India’s declining rankings in the global indices are concerning. The 2023 World Press Freedom Index ranks India at the 161st position out of 180 countries, and the Human Freedom Index 2022 ranks it at the 112th position out of 165 countries.
Additionally, India’s position in the Rule of Law Index of the World Justice Project has declined to 77 out of 140 countries.
India’s populist and authoritarian government, which relies on demonising minority groups to maintain power, presents a significant danger to both dissent and human rights efforts within the nation. A report released by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre based in the UK has highlighted that India is one of the most dangerous countries for human rights and labour activists in 2022.
The report reveals a concerning trend of increasing violence against activists and human rights defenders in India, posing a significant threat to civil society and the rule of law. Human rights defenders act as an accountability tool between the state and its citizens, reflecting back on the actions and decisions of those in power and holding them to a standard of transparency and responsibility.
However, the Indian government has been attempting to undermine, disparage, or even eliminate this accountability mirror, posing a grave threat to India’s democracy.
The Kashmir issue
The situation in Kashmir, a conflict zone in India, is particularly dire, with an almost complete suspension of democracy and the rule of law. The protracted dispute of the most heavily militarised region in the world continues to inflict suffering on the inhabitants of Kashmir. The Ministry of Home Affairs has recently announced the deployment of 10 military companies to Jammu and Kashmir, moving them from Delhi to the valley. This comes after the Indian government had already stationed around 700,000 military and paramilitary personnel in the region, with an additional 50,000 added in 2019.
Over time, there has been a gradual increase in militarisation. Human rights abuses occur with impunity, including illegal detentions, alleged rape and torture by armed forces, and destruction of homes and properties. The Indian state employs various methods to exert control over the valley, including curfews, communication blockades, and restrictions on press freedom and the right to protest. The people of Kashmir are denied access to justice, and the judiciary appears to have abdicated its responsibility to protect citizens’ rights and hold the state accountable.
With a region under such heavy administration of security forces that have impunity under the laws, the role of human rights organisations becomes particularly important. One such organisation in the valley, the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), had assumed a crucial role in holding the military-administered state accountable for its actions.
However, there has been a systematic attempt by the Indian state to delegitimise and eliminate JKCCS. The members of the organisation and their families are being hounded for their work, with their homes being raided, devices confiscated, and some being arrested. But why is the current government so bothered by a human rights organisation?
JKCCS has been led by courageous and competent human rights activists, Parvez Imroz and Khurram Parvez.
Founded in 2000, it is a non-funded, non-profit organisation that consists of various advocacy and research groups in Srinagar, Jammu, and Kashmir. Their mission is to promote a vibrant civil society and institution building in Jammu and Kashmir, protecting human rights, and seeking truth, justice, and reparations.
JKCCS engages in systematic documentation, litigation, and other programmes to speak truth to power and reinforce civil society to ensure peace and democracy in the region. They believe that the people of Jammu and Kashmir enjoy all internationally guaranteed civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, and aim to replace the culture of intolerance with one of dialogue and understanding.
It is pertinent to remember that the work of these human rights defenders has been internationally acclaimed.
Parvez Imroz, president of JKCCS along with Parveena Ahangar, who is the chairperson of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, were jointly awarded the prestigious Rafto Prize for human rights in 2017. This year Khurram Parvez has been selected as one of the three awardees of the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for his activism in defending human rights.
The significance of JKCSS’s work cannot be emphasised enough. Despite operating amid an ongoing conflict, JKCCS has taken a responsible approach in its reports by examining the structures beyond individual perpetrators and going up the chain of command to identify those responsible for human rights abuses.
Some prominent documentation work by JKCCS:
- The organisation published a report in 2006 titled ‘State of Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir 1990-2006’. The report aimed to demonstrate that the death toll in Kashmir between 1990 and 2005 was over 70,000. Not all deaths were caused by the Indian security forces, some were caused by militants. The report, however, said that the Indian state held primary responsibility for the destruction caused in Jammu and Kashmir.
- The report ‘Interpreting Elections: Independent Election Observer’s Team Report Jammu & Kashmir Legislative Assembly Elections 2008’ provided a comprehensive account of the elections of the state assembly in 2008. It included an introduction highlighting the context within which the elections took place, and a survey conducted by the observer team. It emphasized that the overwhelming support for azaadi (freedom) was evident among both voters and those who boycotted it. This support for azaadi is a remarkable expression of the people of Kashmir, despite the repressive conditions under which the polls were carried out.
- It also conducted a door-to-door survey of an entire district, Baramulla, to determine who was killed between 1989 and 2006, when, where, how, and if possible, why. The results were put in a report titled ‘Dead but Not Forgotten: Survey on people killed since 1989-2006 in Baramulla District, of Jammu Kashmir.’ By conducting this survey, the JKCCS aimed to shed light on the human toll of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. It brought attention to those who lost their lives.
- Another report titled ‘Peace and Processes of Violence: An Observation on the Situation in Jammu and Kashmir from 2002 to 2009’ analysed data collected by JKCCS from daily reportage in newspapers published in Jammu and Kashmir. The report showed data on killings, disappearances, suicides, fratricides, etc. in the region between 2002 to 2009. The conflict from 2002 to 2009 has resulted in the loss of life of 3,404 civilians, 7,504 militants (claimed by the government), 2,451 troopers, and 674 others. The data, based only on reported killings, showed a deeply disturbing pattern of impunity in Jammu and Kashmir. That means there may be additional killings that have gone unreported or not shared with journalists in official records.
