In the late 1980s, a popular insurrection broke out in the Kashmir valley after what many perceived to be electoral fraud and stolen elections. It was a new chapter of a decades-long struggle for azadi (freedom) and self-determination of Kashmir from the newly independent India. In this popular insurrection, many joined forms of civic resistance while thousands joined the armed insurgency.
The uprising saw a heavy-handed response by the Indian state with the deployment of hundreds of thousands of military personnel in the area with the goal of crushing both armed and civic resistance, as well as peoples’ will to resist. While the armed insurgency in Kashmir today has a fraction of the strength that it had in the 1990s, Kashmir remains one of the most heavily militarized zones on the planet with around 1 million military, security, police personnel, and a comprehensive web of informants for 7 million Kashmiri people. This almost three-decade military presence has had a high cost on Kashmiri society, Kashmiri activists estimate that anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 have been killed (the official state tally is of course much lower) and from 8,000 to 10,000 forcibly disappeared.
The Committee on Enforced Disappearances of the United Nations defines forced disappearance as: “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.”
The struggle for truth and justice with forced disappearances in Kashmir is further complicated by the archaic, colonial and military laws that enshrine impunity and lack of accountability of the armed forces to any system of justice. However, it has not stopped Kashmiri people from rising up and demanding to know what happened to their loved ones and seeking legal processes which hold the perpetrators accountable. Peoples Dispatch spoke to Omaid Nazir who since 2016 has worked with Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) a movement that fights with the families of the disappeared in Indian-held Kashmir.
Peoples Dispatch: When was APDP formed and what does it do?
Omaid Nazir: APDP was established in 1994 by a group of family members of the victims of enforced disappearances headed by Parveena Ahangar, who is currently its chairperson. APDP primarily is a movement against the enforced disappearance in Indian-held Kashmir by different agencies of the Indian state which included the state forces and militia backed by the military establishment (Ikhwan). It works in campaigning against the phenomenon of enforced disappearances, and through a sustained legal battle, seeks the whereabouts of the disappeared people, in addition to documenting the cases of the enforced disappearances. APDP provides legal support to the families of the victims of enforced disappearances. The collective also documents cases of other forms of torture and grants medical and other necessary support to victims and families.
APDP also supports some needy families by providing financial assistance. It takes care of the education, health and livelihood creation of the family members of the victims of torture wherever needed.
PD: What work is being done in terms of historical memory of the disappeared, assassinated and tortured in Kashmiri society? What are the biggest obstacles to this work?
ON: The state is at war with the memory of the people of Kashmir; it wants people to forget the atrocities that it inflicted to crush the people who demand their political rights. APDP, by documenting the experience of the people, be it enforced disappearance, torture or killings, tries to institutionalize the memory and counters state-enforced amnesia on these issues. There are other movements which document the brutalities in Kashmir. Our organization uses various methods and forms to preserve the memory; art, photography, writing, testimonies and sit-in public protests are few among them. We are trying to build an archive of the cases through documentation for posterity to look at. In a sense, we are countering the enforced amnesia that the Indian state tries to impose.
And since the state of India is not comfortable with the fact that we document memory, there are various hurdles that it puts. The biggest hurdle is the blatant propaganda that the Indian state does, through its media which is trying to make Kashmir conflict a non-issue. In the recent years, an atmosphere of fear has been created where anyone who speaks out is either arrested by the state forces or intimidated into silence. In 2016, the noted human rights activist Khurram Parvez was detained by the state because of the work he was doing: documenting human rights violations. Journalist are also often times either arrested or threatened. In 2016, the daily newspaper Kashmir Reader was banned by the state accusing it of “inciting” violence when all it was doing was reporting on the daily happenings during the 2016 uprising. There are various challenges especially when one lives under a brutal military occupation. The state imposes longer curfews and those days, it becomes difficult to go out and work.
Apart from that, there is a dearth of resources which makes it difficult for APDP to work properly.
PD: Why is the human toll in Kashmir so high? The number of assassinated, tortured, forcibly disappeared? What are the obstacles to justice in these cases?
ON: The number is so high because of the protracted conflict and peoples’ continued resistance to state oppression. As the people of Kashmir haven’t stopped demanding their political right – the right to self-determination – the Indian state, which is bound by the UN to give the people of Kashmir their basic political right, has used extreme violence including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture as a tool to dissuade people from demanding their rights.
The biggest obstacle to justice in Kashmir is the judiciary of the Indian state itself. The judiciary essentially provides legal impunity for human rights abusers. The Indian army is protected by the laws like AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Acts) which gives army personnel the right to shoot any Kashmiri on mere suspicion. So unless these laws don’t go away, the abuses by the Indian state will continue. The Indian state runs Kashmir with military might and Kashmir has been effectively put under martial law. There is a trilateral nexus between the bureaucracy, military and the judiciary which scuttles every possible access to justice in Indian-held Kashmir. How could one expect justice from that state whose judiciary protects the human rights abusers?
PD: How do you see the political panorama today in Kashmir? What are the people who engage in resistance on the streets demanding?
ON: Kashmir’s political “panaroma”, to sum it up, is simple; the Indian state is holding down the Kashmiri people, who demand the right to self-determination, with its military might. It is a deceptive military occupation under the garb of democracy. The political situation in Kashmir is disturbing; the military apparatus is ruling the streets and killing and maiming Kashmiris almost on daily basis. There is a growing political uncertainty and every common Kashmiri remains fearful. Any kind of peaceful protest is fired upon by bullets and pellets.
Hundreds of Kashmiris, mostly youths, have been blinded and injured by the state. People’s houses are raided, property damaged, hundreds have been illegally detained. There is a complete anarchy where the state runs its writ through brute force.
The people are demanding, as I said above, their political right of self-determination promised by the UN to Kashmiris. The people of Kashmir have rejected Indian Occupation right from its beginning. People in the street are asking India, again and again, to respect their demands and grant their right to choose their destiny. The freedom movement in Kashmir against India dates back to 1947 when India occupied Kashmir.