Parvez Imroz Rafto Lecture

Parvez Imroz delivering her keynote lecture at The 2017 Rafto Conference, Bergen, Norway | Photo by Dibyesh Anand

The text of the lecture that Advocate Parvez Imroz of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) delivered at The 2017 Rafto Conference at Bergen, Norway. 

After decolonization of the Indian subcontinent and its subsequent partition into two new nation states of India and Pakistan, Jammu and Kashmir became a contested territory between the two countries. The two countries fought three wars and engaged in repeated border conflagrations over their claim on Jammu and Kashmir. The conflict is one of the oldest unresolved conflicts in the United Nations.

I was born and brought up in the shadow of these wars and the continued conflict scenario in Jammu and Kashmir, which is now divided between India and Pakistan. Issues emerging out of the conflict on the population became a primary concern for sensitive minds. I am amongst those people whose life got completely influenced by this situation. Since my youthful days, I became involved in various kinds of activism.

With my entry into JK High Court bar association, I used judiciary as a means to engage with the difficulties faced by people. The dynamics of the conflict of Jammu and Kashmir changed since 1989 after the section of population rose against the oppression of the Indian state through armed rebellion, which was a result of choking all available political means for those who opposed Indian occupation of Kashmir. The armed rebellion was followed by massive public outpourings. India responded by heavy military might primarily against the civilian population, which was coming out on streets, by perpetrating massacres, mass rapes and indiscriminate arrests and torture.

The civilian authority collapsed and the military and police dominated all spheres of life. Impotence of administrative mechanisms for redressal meant that only judiciary was somewhat available for people to approach for some kind of relief. The impunity enjoyed by the military and other security agencies complicated matters even for judiciary. Thus people were experiencing a reign of state terror. This produced endless stream of people with grievances, including people whose kin had been disappeared by the armed forces. This was particularly challenging for us to address in view of the opacity and non-responsiveness of the military authority.

I along with few others, despite fear of reprisals decided to not let the injustices perpetrated on the people go unchallenged. We started documenting human rights atrocities and litigating through courts, in order to make state actors accountable and visible for their crimes. We formed a human rights group Public Commission on Human Rights (PCHR), which has since then been active in litigation and documentation. I also persuaded several family members of the disappeared, who would meet me for filing their cases in the Jammu and Kashmir high court to come together for collective action against the phenomenon of enforced disappearances. Thus in 1994 Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) came into being.

In June 1998 from Jammu and Kashmir, when our struggle locally was becoming difficult and government gave disregarded to our demand for appointing a Commission of Inquiry for probing all the cases of enforced disappearances, we sought international solidarity for ending the phenomenon of enforced disappearances. It resulted in our meeting with Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance

(FIND) Philippines, and Organization of Parents and Family Members of the Disappeared (OPFMD, Sri Lanka) at Manila. We decided to form a collective Asian response against enforced disappearances. Thus Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) came into being. AFAD now has fourteen member organizations in ten Asian countries and has played a pivotal role in highlighting the phenomena of enforced disappearances in Asian countries and has become an important voice, which played a significant role lobbying at the UN for adoption of the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons against Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances – which is an important hallmark for the global struggle against enforced disappearances. Due to lobbying, India signed the convention in 2007 but till now refuses to ratify it.

In the year 2000, many civil society actors in Jammu and Kashmir due to threat, harassment and paucity of resources and threats came together to form a civil society coalition for creating a role for civil society for conflict resolution, protection and promotion of human rights, demilitarization. In this way Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) came into existence.

During this persistent struggle for truth and justice, the path was laden with extreme hostilities. Shorty after creation of AFAD at Manila, one of our members in APDP, a mother of a disappeared son, was killed in Srinagar in 1998. Previously, several human rights defenders were killed, including prominent voices like Hriday Nath Wanchoo and Jalil Andrabi. The attacks against human rights defenders continued and in 2004 my colleagues from JKCCS were attacked with an IED blast in Kupwara district of Kashmir, in which two of our colleagues - one female colleague Aasia Jelaani and the driver - was killed and another colleague Khurram Parvez, the Project Coordinator of JKCCS, lost his leg. I also have been attacked several times – first in April 1995 when I was shot while driving to my house, in 2003 and in 2008 I was physically assaulted and arrested by police and 2008 a grenade was lobbed at my house in Srinagar.

In my understanding the basic idea of conferring the Rafto Prize on the recipients is to create an enabling environment wherein they receive more international attention and support not only from media but both political and non-political formations. Through this award, the Rafto Foundation for human rights seeks to bring attention to independent voices that are not always heard due to the oppressive, militaristic and corrupt regimes governing their areas of work.

I would like to illuminate here the context of violence in Jammu and Kashmir which is structural, systemic and by its very nature conditions the entire life of the occupied people along with their responses that range from submission to rebellion, acquiescence to resistance and cowardice to cruelty or a strange mix of all these attitudes and actions.

Around 700,000 troops are stationed in Jammu and Kashmir, which is our area of work, making it the most militarized area in the entire world.

In the last seventeen years, JKCCS has done extensive documentation of human rights abuses ranging from naming of one thousand alleged perpetrators to discovery of around seven thousand unmarked graves and mass graves. The reports done by JKCCS have played a crucial role in the development of human rights language and documentation in Kashmir. Aside from engaging in processes of civil society building and democratic dialogue and documentation, JKCCS has been part of many international and local campaigns, advocacy and litigation to bring to light systemic human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir.

The essence of documenting human rights abuses against people is to institutionalize memory of people against State induced forgetfulness and employs the memory as a means to conflict resolution and peace-making between the states as well as within the states.

We believe that sovereignty rests with the people, however, in the current global system, states are the real actors on the global stage which exercise sovereignty on behalf of the people’s governed democratically or through other globally acceptable arrangements.

In such a statist structure, the conflict between states can be addressed effectively through certain global and multilateral frameworks. Therefore, at best, the groups defending human rights and other political formations can engage in advocacy of the rights of those oppressed and the marginalized. In this era of globalization, the responsibility to protect human rights should be a global responsibility. As we are witnessing that governments across the world do not prioritize protection of human rights as their agenda, therefore global civil society has to speak more loudly and boldly on rights of people across the world. The concept of Right to Protect needs to be explained by the global civil society.

Our persistence with our struggle for truth and justice under these difficult circumstances has been acknowledged by several international platforms. We consider this award as your acknowledgement for the struggle of people for Kashmir for justice, dignity and human rights. We profoundly thank you for choosing us for this award.