New Delhi: The Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, an independent body jointly led by A.P. Shah, former chief justice of the Delhi high court and Gopal Pillai, former Union home secretary, released on Monday, August 8, its fourth report on the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir, titled, ‘Three Years as a Union Territory: Human Rights in J&K’, for the period of August, 2021 – July, 2022.
The Forum, describing itself as an “informal group of concerned citizens”, notes in the report that there is a need for an independent initiative to bring to light the continued human rights violations in the erstwhile state, given the prevailing situation there.
Apart from receiving information regarding human rights violations on a designation email address, the report notes that it has been compiled through “local first-hand accounts, government sources, media accounts (carried in well-established and reputed newspapers or television), and NGO fact-finding reports.” It also notes that this information has been fact-checked and cross-referenced to ensure accuracy.
In a press statement that accompanied the 52-page fact-finding report, the Forum notes a number of important findings vis-a-vis the human right situation in Jammu and Kashmir.
Firstly, it notes that in the three years of the lieutenant-governor’s (L-G) rule – ever since Article 370 was read down and J&K’s statehood was revoked, in 2019 – there has been no significant reduction in civilian killings.
Three groups of civilians are highlighted as being targeted disproportionately in the erstwhile state – panches, Kashmiri Pandits and the Jammu and Kashmir Police.
Second, the report highlights the sustained suppression of journalists and activists through the use of repressive legislations – such as the sedition law and anti-terror laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and the Personal Security Act (PSA).
The report talks about how these legislations are used to create a ‘vicious cycle’ of criminal proceedings for journalists and activists; a reference to the remarks of the Supreme Court while granting bail to Mohammad Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking platform Alt News, in which it said that the “process has itself become the punishment”.
It also highlighted the takeover of the Kashmir Press Club in January this year by a group of journalists and media professionals, escorted by security forces. At the time, the move had been criticised by the media fraternity, which described it as a “coup” and part of the ongoing efforts to “throttle” press freedom in the erstwhile state.
Further, with regards to the plight of journalists in Jammu and Kashmir, the report condemns the prevention of Kashmiri journalists from travelling abroad, calling these instances “shocking violations of their constitutional rights”.
In July itself, two Kashmiri journalists – Aakash Hassan and Sanna Irshad Mattoo – were stopped by immigration authorities from leaving the country on two separate occasions, without any reason being furnished for the same.
Immigration officials at IGI airport New Delhi barred me from boarding a flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. I was headed to report on the current crises in the country.
The immigration officials took my passport, boarding pass and have made me sit in a room for last four hours. pic.twitter.com/G36kx3oYQK
— Aakash Hassan (@AakashHassan) July 26, 2022
Before July, other similar instances had been reported too, such as the case of Gowhar Geelani.
Third, the report criticises the recommendations made by the three-member delimitation commission led by retired judge Ranjana Desai in May this year. While acknowledging that an elected government in Jammu and Kashmir is “essential” to improve the human rights situation, it notes that the commission’s recommendations violate the ‘one-person one-vote’ principle and raise concerns about gerrymandering.
The commission had recommended, among other things, that the total number of assembly seats in J&K be increased from 83 to 90, with the number of seats in Jammu being increased from 37 to 43 and those in Kashmir being increased from 46 to 47.
“The Delimitation Commission’s orders are not in consonance with accepted principles of allocation of seats. The criteria of population, which is the cardinal principle in this regard, has not been adhered to in the allocation of 47 assembly seats to Kashmir and 43 to Jammu. The present allocation dilutes the constitutional right of effective political representation and ‘one person one vote’ for voters in Kashmir,” the report reads.
With regards to the concerns surrounding gerrymandering, the report states that multiple seats have been redrawn by the commission with new configurations of Hindu and Muslim-majority areas, “to create undue electoral advantages for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and to the drawback of opposition parties in the region.”
Fourth, the report highlights the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, in particular, raising the issue of heightened threats to their existence due to the “polarisation and fear-mongering promoted by the film The Kashmir Files.”
Vivek Agnihotri’s March 2022 film had garnered its fair share of criticism when it was released for its sensationalised and less-than-factual depictions of the atrocities faced by Pandits in the state and their eventual exodus, coupled with the ruling party’s outright support for the ideologies espoused in the film.
