In 2004, human rights activist Khurram Parvez lost his leg in a landmine blast in Kashmir. Parvez and other activists of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society had been travelling in a car to monitor the parliamentary elections in Kashmir. Two of Parvez’s colleagues were killed in the blast.

That set off a long campaign against landmines in Kashmir. Parvez and the JKCCS collaborated with international human rights organisations and went to other countries to investigate the use of landmines by state and non-state actors.

“The campaign against landmines was one of the major success stories of the rights group,” said a Kashmiri journalist who had reported on it at the time. “Such was the pressure created by the campaign that militant groups issued written statements on not using landmines.”

In October 2007, the United Jihad Council, a conglomeration of militant groups fighting the Indian state in Jammu and Kashmir, signed a declaration pledging to stop using landmines.

The declaration was signed under the Ottawa Convention, also known as the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty. India and Pakistan are among the countries that are yet to sign it. However, the treaty also allows non-state actors to commit themselves against the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of mines.

Seventeen years after the accident, Parvez is in prison in Delhi, charged under sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, an anti-terror law, accused of criminal conspiracy and waging war against the government.

The National Investigation Agency, which raided his home and the JKCCS offices in Srinagar on November 22, alleges that Parvez had been in touch with “overground workers” of a Pakistani militant group for the last six years. Overground workers is the name given to non-combatant members of militant groups, usually tasked with arranging logistics.

“These are baseless allegations,” said Parvez Imroz, another prominent member of the JKCCS. “In my thirty years of experience and Khurram’s 20 years, we have had no affiliation with any political organisation, nor have we been associated with any government. We also detest violence. We are for the non-violent resolution of the Kashmir issue.”

‘New frontiers of war’

In Kashmir, two decades of activism, which had helped reveal the human costs of militancy and militarisation, appears to be drawing to a close.

This is not Parvez’s first time in prison. When mass protests broke out in the Valley over the summer of 2016, he was detained under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law, a day after he was stopped from travelling to Switzerland to take part in a United Nations conference on human rights. Parvez spent 76 days in prison before the Jammu and Kashmir High Court quashed the detention order.

But his arrest now is seen as part of a widening crackdown on human rights campaigns in Kashmir. This intensified after August 2019, when the state of Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of autonomy under Article 370 and split into two Union Territories.

Last October, the National Investigation Agency raided the offices of the JKCCS and other non-profit organisations, as well as the homes of some activists. According to the agency, these individuals and organisations received funds raised from “India and abroad in the name of charitable activities”. These were allegedly used “for carrying out secessionist and separatist activities in J&K”.

Outside Kashmir, institutions and senior government officials are questioning the idea of human rights activism, pitting it against national security. Speaking at a function in Hyderabad days before Parvez’s arrest, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had described civil society as the “new frontiers of the war”; it could be “manipulated to hurt the interests of a nation”.

Even the National Human Rights Commission organised its annual debate around the question, “Are human rights a stumbling block in fighting evils like terrorism & Naxalism?”

After the raids, a deserted JKCCS office, November 24. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

A Kashmiri institution

The JKCCS was established in 2000, an umbrella group of various independent human rights organisations operating from Srinagar city. “JKCCS through its constituents seeks to speak truth to power whether through reports, programmes, systematic documentation, litigation or other engagements in Jammu and Kashmir and outside,” says its website.

It formalised several rudimentary efforts to document human rights violations in Kashmir post 1989, when militancy spread across the Valley and the armed forces launched a retaliatory crackdown.

There were three main constituents of the new collective. The Public Commission on Human Rights was a reconstituted version of the Kashmir Monitor, an organisation started in 1994 by lawyer Parvez Imroz. The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons was a group consisting of family members of all those subject to enforced disappearance in Kashmir – this unit would later break away from JKCCS. The International Peoples’ Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir was the third constituent, focusing on structural and institutionalised forms of violence in the region.

“I think anybody who has done any kind of research on human rights in Kashmir has encountered [JK]CCS on the way,” said legal anthropologist Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh, who worked with the collective as a research associate from 2013 to 2018. “It’s a Kashmiri institution and a very deeply and socially embedded human rights organisation.”

At the same time, it became part of international networks on human rights. Parvez, for example, is the chairman of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances. “He’s worked on disappearances across the region, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan,” Ghosh added.

Unmarked graves

One of the group’s earliest projects was to monitor elections held between 2002 and 2008 in the strife-torn Valley. This was done in collaboration with journalists and civil rights activists from the Indian mainland. In 2007, the JKCCS produced a detailed survey on the people killed in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district between 1989 and 2006.

