SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir ― On a cold winter afternoon, last week, Bashir-ud-din stared at the locked gate of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) in Srinagar. The 52-year-old had traveled from the Budgam district for a hearing about his son, who, he said, was killed by security forces during the protests that rocked Kashmir in 2016.
The commission, a security guard told him, had closed down. Distraught by the news, Bashir wrote his mobile phone number on a piece of paper and asked, “Call me if the commission reopens. My case is still pending there.”
Following the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and its bifurcation into two union territories on August 5, this year, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre has repealed over 100 state laws, which includes the law that governs the functioning of the SHRC.
The closure of the commission on 31 October puts a question mark on the fate of thousands of cases of human rights violations, including mass graves, enforced disappearances, extra judicial killings and rape. While the four member panel of the SHRC was only empowered to make recommendations, it was one of the few places where people could go to seek justice in conflict-ravaged Kashmir Valley, which is the most heavily militarised zones. Victims and survivors of grave human rights violations are left wondering if their cases will ever be heard again.
According to the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) will be extending its jurisdiction in the union territory of J&K. But there is little clarity on how, when and whether the NHRC will take over the pending cases. Interviews with former members of the SHRC and government officials suggest there is no plan in place for a smooth transition or any kind of transition at all.
When HuffPost India asked Principal Secretary to Lieutenant Governor Girish Chandra Murmu, Bipul Pathak, about extending the jurisdiction of the NHRC to J&K, he said, “This is a legal matter. I am not authorised to talk about it.”
Abdul Rashid Khan, a resident of Kupwara district, said, “My son had disappeared 14 years ago. My case was at its final stage and suddenly the commission was shut. I feel shattered today. SHRC gave me hope.”
A member of the erstwhile SHRC , speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “These cases have been dumped. They won’t be heard again. There were cases which had reached their conclusions and we were about to pronounce our judgements. Now, no one knows what will happen to these cases.”
“My case was at its final stage and suddenly the commission was shut. I feel shattered today.”
What happens to its cases?
The J&K Human Rights Commission, formed in August 1997 following the passage of the Jammu and Kashmir Protection of Human Rights Act, had a recommendatory, supervisory, advisory and supportive role in matters of human rights. In 2007, the J&K government created a separate investigation wing for the SHRC headed by the Inspector General of Police.
Over 8,000 cases of torture, disappearances, extra-judicial killings, harassment by security forces, service matters, and other cases of human rights violations were pending with the commission when it closed on 31 October. according to the annual report of the SHRC for the year 2017-2018. The commission received 582 fresh complaints and disposed off 868 in 2017-2018, while making recommendations in 100 cases, according to the report.
M.M. Shuja, a human rights activist, said that he had filed a petition for investigating the killing of seven civilians who were accused by the J&K police of stone pelting during the parliamentary election. A few weeks before its closure, the commission found the civilians to be innocent. “So there was a trust on the commission, and on its inquiries,” said Shuja.
Government officials at the law department, which oversaw the SHRC, are in the dark about how and when the human rights commission will become operational again.
Achal Sethi, secretary of the law department in J&K, said the Modi government had to amend The Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, a national law, for the NHRC to take up the cases of the SHRC. “It all depends on the amendments whether the cases which SHRC was handling will be forwarded to NHRC or not,” he said.
Khazir Mohammad, who served as the secretary of the SHRC, said the building from which the human rights commission operated has been handed over to the Estates Department and its staff had been diverted to other departments. “We have not been told whether there is going to be a separate body of the NHRC, whether the NHRC will be operating from Delhi or Srinagar. We have not been told anything,” he said.
Khurram Parvez, a human rights activist, who heads the Srinagar-based J&K Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), pointed out that the SHRC offered people a platform to submit their petitions and attend hearings, without having to hire lawyers.
On the other hand, the NHRC, Parvez said, had paid little attention to dismal human rights record in Kashmir From the unidentified mass graves cases to enforced disappearances of 507 people from Bandipora and Baramulla and 132 people from Banihal, Parvez said, “These were some of the big cases that were still going on at SHRC. After many years of denial the government had started submitting reports. Now the point is, will NHRC show the same seriousness towards these cases?”
“We have not been told anything.”
A toothless tiger that offered hope
The former SHRC, a recommendatory body, was often referred to as a toothless tiger. The majority of its recommendations were rejected by the J&K government. But for many people, it was the only place where one could go to demand justice and accountability. It was also cathartic for people suffering emotionally.
The SHRC was hearing the case of the human shield, which involved Army Major Leetul Gogoi tying a Kashmiri man named Farooq Ahmad Dar to the bonnet of an army jeep and parading him through several villages on 9 April, 2019.
While the Indian army awarded Gogoi with the Chief of Army Staff’s Commendation Card for sustained efforts in counter-insurgency operations, the SHRC recommended the J&K government pay Rs. 10 lakh as compensation to Dar.
The chairperson of the SHRC, Justice Bilal Nazki, had said, “I have no doubt in my mind that Farooq Ahmad Dar was subjected to torture and humiliation besides being wrongly confined. It is medically also established that Farooq Ahmad didn’t suffer only humiliation publicly but also faced a trauma which resulted in psychiatric stress which may remain with him for the rest of his life.”
Even after the J&K government rejected the SHRC’s recommendation, the commission was still pursuing his case. Dar’s hearing was coming up in the first week of December.
Mohammad, the secretary of the erstwhile SHRC, said, “The case was listed before the double bench and we were planning to write to government again. But before we could do it, the commission was shut.
Dar said, “The last hope is also gone. I will now approach High Court because I don’t think NHRC will be interested in pursuing my case.”
“The last hope is also gone.”
From receiving 20 complaints in the initial years of its formation to almost 600 in 2017-2018, the SHRC offered hope to people like Zeenat Bhutto, who says her father was picked up by the Indian army in a search operation on 3 February, 1993.
“I was just one-year-old,” she said. “I pursued my career in law only to fight my father’s case who was killed by the army in April of the same year.”
Bhutto filed a petition with the SHRC in 2009.
“For years, I was waiting for the army to respond and when they started responding the commission was shut. I had worked so hard on this case, thinking, ’Justice will be done one day. My father will be proven innocent.' But all my hard work has gone waste. I feel cheated,” she said.