Indian Kashmir: A mother’s fight for missing son

‘My son was picked up by security forces in 1990, I have not seen him since,’ said Parveena Ahanger, the head of ‘the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons’ in Indian-held Kashmir.

LONDON

It’s been 24 years since she last saw her son. An arduous 24 years during which Parveena has struggled to find out what happened to 16-year-old Javid Ahmad Ahanger after Indian security forces picked him up in Kashmir.

“My son was picked up by security forces in 1990, I have not seen him since, she said. I looked for him at the police station, hospitals and detention centers but I did not find him.”

Parveena Ahanger, the head of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Indian-held Kashmir that she started in 1994, pled Monday for the British people to lobby their government to put pressure on India over human rights abuses in Kashmir.

“I request you approach the British Parliament and ask them to put pressure on the Indian government,” she urged participants at a conference in London called ‘Kashmiris: Contested present, possible futures’.

She burst into tears as she conveyed her 24-year struggle and the similar stories of other families of conflict-riddled Kashmir to the London audience.

“[My son] committed no crime, they just took him,” she continued. “Many others have also been taken and the families have no idea what happened to their loved ones.”

“I went to the courts that are supposed to give justice, but I found no justice there,” she added.

Parveena has traveled across Kashmir and gained support from other families whose loved ones have also been taken by Indian security forces, never to be seen again. In 2005, she was nominated for a Nobel Prize.

Her association organizes protests every month in Srinagar, located in the Kashmir valley, over the issue of enforced disappearances.

“I will only call myself a mother on the day I find out what happened to my son,” she lamented as she wondered aloud who would campaign for the children that have disappeared, once their mothers died.

Independent human rights groups have estimated that 8,000 to 10,000 such disappearances have occurred in Indian-administered Kashmir over the last 24 years.

She said: “There have been people who have been killed in Kashmir, but they have graves for them.

“We don’t have any graves because we do not know what happened to our loved ones.”

Since independence from the British colonial rule in 1947, both Pakistan and India have been engaged in a bitter conflict over Kashmir, which is split between the two countries. The two nuclear powers have already fought two wars over the region, of which two thirds are now controlled by India.

India estimates the death toll of the Kashmir conflict over the past two decades to be around 48,000. However, the region’s main separatist group, the All Parties Hurriyat [freedom] Conference speaks of 100,000 casualties. Amnesty International has repeatedly called for forensic experts, in line with UN protocol to investigate mass grave sites, which the human rights organization numbers in the hundreds.

One of the conference organizers, Goldie Osuri, assistant professor in sociology at the University of Warwick, whose latest book published in 2013 is called “Religious Freedom in India,” described the current situation in Kashmir as “not just colonization and occupation, […] we can use the term genocide.”

Parveena told the Anadolu Agency that she did not expect much from newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“He did not do enough in Gujarat” she told the AA, referring to his alleged role in the three-day Gujarat riots of 2002 in western India, where more than a thousand people were killed, most of them Muslims. Narendra Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister at the time.

Read the original article published in Andalou Agency on 2 June 2014

Kashmiris want to vote on future, not Indian parliament

Kashmiris mostly chose to boycott India election, but say they will vote in a referendum

SRINAGAR, Indian-held Kashmir 

Showkat Ahmad Bhat, a middle-aged grocery store owner in Indian-held Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, has never cast a vote in the 46 years of his life. On April 30, when polls were held in Srinagar, Bhat sat with his two friends near his closed grocery shop — a few meters from the old city’s Khanyar polling booth. Like the majority of Kashmiris living under Indian rule, Bhat was once again boycotting the elections.

More than 800 million people are eligible to participate in India’s largest ever elections but for many Kashmiris opposing the Indian rule in the Himalayan valley, their decades-long boycott continued. Other Indian voters are considering which candidate for the next prime minister can kick-start the country’s slow growth rate, improve internal security and alleviate poverty but in Kashmir, a region disputed by Pakistan and India, most are concerned more about their status as part of India.

“These elections mean nothing at all,” says Bhat, displaying his index finger, unstained by the ink used to identify voters. “The one option that I would walk a hundred miles to vote for, they haven’t kept it on the voting machine.”

“Independence. Independence from Indian rule,” adds Bhat and his two friends, who both joined him in the boycott. “If Independence from the Indian rule was an option, every Kashmiri would vote and that would be a democratic election. Rest is just a farce.”

The first phase of voting in Jammu & Kashmir on April 24 saw almost three-quarters of eligible voters boycott the polls. The day was characterized by pro-independence protests and stone-throwing clashes between protesters and the Indian police. Militants had killed three people in south Kashmir, including two village leaders, in the run-up to the elections and on the day of voting killed a polling official and wounded three soldiers.

