To, the Rafto Foundation, Sisters & Brothers, Friends, and the International Human Rights Community, Assalamu Alaikkum,
My heartfelt thanks to the Rafto Foundation for co-awarding me the 2017 Rafto Human Rights Prize with ParvezImroz, the co-founder of The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons with me.
It is an honour to receive this prize. I am very happy today as this prize will provide an opportunity to us to highlight APDP’s and Kashmir’s struggle for justice. The struggle which has become a spectacle for the world, but a reckless misery for the people of Kashmir I am also full of grief today because I remember my son and all the dear ones who have been disappeared, detained, tortured, blinded and killed by the state forces or the state-backed militia. In Koshur we say, mei cha daghlalnawaan. I am cradling this pain – as a mother.
My journey as a human rights activist began with the abduction and consequent disappearance of my son Javed Ahmed Ahangar on August 18, 1990. This journey is almost as old as the Rafto Prize. Enforced disappearance means that the state takes away our loved ones, but also does not let us know where they are or what has happened to them. This is torture for the families who search for their loved ones. Enforced disappearance means that our loved ones are victims and so are we, their families. It is a crime against humanity in international law. In Kashmir, there are currently over 8,000 cases of enforced disappearances.
The story of my son, me, my family and APDP as victims of enforced disappearances is linked to the older story of Kashmir’s relationship with India. Kashmir, a princely state, was given a promise of a referendum to be held under the supervision of the United Nations in 1948, to decide whether to join India or Pakistan. That promise is yet to be fulfilled. We had armed insurgency in Kashmir since the 1990s. In 1990, India put in place AFSPA, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to crush the dissent. This act gives immunity to the armed forces. They put innocents in indefinite detention, and subject then to enforced disappearance they torture us, they kill us without accountability or justice. They get away with these crimes against humanity and war crimes. To this date, there are over 70,000 people who have been killed and over 6000 mass graves. Thousands are in indefinite detention. And there are many cases of rape and torture; rape has been used as a systemic and systematic weapon by the state to crush dissent.
India signed the UN Human Rights International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2007. But it has not ratified this obligation. India does not regard and uphold its own signature. Because this signature means that India should not act against the Convention for Protection from Enforced Disappearance. It is the Indian state’s international obligation to be accountable to us victims of enforced disappearance when they have disappeared our loved ones. We Kashmiris are victims of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives endless powers of oppression, and subjugation to the military might.
In the beginning, I searched for my son everywhere. I went mad with grief. But then I began to see others who were also searching for their loved ones, their sons, their husbands, their brothers, their fathers. Along with the family members of the victims of enforced disappearance, Parvez Imroz, and I co-founded APDP.
I went through India’s judicial system to find Javed. But the Indian government, by implementing the AFSPA has made it necessary to get the centre governments approval for investigation and prosecution. I believed then as I believe now, that it is only through collective struggle that we can find our loved ones. The Rafto Foundation gave me strength, by recognising APDP’s collective struggle. With this recognition, I hope the international human rights community is more aware of the human rights violations in Kashmir – enforced disappearances, rape of women, torture, extra-judicial killings, and the daily injustices we face.
The women and men who are part of the APDP come to Srinagar from many parts of Kashmir, on the 10th of every month. We sit in Pratap Park, in Srinagar, to protest, to keep our memories alive. The process has been going on for decades now, but the arrogance of Indian state is unmoved off. We share our tears and our grief at the absence of our loved ones. We demand that India ratify the protocol against enforced disappearances. We demand that India let us know where our loved ones are or what has happened to them. We demand justice. We usually say – yay tamashanahihai – yay matamsahihai. This is not a spectacle, our mourning is for real.
For us, the disappearances of our sons or husbands or brothers or fathers are wounds without blood. For us, enforced disappearance means the daily torture of not knowing where our children or husbands or brothers are. There are no graves to which we can go to mourn. For us, our love for our lapatabachche, our loved ones, means the search for justice from the courts of India. The State Human Rights Commission set up by the state acknowledges enforced disappearance cases in Kashmir, but they are unable to prosecute without sanction from the Indian government. We have not found justice in the courts of India. All the commissions of enquiry and justice delivery mechanisms end up nowhere.
Families of the victims of enforced disappearance suffer from health issues they suffer from mental trauma and face the struggle to live every day. To have a death in a family and to reconcile with it is easy as compared to live with a trauma of hope with persistent hopelessness, thus giving birth to a multitude of problems ranging from mental health disorders to others. Many of the bread earners of families have been disappeared or tortured. Through a UN medical grant, APDP has been helping victim-families and half-widows to get back on their feet. We are also involved in legal counselling for victim-families. We document legal cases of enforced disappearances and torture. More recently, we are documenting the stories of victims of pellet injuries. We do not simply document the legal case, we also record the stories of family members and witnesses. As a victim of enforced disappearance, I know the importance of recording the family stories, because we are witnesses. And memories fade. In many cases, we know who has taken our family members. But we also know that these cases will not find justice in India’s legal system. Our cases have been blocked because the Indian government protects the perpetrators. In Kashmir, we are not given the justice that law can give. But our documentation helps in making sure the perpetrators know that we are keeping a record of their atrocities. The perpetrators know that we are witnesses of their oppression so that these documents would be produced in the war crime tribunals that, we hope, would be held in future.
