How the conscience keepers of Kashmir are ensuring that silence does not become acquiescence. An extract
Both of us knew that it was only a matter of time before a ‘free’ Parvez, one of the most prominent and globally recognized Kashmiri human rights activists and the recipient of the Reebok Human Rights Award in 2006, became too much for the government. Just as both of us knew that he would not lie low. In an interview to a Kashmiri YouTube channel on 2 November 2020, he said that though the human rights situation in Kashmir has been bad for the last thirty years, since the revocation of Article 370, ‘The government has used its heavy military might to enforce silence in Jammu and Kashmir…. The government has criminalized all opinions contrary to the government position.’
Eventually, he was arrested on 22 November 2021 under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and remains incarcerated since then. In November 2022, the Office of the High Commissioner UN Human Rights (OHCHR) demanded his immediate release. The OHCHR press statement read, ‘We are dismayed at the continued deprivation of liberty of Mr Parvez, in what is increasingly proving to be an act of retaliation against a human rights defender for his tireless work documenting and reporting serious human rights violations, including enforced disappearances and unlawful killings in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.’ Also in 2022, Time magazine featured him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
I first became aware of the breadth of Parvez’s work in 2009. Like all peacemakers during the promising window of 2004-07, Parvez was also engaged in fashioning a peaceful and just future for the Kashmiri people after the expected political resolution, which at that time seemed within reach. But he was different from other peacemakers. He came from a privileged background, growing up in the most elite neighbourhood of Srinagar, Gupkar Road, and attending one of the best missionary schools in the city. And yet, despite speaking the King’s English without the Kashmiri inflection, he remained rooted to the land of his birth. He chose to finish his education in Kashmir—with a Master’s in journalism from Kashmir University in 2004—instead of going to mainland India or abroad like most of his peers.
The reason for this was as much personal as communitarian. In 1990, when he was only thirteen, his grandfather was shot dead in the Gawkadal massacre in Srinagar. In a video posted on the account ‘Free Khurram Campaign 2021’ on Twitter, Parvez says that he was filled with rage after his grandfather’s killing. But over time he decided to channel his rage and desire for revenge into working for the benefit of the Kashmiri people. Six years later, when he was nineteen, he started a helpline for Kashmiri teenagers affected by continuous violence. By 1999, he had started volunteering for the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), which was founded by Parveena Ahanger in 1994 after her son was picked up by the National Security Guards (NSG) and never returned.
In 2000, while still studying, he joined hands with another kindred soul and his namesake, Parvez Imroz, a veteran human rights lawyer, to amalgamate disparate non-governmental organizations in the Kashmir Valley, including the APDP, Public Commission on Human Rights, and International Peoples’ Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir to form JKCCS. While Imroz became its president, Parvez, barely twenty-three, became its executive programme coordinator—a hands-on, on the ground job.
When the assembly elections of 2002 were announced, JKCCS formed several independent monitoring teams to record if the polling was free and fair. Parvez steered the monitoring teams. Free and fair elections reinforced the faith in democracy and justice. During the 2004 general elections, he along with his colleague Asiya Jeelani drove to the militancy-infested Lolab region of north Kashmir to record the polling. On the way, the vehicle drove over a landmine. Jeelani and the driver were killed on the spot. Parvez lost one of his legs—it was amputated above the knee.
‘He overcame the trauma very fast,’ recounted a person close to him who does not want to be identified for security reasons. ‘He said, “I have only lost a leg, not life. There is a reason why this has happened. I have to work harder.”’ Thereafter, campaigning for a global ban on landmines was added to his already burgeoning portfolio.
Eventually, Parvez got a prosthetic leg and, until 2008, walked with the aid of a stick, after which he became comfortable with the new leg. Yet, he was out on the streets in 2005, when as part of JKCCS, he organized a public event called People’s Vision which was attended by the likes of Omar Abdullah as well as moderate separatist leadership. A year later, he organized the second edition of the interaction. The idea was to get Kashmiri leadership of different persuasions on one platform so that they could deliberate upon ideas for the future. After all, these were those halcyon years when peace seemed imminent.
The following year, JKCCS held an inter-region and inter religion dialogue between Kashmiri Muslims and the Kashmiri Hindus who had been forced to leave the Valley in the 1990s. The idea was to look beyond the mistrust of the past and seek a common future together.
In August 2009, I visited the JKCCS office. Instead of Parvez, I met his mentor Imroz. Imroz rightly assessed that as a journalist for a magazine on national security and defence, I brought a different mindset to the human rights issue in Kashmir. Hence, instead of giving me statistics, he told me about his clients, whose lawsuits he represented pro bono. While I was interested in his views on the future of Kashmir after the collapse of the India–Pakistan dialogue, Imroz gestured to me to listen to the stories of the people sitting in his office. Some had come with fresh complaints and some for update on their cases.28 The only comment he made that uncomfortable afternoon was while escorting me out of his office. ‘Whenever the Kashmir issue is resolved and whichever way it is resolved, there can be no peace without justice,’ he said. Those words have stayed with me.
Imroz is a recipient of several international awards for human rights, including the 11th Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize by Human Rights Institute of The Bar of Bordeaux, France, and the European Bar Human Rights Institute (IDHAE) in 2006. In 2017, he was awarded the Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize for Human Rights along with Parveena Ahanger of the APDP.
I eventually met Parvez at Ahanger’s residence in October 2011. He facilitated my meeting with her. While Ahanger was, understandably, angry and bitter, both of which made her a difficult and recriminatory interlocutor, Parvez was calm, warm, and sophisticated. His English was impeccable and his perspective pragmatic. Like Imroz, his focus was the future— both of Kashmir and Kashmiris.
As he told American journalist David Barsamian in a radio interview, ‘We do not want our state to be an oppressor, because it would be a nightmare for us if we replace Indian rule with a bad Kashmir rule. We don’t want that to happen. That’s why we are striving hard to promote the values of international humanitarian law and the values of non-violence, truth, justice, and democracy. And we are hopeful that Kashmir will be better than many other existing nations in the world.’
When the peace process was ongoing, it was easy for everyone to ride the peacemaking bandwagon. After all, what seems imminent is easier to embrace. However, when the future becomes an obstacle course lined with concertina wires, inspiring people to not give up and keep the faith takes courage and faith of extraordinary order. It is the resilience of this faith and courage which unnerves those who are seeking to rewrite the narrative of Kashmir by imposing a blanket of silence over the people.
By staying the course, people like Parvez, Imroz, and Ahanger have poked holes in that blanket, through which voices that challenge the new narrative are squeaking out. While Parvez is still in a jail in Delhi, Imroz and Ahanger continue to open their offices in Srinagar whenever possible, even if fewer people visit now. By doing so, they are holding onto the promise of justice—because as Imroz said many years ago, there can be no peace without justice.
Edited by Ghazala Wahab
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