Coupled with the increasingly communalised environment in the rest of the country, the report notes that such fear-mongering increases the risk of retaliation by militants and “further jeopardises the security of an already vulnerable community (the Pandits”.
Apart from these points, the report also highlights the failure to institute grassroots-level democracy and self-governance through the panchayat system in the erstwhile state, noting that members of panchayats face security threats from militants as well as an uncooperative bureaucracy preventing them from making meaningful changes.
It also notes the slow progress of development schemes in the region, such as Prime Minister Modi’s promise of an employment package for Pandits in the Kashmir Valley.
With regards to the issue of media freedom, the report calls for the immediate release of imprisoned journalists, making specific mention of Aasif Sultan, who was arrested in August, 2018 and continues to be in prison, and urges authorities to refrain from arresting journalists on “flimsy grounds”, here making reference to the arrest of journalist Fahad Shah, who had PSA charges levied against him and was accused of “promoting separatism”.
It also called for detained political leaders to be promptly charged and tried, else be released.
On the targeting of J&K Police officers, the report calls for the minimisation of their involvement in counter-terrorism operations and for them to be retrained for community policing, noting that specialist security forces should be tasked with tackling terrorist activities.
With reference to delimitation, the report calls for the immediate restoration of statehood to Jammu and Kashmir and for assembly polls to be held according to previously demarcated constituencies. As such, it calls for the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019 to be amended as required and for the report of the Delimitation Commission to be shelved.
On the situation of Kashmiri Pandits, the report calls for proposed government plans concerning them to be implemented, such as the proposed construction of 6,000 units of additional housing so as to enhance the community’s habitat security.
It also calls for the plan to relocate Pandits to safer locations within Kashmir to be stepped up, while also acknowledging that relocating them to areas in Jammu defeats the purpose of the plan, meant to broaden their footprint in the Kashmir region.
Further, it calls for programmes between the administration at various levels and the Pandit community in order to initiate a dialogue between the two and aid in the successful reintegration of the former into the mainstream.
On panchayat raj, the report seeks the empowerment of the panchayat system of government by giving elected panchayat officials authority over smaller projects (less than Rs 3 lakh in value) in order to respond to their needs.
It also calls for increased interaction between panchayat officials and the authorities in order to improve the former’s understanding of issues of local governance, noting, “While bureaucratic interface is required for Panchayati Raj, bureaucratic interference must be eschewed.”
Finally, the report, while acknowledging the impossibility of providing security cover to all 30,000 elected panchayat officials, calls for improving their security through community support. “The current system of restricting them to hostel-like housing in Srinagar makes a mockery of their role,” the report reads, calling for authorities to desist from making remarks that might make these officials more vulnerable.
The full report goes into far greater detail regarding each of the issues detailed above, breaking down each with examples and providing a holistic overview of the ground realities. Further, it details each of the individual human rights that continue to be violated in the Union Territory today.
Below is a full list of members of the Forum:
Justice Ruma Pal, former judge of the Supreme Court of India;
Justice Madan B. Lokur, former judge of the Supreme Court of India;
Justice Bilal Nazki, former Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court;
Justice Hasnain Masoodi, former judge of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court;
Justice Anjana Prakash, former judge of the Patna High Court;
Nirupama Rao, former Foreign Secretary, Government of India;
Probir Sen, former Secretary-General, National Human Rights Commission;
Amitabha Pande, former Secretary, Inter-State Council, Government of India;
Moosa Raza, former Chief Secretary, Government of Jammu and Kashmir;
Hindal Haidar Tyabji, former Chief Secretary, Government of Jammu and Kashmir;
Shantha Sinha, former chairperson, National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights;
Radha Kumar, former member, Group of Interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir;
Lieutenant-General H S Panag (retd);
Major-General Ashok Mehta (retd);
Air Vice-Marshal Kapil Kak (retd);
Colonel Yoginder Kandhari (retd);
Enakshi Ganguly, Co-founder and former Co-director, HAQ Centre for Child Rights;
Ramachandra Guha, writer and historian;
Anand Sahay, columnist;
Shivani Sanghavi, lawyer and activist, human rights in conflict.