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Parveena Ahangar and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP)

By:
Shubh Mathur
Source:
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Parveena Ahangar and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP)

Background

Parveena Ahangar is one of the founders and chairperson of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), based in Srinagar, Kashmir. APDP (disappearancesinkashmir.org/index.html) was founded in 1994 by a group of families whose relatives—sons, fathers, husbands, brothers—were taken away by the Indian Army in the course of counterinsurgency operations. Despite unremitting efforts by the families and their supporters, no trace of these missing men has been found. Parveena Ahangar is herself one of the mothers of the disappeared, and her story offers a template of the crime (Amnesty International 1999). Her seventeen-year-old son, Javed Ahmed Ahangar, was studying for his high school exams at a friend’s house when he was taken away by the National Security Guards (NSG) of the Indian Army in 1990. The local police first confirmed that Javed was in custody, that he had been injured, and was being held at the military hospital. Parveena was given a pass to visit him at the hospital, but did not find him there. When the family filed a criminal complaint and a habeas corpus petition in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court a few days later, the police denied that he had been arrested. The high court ordered a police investigation, which confirmed the identity of the officers responsible for the disappearance. Since the Indian Army operates with legal impunity in Kashmir, the perpetrators did not appear in court to answer the charges against them. Javed Ahmed Ahangar is one of thousands of Kashmiri boys and men picked up by the army or pro-India militants, who then vanished without a trace.

The consequences of a disappearance are far-reaching and near-total in their impact on the family of the missing person. The trauma of the disappearance and the desperate, fruitless search for the whereabouts of the abducted person is intensified by financial stresses. In many cases the disappeared person is the sole breadwinner of the family. The endless cycle of journeys to courts, prisons, and army camps—along with bribes and payments for any information, likely or unlikely—creates a financial burden that families try to meet by selling off property, jewelry, and other possessions. Limited resources are quickly exhausted, but it is impossible for a family to give up the search. The disappearances have also created a category of victims known as “half-widows,” women whose husbands are missing but it is not known whether they are alive or dead. Custom prohibits these women from remarrying in order to provide for themselves and their children, and are thus an especially vulnerable category.

APDP was created by a core group of families who met at the prisons, courts, hospitals, army camps, and police stations seeking news of their missing relatives. Parveena Ahangar’s determination and perseverance held the group together and helped articulate their demands for the truth about their missing relatives and for justice for the crimes committed against them. Despite threats, bribes, and personal attacks, nothing could deflect Parveena and the families from their quest. As she says, she was a simple housewife, schooled only up to fifth grade, when her son was taken away. Her analysis of the situation goes to the heart of the matter: “There are laws for you and me, but there are no laws for the security forces and their collaborators.” She and thousands of others went to the courts seeking justice, but found none. Drawing upon deep reserves of courage and integrity, she learned to voice the concerns of those who have “a sorrow like mine.” She has traveled extensively in Kashmir, India, and abroad to share their stories and to seek support.

In 2008 Parveena Ahangar traveled to Geneva to meet the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID). She also met with the UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture and on Extrajudicial Executions. Following this visit, APDP was invited to apply for funding from the UN Voluntary Fund for Torture Victims (UNVFTV). With funding from UNVFTV, APDP has undertaken a project of documentation of disappearances through district-wide surveys. In January 2014 APDP commenced a new project to document cases of torture, also with UNVFTV funding. APDP has hosted the visits of the UN Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial Killings (APDP 2012) and on the situation of Human Rights Defenders. APDP also provided testimonies before the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women when she visited India in 2013.

In 2011 Parveena Ahangar was named one of the six finalists for the Human Rights Defenders Award by the Dublin-based group Frontline Defenders. In September 2011 she traveled to Ireland to participate in the biannual Dublin Platform conference, opening the way to a lasting collaboration between Frontline Defenders and APDP. In 2013 Masooda Parveen was the APDP delegate to the Dublin Platform. APDP identifies as a victims’ organization, attempting to maintain a program of support for families through funding from local donors. By helping members with pressing concerns like illness and medical treatment, wedding expenses, school tuition, and supplies, APDP functions as a surrogate family.

Following the concerns voiced by members, APDP has extended its mandate to include crimes like torture, extrajudicial killings, and rape. It has become a rallying point for victims of human rights abuses in Kashmir. Among these are: Masooda Parveen whose husband Ghulam Mohi-ud-din Regoo was detained, tortured, and killed by the army in 1998; the families of five young men who were kidnapped by the army and murdered at Pathribal, then passed off as militants accused of a massacre; the family of Tufail Ahmed Mattoo, a seventeen-year-old schoolboy shot dead by the police in 2010; Shabnam of village Badarpayeen, who was ten years old when she and her mother were raped by soldiers of the 30th Rashtriya Rifles, stationed at Kupwara; Shakeel Ahangar, whose wife and sister were both raped and murdered, their bodies found in shallow water near one of the army camps surrounding Shopian.

