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It was a cold November day way back in 2011. Smoke rose from the braziers of chestnut sellers and mingled with the fine rain as I walked the stretch from Lal Chowk, Srinagar, seeking directions for the office of the “human rights walleh“. Near Amira Kadal, the curved bridge that spans the Jhelum, I was directed to an old, rather precarious-looking building. Gingerly, I walked up a steep staircase that over the years I would keep negotiating, seeking, like so many journalists, to bolster my reporting with statistics and meticulous, painstaking documentation that the office provided.
The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), as it is known, is a nonprofit federation of human rights’ organisations and helmed by lawyer Parvez Imroz (hereafter Imroz) and programme director Khurram Parvez (hereafter Parvez). Parvez was arrested on November 22 under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
The JKCCS’s sterling record in monitoring, investigating and reporting human rights violations has been recognised globally by many human rights bodies and activists.
Acclaim for its seminal report and fieldwork on torture has come from Juan E. Mendez, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. Jostein Hole Kobbeltvedt, director of the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights in Oslo, which honoured Imroze and noted activist Parveena Ahangar in 2017, has appealed to India “to immediately release Mr. Parvez”. The statement says,
“We observe with regret that the Indian government intimidates citizens working to secure the values and norms enshrined in the Constitution of India and in international treaties ratified by the government itself. ” The arrest of Parvez has also drawn sharp criticism from several human right activists and bodies including Mary Lawlor UN Special Rapporteur of Human Rights Defenders who tweeted, “He’s not a terrorist, he’s a human rights defender.”
The All India Lawyers Association for Justice and People’s Union for Civil Liberties has also condemned Parvez’s arrest.
My first visit to the JKCCS office in 2011 came about after reading a report that said there were at least 2,000 corpses in dozens of unmarked and unknown graves in north Kashmir. This report by a 11-member team of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) under the senior superintendent of police, Bashir Ahmed Ittoo, had admitted that those corpses could be the remains of civilians who had gone “missing”.
Ittoo, whom I also met later, had said it was crucial to maintain proper identification of anyone killed, whether it was a militant or an innocent killed during cross-firing. But, he also candidly admitted, “Local police did not keep any identification profiles.” No photographs of those killed in encounters were kept or circulated. The complete absence of standard operating procedures and consequent lawlessness meant that security forces could simply hand over bodies to police for burial without identification and without entry of the dead in the public domain.
“There is every possibility that these unidentified dead bodies buried in various unmarked graves at 38 places in North Kashmir may contain the bodies of enforced disappearances,” the report stated.
The term “enforced disappearance”, I learnt, was used for those people who had been picked up by security forces ostensibly for interrogation and who never returned. Men who thus left their homes were never seen again. There were an estimated 8,000 people who had disappeared in Kashmir in the 1990s during the height of the armed conflict. The government, for its part, had dismissed the missing complaints as those of youths who had crossed the border or joined militancy.
Now here was the official validation of enforced disappearances, concerns which Parvez and Imroz had been raising for years, as founders and members of the Association for Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP).
A report by APDP, Buried Evidence and Facts Under Ground, had meticulously tabulated the presence of unknown, unmarked and mass graves in North Kashmir. It observed how the creation of such graves and the often mutilated bodies that the gravediggers and caregivers handled were “a chronicle of violence and violations”. They told a chilling story of extrajudicial killings and torture. Bodies of the nameless dead would be handed over by security forces, some with faces badly burnt, or others with visible signs of torture to villagers or grave diggers.
Impunity and lack of culpability were the questions that both Imroz and Parvez and other human rights defenders were raising. This, they said, was the reason for the creation of unknown graves and clandestine graveyards that kept springing up. Many of them were in open spaces or public parks adjoining police stations or adjoining army/paramilitary camps.
The report dealt with findings in North Kashmir, but Parvez urged me and another colleague to do our own fieldwork and gather accounts from people in other parts of Kashmir as well.
Our trips in South Kashmir and interactions with villagers confirmed how graveyards sprang up almost overnight. People in a village near Harwan told us how they were kept confined to their homes during a cordon-and-search operation. When the cordon was lifted, they found three fresh graves in the local graveyard. Others spoke of seeing dead bodies with no known identity, flung in the streets or fields – eyes gouged out and visible signs of torture. It was my introduction to the grave human rights abuses perpetrated in Kashmir.
For the families of the disappeared, the uncertainty of not knowing what had happened to their loved ones and the inability to mourn or bring about closure created a special agony. This was especially so for the women whose husbands had disappeared.
Known as ‘half widows’ in Kashmir’s lexicon, they spent their lives in limbo since their husbands had not been officially declared dead. They were not sure if they could return to their maternal home with the children, or be dependent on in-laws, or could legally re-marry, or then struggle to take on the role of bread earners.
APDP, which was set up by Imroz and Parvez, pressed not just for resolving socio-economic issues and survival in a patriarchal society but also to seek political accountability.
