Two Years After Article 370 Read Down, Rights Violations Continue: J&K Rights Forum

Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir has in its third report also flagged the Pegasus snooping issue and called for a probe into the charges that the spyware was used against 25 Kashmiris.

New Delhi: Two years after the military lockdown and loss of statehood, special status and division of the state, the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir has in its third report on the conditions therein claimed that “most of the violations described in the first two reports remain valid”. It has stated that “arbitrary detentions continue, public assembly is still prohibited under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 (CrPC), and close to 1,000 people are still in prison, including minors and elected legislators.”

The Forum comprises an informal group of concerned citizens who believe that, in the prevailing situation in the former state, an independent initiative is required so that continuing human rights violations do not go unnoticed. It has also stated that in some measures, the situation has deteriorated in the state with surveillance over government officials becoming a new tool of harassment.

“The Jammu and Kashmir administration appears to have added a new vigilantism against government employees, whose social media content is now subject to police scrutiny for ‘anti-national activities’, potentially leading to dismissal,” the Forum has stated, adding that “eighteen government employees have already been dismissed.”

Apart from this, the Forum that is co-chaired by former Supreme Court judge, Justice Madan B. Lokur, and former member of the Group of Interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir, Radha Kumar, has also pointed to how the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the woes of the citizens and adversely impacted the industries and tourism sector in the former state.

‘Probe charge of Pegasus use against 25 Kashmiris’

The Forum also flagged the Pegasus snooping issue and called for a probe into the charges that the spyware was used against 25 Kashmiris.

The report noted The Wire‘s report on July 23, which said that the Pegasus spyware’s leaked database revealed that over 25 Kashmiri journalists, politicians, businessmen and human rights activists were on a list of potential targets of surveillance between 2017 and mid-2019 (along with almost 300 counterparts across India), and may still be. Forensic analysis on two phones confirmed that they were targeted for surveillance.

The Forum recommended an investigation into these allegations. It also called for rescinding any orders that might have been given for the use of Pegasus and that any justification in the matter should be placed in the public domain.

Industry, tourism sector suffered, economy in decline

It noted that “industries still reel under the dual impact of the lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic” and as for the tourism sector, said, that while it showed signs of recovery earlier in 2021, the second wave “again halted recovery”. Jammu and Kashmir’s economy, too, continued its sharp decline, with several industries forced into bankruptcy, it added.

The Forum, which has 19 prominent citizens as members – including five former retired Supreme Court and high court judges, retired senior bureaucrats and defence officials, and leading academicians, historians, activists and journalists – has also pointed out how three years since the last elected administration, led by Mehbooba Mufti, was toppled, there remains a strong belief in the people that an elected government will be more responsive to their demands.

“On the ground, most residents believe that an elected administration will be far more receptive to civil and human rights than the governor and Lieutenant-Governor’s rule that they have had to subsist under,” the Forum said.

Recalling how on August 4, 2019, the Union government arrested close to 6,000 Kashmiri politicians, dissidents, intellectuals, journalists and youth, snapped telephone and internet communications across the state, imposed a blanket curfew, and stationed an additional 40,000 troops at the Valley’s towns, the report said the following day, the president of India also removed the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian constitution. Then on August 9, parliament passed the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, dividing the state into two Union Territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

On how things have moved since, the report said, “The combined military, police and communications lockdown continued for the next six months, only to be replaced by a pandemic-related lockdown that lifted only intermittently.”

Jammu and Kashmir National Conference president Farooq Abdullah addresses a press conference along with his son Omar Abdullah, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti, People’s Conference president Sajjad Gani Lone and others after meeting of signatories to the Gupkar declaration, at his residence in Srinagar, Thursday, October 15, 2020. Photo: PTI

Series of steps invalidated residency laws, privileges

All this while, it said the Union government took a series of deeply controversial steps that invalidated the state’s residency laws and privileges, removed restrictions on land use and transfer, and denied legal rights to habeas corpus, bail and speedy trial.

In the second half of 2020, most of the detainees were released in small batches but around 1,000 still remain in prison. As for the courts, the report said, they “continued to ignore habeas corpus and freedom of speech protections”. And while curfews have been routinely extended, the Forum said the internet was only partially restored and snapped every time the Indian army conducted counter-insurgency operations.

