It had taken Zeenat Bhutto and her elder sister 16 years to begin their fight for justice. But after making considerable progress, her struggle is now tangled in the uncertainty that followed the aftermath of the Union government’s decision on August 5, 2019, to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status under the Indian Constitution.
Bhutto, 28, was a little above a year old when her father Mushtaq Ahmad Bhutto was picked up by the army during a cordon-and-search operation in their neighbourhood of Fateh Kadal in Srinagar’s old city in 1993. Eighty three days later, his body was returned to the family. “My father was killed in custody,” said Bhutto, who is now a law graduate.
In 2009, Bhutto’s elder sister approached the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission asking to be given a government job since their father had been killed by state forces. “Our father was the only source of income,” Bhutto said. “My mother was illiterate. She didn’t know that she could approach the government to ask for a source of livelihood.”
At the human rights commission, Bhutto’s case dragged on for years. In 2019, the family was finally given a ray of hope that they would be given a job as compensation for the custodial death. “The case was all set in our favour and the commission was only waiting for a police report” about the circumstances in which her father had been taken into custody, said Bhutto. “Once that was submitted, we would have got the job.”
But in 2019, New Delhi abrogated Article 370, which gave Jammu and Kashmir a special status under the Indian Constitution, and downgraded it into two Union territories. With statehood gone, the Central government in October 2019, ordered seven government commissions of the former state to be dissolved. One of them was the State Human Rights Commission, where Bhutto’s case was in its final stages.
According to the government order, all the commission’s records were to be transferred to the Department of Law, Justice Parliamentary Affairs.
‘Don’t know where to go’
Bhutto’s case was one of the 8,000 cases pending before the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission, a quasi-judicial body constituted under the now-abolished Jammu and Kashmir Protection of Human Rights Act, 1997. The cases relate to allegations of human rights violations committed by state forces and other transgressions by officials.
With Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh officially transitioning into being Union territories from October 31, 2019, they now come under the purview of the National Human Rights Commission in New Delhi. That is what the Jammu and Kashmir High Court ruled in December 2020 in a petition relating to the extra-judicial killings of three civilians by the army in Shopian earlier that year.
While there are provisions for fresh complaints to be made to the national commission, the government has yet to clarify what will happen to the cases pending with the defunct state human rights commission.
According to a July 2020 communication issued by DM Tripathy, Under Secretary (Coordination) at National Human Rights Commission and accessed by Scroll.in, no particular state human rights commission has been notified to take the human rights cases of the Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, including cases pending with the now-dissolved state commission of Jammu and Kashmir.
“These cases were at different stages,” said MM Shuja, an activist who actively pursued cases at the now-abolished commission. “Some were on the brink of being disposed of and many were at the stages of investigation. I still get calls from the victims about what will happen to them but I don’t have any answers.”
Bhutto shares the same grievance. “I want to fight for justice but I don’t know where to go,” she told Scroll.in. “Even if it means going to New Delhi or any part of India, I will go. But there’s no word from the government about the status of pending cases with the earlier commission.”
Perils of activism
In the aftermath of August 5, 2019, it is not only the absence of an institutional framework that is plaguing the Union territory when it comes to accountability in the matter of human rights violations. Another reason human rights activism in Jammu and Kashmir has gone into a deep freeze since its special status and statehood were revoked is the fear of official reprisal.
In October last year, the National Investigation Agency raided at least 10 locations in Kashmir and one in Bengaluru in a case related to funds being raised from “India and abroad in the name of charitable activities” and allegedly used “for carrying out secessionist and separatist activities in J&K”.
The sites in which officials conducted searches included the offices of two internationally recognised human rights bodies in Kashmir, a newspaper office and the premises of some non-governmental organisations. Officials also raided the homes of some office-bearers of these human rights organisations, seizing mobile phones and laptops.
“The impact of those raids was that we were unable to work for months and we are still unable to work normally,” said a person working with the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a prominent rights body in Srinagar. “Our network got affected because we lost contact with thousands of victims whose cases we were fighting. We lost volunteers. They even seized our documents and data.”
This person added: “Frankly speaking, we are afraid too but then somebody has to work.”
It also meant an end to the advocacy around human rights violations and pressing for justice for victims of official excesses. Among the activities that ceased was the demonstration in Srinagar on the 10th of every month by members of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, a group representing families of thousands of men subjected to enforced disappearances in Kashmir.
The last time they held a sit-in in Srinagar was on July 10, 2019.
