Last year around this time, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) came out with the first-ever report on human rights abuses on both sides of the Line of Control in Kashmir.
The report met with huge furore in India and the Central government reacted strongly, calling it “fallacious, tendentious and motivated”. Its response, however, displayed very little detail or reason and absolutely no respect for the law and human rights.
Response by @MEAIndia :
“India rejects the report. It is fallacious, tendentious and motivated. We question the intent in bringing out such a report.
It is a selective compilation of largely unverified information. It is overtly prejudiced and seeks to build a false narrative.” pic.twitter.com/r37KpW1FAU
— India at UN, Geneva (@IndiaUNGeneva) June 14, 2018
This was despite the report having been severely critical of Pakistan and the several clarifications issued by the OHCHR about the methodology it used and its motivations. The OHCHR even gave a dignified response to some outlandish arguments including the allegation (based on a photograph of Zeid with three individuals from Pakistan-administered Kashmir) that the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI was associated with the report.
In an unprecedented move, Zeid himself responded to some rebuttals in a compelling piece and said that the report was indeed “motivated — motivated by the desire to contribute to the search for peace and justice in Kashmir”. He urged people to read it in that spirit.
Despite this, editorials in influential, popular newspapers kept calling this a pro-Pakistan report and labelled Zeid a biased man. Some quarters even expressed a “sigh of relief” as Michelle Bachelet replaced him as high commissioner.
On July 8, 2019, the OHCHR came out with its second report on Kashmir with updates on the situation from May 2018 to April 2019. India’s response to the latest report, interestingly, was exactly the same as its response to the first. It called the report “fallacious, tendentious and [politically] motivated“.
This was partly amusing for two reasons. One, to know that the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is running out of hollow adjectives to use whenever India is questioned about Kashmir. More interestingly, this report was published under the new high commissioner who was seen by Delhi as a fair and objective observer, unlike her predecessor.
This is also indicative of something deeply problematic — the Indian government feels that these adjectives are sufficient to convince people of the report’s problems.
This confidence is also because since the publication of the report, most Indian media outlets have only focused on the government’s anguish over the report, and hardly on the contents of the report itself (see here, here and here for examples).
Sadly, the report ignored the only addition to India’s replies to the serious human rights violations the second time around: “the sustained and comprehensive socio-economic development efforts by India in Kashmir”.
Such a response is only comparable to Jared Kushner’s absurd, ignorant and deeply dangerous “economic peace plan” claim in Palestine.
The issue, however, extends to a sentiment in many that such silence by India must be defended and promoted whenever the issue of Kashmir comes up. In the context of the first report on Kashmir, former senior diplomat Satish Chandra wrote how the Centre’s decision to limit the powers of observers like the OHCHR is a sound state strategy.
His concerns stemmed from another piece by ex-IPS officer Vappala Balachandran who praised the Narasimha Rao government which allowed the first international human rights organisation, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), to assess the situation in Kashmir in the 1990s. Balachandran called that a great move, despite the ’90s being a “more troublesome period for India’s human rights image on Kashmir,” as India had “nothing to hide”.
Leaving aside the statist reduction of human rights to an issue of images or headaches for state, it is ironic that this ICJ report of 1995 unearthed much that was actually hidden from the Indian narratives. In fact, it even questioned the legality of India’s continued control of Kashmir.
Chandra wrote that it was pointless to engage with such ‘biased’ missions which were ostensibly lacking in objectivity, perspective and accuracy. Pakistan, too, argued that the parts pertaining to it lacked objectivity.
However, Chandra’s biggest concern was that the ICJ report was “anti-Indian” and that “such a report on such issues is something best avoided”
Chandra says the government back then was compelled to undertake a “damage limitation” exercise. This involved negotiations with the then ICJ secretary general Adama Dieng, who was described (like Michelle Bachelet) as someone “well-disposed towards India”.
Little did Dieng know then that even he may now lose his “unbiased” tag (also like Michelle Bachelet) as soon as it is discovered that Dieng, now the UN secretary general’s special adviser for the prevention of genocide, had recently asked countries like India to show “moral leadership” in the region and “not bury its head in sand” when it comes to the Rohingya crisis.
No one is unbiased enough to sit over a review of human rights issues in Kashmir, let alone discuss causes of such human rights violations. Espousing a “no-response/no-engagement” stance is further problematic because it reflects a dangerous entrenchment of unshakable narratives of history, sovereignty and human rights.
This support for “no-response” is increasingly gaining ground. Chandra refers to a “50 page pungent response” by India in response to the ICJ report. Without going into the merits of the response, it must be noted that there was at least a response.
Similarly, even while denying access to Amnesty International to Kashmir, the government at least engaged with Amnesty on its 1995 report on torture; and its 1993 report on impunity and disappearances. This is unlike the last two times where India has said nothing besides hurling the same adjectives at a well-evidenced account of violations.
Value of response or the lack of it
Such engagements are not necessarily constructive and honest. However, the lack of a response citing bias and the belief that people will buy into such a self-fulfilling understanding of bias is more problematic. This is not just with respect to the proponents of such responses but also the ones receiving these without question.
Whenever Kashmir comes up we immediately recede into a cocoon which is comfortable for our conscience and politics. The reports act as triggers to at least begin questioning.
It also exposes us to the extent of rights violations that we are shielded from in our everyday lives. As the human rights lawyer, Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh rightly points out, these reports give a “faint glimmer of a dream, that it would give us Indians the courage to think the unthinkable, to reorient our moral and cartographic compasses, and begin to see Kashmir for once not as a question of their alienation from us, but of our own increasing alienation and isolation from the world at large.”