But it was the JKCCS’s work on unmarked graves that really pioneered a new discourse on human rights in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2008 and 2009, the group published reports about hundreds of unmarked graves strewn across three districts in North Kashmir. It claimed that these “entomb bodies of those murdered in encounter, fake encounters and extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions.”

The reports caused an uproar in the Valley and the now disbanded state human rights commission ordered a probe into the findings. In 2011, for the first time in the history of Kashmir’s armed conflict, an official inquiry confirmed the presence of at least 2,156 unidentified bodies in unmarked graves at 38 sites. It also prompted the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly to discuss unmarked graves for the first time.

Holding state institutions to account

Members of the JKCCS relentlessly pored over court files and official documents, put in Right to Information applications to hold state institutions to account. In several cases, their findings indicted the armed forces.

The JKCCS investigated the alleged mass rape by army personnel in the villages of Kunan and Poshpora in 1994. In 2012, long after the case had been closed, it filed a public interest litigation in the high court, seeking reinvestigation.

That same year, the JKCCS published a report naming at least 500 personnel from the army and other security forces, charging them with human rights violations. In 2013, it drew attention to the deputation of a Jammu and Kashmir police officer to the United Nations peacekeeping forces. The findings of the JKCCS and the state human rights commission had suggested the officer was involved in the rape and custodial torture of a girl in 2004 and the custodial killing of a civilian in 2011. The officer’s deputation was eventually cancelled.

In 2016, the group came up with a voluminous study on what it called “structures of violence” in Jammu and Kashmir. The study put the number of military personnel in Kashmir at 6.5 lakh to 7.5 lakh. It also named 972 alleged perpetrators of human rights violations.

To the ordinary victim of state violence in Jammu and Kashmir, the JKCCS became a vital source of aid in battles for justice. “By using the language of human rights, JKCCS has been able to expose the [excesses of the] Indian state in Jammu and Kashmir,” said a scholar who had volunteered with the group. “It has also shown how the laws and judiciary meant for ensuring justice and accountability have failed to fulfil their objectives in Kashmir.”

‘Criticised all sides’

But Imroz insisted the JKCCS did not just highlight violence by state actors. “We have been seeking accountability from all sides,” he said. “As a human rights group, the only way to gain credibility is to not be selective. We have to be fair and adhere to the international human rights law.”

Ghosh points out the group had pressed for an independent investigation into the killings of Kashmiri Pandits, allegedly by militant groups. “I remember how CCS would issue statements every year on massacres like Nadimarg asking the government about the status of the case,” she said. Ghosh was referring to an incident in 2003, when 24 Kashmiri Pandits were shot dead by gunmen in one night.

The civil society group is also credited with creating a space for dialogue between various shades of opinion on Kashmir. “It was JKCCS which brought pro-India Kashmiri leaders and pro-freedom leaders on the same platform to share their vision for the future of Jammu and Kashmir,” said the Kashmiri journalist, recalling a series of public conversations organised by the group in the mid-2000s.

Between 2011 and 2015, the JKCCS also held at least six inter-community dialogues between Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits. The two communities had been riven with bitterness after targeted killings post 1989 forced thousands of Pandits to flee the Valley.

‘Human rights work in Kashmir is almost dead’

In June 2018, when the United Nations released its first ever report on human rights violations on both sides of the Line of Control, it drew heavily on documentation by the JKCCS. The Ministry of External Affairs said the report violated India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It also described the report as “fallacious, tendentious and motivated.”

A second report, published by the United Nations 13 months later, also drew on the findings of the JKCCS. This report called for the United Nations Human Rights Council to “consider… the possible establishment of a commission of inquiry to conduct a comprehensive independent international investigation into allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir.”

A researcher who has worked with JKCCS said, “This was something which caused massive embarrassment for New Delhi in the eyes of the world.”

When the state of Jammu and Kashmir became a Union Territory in August 2019, under a blanket of restrictions and a communications blackout, the region’s civil society froze, like everything else. With the internet and communication facilities shut for months, members of the JKCCS were not able to carry out their task of documenting and recording rights violations.

“We were just trying to restore our work when the NIA raids took place in October, 2020,” the researcher added. Ever since those raids, the group has laid low, rarely issuing statements or holding events. It has not published its annual report since 2019.

A day after Parvez’s arrest, Imroz sat alone in his deserted office on the riverbank in Srinagar’s Amira Kadal area. “This office used to be such a lively place,” said Imroz. “It would be brimming with volunteers and interns. Now they are afraid to come here. Human rights work in Kashmir is almost dead. It’s history now.”