‘A sort of hope’
The Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission was established in the second half of the deadliest decade in the territory. Following the eruption of separatist militancy in 1989, the region witnessed widespread violence. This included massacres of civilians by various state forces, custodial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and rapes. The early ’90s were the worst years in terms of casualties and violence.
Though the National Conference government formed the commission in 1997 following the passage of the Jammu and Kashmir Protection of Human Rights Act, it took almost a decade for the commission to gather more teeth. In 2007, the commission was given an investigation wing that was headed by the Inspector General of Police.
Though the commission had the power to hear complaints of human rights violations in the state and investigate them, it was primarily an advisory body. This meant that its recommendations were not binding on the government. Yet, the commission’s work was instrumental in highlighting some major human rights violations committed by the state.
The commission found proof of thousands of unidentified dead bodies buried in unmarked graves across Kashmir and established the role of security forces in committing mass rapes, providing evidence for thousands of families of victims wronged by the state. In scores of cases, the commission recommended that the government should provide compensation and employment to the victims of the violence.
“Some of the facts and documents which were revealed through the commission’s inquiries were very difficult to have access or an ordinary person or a rights activist,” said Parvez Imroz, founder and President of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. “It was very helpful for our documentation.”
While Imroz pointed out the failure of the judiciary in Jammu and Kashmir to protect human rights, he said the human rights commission was not without its challenges.
“The commission was very brave in non-security related matters,” said Imroz, who was awarded the Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize for his human rights activism in 2017. “In cases related to the state violence, it was usually very slow. But despite all that, it was overall a good forum for the public.”
For him, the larger question around the abolished commission is what will happen to the old records. “There’s no answer from the government where it is,” he said.
Shuja, the activist, said that the victims did not need lawyers to plead a case at the commission. “A victim could just approach the commission and get his complaint heard,” he said. “It was a forum on which people had trust, that they would be heard. It offered some sort of hope to the victims.”
‘A fresh struggle’
But even the cases resolved by the commission may not bring comfort to the victims. There is no guarantee that these cases carry any weight under the new administration in the Union territory.
Take the case of slain teenager Junaid Ahmad Khuroo of North Kashmir’s Sopore town.
Ten days before August 5, 2019, the state human rights commission pronounced its judgement in the case, ruling that the Class 10 student had been killed in custody by the police. The commission said that his family should be paid Rs 5 lakh in compensation.
The judgement also recommended that a First Information Report be registered against the accused and an investigation by a senior rank police officer of the Crime Branch. It also recommended that the accused, police inspector Gazanfar Sayeed and sub-inspector Nissar Ahmad, be “dissuaded” from service.
A Class 10 student, Junaid Ahmad Khuroo had died in mysterious circumstances on June 29, 2011. The police, in a report submitted to the State Human Rights Commission, claimed that Khuroo had opened fire on the Central Reserve Police Force’s 179 Battalion, stationed at Arampora in North Kashmir’s Sopore area, and then taken shelter in a mosque.
“When he couldn’t find any escape, he shot himself with the pistol,” the report said. It also claimed that the teenager was a militant and “arms/ammunition was recovered” from him.
In 2016, the police version was debunked after an inquiry by the police investigation wing of the State Human Rights Commission submitted its report. “It has been found that the deceased was neither a militant nor affiliated with any militant organisation,” said the report, prepared by a deputy superintendent of police. “Police Sopore is involved in the gruesome act of the deceased and in order to hide the gruesome murder of the deceased have fabricated a false story.”
Three years later, the commission announced its judgement. “It took us eight years at the commission to prove that my brother was killed in custody,” said Amir Khuroo, the slain teenager’s brother.
Armed with the commission’s judgement, Khuroo approached the government in 2020 through an intermediary asking it to act upon the commission’s recommendations. “He was directly told by a senior official that these recommendations are no longer valid unless issued by the High Court,” Khuroo said.
He has now filed an application before the Jammu and Kashmir High Court to seek action against the erring police officials and to get that compensation payment. “We have enough evidence at our disposal to prove my brother’s innocence including the commission’s judgement in our favour,” said Khuroo. “We are really thankful to the commission for its role in establishing my brother’s innocence.”
‘Fear among people’
Human rights defenders in Kashmir also point to another phenomenon that has taken root in the Valley since August 5, 2019 – the prevalence of fear. “A sense of fear is among the people that even the victims are not turning up to us to fight for them,” explained the rights activist affiliated with the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. “The discourse around human rights in Kashmir has somewhat evaporated.”
The activist added: “People are feeling helpless. They don’t feel there’s any institution that will provide them any justice.”