Khurram Parvez, Kashmiri human rights activist in Srinagar, is programme coordinator of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.

In this interview with before the current spell of tumult in Kashmir, Parvez speaks about human rights abuses in the Valley, how the people’s narrative contradicts that of the State, and why the Indian media focuses on the exodus and killing of Kashmiri Pandits, but not of other Hindus. Excerpts:

A few months ago, in a piece that Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu wrote for The Times of India, he quoted from a pamphlet distributed on February 9 in Jawaharlal Nehru University that said, “Caged in conduit wires and faced with blood stained bayonets from all sides, turned into the most militarised zone in the world, Kashmir remains: the country without a post office.” Are not these words an example of hyperbole?
Many of the young who have lived through 25 years of violence of the Indian state speak a very harsh language against it. For example, take the slogan of Bharat ki barbaadi. Leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the Mirwaiz [Umar Farooq] and Yasin Malik have repeatedly said that they have nothing to do with India’s barbaadi and are concerned only about their azadi. Despite this, when the young realise that such slogans hurt the soldiers or the media, they shout these. It is not that they have the capacity to do anything to India.

What I meant was whether it is right to liken Kashmir to prison.
It is. In the JKCCS’s 2015 report, Structures of Violence, we have given the number of soldiers, the paramilitary and the police deployed in Kashmir. Our estimate is that anywhere between 6.5 lakh to 7.5 lakh [security personnel] are there in Jammu and Kashmir. It is not a small number. If you take the Army’s total strength, half of it is here. The ratio of police to people is the highest here among all States. You can’t have a prison-like reality in Kashmir and expect its people to be silent.

But Kashmir, unlike other states, is witnessing militancy.
According to government figures, there were only 150 militants in the state last year. Do you need 700,000 soldiers to fight 150 militants?

If 150 militants were killed, then that would mean…
No, no, no, 150 was the total number of militants present in the entire state. From 2008, the total number of militants has never been more than 250. If you compare the number of soldiers in the State to, say, Afghanistan, or other conflict zones such as Iraq, Kashmir still remains the highest militarised zone in the world.

India refuses to allow international intervention in Kashmir. It refuses to accept it is an armed or even non-armed conflict – these are technical terms. Instead, India claims it is an internal law and order problem. But the media calls it a Pakistan-sponsored proxy war.

It seems you don’t think it is Pakistan-sponsored.
Of course, it is not. According to government figures, the total number of militants killed in Kashmir since 1990 is 21,000. Of them, only 3,000 were foreign militants.

What is meant by Pakistan-sponsored is that Kashmiris are trained, armed and pushed across into Kashmir.
They say this for multiple reasons. One, India wants to reap the benefits of Islamophobia from which the world is suffering. Two, the Indian government has to reconcile its own people to body bags coming from Kashmir.

If the Indian people were told the truth that Kashmiris don’t want to be with India, and the struggle here is sustained by them primarily – there is very limited external support – the public opinion in India too would change. To not allow the public opinion to change, these lies about Pakistan-sponsored proxy war are told. For us, the Indian media is clearly a part of India’s military industry in Kashmir.

Come on, not all media.
I am talking about the electronic media primarily. There are, of course, very good exceptions, but they are unfortunately just exceptions.

In his piece in the Times of India, Naidu also quoted from a pamphlet, the lines of which were: “The snow that accumulates and melts and accumulates again keeps burying its history with thousands of mass graves.” Naidu thought this claim was absurd.
The JKCCS and also one of our constituents, The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, were involved in unearthing mass graves. We began our work in 2005 and came out with our first report, Facts Underground, in 2008. We found that in Uri, a subdistrict of Baramulla, there were 940 unmarked graves and mass graves.

How do you define mass graves?
There are two kinds of graves. The unmarked graves are of those whose identity is not known. Then there are some graves in which more than one person is buried. For example, there is one grave in Kupwara in which 11 are buried. We have documented the presence of 7,000 unmarked graves and mass graves in five districts – Baramulla, Kupwara, Bandipora in North Kashmir and Poonch and Rajouri in Jammu. This is a huge number.

The State Human Rights Commission said in an ongoing case that the figures we provided for the three districts in North Kashmir were on the lower side. It also said that 570 people buried as foreign militants were later identified as local Kashmiris.

Did any of the people who buried these bodies go on record?
Both in Facts Underground and in our second report, Buried Evidence, we spoke to many grave-diggers who were handed over the bodies by the local police or the Army.

The State Human Rights Commission asked the government to conduct DNA tests of the bodies in unmarked and mass graves and match it with the families of the disappeared. We have 8,000 families which claim their members disappeared over the last 25 years. The J&K government in 2012 refused to do so.