Chinese incursion impacted fragile situation

The report also stated that the Chinese military incursion along the Ladakh border in mid-2020 “further impacted an already fragile security situation”.

On the other hand, the February 2021 agreement between director generals of military operations (DGMOs) of India and Pakistan to a cease-fire along the international border and the Line of Control (LoC) was a “small ray of light” as it “helped restrict infiltration by armed groups and raised hopes that a wider peace process might follow, accompanied by the restoration of political and human rights.”

However, the cease-fire recently showed signs of “beginning to fray” as indicated by the “sudden low-cost drone attacks of June”, the Forum said.

PM’s offer for talks fell short of expectations

Similarly, the group of concerned citizens has pointed out that hopes have again been raised and dashed by recent political meetings. “In June, hopes were raised again when Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Jammu and Kashmir’s political leaders to a meeting. The meeting had an open agenda and it seemed as if the Prime Minister wanted to consult regional representatives on how to restore a political process.”

However, it said, “the prime minister’s offer, however, fell far short of expectations. The Reorganisation Act, he said, would continue to be implemented, and elections would be held for a Union Territory assembly. Statehood would be restored only at an unspecified ‘appropriate time, as home minister Amit Shah said in parliament in February 2021 while piloting a bill to dissolve a key function of statehood, the Jammu and Kashmir administrative service.”

In light of these pre-conditions put before the regional parties, the Forum said they find themselves in an “awkward position” since the largest and most popular of them have moved the Supreme Court and challenged “both the hollowing out of Article 370 and the Reorganisation Act.”

In such a scenario, the Forum said, if these parties would participate in assembly elections under these conditions, their challenges in court may be rendered infructuous. “If they do not, there is a high risk that human rights abuses will continue unchecked.”

The Forum also observed that a delay in Assembly polls would not be in the interest of the citizens. It said judging from the announcement that the Delimitation Commission, appointed under the 2019 Reorganisation Act to add seven new assembly constituencies, will only complete its work by March 2022, it appeared that the elections will only be held after that. As such, the group expressed its concern that “the current situation of continuing human rights abuses will continue unchecked, since Jammu and Kashmir will remain under the administration of a lieutenant-governor for at least another year, possibly much longer.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Manoj Sinha, Amit Shah, Farooq Abdullah and others during an all-party meeting of political leaders from Jammu and Kashmir, in Delhi, June 24, 2021. Photo: PTI

Human rights violations continue

The report has also documented the “numerous human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir under the five broad heads of civilian security, health, children and youth, industry, and media.

It said the security situation has only “worsened” with figures for fatalities being much higher than those between 2012-2016. Also, the figures for ‘terrorists killed’ include child fighters, an issue that has not been flagged by either the Union government or the Jammu and Kashmir administration, though it is of serious concern, the Forum said. It added that counter-insurgency concerns continue to be given priority over public, civilian and human security, leading to an across-the-board vitiation of human and civil rights protections.

The report has also pointed out that despite the judiciary speaking up against violations of rights, the administration has thwarted these attempts by opposing bail and curbing dissent. “Notably, the Jammu and Kashmir high court has shown renewed commitment to the rights to bail and fair and speedy trial, coupled with scrutiny of the possible misuse of draconian legislation, such as the Public Safety Act (PSA) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).”

Nevertheless, the report said, “The Jammu and Kashmir administration continues to oppose bail and stifle dissent on increasingly bizarre grounds, such as the arrest of a political activist for saying he preferred local officers to outsiders.”

Monitoring of social media accounts on the rise

The Forum has also identified areas of surveillance that pose new threats to the citizens. It said, “A new vigilantism has been introduced by measures such as a Special Task Force (STF), and recruitment of cyber volunteers, to monitor social media accounts, including of public servants, for ‘anti-national’ content.”

The report also asid that following the reading down of Article 370 and reorganisation of the state, children, youth and women have been affected in a “particularly severe” way. It said schools have functioned for barely 250 days between August 2019 and July 2021, due to repeated lockdowns. The limits on Internet speeds made it impossible for online classes to function adequately until February 2021, when 4G was restored.