Though the Indian Army’s counter-insurgency operations have almost wiped out the militancy — the military claims less than 300 militants remain active in the region — resistance to Indian rule continues and is instead manifested in the form of street protests and stone-throwing clashes with police.

To avoid similar protests and clashes in the Srinagar constituency’s elections, police launched a massive crackdown on youth and arrested more than 600 across Kashmir; local newspapers and human rights organizations believe the number to be more than 1,000.

One of the arrested boys was Waseem Ahmad Sofi, a 15 year old student who the police say is a regular “stone-thrower.” Sofi was wounded during the April 24 clashes and recuperating in the hospital when the police arrested him under the dreaded Public Safety Act, which allows imprisonment without trial for three years.

“Is this the country that they expect us to vote for where they take a minor and put them in a prison without the right to a trial?” Showkat Ahmad, Sofi’s brother, tells the Anadolu Agency.

On April 30, the day of elections in Srinagar, thousands of army personnel were deployed to ensure voting was undisrupted. The city’s winding streets and alleyways were dotted with political banners promising “peace” and “progress” but emptied of residents, the large military presence darkening its desolation.

According to the Election Commission, only a quarter of the 1.2 million electorate voted that day. By the time the voting in the state of Jammu and Kashmir had been completed Wednesday, the turnout had only rarely peeked above 50 percent.

The poll boycott happened despite most leaders of the pro-independence movement being arrested before the election began. The leaders had been calling for a plebiscite on whether Kashmir should be independent or join either India or Pakistan.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had promised Kashmiris the right to self-determination and when the conflict over Kashmir escalated between India and Pakistan, soon after the partition, the United Nations Security Council passed resolutions favoring a plebiscite. India withdrew its support for the plebiscite however, when it became clear that a majority of Kashmiris wanted independence from India.

Mirwaiz Umar, a leader in the pro-independence Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference who has been under house arrest for more than three weeks, called the elections “undemocratic” and “meaningless.”

“While the pro-India leaders are campaigning for the people to vote, we have been put under arrest and still the people of Kashmir have showed that they won’t be part of this illegitimate elections,” Umar tells the Anadolu Agency.

Umar said Kashmir’s representatives in India’s parliament rarely speak about the realities of Kashmir. “It is telling that there have been more interventions in the parliament by a parliamentarian from Hyderabad than all of Kashmiri parliamentarians put together,” he says.

Muhammad Faysal, who also campaigns for a referendum on Kashmir’s future, condemned the election in stronger terms. “Basically elections are a facade of the Indian occupation to give it a democratic look by installing its puppets,” says Faysal.

“Kashmiris have been against this occupation since 1947. For Kashmir, their only worry and the biggest issue is the occupation and its horrific cost on lives of Kashmiris. That’s why majority of Kashmiris boycott elections.”

The boycott was not observed by everyone in Kashmir however, despite militant threats and social pressure, because of personal concerns about jobs, roads and electricity.

Abdul Ahad Cheken, a 53 year old motor mechanic, voted in Srinagar, after voting for the first time only in 2008. “If my two sons got a job and we could get out of poverty, I would feel I have got freedom,” Cheken said. Voter turnout was also higher in the Jammu part of the Jammu & Kashmir state, where Muslims are a minority.

The ascendance of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi has also contributed to a new political landscape. Modi’s controversial presence as the favored prime ministerial candidate has given many Kashmiris greater desire for independence.

Modi has been criticized for his alleged role in 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, where he is chief minister, and has spoken aggressively about both Kashmir and neighboring Pakistan during the election campaign. For many Kashmiris, Modi coming to power will simply expose the Indian policies they feel they have suffered from for decades.

By Zahid Rafiq (Additional reporting by Assed Baig)

Read the original article published in Andalou Agency on 8 May 2014

Report from a refugee camp in Kashmir

Refugee camp in KashmirIn Pakistani-administered Kashmir this small refugee camp is home to some 600 people who have fled Indian-administered Kashmir, 16km from the line of control. This is the line of the world’s most militarised zone. Since the Mumbai attacks and continued Indian allegations of Pakistani involvement tensions are once again forcing people to fortify their bunkers as they brace themselves for a potential confrontation.

Kashmir has been a disputed territory since both Pakistan and India’s independence in 1947. The two countries have fought three wars over the region. The green metal rope bridge shakes as the car mounts. The bridge is what separates Pakistan and Pakistani-administered Azad Kashmir. One vehicle at a time, some passengers walk across the shaky structure as the collective weight of the passengers and vehicle may be too much for the bridge. Down below flows the dark and murky Jelum river.

