On Human Rights Day, Kashmir rights groups decry India crackdown
Activists in the disputed region under increasing pressure as New Delhi’s targeting of rights groups intensifies since 2019.
Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – On the International Human Rights Day every year, 62-year-old Parveena Ahanger and the families of hundreds of victims of enforced disappearances in Indian-administered Kashmir would gather at a park to seek the whereabouts of their children or spouses who disappeared during decades of conflict.
For Ahanger and the family members of other victims, who would gather under the banner of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and hold pictures of their missing kin, it would be a day of protest and remembrance.
As the world marks Human Rights Day on Friday, those families say they are “silently mourning” their kin at home. The reason: a crackdown on rights groups and activists by Indian agencies in the Himalayan region, also claimed in its entirety by neighbouring Pakistan.
Last month, prominent rights activist Khurram Parvez was arrested under a stringent terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for “criminal conspiracy and waging war against the government”. He has been shifted to a jail in the capital New Delhi.
Parvez, 44, is programme coordinator at Jammu-Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a leading group documenting and campaigning against rights abuses by the Indian forces in Indian-administered Kashmir for the last 20 years.
The JKCCS has published extensive reports on torture, civilian killings, rapes and illegal detentions, and detailing the impunity given to by the armed forces in the disputed region. In 2008, a shocking disclosure about the presence of more than 2,000 unmarked graves in the northern part of Indian-administered Kashmir shook the region.
It is Parvez’s second arrest in five years. He was arrested in 2016 under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA), a law under which a person can be detained for a year or more without trial. He was released after 76 days of detention.
India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval last month described civil society groups in India as “new frontiers of war” and said they could be “manipulated to hurt the interests of a nation”.
It is a stand also shared by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as his government goes after rights defenders in not only the disputed region but across India.
“The human rights groups in the region have been glorifying militancy. There is a proof of them involved in anti-national activities. That’s why there is a crackdown against them,” BJP spokesman Altaf Thakur told Al Jazeera, justifying the government’s crackdown on rights groups.
‘Too scared to do it anymore’
For decades, rights groups in Indian-administered Kashmir, including APDP and JKCCS, had been working to uphold and fight for human rights in the disputed region, revealing the human cost of the decades-long conflict and protesting to seek accountability from the government.
But after India’s only Muslim-majority region was stripped of its limited autonomy two years ago, the right-wing government in New Delhi launched an enormous clampdown against them.
The families of disappeared people – who rights groups say are more than 8,000 in number – held their last protest in July 2019 – a month before the region’s special status was scrapped.
Ahanger founded the APDP two years after her son was picked up by Indian security forces from their home in the main city of Srinagar in 1992. He never returned home.
The disappearance triggered a lengthy fight for Ahanger looking for her son, along with hundreds of young men who went missing after being taken into custody by the Indian forces.
“We would issue calendars with pictures of people who went missing to keep their stories alive. But we are too scared to do it anymore,” Ahanger told Al Jazeera.
Rifat Fareed | Al Jazeera