But conducting DNA tests of 8,000 families is a huge task, isn’t it?
Of course, it was discussed and decided by the Indian government. It said India has only 16 labs which have the facility to conduct DNA tests – and therefore lacked the capacity [to match the DNA of corpses with the families of the disappeared]. It also said it would lead to social upheaval and create law and order problem.

After our first report in 2008, the European Parliament passed a resolution on July 10, 2008 offering technical expertise and monetary assistance for conducting the DNA tests. I suppose the issue of sovereignty would have come in.

JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar on Women’s Day said that “while we have a lot of respect for our soldiers, we will not talk about the fact that some Indian Army men rape women in Kashmir?” Is he right in making such claims?
Kanhaiya Kumar is right – many Indian soldiers have raped Kashmiris. In the last 25 years, there have been hundreds of women who came forward to file cases of rape. It is very difficult to persuade them to file cases. One, they fear reprisals from the Army. This is because there are cases in which when rape was reported, members of their families were attacked or prosecuted. Then there are issues of social stigma and, more importantly, non-deliverance of justice. Despite this, if hundreds of cases have been filed…

How many alleged incidents of rape are there since 1990?
According to our estimates of sexualised and gendered violence, there are 7,000 cases. I say sexualised and gendered because there have been cases of boys being sodomised, of male rapes as well. Technically, it would be very difficult to prove rape.

Why would it be technically difficult to prove rape?
This is because these are areas which are completely under the Army’s control. The Army would want us to believe that these are women who are sex workers, and that the soldiers are doing it [having sex] with their consent. Some of them may have submitted but it does not mean they were not raped. You can hardly call it consent when someone has a gun in his hand and asks a woman to have sex, and she agrees.

This sounds like a wild charge.
Take the case of Major Rahman Hussain, who was allegedly involved in the rape of a woman and her daughter in Handwara. We talked to officers, who said, “But this is Major Rahman Hussain.” What was being implied was that since the officer was Muslim, why should we have a problem?

Was he convicted of rape?
He was not. Lt Gen (retired) Ata Hasnain was a brigadier at the time the Handwara incident took place. He would claim he was the one who had Maj Hussain convicted. But he was not convicted of rape. He was convicted for transgression into civilian property. He was sentenced to one year rigorous imprisonment and his service was terminated.

But Maj Hussain went to the High Court claiming the punishment was disproportionate to his crime. It was indeed disproportionate as he had been convicted of transgression into civilian property – and not rape. Maj Hussain was acquitted.

Whatever happened to the Kunan-Poshpura mass rape case after an investigation into it was reordered in 2013?
The mass rape happened in 1991. For many years, we were given to believe that investigation was underway. Through Right to Information, we found the case had been closed. Meanwhile, we found that some of the families from Kunan-Poshpura were fighting the case in the State Human Rights Commission since 2004.

Why did they take so long to go to the State Human Rights Commission?
This Commission came into existence in J&K only in 1997. In Oct 2011, the SHRC gave an order that the matter should be investigated again and that the police shouldn’t have hushed up the Kunan-Poshpura case. The Commission also recommended that Rs 2 lakh should be paid to the 40 women (who were allegedly raped).

In 2012, then law minister Mir Saifullah, in whose constituency Kunan-Poshpura falls, gave Rs 1 lakh in cash to each of the 39 families (the 40th wasn’t present). That is not the procedure – the government generally issues a cheque.

In 2012, there were protests over the rape of a physiotherapist in Delhi. Young women working for our organisation felt the women of Kunan-Poshpura should be mobilised to file a PIL [Public Interest Litigation] in the High Court. This was done in 2013 in the Srinagar bench of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. It told us that the case hadn’t been closed, though we had been told otherwise, and that it was premature of us to have come to the High Court.

Did you then go to the Kupwara district court?
Yes, we filed a protest petition on behalf of the Kunan-Poshpura survivors. The court said it wasn’t satisfied with the investigation so far and that prima facie it did seem the armed forces were involved in the mass rape.

That was also the time when we got access to the court file. We came across the names of 126 soldiers who were present in Kunan-Poshpura that night. These were the names the Army had supplied to the police. In other words, the Army does not deny their presence in Kunan-Poshpura on the night the mass rape took place.

In July 2013, the court issued orders that the investigation in the case should be completed in three months. But that never happened. The police kept asking for extensions. During this period, the police wrote letters to the Army, which did not care to respond.

Didn’t you then go to the High Court?
We did and the court, after a few hearings, issued an interim order for the compensation to be paid. We told the court that Rs 1 lakh had been paid to 39 families. The government denied having paid any money. Our assumption is that Rs one lakh was paid in 2012 to silence the victims. Obviously, since the money was paid in cash, there was no account with the government. This money was paid when we decided to support the families of Kunan-Poshpura.

