Arresting Human Rights

This piece was written for Kashmir Reader. Yesterday morning, when I spoke with the Editor of the newspaper, he told me about the possibility of the paper being banned. By evening, they were served a notice by the government to stop publishing because their paper “incites violence” . This piece now becomes as much about Kashmir Reader as Khurram Parvez: the attack on the parallel institutions in Kashmir who speak truth to the power.

Questions are being raised by many well-intentioned people, mostly on social media, about the overwhelming support for the immediate release of incarcerated human rights defender Khurram Parvez of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS).

There has been justified, wide-spread outrage against his arrest on flimsy and fabricated charges, designed to force Khurram into silence, and make an example of him so that other human rights defenders working in Kashmir fall into submission. Khurram is not the first victim of the repressive laws in Kashmir and he will certainly not be the last. The Act under which he has been booked, the ironically named Public Safety Act, an illegitimate child of the Rowlatt Act and Goddess Mother the Country, is just one of the several pieces of legislation used by the Indian state to deal with those it deems as inconvenient for its designs of deepening and strengthening its control over Kashmir. A person booked under the Act can be kept in detention for upto two years without a trial. Police prepare deliberately faulty reports, dossiers and chargesheets to, say, book children as young as eight under the Act or to ensure that particularly independent-minded individuals are kept permanently “out of circulation” (which is how police officers have themselves described the practice in the past).

The people raising concerns about the focus Khurram’s arrest has generated can broadly be classified into two categories. Some people feel that the entire human rights narrative in Kashmir is false, self-defeating, and plays into the hands of the Indian state, helping it divert attention from the demand for right to self-determination. Others believe that the “elites” of the society get this attention at the cost of hundreds of unsung heroes who fight the Indian occupation on the streets. They are against what they call “celebrity activism”.

To the charge of Kashmir not being a human rights issue; well, it depends on how we define human rights. If we take the definition (or the list) of human rights as per the Indian Constitution, then surely it is inadequate in encompassing what Kashmiri people are demanding since 26 October 1947. People are on the streets chanting slogans of freedom not just because India has killed thousands. They are not protesting against the killing of Commandar Burhan Wani but expressing their support for what he stood for. They are on the streets because they imagine themselves outside of the Indian cartographic markers.

But if we expand the definition of human rights, and develop crucial tests based on dignity, equality and justice, then surely the right of self-determination is also a human right. Many international covenants recognize it as such. In fact, when examined under that lens, the Indian Constitution itself will sink into self-doubt. For example, what meaning does Article 14 of the Indian Constitution have if Kashmiris are not allowed to choose their own future while Indians have that right and demanded that right from the British? How can India embrace the expanded (by the Supreme Court) definition of Article 21 (right to life means right to a life of dignity) if Kashmiris are humiliated every single moment of their life by denying them their right to choose?

It is in these spaces between internationally recognized principles, defects in the statement and administrations of laws, and the course correction required in governmentality along the vectors of justice, dignity and equality that JKCCS situates itself.

JKCCS has been trying to restore dignity in human life, even of those who are dead, of those who we are told are missing, of those of our friends and neighbours who we are made to believe never existed. Since the war in Kashmir is between a state and people, the people can’t expect the state’s institutions of administering justice, keeping records and educating the public to be of any assistance to them. In fact, the state can only be expected to pervert the bare minimum legal order, manipulate records and carry out propaganda. Therefore, it becomes necessary for people to create their own institutions.

There has been a dearth of parallel institutions in Kashmir working for the masses or providing substance against the state-sponsored propaganda machinery. The machinery is at work all the time and salaried people, some among our own, are part of this machinery who work to deny people of Kashmir their history, their memory and their existence as such. It takes a JKCCS to create a body of evidence against this propaganda machinery. One of JKCCS’s important reports is called Buried Evidence and brought to light the mass graves in Kashmir, which Kashmiris always suspected existed but were first thrown up by the earthquake of 2005. Another important report Structures of Violence identifies a whole list of state-employed killers, kidnappers and torturers, from the state’s own faulty documentation no less. Khurram has played an important role in collecting this evidence and in shepherding a group of volunteers to gather this evidence. Khurram’s arrest, it appears, is an effort to delegitimise and criminalise the work he and JKCSS have done all these years. All that work is in danger of being buried.

Thus the state tries to prevent people from creating parallel institutions, because they hinder the exercise of its power. This is the reason they are going after Khurram.

To the charge of “celebrity activism”, it presumes that people campaigning for the release of Khurram are not concerned about the hundreds of others arrested this summer or earlier. This presumption is not true. Khurram is just a better known face in a country-wide campaign to free all Kashmiris booked under what “Amnesty International” has called the “lawless laws”. Those campaigning for him are not doing it by opposing the release of others, or at the expense of supporting others, but in tandem with that larger demand.

Of course, his case has gained more traction simply because he is well-known. But he is so widely known and respected only because he is a champion of the rights of other Kashmiris. He has been involved in the defence of the human rights of thousands of Kashmiris, it is only natural that thousands will now rise in his defence.

In Chemistry (and in pop political science) people like Khurram are described as “free radicals”. They are the greatest threat to bondage, political and otherwise. They are not interested in just breaking the bonds which hold them. Once free, they immediately attack the chains which hold other people, thus setting off a chain reaction.

We need to catalyse this chain reaction.


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Basharat Ali Written by:

Basharat Ali is Research Scholar at MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. He blogs at

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