Compounding these crimes is a judicial system tilted in favor of the military and its tactics, and a bureaucracy that deliberately confounds those seeking justice. Judicial review has reaffirmed rather than modified the commitment to military powers and military impunity over the years. In 1997, for example, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that AFSPA did not violate the Indian Constitution. Again in 2007, it upheld AFSPA and the right to kill on suspicion, in its ruling in the case of Masooda Parveen v. The Union of India. Masooda Parveen’s petition asked for compensation for the wrongful death of her husband. The Supreme Court ruling found that there was no need for the army to account for his death in custody, that the army’s assertion that he was a Pakistan-trained militant did not require proof, and that the plaintiff had failed to establish Regoo’s innocence. The petition was dismissed. She filed a review petition, but that too was dismissed. Ruling out civilian and judicial oversight of army operations in Kashmir, this judgment recognizes with remarkable candor that military force is essential to the maintenance of Indian control over Kashmir.

In May 2012 the Supreme Court again upheld the principle of military impunity in the Pathribal case. On 20 March 2000 thirty-five Sikhs were massacred in Chattisinghpora in southern Kashmir by armed militants. A unit of the counterinsurgency force 7th Rashtriya Rifles was stationed near the village but took no action to stop the killings or to catch the perpetrators. The killings coincided with US President Bill Clinton’s visit to India, bringing international media attention and a war of words between India and Pakistan, each side blaming the other for the massacre. Five days later five young men from the village of Pathribal in Anantnag district were killed by the military, which claimed they were “foreign militants” responsible for the massacre. They were buried and the officers in charge commended. Protests in the Anantnag area of southern Kashmir brought to light the fact that the military had abducted seventeen men from the area in the course of the search for the militants responsible for the massacre; and that those killed were not militants but local farmers. On 3 April police from the Special Operations Group (SOG), a special counterinsurgency unit, opened fire on a group of protestors at Barakpora, killing eight, including the son of one of the missing persons. The protests led to an investigation and the exhumation of the bodies, which were identified as civilians. After allegations of contamination of the DNA evidence emerged, the army’s response was to invoke the impunity granted its officers by AFSPA. The matter went before the Supreme Court, which in May 2012 gave the army the choice of surrendering the officers to face trial in a civilian court or to institute a court-martial. After much delay, the army chose the latter option, which drew criticism from Amnesty International, among other groups. The court-martial opened in Jammu in September 2012, far from the village, making it difficult for civilian witnesses called to testify before the court-martial for a number of reasons—fear of the military, inability to travel to the court due to old age and ill health, language issues. Under pressure, the venue of the court has been shifted to Awantipora in Kashmir, but the fear and confusion make it impossible for the testimonies to be recorded. Under AFSPA, military personnel cannot be prosecuted without permission sanctioned by the central government in Delhi. There is no recorded case of such permission being granted since the beginning of the conflict. On 23 January 2014 the army closed the court-martial, with an inexplicable statement that: “The evidence recorded could not establish a prime-facie case against any of the accused persons but clearly established that it was a joint operation by the Police and the Army, based on specific intelligence.”

De facto impunity extended to the police is also seen in the case of Tufail Ahmed Mattoo, a seventeen-year-old student who was killed on 11 June 2010 when he was struck by a teargas shell fired by police at close range. He was not part of the demonstration nearby (against the killing of three teenagers in Machil in northern Kashmir); he just happened to be passing by on his way home from after-school tuition. The police first refused to record the killing by filing an FIR, doing so only eleven days later in response to a court order. In December 2010 the High Court in Srinagar ordered the police to form a Special Investigation Team (SIT) for the case. Though an eyewitness identified one of the policemen who fired the shells in an identification parade, the police tried to confuse his identity. The police argument in court claimed that the shells were labeled as “non-lethal” by the ordnance factory where they were produced and thus could not have caused the death. Since the cause of death was the firing of shells at close range, the court ruled this argument irrelevant; but in December 2012 the SIT closed its investigation on the grounds that it was unable to trace evidence. On 14 February 2014 the Jammu and Kashmir High Court ordered the police to reopen their investigation into the killing of Tufail Ahmed Mattoo.

Parveena Ahangar and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP)

Parveena Ahangar. Courtesy Shubh Mathur.

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The killing of Tufail Ahmed Mattoo became the trigger for a popular uprising against Indian rule, with mass protests recalling the political demonstrations of the early 1990s. The Indian response to the protests also recalled the early massacres, as police and paramilitary troops opened fire, killing 121 and injuring hundreds. Among those killed and wounded, the majority were teenagers and in their early twenties.

