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Kashmir rights lawyer who seeks global solidarity to fight 'enforced' disappearances

By Divyansh*

“Agar firdaus bar ru-ye zamin ast
Hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast”
(If there is heaven on earth
It is this, it is this, it is this!)
The land of Kashmir has always been hailed as a paradise on earth with its beautiful and serene valleys, but behind the veil of scenic landscapes have been a long-lasting struggle of the Kashmiri people, torn between different wars, excessive militarization and constant state of fear and uncertainty. 
Although the history of Kashmir’s political status has been rather complex and can be seen from different political perspectives, one undeniable fact that remains is that the common people of Kashmir have always been on the suffering end.
Parvez Imroz, a human rights lawyer and a civil rights activist who has been continuously working on the issue for more than three decades, born amidst the shadow of these wars and struggle, has been highly involved in various kinds of activism right from the days of his youth.
He chose to become a lawyer with an intent to use the judiciary as a tool to address the difficulties faced by the common people in the early 1980s. However, the situation in Kashmir witnessed a stark unfortunate change when the insurgency broke out in 1989, followed by a prolonged period of continuous armed struggle between the militants and the armed forces.
When the insurgency began in 1989, the Government of India responded to address the situation with heavy military deployment and use of force even against civilian population to exercise utmost control over the region. This resulted in complete domination of armed forces and other related authorities along with a collapse of any civilian authority.
With the imposition of Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act 1990, Jammu & Kashmir was declared as a disturbed area and any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces started enjoying excessive power and control over the people without much accountability leading towards countless alleged cases of human rights violations.
It was during these critical years that Imroz took upon the work of handling hundreds of grievances of helpless victims, documenting human rights atrocities and offering legal support to those in need. The issues ranged from 8,000+ cases of enforced disappearances, mass rapes to cases of extreme torture, extrajudicial killings and fake encounters.
Operating in a tense, sensitive and highly restrictive environment, Imroz, along with his team formed a human rights group -- Public Commission on Human Rights, that has been an active entity helping in both documentation of human rights violations as well as litigation. Apart from facing immense challenges like non-responsiveness from the govt authorities, Imroz also worked to support, encourage and unite the victims for a collective action against the highly prevalent phenomenon of Enforced Disappearances.
Some people of Kashmir have described Enforced Disappearances as even worse than death because in case of death, at least the relatives know that the person is no more and there is an emotional closure to it, however in case of enforced disappearances the friends and relatives of the victim have to live for years in a state of helplessness and uncertainty with absolutely no knowledge of the whereabouts of their loved ones. 
While working closely with Parveena Ahanger, whose son disappeared after getting detained by armed forces, they formed an Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in 1994, an organization which continues to raise its voice to seek accountability and answers from the government till present date.
While working on these instrumental and critical initiatives, Imroz and his team faced several challenges and even their functioning in the local areas became difficult amidst extreme pressures and a complete denial by the government to cater to the demands of enquiry on different human rights violation cases.
However, as it is said that when the going gets tough, the tough get going, Imroz did not lose hope and actively worked to seek international solidarity and support to put an end to the horrors associated with Enforced Disappearances. Along with some organizations in Philippines and Organization of Parents and Family Members of the Disappeared in Sri Lanka, they formed an Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD).
It played a significant role in lobbying at the United Nations for the adoption of the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons against Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances – that stands as one of the most crucial hallmarks for the global struggle against enforced disappearances. It was the result of these efforts that India also signed the convention in 2007 but unfortunately, India has failed to ratify it even after 13 years.
The work done by Imroz is truly prodigious since along with offering legal support to the victims and making contributions as a human rights lawyer, he also took pivotal steps to empower the civil society of Kashmir which had gradually lost its role and importance.
He founded the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) in 2000 during a time when different civil society actors were facing immense harassment and threats from different sources. To understand the gravity of the situation, one should note that it was a time when several human rights defenders, including the prominent ones like Hriday Nath Wanchoo and Jalil Andrabi were killed.
Imroz has also been attacked several times – he was first shot in April 1995 when he was driving back to his home and fortunately, he survived. Then, he was physically assaulted and arrested by police multiple times, his house in Srinagar was also attacked with grenades in 2008.
Despite all these life-threatening instances, he never stopped working towards the cause in which he believed strongly, and it was the hard work and towering determination of Imroz and his team and they were able to discover 7,000+ unmarked mass graves in Kashmir that exist as evidence of the unimaginable atrocities and a dark period in the history of Kashmir.
Mass graves
Imroz strongly believes that documenting human rights abuses, in itself, is a very crucial task as the essence of documenting these atrocities against people is to “institutionalize memory of people against state induced forgetfulness” as well as “employ the memory as a means to conflict resolution and peace-making between and within the states”.
Throughout these years, his work has also been acknowledged by several international organizations which include Human Rights Institute of The Bar of Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France and the European Bar Human Rights Institute when he became the Eleventh recipient of the Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize. In 2017, Imroz was awarded with the prestigious Rafto Prize for his efforts to promote human rights.
However, the tragedy of the issue is that despite such gigantic efforts, the government still continues to neglect the issue and not give enough attention to at least acknowledge the problem, let alone take strict actions. In recent years, there has again been a major change in the political status of Kashmir with monumental claims being made by the Indian government about restoring peace in Kashmir.
However, we haven’t reached the day when the government had ratified United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) along with the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons against Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. We hope that there comes a day when government showcases enough responsibility to hold the alleged oppressors accountable for their crimes committed in the past.
This is crucial because given the gravity of human rights violations in the past, they cannot be simply forgotten or undone as the pain, suffering and the trauma associated with the past continues to haunt people till today. In contrast, we have seen extensive censorship, increased militarization and internet shutdowns by the government in Kashmir region in recent years. In fact, India has been at the top of the list of highest recorded internet shutdowns in the world from three consecutive years.
Amidst the continuing hard struggle, it is truly noteworthy and laudable to state that people like Imroz continue to showcase unparalleled perseverance and zeal to work for the promotion of human rights with undeterred motivation and a strong belief that no matter how adverse the circumstances become – it is their duty to serve the people and to reach out to the conscience of the conscientious.
---
*Post-graduate student, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad

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