Srinagar: Ten days after national security advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval claimed civil society could be "manipulated" and talked of it being "the next frontier of war", the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on 22 November arrested prominent Kashmiri human-rights activist Khurram Parvez from his residence in Sonwar area of Srinagar city.
One of the eight sections of two laws quoted against him: “waging war”.
The arrest of Parvez, 44, recognised for his work as programme coordinator of an advocacy called Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), evoked global criticism (here and here) and came at a time when three families claimed that their kin were allegedly used as “human shields” before being killed by security forces in the city’s Hyderpora on 15 November.
Parvez is known for his calm demeanour, advocation of non-violence and leading efforts over two decades to document human-rights violations in one of the world’s most troubled regions. “Khurram Parvez is someone who’d defend the rights of even those out to persecute him,” the award-winning writer Mirza Waheed tweeted.
A JKCCS source, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, told Article 14 that the organisation had not been functioning since 2020 after it was raided by the NIA and had not documented new human-rights violations.
“All the people associated with the organisation including Khurram Parvez were lying low after the 2020 raids,” said the source, who said the office was locked when the NIA raid began on 22 November in the morning.
A postgraduate in mass communication and journalism, Parvez faces eight criminal charges, including accusations of aiding terrorism. Punishment, if convicted, can stretch to life imprisonment. His family said he was likely to be flown to New Delhi, and NIA officials informed his brother, Sheikh Shariyar, of the arrest.
Parvez and the JKCCS have previously attracted punitive action from the government, and the organisation was mostly defunct after NIA raids in 2020.
‘Harassment & Trouble Part Of Our Lives’
On 14 September 2016, Parvez was stopped at Delhi’s International Airport and prevented from travelling to a UN Human Rights Council Session in Geneva. Eight days later, he was detained for 76 days under the Public Safety Act (PSA), 2016, a law that allows detention without charge for two years.
While quashing his detention under the PSA, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court on 25 November 2016 called his detention “illegal” and said that the “detaining authority has abused its powers”, referring in this case to the district magistrate.
On 28 October 2020, the NIA raided the JKCCS and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), a unit of the JKCCS, in a case pertaining to certain NGOs and trusts “raising funds in India and abroad in the name of charitable activities” and then “using those funds” for carrying out “secessionist and separatist activities” in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
His family was tense but stoic.
“Harassment and trouble is part of our lives now,” Khurram’s wife, Sameena, told Article 14. “It is continuous and persistent.” She said she met her husband again at the NIA office at Church Lane on the morning of 23 November who looked “quite positive” and he told her to stay strong.
Shariyar told Article 14 that after searches that lasted six hours at Pervez’s home and office, the NIA seized his brother’s phone, laptop and some books, the details of which his family did not know.
In the evening, the family was asked to bring Parvez’s clothes, crutches and medicines to the NIA office in Dalgate, a kilometre from the historic downtown square of Lal Chowk. “The phone of his wife was also seized by the NIA officials,” said Shariyar.
Sameena said their children were looking for Parvez. “Our son, who is 11, knows about it,” she said. “However the daughter is three and too young to understand all this.”
Global Recognition Of Work, Global Criticism Of India
Winner of the 2006 Reebok Human Rights Award and 2016 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award, Parvez was the driving force behind the JKCCS, whose reports over the last two decades sparked criticism (here and here) of India’s human-rights records in Kashmir, from the European Union and the United Nations.
Parvez’s arrest is part of a widening crackdown on freedom of speech and democracy in J&K since the erstwhile state was split into two union territories and its autonomy revoked in August 2019.
Since then, J&K, directly administered from Delhi, has seen unprecedented communication shutdowns, arrest of lawyers and other professionals, cases against journalists, sacking new government employees whose social-media history revealed political opinion and a media policy that allows bureaucrats to decide what is out of bounds for the media.
“In Kashmir, the authorities appear to be adopting increasingly repressive policies to shut down criticism, instead of encouraging the work of independent journalists and human rights experts to help address abuses in a rights respecting manner,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director for Human Rights Watch (HRW) told Article 14.
The United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, said she was disturbed to hear about Parvez's arrest. "He is not a terrorist, he is a human rights defender," she said on Twitter. Former UN Special Rapporteur, David Kaye described the arrest of Parvez as “another extraordinary abuse” in Kashmir.
“If, as reported, @KhurramParvez has been arrested by #India's 'counter-terrorism' NIA, it's yet another extraordinary abuse in #Kashmir,” Kaye tweeted.
The Rafto Foundation, a Norwegian advocacy, in a 22 June statement, appealed to India to “immediately release Mr. Parvez”, who it said had “consistently espoused non-violence” and “acted impeccably as a “human rights defender to earn the highest reputation both within Kashmir and from international institutions”.
Rafto Foundation director Jostein Hole Kobbeltvedt said they “observe with regret that the Indian government intimidates citizens working to secure the values and norms enshrined both in the constitution of India and in international treaties ratified by the government itself”.
But such arrests are likely to increase, the government has indicated.
Civil Society The New Target. In Kashmir That’s Not New
"The new frontiers of war, what you call the fourth generation warfare, is the civil society,” said Doval, the NSA, addressing police probationers at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy Academy in Hyderabad on 13 November.
“Wars have ceased to become an effective instrument for achieving political or military objectives,” said Doval. “They are too expensive or unaffordable and, at the same time, there is uncertainty about their outcome. But it is the civil society that can be subverted, suborned, divided, manipulated to hurt the interests of a nation. You are there to see they stand fully protected.”
That theory has already been implemented in Kashmir, said experts.