“Where are you?” That poignant question hangs as a poster in a room of the JKCCS office; it demonstrates the respect of the right not to be disappeared. It is the keystone in seeking justice from the state and the JKCCS campaign. The families filed habeas corpus cases and through the cases and other forms of litigation they fought back against the state’s denial and bids at erasure of collective memory.
Litigation, however, did not bring prosecution of a single person because the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) stipulates sanctions must be sought from the Union home ministry or defence ministry. In all these decades, no sanction has been given to prosecute even a single person.
Khurram Parvez’s approach to human rights
In his articulation of what human rights are all about, Parvez has stressed that it is not about securing justice for one individual or family but of a collective struggle for families of enforced disappearances everywhere. He has demonstrated such solidarity by taking up work in international campaigns as well.
As the chairman of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), he raised concerns about disappearances in the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In recognition of this work, he received the Rebok Human Rights Award in 2006, given to anyone who fights for human rights through nonviolent means.
Parvez has also worked closely on campaigns for landmine removal: he himself sustained serious injuries in a landmine in 2004 while travelling in a car during a fact-finding visit to monitor elections. His leg had to be amputated and his co-passengers Aasiya Jeelani, a young woman working with JKCCS, and the driver of the car Ghulam Nabi Sheikh died in the incident.
Imroz described the ordeal of that day as the “longest” one he had undergone. Shuttling between the Shri Maharaj Harisingh Hospital and the Sher-e-Kashmir Hospital where Parvez and some of the other injured were admitted, the day ended with Aasiya being lowered into a grave.
Parvez spoke to me of the utter devastation at the death of their young colleague. “We lost a colleague. A close friend and someone with whom we had plans to make a non-violent resistance movement for the youth.”
In my conversations with Parvez, I have been struck by the manner in which he is able to reflect and offer a comprehensive understanding of the meaning of human rights and yet be so rooted to the ground that he recalls particular details of every case, of the suffering. This ability, and his sensitivity towards gendered nuances were revealed when I began looking at cases of sexual violence during my visits in 2013.
Parvez’s understanding of complexities
I had read of a particular case in the JKCCS report Alleged Perpetrator: Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir which had documented a case of enforced disappearance but one that had much wider ramifications.
I went with friends to Reshpora in South Kashmir to learn a little more about this case. The woman complainant and her son recalled the horrors of the night of January 2-3, 1997 when an army officer with a retinue of soldiers had come into her house. Her son, then a young boy, told us he remembered clearly how his grandfather was attacked, how his head hit the floor and he was then dragged away, perhaps already dead. The light bulbs were then smashed, and in the cover of darkness, the woman and her 14-year-old sister were pounced upon and sexually assaulted. The woman later filed a police complaint and also appealed to the SHRC.
Permission for the prosecution was sought but refused on the grounds that there was no prima facie evidence against the army officer and that the woman was the wife of a “dreadful Hizbul-ul-Mujahideen militant”. It was said that “she was forced to file false allegations by anti-national elements who wished to malign the image of the forces”.
In her story to us, the woman did not speak of the sexual violence perpetrated on her, even though it was there in the police complaint. She only spoke of her sister.
I was puzzled until Parvez later explained the gendered nuances of the case. He spoke of what he termed as the double zulm or oppression of violence perpetrated by the state and then by patriarchal norms.
The woman’s husband was a Hizbul Mujahideen militant, who had a second wife. She had sought divorce from her husband. She had repeatedly gone to the army camp authorities and told them she had no links with her husband and they should stop harassing her and the family. Not only had she been abandoned by her husband, but she and her family were targeted horrifically by the army official; her father was abducted and killed. She and her young sister were sexually assaulted. When she sought justice she was dismissed as a militant’s wife whose story was suspect.
She fought against the social stigma of rape and suffered guilt because of what had happened to her young sister. The young woman continued to suffer recurrent nightmares years later. But in a closed society, it was easier to pass such trauma off as being possessed by a djinn.
I was offered many such gender-sensitive and nuanced understandings by Parvez of women survivors of the Kunan-Poshpora rape cases and other cases of sexual violence like the Handwara girl’s case.
It helped me realise how stories must be heard with all the complexities of a society ravaged and splintered by militarisation and of the huge challenges and difficulties in documenting and asking for justice.
In today’s milieu, the challenges have been heightened. Civil society is now under attack. Human rights are not a given, but a subject actually up for debate. It is perhaps time to proclaim what human rights are all about and to reiterate the globally accepted norms of how governments must behave towards all persons under their jurisdiction.
In his message for UN Human Rights on Article 30, which declares that human rights are indivisible, Parvez in 2018 spoke of what impelled him to become a human rights defender. He spoke of the responsibility of protecting the lives of everyone and anyone and not inciting violence. He spoke of solidarity.
“We have seen oppressive states. One of the biggest tools which they use is they fragment the societies. They take away solidarities and make them completely dehumanised. Our responsibility becomes exactly the opposite. Forging the solidarities,” he had said.
Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist from Mumbai who is interested in human rights and development issues.