We enter Azad Kashmir and head towards Kotli district an area close to the line of control. The road twists precariously and snakes its way up, climbing steep gradients and slopes around the mountains of Kashmir. Numerous pot holes marks the tarmac. Clumps of green trees and bushes peer over the side of the narrow road, grey igneous rocks lie at the sides. The car shakes and jolts around, making its participants look like dolls, with their heads wobbling as their hands clinch tightly to the handles inside. One wrong move here and it is a sheer drop down the mountain – there are no safety barriers.

It is therefore not surprising to hear every now and then the grim reports of vehicles going down in this tortuous terrain often without survivors. Kashmir is a beautiful mountainous and green region, scenic, with its amazing views and fresh air. As we pass through villages and towns on our way to the refugee camp we can see evidence of the wealth earned in Britain spent on development of the area from money sent in by Kashmiri families in Britain, home of the world’s largest Kashmiri Diaspora. Large mansions, with a clash of colours – red, green, and brightly painted white is the common design in this region. Huge pillars holding up the three-storey homes, with four-wheel-drive SUVs parked in the driveways.

As we dismount our vehicle, which is now covered in thick dust, the number plate barely readable, we walk the rest of the way to the refugee camp. After traversing mountain paths, and jumping over rocks while taking in the scenery, we are stunned to see the lLine of control which the locals call the Line of Divide that separates the people of Kashmir is visible from here. My guide points to a mountain top in the distance. “There it is” he says confidently. And then he points to a green hillside within a stone’s throw of us, and adds “Shells land there when India fires its guns”. With an uneasy feeling, we head extremely close to the LOC that separates two nuclear armed nations and what remains a volatile flashpoint.

Over the years the tents in the refugee camp have been replaced by small houses and even a mosque and a small State run school teaching children up to the age of ten. These children play in the narrow alleys that separate their homes in what looks like a labyrinth of narrow passages. A little girl works the water pump trying to fill an old metal bucket. Her clothes are scruffy and face dirty from the dust. As we settle in we begin to talk with some of the residents here who fled Indian administered Kashmir.

Hasin Din, who is 25 years old, says: “I worked for 200 rupees a day (two pounds) as a labourer” to support my two children aged five and two. “Whatever we had we left behind, our homes, our families our land and livelihoods.”

I asked many of the refugees if they wanted to return, and without exception they they said “If Kashmir (Indian administered) becomes azad (free) tomorrow, we shall return”.

Peering through his metal spectacles, sixty year old Navi Baksh, is eager to share his story. A story that rings a familiar bell with the others heard in the camp. “We ran for our lives across these tough and forested mountains under the cover of darkness with my wife and my children” Navi says wearily. “It was a difficult and dangerous journey but we had no option, the Indian army gave us no choice, and they made life unbearable for us”. “We left with nothing but the clothes on our backs”.

Everywhere you go, everyone you speak to will tell you harrowing tales of their escape from what they say is the clutches of the Indian occupation forces. Muhammed Munshi remembers the ordeal which will be indelibly stamped on his mind:

“They killed my uncle and two nephews without any reason, then they took the bodies to the forest to burn them, but we realised what was happening and raised the alarm, all our village coming out to protest. Then they surrounded my house. The Indian army said we were helping Pakistani based militants, so I fled taking my three children and wife. We left one son behind along with my older brother. My son was 14 years old when we left. My son was taken into custody”. His grandchild now sits on his lap, and Muhammed holds him tight, close to his chest. The hurt is clearly evident on his face and pushing back the tears he continues:

“The Indian army used to come into our homes and force our women to undress, saying they were helping militants and could be carrying bombs! In our own homes?” he questions. “We were helpless. The Indian army are the ones with the power. We took our respect, dignity and honour and fled, we could not live under such rule or be subject to humiliation and oppression”.

The Pakistani government has provided some help for these people. Vehicles were provided for refugees to bring them to the camp. Small pieces of land were allocated for each family so that they might pitch up a tent. Each family receives 1000 rupees a month, approximately ten pounds. People told me that they are in debt, and it has been four months since the have received anything from the Pakistani government. There are thousands of refugees scattered throughout this region, victims of the conflict in Kashmir. These people are far away from the politics of Islamabad and New Delhi, even further away from Mumbai. If there is a war between the two nuclear-armed nations, it is people like those of Kashmir that will be the victims, long forgotten by the world and international community. Munshi hopes to be reunited with his son one day and return to his home. “Azadi” he says, freedom, one day.