The NIA has been carrying out raids in Kashmir over the last four years, during which several separatists, businessmen, politicians and journalists have been either detained or summoned to its headquarters in New Delhi.
More than 2,300 face cases under the UAPA in J&K since 2019, including journalists, politicians and activists, The Indian Express reported on 5 August 2021.
“Now they have booked Khurram Parvez under the same draconian counter-terror law,” said Ganguly, the South Asia HRW director.
On 14 September, the UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet described as “worrying” India’s use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967, which allows jail without bail merely on allegations made by the police.
According to the arrest memo, a copy of which is with Article 14, Parvez was arrested in connection with a first information report—the starting point for a police investigation—filed on 6 November.
The FIR lists section 120B (criminal conspiracy) , 121 (waging war against the country) and 121A (conspiracy to commit offences punishable by section 121) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and sections 17 (raising funds for terrorist act), 18 (conspiracy) , 18B (recruiting for terrorist act) , 38 (membership of a terrorist organisation) and 40 (raising fund for a terrorist organisation) of the UAPA.
“The vague, almost boundless, scope of the offences of “Terrorist Act” and “Unlawful Activity” created under the UAPA allows for punishing thought crimes, where the act itself might matter far less compared to the intentions allegedly imputed to a person,” Supreme Court lawyer Abhinav Sekhri wrote in Article 14 on 16 July 2020.
“These allegations can only be refuted at trial, in all probability being fought by the accused from behind bars, as the chances for securing bail are exceedingly small,” wrote Sekhri.
‘People Like Me Will Never Change Our Opinion’
This was not the first time that the JKCCS and the APDP have faced attention from the NIA.
On 28 October 2020, the federal agency searched 10 locations, including Parvez’s residence in Srinagar and another location in Bangalore. The NIA in a statement at the time said the “case was registered after credible information that certain NGOs and trusts were collecting funds and using the money for secessionist and militant activities in J&K”.
After the latest raid on 22 November, the NIA issued no statement.
Parvez is no stranger to violence and controversy.
His right leg was amputated after he survived an (improvised explosive device) IED blast on 20 April 2004 in Northern Kashmir, where was monitoring Parliamentary elections. His colleague Aasiya Jeelani and their driver died in the bombing. No arrests were made, an FIR was registered, his colleagues alleged there was no investigation, and it was never clear who was responsible.
For the last two decades, Parvez has extensively documented and highlighted human rights violations in J&K.
“It is the same old policy of scaring people, activists or anyone, who dares to speak the truth,” Parvez had said. “This is what also authenticates and further helps us in exposing how states are becoming intolerant towards an opinion [contrary to their own].”
Why The JKCCS Is A Target
Founded in 2000, the JKCCS is an amalgam of various non-profit, campaign, research and advocacy organisations based in Srinagar.
In 2009, the organisation was instrumental in unearthing mass graves in J&K in a report titled ‘Buried Evidence’. The report documented 2,700 unknown, unmarked and mass graves, with 2,943 bodies, across 55 villages in the Bandipora, Baramulla, and Kupwara districts of Kashmir.
Shortly after the JKCCS report, an European Union parliament resolution called on the government of India to “ensure independent and impartial investigations” were undertaken into all suspected sites of mass graves in J&K and, “as an immediate first step, to secure the grave sites in order to preserve the evidence”.
In 2015, a JKCCS report, 'Structures of Violence: The Indian State in Jammu and Kashmir’, said that 972 personnel of the security forces, including 464 army soldiers, 161 from the paramilitary, 158 from the J&K police and 189 government gunmen were allegedly involved in perpetrating various crimes.
On 14 June 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released its first-ever human rights report on Kashmir, calling for an international inquiry into multiple rights violations in Kashmir, following it the next year with a second report questioning India's crowd-control measures in the region, investigations into alleged extrajudicial killings and legal immunity for security forces.
Both the UN reports were based on the work carried out by JKCCS and APDP and carried many references to their work.
On 20 May 2019, both the human rights groups released their first comprehensive report on ‘torture’ in J&K. The report was endorsed by the UN.
The report,‘Torture: Indian State’s Instrument of Control in Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir’, detailed the systematic use of torture by the Indian State from 1990 onwards.
On 18 May 2019, three special rapporteurs of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) asked India for details on steps taken to punish or provide justice to victims of torture and arbitrary killing in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990.
Following the report, India formally cut-off contact with the UN’s Special Rapporteurs.
Two months before the first NIA raid, the JKCCS released a report on the internet blockade titled ‘Kashmir’s Internet Siege’. The report provided an overview of the harm, cost and consequences of the digital siege after 5 August 2019.
It was the last report published by the JKCCS.
Former head of Amnesty International India, Aakar Patel described the arrest of Parvez as a “violation of his human rights”. He said Parvez was being persecuted for his work and for who he is.
“The outside world must take interest in India and what it is doing to Kashmiris and press it to honour its commitments to individual rights and freedoms,” Patel told Article 14. “India’s internal mechanisms have failed. India pretends to still be pluralist and therefore can be pressed to do the right thing.”
‘I Hope Truth Will Prevail’
Back home Parvez's wife, Sameena, said she did not expect her husband would be arrested.
“The last time when the NIA raided our house, he was taken along after searching the house,” she said. “In the evening he was released. So we were expecting that he might be released by evening, however we came to know that he was arrested and booked under UAPA.”
Sameena said she had never discouraged her husband from his work, despite the obvious risks.
“I don’t think there is anything abnormal that he was doing that I would have at any point of time told him to do something else,” she said. “I hope that the truth will prevail.”
(Auqib Javeed is an independent journalist based in Srinagar.)