The government decided to go to the Supreme Court in appeal against the High Court’s order. It claimed that compensation couldn’t be paid as the investigation was still underway. This case was filed a year ago and still remains in registry.

Has there been any conviction for encounter cases?
No conviction yet for encounter, rape, custodial killings, disappearances or torture. There was one rape case in South Kashmir, in which two sisters were raped and their father disappeared. The J&K police established that the rape of one sister did indeed take place, not of both though. So they applied for sanction to prosecute under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The state government asked the Union government for permission.

The two-line response of the Ministry of Defence was very significant. It said that the woman who had been raped couldn’t be trusted because she happened to be the wife of a dreaded militant, and that she had filed the case to malign the armed forces.

Interestingly, the husband of the woman who was raped was indeed a militant whom the army had come to arrest. But he wasn’t at home and the family was punished – the father-in-law disappeared, the wife and her sister were raped.

Subsequently, they arrested that militant. He was in the jail for a year and a half. But after that, he started working for the Army. He also divorced his wife. So while the Army claimed the woman had filed the case to malign the army, her husband was working for them.

Wasn’t some headway made in the Chattisinghpora massacre?
In this case, after 35 Sikhs were massacred on March 20, 2000, another massacre of five took place in Pathribal. It was alleged that these five had carried out the massacre at Chattisinghpora. The CBI investigated the Pathribal incident, and it said it was a fake encounter. It also said that an Army officer, who is now a Major General, should be prosecuted.

Petitions were filed and the case went to the Supreme Court. It asked for the court martial of the accused within a limited period of time. The Army, however, decided not to court martial them. It said there wasn’t enough evidence, despite the CBI and local police findings.

Has permission to investigate Army personnel ever been given by the Indian government?
The state government told us that in 25 years it hasn’t secured sanction for prosecution whether from the Ministry of Defence in the case of the Army or from the Ministry of Home for paramilitary forces.

As a human rights activist, how do you see the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley? There is often the complaint that human rights bodies don’t articulate their plight?
This accusation is from those who say: Does the Army not have rights? Do Hindus not have rights? We are not worried about such accusations because we have been working with the community at the grassroots.

We have been asking the government what has stopped it from conducting investigation in each case in which Kashmiri Pandits were killed.

There has been a lot of hue and cry in the Indian media about Kashmiri Pandits. But why hasn’t there been a demand for a commission of inquiry? Why should the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990 not be investigated? Our demand for the prosecution of killers of Kashmiri Pandits is similar to our demand for prosecuting the Indian Army personnel. But this can’t be done without an investigation.

There is a lot of talk about the migration of Kashmiri Pandits and their killings. All killings are unfortunate. But there were also other minorities who were killed in Kashmir.

What do you mean by that?
Kashmiri Pandits are not only the Hindus to have been killed in J&K. Why does no one talk about others?

Who are these others?
According to government data, 1,544 minorities [members of minority groups] have been killed in the state since 1990-1991. Hindus comprised 1,400 of them. Of the 1,400, 209 were Kashmiri Pandits. It is fine to condemn the killing of 209 Pandits, it is fine to give it media exposure. But why don’t they talk of the remaining 1,200 Hindus?

Maybe it is because the Pandits have been driven out of their homeland.
In Jammu province, Hindus from areas like Rajouri, Udhampur, Doda and Kishtwar too began to migrate in 1995-1996. When the Pandits migrated, they were provided camps and rations and they thought they would return to their homes in a few months. Obviously, it [their exile] got prolonged.

But in the case of other Hindus, essentially Kshatriyas and lower castes, the government actually pushed them back. They were told that if they were to return they would be given guns to fight. Unfortunately, they got killed – they weren’t fighters, after all. But they were also involved in other kinds of human rights violations. Many of them were associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. They did not allow the non-Pandit Hindus to migrate, and let them be killed. That is why the number of non-Pandit Hindus killed is far higher.

Do you think the Kashmiris are caught between the state-militant binaries? If yes, do you think there is a need to go beyond this binary?
People here do not consider the militant as the other. People own up those whom you call Kashmiri militants – they don’t disown them. If you see any funeral procession of any militant you will realise how people claim them as theirs, regardless of whether they are Kashmiris or from Pakistan.

In Kashmir, there are only two narratives. There is the narrative of the people of Kashmir, and there is the narrative of the Indian armed forces or the state. In Kashmir, the people’s narrative contradicts that of the State.

Considering the militants have killed so many Kashmiris themselves, how do you explain the attitude that you are talking about?
It is true militants are also responsible for some killings. But those killings – and all killings are condemnable – in local understanding are the killings of collaborators [of the state] and not of ordinary citizens. So when people hear a militant has killed a civilian, their response is, “Kuchh to kiya hoga India ke liye. [He must have done something for Indians.]

But of course, we have documented cases where civilians have been killed by militants without any reason.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.