First Person

'Things got heated but not threatening': An eyewitness account of Amnesty's contentious Kashmir meet

A photojournalist recalls what happened at the Bangalore event that resulted in sedition charges being filed against the human rights group.

On August 13, Amnesty International India held the event called "Broken Families" at the United Theological College in Bangalore as part of its campaign against human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. The audience included families of those who had gone missing (allegedly after being detained by the security forces), those who had lost loved ones to fake encounters and people whose relatives had alleged been torture by security personnel.

Two days later, sedition charges were filed against Amnesty’s Bangalore unit after members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad complained that the event had featured “anti-national songs, raised anti-national slogans, made anti-India and anti-national speeches and raised slogans saying India’s Kashmir should "go to Pakistan”.

Hari Adivarekar, a photojournalist from Bangalore who had attended the Amnesty event, tells what happened that evening.

It started off like any other programme. After introducing the event and other niceties, the organisers screened video interviews of parents who had lost their children to the unrest over the years in the Jammu and Kashmir. That was when the issue hit home for a lot of people and the video was punctuated by loud wails from the audience.

Families of people who had been killed or had gone missing in Kashmir had been invited by Amnesty International. The venue was packed and the wailing seemed to have a greater impact than the videos, because it connected us to the grief of not just those on screen, but also those who were right there, in the same room. You could feel their pain, anguish and suffering.

Then, Ali Mohammed Shah, who had lost his son in 2002, allegedly to torture by security forces, took the stage. His speech was eloquent, poetic and philosophical. He, too, broke down. What we saw and felt were visceral connections that go beyond that which words can explain.

His speech was heart warming. “Not only will my son never ask for sweets again but even witnessing his shadow is not in his parent's fate,” he said – at which point many in the audience let out a gasp. It was almost like shayari – but in a grim, horrible, macabre setting.

Credit: Hari Adivarekar/via Facebook
Credit: Hari Adivarekar/via Facebook

Reenacting tragedy

Some in the audience were wearing t-shirts that said “Kashmiri Pandits”. They didn't seem threatening or menacing in anyway – just people there to represent another point of view. Everyone was watching the event peacefully.

Then a few youngsters from Kashmir performed a skit. It was a variety performance of sorts – there was some singing, some theatre and some chanting. Though their play wasn’t perfect, you could see their intensity. They were speaking in Kashmiri, so I tried to understand whatever I could through their gestures.

The skit opened with the scene of a happy family sitting together – everything seemed normal. And then, something happened and suddenly, one of them was taken away by security personnel and tortured a little. He was eventually killed.

His parents, meanwhile, were running from pillar-to-post trying to find him. After several dead-ends, they finally found his body. Though that brought them some closure, the pain and suffering was evident.

They showed the body being lifted from somewhere. From what I gathered, they were lifting it out of a truck, or someplace where a young man’s body should not be. A lot of things about the evening were more visceral rather than explicit.

A performance by Kashmiri youth. Credit: Hari Adivarekar/via Facebook
A performance by Kashmiri youth. Credit: Hari Adivarekar/via Facebook

Among the panellists for the event were journalist Seema Mustafa and RK Mattoo, President of the Bangalore Kashmiri Pandit Association, and the mother of Shahzad Ahmed Khan, who had been killed in the Machil fake encounter in 2010.

They explained that they do not want to politicise the event and just want to talk about the plight of families who have lost their loved ones in Kashmir.

The drama that followed

Things began to heat up when Mattoo, while expressing sympathy towards those suffering, said that the Indian Army is among the most disciplined armies in the world.

That’s when one group in the audience shouted out in disagreement while another group clapped and cried “Yes!”

What he said, however, seemed to have been taken out of context as he was not allowed to complete his sentence. His message was actually one of inclusiveness.

But it's important to note that young Kashmiris who had shouted out against Mattoo’s statement were not insulting the Indian Army – they were just disagreeing with him.

Then a Kashmiri Pandit stood up and called the dissenting group "terrorists" – I don’t know what, if anything, provoked him.

The group was visibly upset and demanded to know what he meant. Soon, it became a yelling match, with one group shouting louder than the other. Others were trying to maintain calm, especially Amnesty volunteers. Some Kashmiri youngsters were also trying to make sure that their group doesn’t go overboard and were trying to restore peace. Every time things threatened to turn violent, these Kashmiri boys were at the right place at the right time, calming their friends down.

However, Kashmiri Pandits were refusing to calm down. Finally, Mattoo appealed to them to quiet down and move on with the programme.

The panelists. Credit: Hari Adivarekar/via Facebook
The panelists. Credit: Hari Adivarekar/via Facebook

Under control

After the panel discussion, Roushan Illahi – better known as MC Kash, a rapper and emcee from Kashmir – took the stage. But he could perform only one song because by then, the police had entered the venue.

They seemed pretty nervous and asked the organisers to close the event, saying it was past 8:30 pm, the time at which it was supposed to wrap up.

Amnesty declared the event over as soon as Kash finished his song. The artist, however, looked very angry. He stormed off stage, swearing.

Some young Kashmiri boys in the audience, probably buoyed by this, started shouting "azadi" and pumping their fists in the air. The peacekeepers, as I had designated the Kashmiri youth who had tried to calm things down earlier, again held their friends back to restore peace.

My mother, who was at the event with me, was sitting in the midst of the melee while I was photographing the event. But nothing was threatening or scary about what was transpiring – if it was, I would have left with her long ago. Later, she met the parents of missing youth and was very moved by their stories.

By then, ABVP members were outside and appeared to be in the mood to fight. The police, therefore, did not allow the audience leave in one go – we were let out in batches of 30-40. By the time I exited the auditorium, the police had dispersed the ABVP activists. Nothing untoward happened after the event.

Credit: Hari Adivarekar/via Facebook
Credit: Hari Adivarekar/via Facebook

As told to Vinita Govindarajan.

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