“Madam, we know you’re leaving. Think wisely before coming back”

In places of conflict, it is important that we stand up to what are called ‘human rights violations’ – violence against innocent people who might not be representing either the State or the Terorrist, for individuals who see their lives as being more than just one of the two elements of a binary. But even more steadfastly should we stand up to protest intimidation, coercion and violence against the very defenders of human rights, individuals who spend their time and often their lives standing up for the ordinary citizen.

The Indian media and civil society generaly do take note, if only in passing, of such attacks on human rights actvists. So while many have suffered the fate of Binayak Sen in Chattisgarh, Sen’s story has got some attention partly because he was responsible for bringing out the stories of those many people, because the doctor was a PUCL activist.

But when it comes to Kashmir, the Delhi media usually has silence to offer: it is a conspiracy of silence that seeks to mainatin the great consensus of not seeing Kashmir from any perspective but the one that makes the Valley an Integral Part of India. The Integral Part rhetoric is so deeply ingrained in most journalists and editors that they are loathe to even take note that most residents of this Integral Part see themselves as being chained to a body they don’t belong to.

The greatest casualty of the media’s decision to align itself with the establishment on the ‘question’/’dispute’/’issue’ of Kashmir is the truth about human rights. A free, liberal press should by now have exposed each and every unaccounted, secret, unnamed grave in Kashmir, which the security establishment claims are of foreign militants killed in encounters, but locals say they are of innocent individuals who just ‘disappeared’, and, in custodial death, won some soldier a bravery medal, some cash reward or a promotion. Or just the kick of killing someone from a place whose people don’t see themselves as part of India.

Having failed to look beyond the vale in Kashmir, the least that the Indian media could do is take note of those who are finding such graves, documenting them despite being trailed and intimidated by the security establishment which does not want the buried secrets out. In the big black mark on democracy and freedom, a small dot is the Delhi press’ failure to take note of the recent incident at the house of human rights advocate Parvez Imroz.

Imroz is a member of the Jammu & Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society which is involved in the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice, which is conducting what its name suggests in the Indian part of kashmir. Their work has just begun, and the report they brought out on 900 unaccounted graves they have documented from just two districts – Baramulla and Kupwara – was not taken note of by most of the Delhi media. 29 skeleteons in Noida’s Nithari village had the Delhi media on edge for two months, but 900 unknown graves in Kashmir didn’t merit a mention. Some lives are more important than others; it depends on whether you died for sex or organ trade or for national integration.

One of the Tribunal’s members, Angana Chatterji, writes:

Dirt, rubble, thick grass, hillside and flatland, crowded with graves. Signifiers of military and paramilitary terror, masked from the world. Constructed by institutions of state to conceal massacre. Placed next to homes, fields, schools, an army practise range. Unknown, unmarked. Over 940 graves in a segment of Baramulla district alone. Some containing more than one cadaver. Dug by locals, coerced by the police, on village land. Bodies dragged through the night, some tortured, burnt, desecrated. Circulating mythology claims these graves uniformly house ‘foreign militants’. Exhumation and identification have not occurred in most cases. When undertaken, in sizable instances, records prove the dead to be local people, ordinary citizens, killed in fake encounters. In instances where bodies have been identified as local, non-militant and militant, it demystifies state rhetoric that rumours these persons to be ‘foreign militants’, propagating misrepresentation that the demand for self-determination is prevailingly external. Mourned, cared for, by locals, as ‘farz’/duty, as part of an obligation, stated repeatedly, to ‘azadi’. ‘Azadi’/freedom to determine self and future. [Full article on the tribunal website – PDF] [Reproduced in Etalaat]

The eloquence of the first paragraph betrays the matter-of-fact way in which the tribunals’ discovery of the mass graves is narrated. Much the same way as Kashmir’s touristy beauty hides the pain of an eternirty of ‘conflict’.

Chatterji also writes about being trailed and intimidated for this work:

On 04 July, sitting on a plane at Delhi International Airport, waiting to take-off, I received a phone call on my India mobile, caller ‘Unknown’: “Madam, we know you’re leaving. Think wisely before coming back”.

And the actualisation of such threats for other members of the tribunal:

On 01 July, we met at Khurram Parvez’s home before addressing a press conference. Outside, jeeps with plainclothes men continued their observation, accompanied by a jeep with armed men in uniform. Later, Advocate Imroz, Khurram Parvez, Advocate Mihir Desai, and I went to the police station to lodge a First Information Report. We were not permitted to do so. For security reasons, Parvez Imroz is not staying at home. Khurram Parvez remains under surveillance. I must allow for distance before revisiting the graves.

And that this is nothing new:

Advocate Imroz, Khurram Parvez, other members of the Tribunal team, have long experienced injustices for their extraordinary work as human rights defenders. A lauded human rights lawyer, Parvez Imroz has survived two, now three, assassination attempts, the first from militants. Since 2005, his passport has been denied. Khurram Parvez lost his leg in a landmine incident. Gautam Navlakha and Zahir-Ud-Din have been intimidated and threatened, as has Mihir Desai, in their larger work.

And how it is not just the security establishment that threatens them:

It is noteworthy that the Government of India is adding intimidation to the death and rape threats delivered me by Hindu extremists for human rights work.

The Tribunal’s mandate is simple:

Its mandate, in documenting Kashmir’s present, is to chronicle the fabric of militarisation, status of human rights, and legal, political, militaristic ‘states of exception’. The Tribunal’s work will continue through the coming months.

By just talking to people, such are the oral histories that the Tribunal seems to be documenting, just like the 68,000 patients who visited a single psychiatric hospital last year in Srinagar to ask how they could live with the unspeakable stories of their own lives.

Torture survivors, non-militants and former militants, that I met with testified to the sadism of the forces. Reportedly, a man, hung upside down, had petrol injected through his anus. Water-boarding, mutilation, rape of women, children, and men, starvation, psychological torture. Brutalised, ‘healed’, to be brutalised again. An eagle tattoo on the arm of a man was reportedly identified by an army officer as a symbol of Pakistan-held Azad Kashmir, even as the man clarified the tattoo was from his childhood. The skin containing it was burned. The officer, the man stated, said: “When you look at this, think of azadi”. A mother, reportedly asked to watch her daughter’s rape by army personnel, pleaded for her release. They refused. She pleaded that she could not watch, asking to be sent out of the room or be killed. We were told that the soldier pointed a gun to her forehead, stating he would grant her wish, and shot her before they proceeded to rape the daughter. We also spoke with persons violated by militants.

The solidarity that the tribunal has won from the people in Kashmir is unsurprising, but it is disturbing to think the the number of people outside Kashmir who empathise with a project like this can be counted in one hand.

When she writes, “Each life in Kashmir has a story to tell,” you wonder why nobody is telling these stories, why some stories must remain untold, like a patient who does not want to know of gangrene in an integral part of his body.

You cannot but agree with her when she writes, “The work of the Tribunal is an act of conscience and accountability, fraught with the charge of complex and violent histories.”The word conscience in the midst of the restrained academic prose evokes guilt. It asks the gatekeepers of national integration, jinhe naz hain hind par woh kahan hain?

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