their psyche is being hurt, they are humiliated and this might push them towards militancy. I don’t think the boys or the political parties or the people detained there on their own want to be part of the militancy but I think if they are tortured, of which there are allegations that some arrested boys were tortured in the police stations, unfortunately that will give rise to the idea of joining militancy among these young boys. I think other stakeholders of Kashmir are very aware of this but we don’t know whether the government is conscious.
This is not first time you have been personally affected. In a mine blast you lost your leg and a colleague in 2004. Does it feel nothing has improved in Kashmir for a civilian’s rights?
In 2004, an IED blast killed my colleague Asiya Jeelani and our driver Ghulam Nabi and unfortunately I lost my right leg. I don’t think that all our efforts and all the work by so many people has gone in waste. The situation has improved but not enough. Things are getting better but it has ups and downs also and sometimes things get worse. So 2016 saw situation getting more worrying and problematic and very violent but I don’t think that the work done in the past has gone waste. It has changed the political understanding of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The work done has also persuaded the political stakeholders in Jammu and Kashmir to feel motivated, to work for the transformation of Jammu and Kashmir. For example, the present chief minister, even before, has been speaking about the [need for a] political resolution for Jammu and Kashmir. The ex-chief minister, Omar Abdullah, has also been speaking of the resolution. And now the RSS chief is also talking about the resolution of Jammu and Kashmir. Of course they have their own perspectives about the resolution but I think all the work done, all that has happened in Jammu and Kashmir, is increasingly persuading people that the people of Jammu and Kashmir do not want the status quo. People want to see the resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir problem.