- Yet another report ‘Alleged Perpetrators: Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir’ exposed the culture of impunity in Jammu and Kashmir, where human rights violations are authorised in the name of countering militant violence. It identified 500 individual perpetrators, which included army personnel, paramilitary personnel, police personnel, and government-backed militants/associates, in 214 cases of human rights violations. The report concluded that monetary compensation provided to the families of the victims was insufficient. It added that the judiciary in Jammu and Kashmir allowed itself to be subservient to the State.
- The 2011 report ‘Half Widow, Half Wife: Responding to Gendered Violence in Kashmir’ examined the situation of the women labelled as “half widows” in the Indian-administered Kashmir. The husbands of these women have disappeared. However, they are yet to be declared as deceased. The report wrote about the experiences of these half-widows to capture an often unseen and pernicious face of insecurity in Kashmir. It estimated that there are 1,500 half-widows in Kashmir. It identified how this population provides an immediate opportunity for meaningful engagement. It also made recommendations to policymakers, local, national, and international actors, on what steps to take to improve the lives of these women and the people of Kashmir.
- Another report titled ‘Occupational Hazard The Jammu and Kashmir Floods of September 2014’ highlighted the social, historical, and political underpinnings of the flooding in Kashmir. It argued that natural disasters are always intertwined with political and historical forces and socio-economic and political vulnerabilities are exacerbated by natural hazards. The report provided insights into the contemporary and historical functioning of the Indian state’s control over Kashmir, emphasising how it operates not just through military control but through the control of space, media narratives, governance structures, and economic development in Kashmir. It argued that the Indian administration under heavy militarisation is inimical to the principle of exercising guardianship over the natural resources of the territory. The report identified several instances where militarisation has considerably added to the region’s disaster vulnerability and the expendability of Kashmiri lives and property, such as the Jammu Baramulla Railway line project and the physical occupation of civilian flood control infrastructure by the military.
- ‘Amarnath Yatra: A Militarised Pilgrimage’ is a documentation of all facets of the annual pilgrimage in Jammu and Kashmir. The report said that a detailed study on this subject will throw light on how religious tourism/pilgrimages are being used by the State to exercise control in areas that are in conflict with the State.
- The report ‘Structures of Violence’ detailed how the Indian government used Kashmiri civilians to fight the insurgency, which aimed to fragment the society along ethnic, religious, linguistic, and regional lines. The report also illustrated the patterns of violence through individual case studies and identified the structure, forms, and tactics of the violence in Jammu and Kashmir.
While the act of documenting events for historical purposes is significant, JKCCS’s work serves a greater purpose of constructing a compelling argument based on legal, truthful, and just principles. Its work aims to raise important questions that hold both the Indian state and the international community accountable, making it crucial in seeking justice and promoting accountability.
The organisation has applied international criminal law jurisprudence to the situation in Kashmir and has worked tirelessly, under the leadership of advocate Imroz, to hold those who are responsible accountable, and push for state investigations.
Their work has brought the Kashmir conflict to the notice of international organisations. Significantly, JKCCS has also engaged with the United Nations, and their efforts have been instrumental in the release of the first-ever High Commissioner’s report in June 2018, which addressed human rights abuses on both sides of Jammu and Kashmir.
The strategic silencing of JKCCS
While the organisation and its members have always been under threat, the reading down of Article 370 exacerbated the situation.
In October 2020, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) raided the office of JKCCS and some of its members. The NIA accused the organisation and individuals of receiving funds from both domestic and foreign sources under the guise of charitable activities, which were allegedly used to promote secessionist and separatist activities in Jammu and Kashmir.
After continuous interrogations, Khurram Parvez, co-founder and programme coordinator of JKCCS, has been incarcerated by NIA since November 22, 2021. Parvez is facing several stringent charges.
In March 2023, another member of JKCCS and an independent journalist from Kashmir, Irfan Mehraj, was also arrested following ongoing interrogations by the central probe agency.
Other members of the organisations are also regularly interrogated. The relentless persecution by the State has brought the human rights efforts carried out by JKCCS to a grinding halt.
The reasons for this attack are clear. After reading down Article 370, the Indian government wants to cement its control over the region by eliminating any accountability tool that exposes the violence in Kashmir to the people of India as well as to the international community.
The actions taken against JKCCS involve expansion, intensification, and extension of a trend seen throughout India, where criminal accusations, including those related to terrorism, are being unfairly imposed on activists who advocate for human rights. By criminalising and prosecuting human rights defenders by dubbing them as “anti-national”, the Indian state betrays its constitutional promise of guaranteeing to all its citizens the right to speech, expression, and association, all of which involve the right to dissent, question, and seek accountability of those in power.
Such targeting of JKCCS, a crucial human rights organisation, is a matter of concern for anyone who cherishes the safeguarding of constitutional democracy.
Saranga Ugalmugle is an advocate and researcher from India. She is currently pursuing her LLM from the University of Windsor, Canada. She is a 2022 graduate fellow of the Transnational Law and Racial Justice Network and the editorial assistant to the TWAILR editorial collective.
Mihir Desai is a senior advocate in the Bombay high court and the vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, India. He was a legal counsel to the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir.
Both authors were part of an eleven-member team that visited Kashmir in September 2019.