Activists, institutions targeted as violations continue with impunity, say experts and defenders
SRINAGAR, Jammu, and Kashmir On Nov. 26, Muhammad Saleem, a secondary school teacher, was checking exam papers of his students when he heard gunfire. It had been years since the last firing incident occurred in the area called Aban Shah, a semi-urban locality in the outskirts of Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.
Almost an hour later, people started coming out of their homes only to learn that two Indian soldiers were shot dead by militants who later released a video showing how the killings were carried out.
About midnight the next day, a large group of masked soldiers from a nearby camp took more than 35 men, including Saleem, 27, from their homes, walked them to an intersection where they were beaten up with polycarbonate sticks, fists and kicks. They said the soldiers were repeatedly asking them to reveal the identity of the militants.
Saleem’s medical records from government Bone and Joint Hospital read “physical assault”. Doctors prescribed him complete bed rest. Fearing repeat of the army beating, he had shifted to a relative’s home and returned only on Tuesday. Wearing a back belt and crepe bandage in his feet, he still struggles to sit up.
Sitting beside him was his 20-year-old brother, Adil, who has a plastered right wrist. After the beating, he found moving fingers painful. His medical record reads: “assault by army”. A student of agriculture sciences, Adil is worried whether he can sit in his second semester examination beginning on Dec. 15. Doctors have recommended plaster for two weeks ending this Sunday.
A shopkeeper Altaf Ahmad showed Anadolu Agency baton markings, now faded a light shade of purple, on his right hip. He said that when the firing started he pushed his seven-year-old nephew to the floor and “felt my heart sink with each gunshot.”
“When you are face to face with death, would you look at who is firing and who is getting fired at?” he said.
A 19-year-old boy who works at a bakery is still nursing injuries at home. His impoverished father, Abdul Samad, laments not only job days lost but also the cost of treatment. The family of a mentally challenged youth, who was hit in the head, was readying for a computerised tomography.
Saleem smiled when he was said that the army had termed — in a statement to a local news outlet — the people’s testimonies as fabricated. Anadolu Agency is awaiting response to its query from Col. Rajesh Kalia, the Indian Army’s spokesman based in Srinagar.
“You think out of blue my brother grew a plaster and I decided to wear a back belt? I haven’t even checked those,” he said, pointing to a stack of notebooks and answer sheets.
Firm stance to ‘fight for justice’
The residents of Aban Shah have resigned to their fate. Nobody has filed a complaint with the police, as they believe none would be punished.
“Don’t we know what happened to the thousands of inquiries the government ordered into countless incidents of human rights violations for the past three decades,” said Samad.
But Muhammad Yusuf, a sheep farmer, is determined not to give up what he calls the “fight for justice”. A resident of Rajouri, a district in Jammu province of Jammu and Kashmir, Yusuf told Anadolu Agency by phone that he has filed a petition in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court against the soldiers responsible for the killing of his son Abrar Ahmad, 25, and his two cousins, Abrar Khatana, 18, and Imtiyaz Ahmad, 21.
On July 18, the Indian army claimed to have killed three “unidentified terrorists” in Shopian district of Kashmir valley, where the trio had come for work a few days earlier. The families identified them from the photos — shared widely on social media — of the three people the army had killed.
The three cousins were buried in a remote graveyard where militants are buried. The Indian Army does not hand over bodies of militants to their kin for burial in native cemeteries for fear of huge anti-India protests that erupt on such occasions. DNA tests established the real identity of the cousins in September and their bodies were exhumed and handed over to their families on Oct. 3 for burial in their hometown, which is about 300 kilometers (186 miles) from where they were interred earlier.
“The only wrong they have corrected so far is that they returned the body of my son and his cousins. Justice is yet to be done. I will fight for justice in the Supreme Court. What crime did my son commit?” Yusuf said.
A Court of Inquiry ordered by the Indian Army later said the soldiers involved in killing had breached powers provided to the army under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. International rights bodies criticized the law for providing sweeping powers to the army in Kashmir. An army spokesman had said a “competent disciplinary authority directed to initiate disciplinary proceedings under the Army Act against those found prima-facie answerable.”
But Ahsan Untoo, a human rights defender and chairman of International Forum for Justice Human Rights JK, believes Yusuf’s quest for justice might end up as “one more fruitless struggle tens of thousands of Kashmiris have grown tired of fighting all these years.”
Untoo said the State Human Rights Commission, a statutory rights body which heard cases of rights violations and recommended — it had no punitive powers — actions to the government, was rendered ineffective when India scrapped autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir on Aug. 5 last year. A new body is yet to come up in its place. The mass beating in Aban Shah and the murder of three cousins by army could have been heard by the Commission.
‘Justice has been locked’
Since its inception in 1997, the Commission heard 8,529 cases of human rights violations and disposed of 7,725 until March 2019, according to its records. It made recommendations, like asking the government to pay compensation to victims, in 1,862 cases during this period.
“Even this small number entertained by the Commission shows the scale of rights violations. About 500 petitions I had filed on behalf of victims were under process in the Commission when it ceased to function. Justice has been locked,” Untoo said.
According to Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a former professor of law and noted political commentator, there is a “three-pronged attack on human rights in Kashmir.”
“While the rights violations have not stopped, the government scrapped a diploma course on human rights at Kashmir University. Its own State Human Rights Commission ceased to function. And now, human rights organizations and activists have been targeted,” he said.
Untoo was detained at Srinagar Central Jail from Aug. 5, 2019 to Aug. 13, 2020 under a preventive detention law. He was again arrested on Oct. 2 and released on Nov. 23. On Oct. 29, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) raided the office of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society (JKCCS) and the residence of its coordinator, Khurram Parvez, an award winning human rights defender. The NIA said the raids were conducted in connection with an investigation into inputs that some trusts were “collecting funds domestically and abroad and then using these to fund secessionist and terrorist activities in Jammu and Kashmir.”
Several computers of the JKCCS were seized. Credited with bringing out elaborate reports on rights violations by Indian forces, the JKCCS has stopped functioning since the raids.