Institutionalizing Kashmir’s collective memory is our primary need: Parvez Imroz

Photo © Sameer Saran

The 2017 Rafto Laureate Advocate Parvez Imroz spoke with Nayeem Rather about his more than four decades long human rights activism in Kashmir, fighting legal battles against the state on behalf of the victims, his reflections on receiving the prestigious Rafto award and his thoughts on the human rights situation in the valley.

Wande Magazine: How important is this award for you?

Parvez Imroz: It is an acknowledgment of our work. It is important because it will give greater visibility to the human rights abuses in Kashmir and also provide us an opportunity to interact with the European civil society. The Kashmir dispute has not got the international attention that other conflicts have, and the award will help us to reach out to the international community.

WM: But do you think the Indian state is so sensitive to pressure from international human rights groups and civil societies that getting information out about human rights abuses in Kashmir would matter?

PI: Well, the Indian state is comfortable in that respect. India has been able to blank out the massive human rights abuses it carries out in Kashmir. It has successfully prevented the international community from engaging with Kashmir at the humanitarian level. At the same time though India is obsessed with its global image. It can contain other governments but it cannot keep away the civil societies of the nations it deals with. And India’s image is at stake in those forums.

WM: This brings us to a related question. Do you think the Indian civil society has failed when it comes to Kashmir?

PI: Much of the Indian civil society that is visible is elite, Brahmanical, nationalist. They are on our back and feeling sorry but they do not want to get off. They have not only failed but they are complicit in the crimes the Indian state has committed against Kashmiris. They do not care about Kashmir. They do not have the courage to speak the truth about Kashmir but they will hail people like Noam Chomsky no end.

That said, there are Indian voices, individual and organizational, especially among marginalized groups such as the Dalits, who are vocal about the abuses in Kashmir, but such voices are on the fringe, and they are themselves oppressed. They are not even allowed to be heard.

WM: Coming to your personal life, how has it been waging this fight day in and day out for decades that too in a place where the threat of violence is ever present?

PI: Everyone who lives in Kashmir and every Kashmiri in India is vulnerable to violence all the time. In a conflict zone, if you speak truth to the power, you have to be ready for any danger. It is the first thing you expect; the state will always come after you.

There have been instances when I was intimidated, but I always resisted. Besides, there are people fighting against the oppression in other places and I think they are more courageous than me and I take inspiration from them. It is better to die in action than to sit at home in fear. I’m ready to face any repercussions for I know our fight is just.

WM: How well have human rights abuses in Kashmir been documented, especially in the past three decades when the abuses became an unacknowledged instrument of state policy to put down the rebellion?

PI: The picture is grim. Our collective memory isn’t institutionalized, and that is our primary need. Kashmir’s tragedy is that there is no proper documentation of even major events. We know nothing about what happened in, say, 1947 or 1953 or the early 1990s. Documentation not only preserves our history, it will also be important when war crime tribunals are held in future, like they were in post-war Germany, Sri Lanka and other places.

The state is the happiest when no documentation is happening. Memories fade. Time is always in favor of the perpetrator and against the victim. It is important that we, as a people, take the initiative to document what is happening in Kashmir. On our part, we are doing whatever is possible and trying to institutionalize memory.

WM: Many cases of human rights abuses such as detentions under the Public Safety Act have gone to courts. Give use a picture of how and if the courts have helped check the abuses in Kashmir?

PI: There is complete impunity, not only legal but also political and social, that perpetrators of human rights abuses in Kashmir have been granted by the state. Judiciary is part of the state and it follows the state’s dictum. But this does not mean we should not keep fighting for justice. The judicial battles have and will expose the contradictions of the state, which says we are a democracy with a robust judiciary but acts as a totalitarian entity. Once you have exposed the state and its judicial mechanisms, you get the moral and legal right to reach out to the international community and ask for international humanitarian aid.

WM: Is there any hope that the human rights situation in Kashmir will improve in the near future?

PI: I don’t think so. The Indian state has been fighting insurgency since 1947. India is confident that it can commit abuses with impunity and divert the attention of the world. And that is where our real challenge begins. There is an outcry over human rights abuses committed in other conflict areas but not in Kashmir. Why? Because the Indian state has managed it well, largely by playing the card of the Islamist threat, which is easy in the post 9/11 world.

(A version of this interview was originally published in Greater Kashmir weekly magazine Kashmir Ink. 

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