The Indian state continues to suppress the people of Kashmir, intensifying over the years. The year of 2016 witnessed a mass uprising and an unprecedented use of force by the state to crush it. After the killing of Burhan Wani, state forces killed about 150 civilians. These were extra-judicial executions. More than 15,000 persons were injured by pellet guns. These pellet guns partially or completely blinded more than a 1000 civilians. Doctors, paramedical workers, ambulance drivers and ambulances were attacked. Some of these were children as young as four years old. Non-violent protests marches, mourning at funerals, and prayers, are still met with violence since then. Internet bans and newspaper censorship attacks on journalists and photojournalists are also continuing. In Kashmir, we are living in a daily war. The state forces target not only against militants or stone-pelters, but also civilians – children, teenagers, and mothers, and fathers.
But our strength to fight against this zulm, these injustices, comes from our mourning and grief; it comes from our love for our children, our parents, our brothers and sisters, our communities. Our strength to continue to fight these injustices comes from the students or activists in Kashmir, from India or abroad who visit us, who listen to our stories, who begin to understand the kinds of injustices we are facing. Books and documentary films have been produced about our struggle. By giving us this Rafto Award, you are helping us to bring into international attention, in Europe and around the world to our struggle for justice.
My struggle began with searching for my son. I was illiterate and a woman living in a militarised zone. I had not stepped far from my house. The search for my son has led me far and wide. It has led me to others who were also searching for their children, their husbands, their fathers, their brothers. I now travel with APDP members across Kashmir not only in search for the enforced disappeared, but to listen to, document, and witness stories of family members killed in extra-judicial encounters, torture, and rape. I know that this is also a struggle for many mothers like myself around the world. Some of these mothers include the Mudur de Plaza de Mayo from Argentina, mothers in the Philippines, mothers in Sri-Lanka. I accept this award in the name of all these mothers as I accept it for the families and mothers of Kashmir. I am known as the ‘iron’ lady of Kashmir. And I say to you all – that all these mothers are iron ladies – we have been fighting for our children – and we will fight from beyond the grave. One of our APDP members, Mughal Masi, died waiting for her son after 20 years of waiting. But we carry on her struggle. We carry on this struggle by marking sitting in Pratap Park Srinagar every month, letting everyone know that our memories of our children or husbands, or fathers or brothers being taken away will not be erased. For us, our family members who have been taken away are our life. Our memories are the wound of injustice. Our memories are our resistance. This daily resistance is our life.
The international community needs to recognize not only the human rights violations in Kashmir, but also our struggle for justice, and our struggle for freedom. The Indian state needs to be held accountable for those who have gone missing, those who have been disappeared, those who have been raped, those who have been and are being blinded, injured and tortured, those who have been executed extra-judicially.
Our dear ones come to us in our dreams and urge us not to forget them. I ask everyone present here on this occasion – my sisters, my brothers, my friends – join us in our struggle for justice. Please tell our story of human rights violations and the story of Kashmir to the world. We welcome international human rights lawyers who can help us legally. We welcome journalists who can write about Kashmir in the international media. We welcome academics who can research what is happening to us in Kashmir. We welcome students who can work with us as interns. There is a lot of work to do. I have been fighting for 27 years. Fight with me in whatever way you can. Kashmir is beautiful, but it is full of pain and grief. With this pain and grief in our hearts, we fight for justice.
I will quote now from a Kashmiri poet, Uzma Falak who writes about us – about women who protest the injustices to their loved ones:
We know the pain of erasure.
We, the poets of persistence.
We, who outran our destiny,
We, who cradle the ache of an unsung longing,
a lingering history.
We, who bear the burden of outliving our children.
We, who survived a genocide of colours,
a massacre of language.
We, who enwomb within us evanescence.
We, who have tricked forgetting.
We, within whom, flows a dark river of impossible love.
We, the wandering minstrels of hope.
We the balladeers of dawn.
We the elegists of night.
We the bards of loss.
We hear you. Do you?
To the Rafto Foundation I say once more, thank you for this honour, thank you for recognising our passionate struggle to find justice.
Parveena Ahanger is the Founder and Chairperson of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in Indian Administered Kashmir. She had started this organisation in 1995 to provide support and mobilize family members of missing persons due to enforced disappearances to put pressure on the India’s government to investigate the estimated 8-10,000 cases of involuntary and enforced disappearances in Kashmir. Parveena is also referred to as the “Iron lady of Kashmir”. Her efforts attained global recognition on 10 July 2005 when she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.