Khurram Parvez, wrongfully incarcerated, completes two years in prison in India

Screenshot from YouTube video: ‘Is creating a culture of accountability in Kashmir, a problem? Khurram Parvez asks the Govt.’ Interview on Video Volunteers channel. Fair use.

On November 21, Khurram Parvez, the globally renowned Kashmiri human rights defender, completed two years in India’s maximum-security District Jail of Rohini. Parvez is symbolic of what has been called a large-scale crackdown on democratic dissent and human rights in the Indian-administered Kashmir. The pattern of Indian crackdown in Kashmir has grown exponentially under the rule of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a party that has been the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Hindu rightwing outfit since 2014.

In 2019, the  Indian government unilaterally and militarily removed Kashmir’s autonomy. The policies of the Indian government have proceeded at an extraordinary speed, choking and diminishing any remnants of free space and expression. It has passed an array of laws to speed up its settler-colonial policies.

Read our special coverage: Inside Kashmir's crisis

Since 1991, Kashmir has been under the Armed Forces Special Act (AFSPA) imposed to suppress the insurrection against the Indian military occupation. Even though official numbers vary, past reports have estimated around 700,000 Indian troops occupy the region. Kashmir is one of the world's densest militarized regions and is often called an open-air prison. AFSPA requires prior “sanctions” from the government to prosecute any member of the Indian forces. The “sanctions” have been used as an immunity mechanism for Indian forces to shield them from prosecution for all criminal offences. Not a single member of the Indian forces deployed in Kashmir over the past three decades has been tried for human rights violations in a civilian court. Thus, Indian forces have acted with impunity and complete disregard for the civil and human rights of Kashmiris.

According to human rights groups, gross human rights violations have resulted in 70,000-plus killings of Kashmiris, both combatants and civilians, and 8,000–10,000 estimated enforced disappearances; rape as a weapon of war, political incarcerations, and injuries like the world’s first mass blindings.

Read our special coverage: The Kashmiri People Versus the Indian State

Khurram Parvez has headed the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) for the past two decades. JKCCS has extensively documented human rights violations in the region and mentored and trained countless young activists and rights defenders. It is a non-funded and voluntary network of individuals and groups that organized in 2000 to create a culture of independent rights-based dialogue and documentation of human rights violations. Parvez is the lead coordinator of one of the two Association of Parents of the Disappeared Persons (APDP) groups, which are seeking justice for Kashmiris forcibly disappeared by the Indian forces. Both APDPs were awarded the Rafto Prize for human rights in 2017. In 2004, while monitoring elections, Parvez lost his left leg in a land-mine blast while two of his colleagues were killed.

Even while incarcerated, Parvez was re-elected as the president of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), which he has led since 2014. In April, Khurram was unanimously elected deputy secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). In her remarks, the president of FIDH, Alice Mogwe, expressed support and admiration for Parvez and his untiring passion for human rights work. In addition to past international awards, this year, Parvez received the Martin Enals Human Rights Defender Award for his human rights work in Kashmir. Prominent human rights watchdogs and advocates, including UN Rapporteurs, global peace activists, and writers the world over, have continued to highlight Khurram’s unflagging service to human rights defence. They strongly condemn his ongoing arbitrary detention as a reprisal for his activism.

The Indian state has, for the last 75 years, steadily criminalized all democratic dissent in Kashmir, and this has now been institutionalized. Anyone challenging the state’s narrative is promptly booked under sedition, terrorism, and other repressive “legal” charges with the singular aim of silencing critical voices. Parvez, too, has been charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), known as India’s most abused counterterrorism law. UAPA is a draconian piece of legislation that is notorious for arbitrarily labelling an individual a “terrorist” and implying guilt until proven innocent, and bail is extremely hard to get. International rights groups concur that India is misusing its legal mechanisms, such as the UAPA, to target human rights defenders in Kashmir and across India.

As reported, in Kashmir, even journalists and scribes are facing persecution. In 2020, a new media policy was imposed. Strict censorship has been a historical reality in Kashmir, but now it is fully institutionalized. Journalists, human rights defenders, writers, and opinion leaders are unable to report freely the ground realities. Even social media users are under the scanner. Notably, journalists Asif Sultan and Sajad Gul were booked under arbitrary allegations. The Commission for Protection of Journalism says that the media in Kashmir is at a breaking point. Kashmiri journalists face the impounding of passports, loss of writing and archives, bans, and the blocking of their websites. In October, the government of India reignited a 10-year-old case of sedition against Arundhati Roy, the 1997 Booker Prize winner and an activist, and a Kashmiri former professor, Sheikh Showkat Hussain. Roy has been one of the strongest voices in India to speak against Indian policies in Kashmir.

The research and documentation on human rights violations by the Indian armed forces by the JKCCS is impeccably researched, painstakingly collected, and independently verified by well-known global human rights watchdogs, like Amnesty International, which validates the work of JKCCS. Even Amnesty’s office in India had to shut down after it was raided and its financial assets frozen in 2020. Amnesty called it a “witch-hunt” and part of a large-scale crackdown against human rights organizations, particularly in Kashmir. Human rights work in Kashmir is effectively banned, as is any form of protest.

On November 9, the Indian armed forces tribunal suspended the life sentence of an Indian army captain. In 2020, the officer was found guilty of killing three Kashmiri youths in a staged encounter after labelling them “terrorists.” Staged encounters have been used as an extra-judicial method of counterinsurgency by the Indian army, accruing human rights violations and abuses against Kashmiris.

Since human rights and civil society activism are under severe repression, no public protest was possible even though the families were outraged. This is where human rights defenders and journalists played a pivotal democratic function in Kashmir. Now, any form of human rights defence or investigative journalism that challenges the Indian narrative is seen as a threat and labelled “anti-India”. Such is the level of silencing in Kashmir that in the wake of the ongoing genocide in Gaza, even pro-Palestinian protest is banned by India. The police have ordered mosques not to mention the genocide and if people want to pray for Palestine, they can do so only in Arabic and not Kashmiri.

Marking the second anniversary of Parvez's incarceration, global human rights organizations have once again called for his immediate and unconditional release and that of his former colleague at JKCCS and journalist Irfan Mehraj. Alice Mogwe, president of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), stated:

The UN ruling on Khurram Parvez’s case authoritatively confirms that his detention is an act of reprisal for his human rights work, and an attempt to silence him and Kashmiri civil society as a whole. The Indian authorities must implement the UN’s recommendations and immediately release Khurram.”

What we need the most is strong political commitment and global solidarity to urge the Indian government to Free Khurram Parvez and free journalists Irfan Meraj and Asif Sultan. Free all Kashmiri political prisoners!

On December 11, 2023, the Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh High Court quashed the detention order of journalist Asif Sultan under the Public Safety Act (PSA). It is still unclear when he will be released. Sultan was granted bail in April 2022 but ended up being booked under fresh charges, and his detention continued.

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