Kashmir’s heroes – vilified at home, honoured abroad

Feb 2, 2023 | Kashmir Coverage (General News)

It is ironic that the Kashmiris have managed to earn accolades from some of the world’s prestigious institutions for the hard work they do to highlight the situation in the region, despite the Indian government not sparing even a single moment to show them in a bad light.

To the utter shock and dismay of the Indian government, which is increasingly becoming allergic to the mention of anything Kashmir, the people of Kashmir, for all the right reasons, have continued to dominate global headlines despite facing restrictions at home.

There is a long list of Kashmiris who have received international recognition for their work in journalism, literature and human rights. However, the latest addition to this list of extraordinary Kashmiris is none other than Khurram Parvez – the man who put his life on the line to become the voice of the voiceless Kashmiris.

Parvez, already honoured with several human rights awards, has yet again figured among the list of this year’s Martin Ennals laureates. Reckoned amongst high profile campaigners of human rights in Kashmir, Mr Parvez and his organization, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), has worked extensively on documenting the abuses committed by the Indian forces against innocent Kashmiris.

The JKCCS not only documents cases of rights violations through reports, programmes, documentation and litigation, but also supports the Kashmiris’ inalienable right to self-determination, guaranteed to them by the international community. Affiliated with the Asian Federation against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations (CDRO) and Armed Conflict Resolutions and People’s Rights Project, the JKCCS shot to prominence in 2009 when it revealed the presence of mass graves in a report titled Buried Evidence. The sensational report, which pin-pointed the location of thousands of unmarked mass graves spanning 55 villages in north Kashmir’s Kupwara, Baramulla and Bandipora districts, prompted the European Union (EU) to call for an investigation into the matter.

In 2004, Parvez’s left leg was amputated due to a landmine injury he suffered while monitoring the Lok Sabha elections in Kashmir. In 2016, he was banned from travelling to attend the United Nations Human Rights Council session in Geneva, Switzerland, and was then arrested and detained for 76 days. Parvez, arrested in November 2021, and currently incarcerated in Tihar jail in New Delhi, is among the three recipients of the Martin Ennals 2023 human rights award – jointly administered by 10 human rights groups including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.

The award, named after a famed British human rights activist, recognises outstanding activists struggling for human rights. The award’s jury chairman, Hans Thoolen, while praising the 2023 laureates for their incredible work said, “The common denominator between the 2023 laureates…is their courage, passion, and determination to bring the voice of the voiceless to the international arena, despite the ongoing, sometimes life-threatening, challenges they endure”.

“Khurram Parvez’s life mission as a human rights activist was mapped out when, as a young boy, he witnessed the tragic shooting of his grandfather at a protest. He could have sought revenge, but instead chose to contribute non-violently to the 70-year conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, the most militarised region in the world,” the award’s statement mentions.

Parvez, who is the chairperson of the AFAD, and programme coordinator for JKCCS, is a recipient of 2006 Reebok Human Rights award, 2016 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award. Besides being awarded prestigious human rights awards, Parvez was eulogized for his humanitarian work by the Time magazine and his name was included in the annual list of the 100 most influential people in 2022.

Khurram Parvez – the worthy gentleman relentlessly investigated and reported on violations in Kashmir, including the indefinite detention and extrajudicial execution of activists, torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, and widespread impunity. Prominent Indian journalist Rana Ayyub likened Parvez to a “modern-day David who gave a voice to families that lost their children to enforced disappearances”.

The conferment of Martin Ennals Award on him bears testimony to the fact that the international community not only recognizes the illegally detained Kashmiri rights defenders’ struggle, but also throws its weight behind the campaign to save the suffering humanity in Kashmir.

There are plenty of other men and women in Kashmir who have devoted their lives to justice and humanitarian causes. They too were vilified by Indian authorities, but are celebrated abroad. Women’s rights activist Parveena Ahangar, the co-founder of Association of the Parents of the Disappeared Persons (APDP), is one of those who has been spearheading a movement in Kashmir. Known as the ‘Iron Lady’ of Kashmir, her defence of human rights and her social work for the victim families won her the Rafto Prize for Human Rights in 2017.

Parvez Imroz, a human rights lawyer and defender, president of the JKCCS is another leading Kashmiri human rights activist who won the Ludovic Trarieux Human Rights prize in 2006 in France. In 2017 he was awarded the Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize for Human Rights along with Parveena Ahanger.

Similarly, in the field of journalism, Kashmiri journalists despite facing myriad challenges have won top media awards for covering Kashmir conflict before and after the Indian government stripped the region of its special status in 2019. Journalists Sanna Irshad Mattoo, Burhan Bhat, Masrat Zuhra are amongst those who recently received accolades for their exemplary work at an international level. Mattoo who works for Reuters won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography, Bhat has won the Rory Peck Award 2022 in News Award Category and Zuhra won the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism award from the International Women’s Media Foundation in 2020.

Asif Sultan who remains imprisoned since 2018 was awarded the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award, 2019. Similarly, three photojournalists including Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan, and Channi Anand were given the highly acclaimed Pulitzer award in 2020 for capturing life in Kashmir after the BJP government scrapped Article 370. The photographs for which the three journalists were awarded Pulitzer were termed as “Striking Images of Life” by the Pulitzer jury.

Getting honorariums and awards for one’s work is, indeed, a matter of great honour but the true value of these honorifics is not just the recipients’ personal aggrandizement but recognition of their hard work in bringing international limelight to the political and human rights struggles of their countrymen back in Kashmir. But it is quite depressing to note that influential international governments and power centres play the human rights card only to exact their strategic interests. That is perhaps one of the main reasons that the Indian state goes unaccounted for what it has done with Kashmir and the Kashmiris during its 75-year long illegal occupation.

However, a positive aspect of an otherwise awkward situation is that Kashmiris, whether a journalist, civil society activist or a rights defender, continue to rise and shine at the international horizon through their hard work and devotion to justice and humanitarian causes.

The writer is the Chairman of Islamabad based think tank, Kashmir Institute of International Relations (KIIR)