APDP Activities

The discovery of thousands of unmarked mass graves in various districts of Kashmir since 2007 has added to the atmosphere of distrust, and raised the possibility that disappeared persons might be among those buried there. Dreading to find their loved ones’ mortal remains, hoping for closure, APDP members have called for DNA identification of the bodies. When news of the mass graves first appeared in the media, the state government ordered an investigation. Later it backtracked and relegated the investigation of the mass graves to some undefined future time. The Indian government has made no official response to the discovery of the mass graves or to the issue of disappearances in Kashmir. APDP families are united in insisting that the discovery of the graves and possible identification of the bodies does not end their quest for justice. The graves are proof of the crimes that have been committed, and in many cases the identity of the perpetrators is known (see APDP 2014; Human Rights Watch 2008; Agrwaal 2007 and 2008). APDP wants the perpetrators to be brought to courts of law to answer the charges against them. Parveena again voices this determination: “You took our children from our homes. Tell us what you did with them. Where did you take them? If they are dead, tell us where they are buried.”

APDP continues its program of monthly protests at Pratap Park in downtown Srinagar on the tenth of every month; 31 August, the International Day of the Disappeared, is marked by protests and creative expressions of solidarity by students, artists, and poets. Simultaneous protests in support of APDP are beginning to appear in Indian cities—Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata—and now also in London. In recent years APDP has also established a successful internship program, which brings students from Indian universities to Kashmir for a few weeks each summer to participate in the work of documentation, legal outreach and activism, and family support. Participating universities include Delhi University, Jamia Milia Islamia, Pondicherry University, and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. The experience gives interns an understanding of the human rights situation in Kashmir, and allows them to see aspects of the Indian state that are not commonly known. Many interns consider the experience to be transformative. Like the victims’ families, interns come to see APDP as family, transcending other loyalties and ties.

After a struggle lasting nearly a quarter of a century, many of the original founding members of APDP are afraid that they do not have much time left to pursue their quest for justice. Mughal Masi, one of the founding members of APDP, passed away in 2009, after spending nineteen years searching for her son, Nazir Ahmed Teli, a schoolteacher who was disappeared in 1990. Her struggle was not in vain, however, and she, like Parveena, has become a household name in Kashmir. Younger family members and staff are committed to the struggle. Parveena Ahangar and APDP have been the subject of both song and poetry, and have come to represent an essential element of Kashmiri popular memory.

The history of APDP’s struggle provides a remarkable portrait of the violence inflicted by Indian forces on the civilian population of Kashmir over the period 1989–2014. Indian-administered Kashmir remains one of the most highly militarized regions of the world. Since the beginning of the insurgency in 1989, there have been more than half a million Indian troops deployed in Kashmir, with estimates placing the number between 500,000 and 700,000 (Mishra 2011; Peer, The Guardian 2010). They are stationed not only along the contested borders with Pakistan and China but throughout the valley, dominating and controlling every aspect of civilian life (see Shah 2013; Peer, Curfewed Nights 2010). Their presence has created a reign of terror that stretches over a quarter of a century and that has touched every house in the valley. While India has used the insurgency as an excuse for the violence and abuses, the insurgency itself is a symptom, not a cause of the problem, which is the denial of the Kashmiri right to self-determination.

Disappearances are defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2006 the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention for Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, which defines enforced disappearances as a war crime (Article 6). The prohibition on enforced disappearances is non-derogable, that is, it cannot be suspended for any reason: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for enforced disappearance” (Article 1) (Convention on Enforced Disappearances, 2006). India has signed but not ratified the convention.

In contravention of international law, the Indian government grants legal impunity to its armed forces. The centerpiece of this systemic legal impunity is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has been in effect in Kashmir since 1990. AFSPA is based on the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordnance, a repressive wartime law promulgated by the British colonial government in 1942, which gave the armed forces absolute power of search, seizure, arrest, and the right to kill “to maintain public order.” It was adopted by the Indian parliament in 1953 and first promulgated in the northeast, where it is still in effect. The law allows for the use of lethal force “for the maintenance of public order, after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary, fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area…” (Human Rights Watch 2008).

Following his visit to Kashmir in March 2012, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns reported that:

"In the Special Rapporteur’s view, the powers granted under AFSPA are in reality broader than that allowable under a state of emergency as the right to life may effectively be suspended under the Act and the safeguards applicable in a state of emergency are absent. Moreover, the widespread deployment of the military creates an environment in which the exception becomes the rule, and the use of lethal force is seen as the primary response to conflict. This situation is also difficult to reconcile in the long term with India’s insistence that it is not engaged in an internal armed conflict. The Special Rapporteur is therefore of the opinion that retaining a law such as AFSPA runs counter to the principles of democracy and human rights (Heyns 2013)."

Against tremendous odds, APDP has established itself as a credible center for the documentation of human rights abuses and support for victims. The lesson from other conflict zones around the world is that peace and reconciliation can only be built on justice and remembering, not on silence and forgetting. While keeping the memory of Kashmiri suffering and courage alive, APDP’s agenda of truth and justice is thus an essential building block of any future peaceful settlement of the Kashmir conflict.

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