Dowry, wife-burning cases have surfaced

Also, the continuing heavy security presence in towns and neighbourhoods has intensified trauma and the rates of suicide have gone up, the Forum stated. At the same time, domestic abuse has also “increased drastically” and even incidents of dowry and wife-burning, which were rarely heard of earlier, have surfaced. It said while women-only help desks have been set up in police stations, the lack of a women’s commission for complainants was being sorely felt.

The report also points out how new land transfer policies have ushered in widespread discrepancies in compensation. “There are fresh complaints of illegal land occupation. New domicile rules, moreover, have eroded prior land ownership and employment protections for local citizens,” it said, adding that nomadic tribes too continue to be forcibly evicted by forestry officers.

Media has been one of the worst hit

The report says the local media was “one of the worst sufferers” of the changed circumstances since 2019. It said “journalists have been harassed, assaulted and charged under the UAPA” and recent security directions bar journalists from being present near counter-insurgency operations, removing scrutiny of potential human rights violations.

Furthermore, the measures for implementing the 2020 media policy, the Forum said, “allow the police forces opportunities to intimidate media outlets”.

It also charged that there was “censorship by the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) in coordination with security agencies” and that this has been institutionalised. Also, the report said, the new policy of recruiting cyber volunteers has further added to the threat of both censorship and intimidation.

On the repercussion of such censorship, the report said, a media gag on health workers has allowed rumours of the adverse impact of vaccines to spread unchecked.

In view of the challenges faced by the media in the state, the Forum has in its recommendations, urged a rollback of the new media policy, which allows police checks and raids on media outlets, ban on drones used by video journalists and bar reporting from counter-insurgency sites.

The Forum has also called for a review of the empanelment policy to ensure media outlets are not punished for dissent. “Withdraw the case against the Kashmir Walla and ensure that no such cases, that are clearly intended to stifle reports adverse to the government, are filed,” it said.

File photo of journalists protesting against the restrictions on the internet and mobile phone networks at the Kashmir Press Club during the lockdown in Srinagar last year. Photo: PTI

‘Release all political detainees, juveniles’

The Forum has also made 10 other recommendations to improve the situation in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. It has called for a release of all remaining political detainees who were taken into preventive detention on or after August 4, 2019. It has also urged repeal of the Public Safety Act (PSA) and other preventive detention legislation or amendments to them to bring them in line with the constitutional ethos.

The Forum has also recommended the release of all detained juveniles and the withdrawal of charges against them. It has also asked for withdrawing unsubstantiated charges under the PSA or UAPA against political leaders, journalists and activists, and institution of time-bound enquiries into allegations of torture in detention, as those made in the case of People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Waheed Para.

‘Hold police, military accountable for rights violations’

The group called for initiating criminal and civil actions against personnel of police, armed forces and paramilitary forces found guilty of violation of human rights, especially with regard to attacks on journalists. It has demanded that the Army’s additional directorate for human rights be given full freedom in the role it can play in investigating alleged human rights abuses. Also, it has urged adherence to the humanitarian guidelines during cordon and search operations (CASO) for preventing civilian deaths, injuries and other damage or loss.

The Forum has urged restricting Section 144; avoiding attacks on journalists and courier companies that have free passage during curfew; holding police and paramilitary personnel accountable for harassment to civilians at checkpoints; adequate compensation to citizens whose houses are destroyed in CASO or land reclamation drives; and ensuring protection to nomadic tribes under the Forest Rights Act of 2006.

Restoration of oversight panels urged

Another important recommendation pertains to the reinstatement of all of the former state’s statutory oversight bodies, especially those monitoring human rights, such as the Jammu and Kashmir Human Rights Commission and the Jammu and Kashmir Women and Child Rights Commissions.

The Forum has also called for proving compensation to local businesses that were forced to shut down due to the government lockdown between August 2019 and March 2020; and immediate economic and anti-pollution aid to the houseboat industry.

It has also urged reconsidering the establishment of village defence committees (VDCs) and the reinstatement of the Special Operations Group (SOG) and special police officers saying “these initiatives have been found to increase the vulnerability of employees as well as the public to acts of violence.”

The forum has also demanded that the local communities should be involved in facilitating the return of Kashmiri Pandits as “without local support, returnees will not be safe, and their reintegration will prove extremely difficult.”