By Ather Zia
“Peace!” – a word (of salutation) from a Lord Most Merciful!
This Quranic phrase, from Surah Yasin, 36:58, was the first of many bonding discussions that I have had with Khurram Parvez, my long-time friend. The word “peace” as mentioned in this verse, and by implication, about what occupation, truth, justice, law, rights, activism and freedom meant under the chronic militarization in the Indian-controlled Kashmir valley always dominated our conversations. These words became increasingly meaningful in Khurram’s life when, in the late 90’s after finishing his Masters in Journalism, he decided to dedicate himself as a Human Rights defender. Over the years Khurram has become one of the pioneering human rights activists in the valley.
On the night of September 15 Khurram was placed under illegal detention for the “potential to breach peace”—an ironic accusation to level at a peace and human rights activist. This occurred only hours after he was stopped from boarding a flight to Geneva, where he was due to submit the “civil society stakeholder’s report” to the UN Human Rights Council.
Despite having all the necessary travel documents, Khurram was given no reason for the detention, other than he had been stopped on the instruction of India’s intelligence bureau. He was sent back to the valley and taken into custody soon after.
Khurram was charged under the Public Safety Act (PSA), a dreaded law implemented by India to repress any form of dissent. Amnesty has called the PSA “a lawless law” and documented its rampant use in Kashmir, where it is used to criminalize and penalize political dissenters. Khurram is being held in a jail nearly 300 kilometers away from his family and legal counsel. At the time he was transferred to that facility, Khurram was still to be informed of the grounds for his detention.Khurram’s detention has been denounced by intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Judith Butler, Veena Das, as well as other activists and organizations like Human Rights Watch and Frontline Defenders. Amnesty International called the detention a “shameful attempt to suppress a peaceful dissenting voice from Kashmir.” A group of UN experts have also called on the Government of India to immediately release Khurram.
The covert manner of Khurram's arrest was such that no warrant was issued. The magistrate who passed the detention orders did not even see him personally, or issue a show cause for bail bond, which the law requires when a jail term is ordered.
Initially, Khurram was put into a ten-day remand, and without formal notification, was in the middle of the night whisked off to a remote sub-jail in remote North Kashmir. This was probably done to amplify his isolation and thwart legal efforts for his release.
This kind of treatment is not uncommon in the Kashmir valley. According to Amnesty, thousands of Kashmiri youth and activists, including lawyers and journalists, have been incarcerated unlawfully. Amnesty’s estimates of the number detained over the past two decades range from 8,000 to 20,000. Many prisoners are often re-arrested after release. The re-arrests and illegal detentions have become a matter of state policy. The issue of rampant incarceration is among a host of others human rights abuses that Khurram has been documenting and fighting against.
Khurram started his formal human rights activism coordinating the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), an organization he helped co-found with Parvez Imroz, a human rights lawyer and activist. Khurram has also lent his support to international actions against human rights abuses, and he the Chairperson of Asian Federation Against involuntary Disappearances (AFAD).
Khurram has singlehandedly fought to make space for dialogue, activism, research and documentation on human rights in Kashmir. He developed JKCCS into a hub of civil society and a second home to researchers, students, journalists, filmmakers, activists and budding human rights activists from all across the world.
In 2004, during an election monitoring exercise in the Lolab Valley, Khurram lost his leg in a landmine blast. But he remained undaunted, and went on to successfully build JKCCS into the ethical heart of the valley, well known for its rigorously researched documentation and reports on enforced disappearances, mass graves, and custodial killings carried out by the Indian troops. The report on mass graves was an unprecedented work that Khurram spearheaded and which brought international attention to the human rights abuses in the Kashmir valley.
After the continued neglect by India of the Kashmiri demand for UN-mandated self-determination, in 1989 a popular armed struggle broke out in the region. India responded with brutal counterinsurgency measures, imposing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives Indian troops immense powers over the life, liberty and property of Kashmiris.
Approximately 700,000 Indian troops are stationed in Kashmir today—roughly one Indian soldier for every eight Kashmiris. The Indian forces have carried out large numbers of summary executions, custodial killings, torture, rapes, and arbitrary detentions. A study by Médecins Sans Frontierès revealed that one in every seven Kashmiris has witnessed or has been a victim of torture. Human rights organizations claim that to date more than 70,000 Kashmiris, both combatants and non-combatants, have been killed, and over 8,000 men have disappeared while in the custody of Indian forces. Coordinated by Khurram, the movement to search for the disappeared has become one of the most visible of JKCCS’ campaigns.
Since 2008 the movement for self-determination in the valley has shifted towards civilian demonstrations and street battles. Even as the militancy has abated—by the government’s own admission the number of militants now is less than 400—the intensity and lethalness of the response by Indian troops has not descreased.
On July 7, 2016 a fresh wave of civilian demonstrations began after a young militant leader, Burhan Wani, was killed by the Indian forces. At the time of writing, Kashmir valley is in its 107th day of protests and curfew. More than 80 people have been killed, including elderly people and children, and over 11,000 wounded. An estimated 800 Kashmiris as young as five years have been injured in the eyes or blinded by the Indian troops, who have used disproportionate force against both protestors and non-protestors. Phone and Internet service were banned, and continue to be partially blocked. Already more than 1,000 arrests have been made and many more are expected. JKCCS has been tirelessly documenting the human rights violations, and Khurram was due to report on this in Geneva.
Khurram has been one of most vocal critics of the India’s repressive policies in Kashmir. His unlawful arrest by the government in Kashmir is an attempt to criminalize his work as a human rights activist, to turn him into a symbol to ensure silence, and criminalize voices like his. His arrest is a part of the renewed crackdown on people who have been clamoring for the right to self-determination. If anything, however, this incarceration and these efforts to tarnish his reputation have elevated Khurram in the eyes of his people and of the global community.
Khurram also remains undaunted, and views his arrest as a vindication of his stance for human rights and a rightful solution under the UN mandated self-determination of the Kashmiri people.
While awaiting transfer to the jail he reflected upon the events that were unfolding rapidly—the baseless allegations, and his illegal detention. He said: “I would sometimes wonder about my work, the sacrifices of Kashmiri people, the loss of my leg, and the witness JKCCS was creating to give voice to the voiceless; I would wonder if I was on the right path. This detention proves I am doing something right.”
Ather Zia teaches at University of Northern Colorado. She is working on a book on enforced disappearances in Kashmir. She is the founder-editor of Kashmir Lit at www.kashmirlit.org, and blogs at http://www.huffingtonpost.in/ather-zia/