‘Until our last breath’

Amnesty International India
6 July 2015 4:30 pm

Amnesty International India’s Research Manager Divya Iyer writes about her experiences in Kashmir and the long vigil of families for justice.

A few years ago, Ghulam Hassan started writing down everything that had happened in his son’s case in a notebook. He pulled it out and referred to it often while talking to me. Pic © Amnesty International India
In pic: Ghulam Hassan (left) and Divya Iyer (right). A few years ago, Ghulam Hassan started writing down everything that had happened in his son’s case in a notebook. He pulled it out and referred to it often while talking about the case. © Amnesty International India

“Namaste…Good Morning…Salaam!!” screamed Chacha in his inimitable 40 decibel voice from the lawns of the hotel I was staying in. This was his usual way of announcing his arrival at the hotel at 7:30 in the morning– both to me and the hotel boys – from whom he would pinch a slice of bread and a noon-chai (salty tea) every day.

Ghulam Mohammad or Chacha as he was popularly known, was our 84 year old driver who took us (quite hesitantly) to the remotest of districts in Jammu and Kashmir. But he also masqueraded as the morning news reader—informing us of any political or security developments in the areas we had planned to visit that day; and my cultural guide and chaperone—even if I didn’t want one.

Ghulam Mohammad aka Chacha: Driver, storyteller, cultural guide. Pic © Amnesty International India
Ghulam Mohammad aka Chacha: Driver, storyteller, cultural guide. Pic © Amnesty International India

This was how my day started every day for nearly three months in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Once we had picked up our interpreters on the way—young men (and at a later stage, a woman) from the Kashmir University—the conversations in the car would get louder and more heated. It was fascinating to sit in the back seat and listen to Chacha and the young men passionately debate notions of Azadi and justice; and offer views and counter-views on militancy and the militarization of the state. Separated by several generations and distinct ideologies, the only thing that united them and brought some peace during the long drives was their unadulterated love for gosht or meat.

Chacha navigated bad roads, bandhs called by separatists, and at times, his own fears and prejudices to bring us to the houses of over 58 families in J&K. Only a handful were in Srinagar. The rest were spread out in various districts including Anantnag, Baramulla, Shopian, Pulwama, Budgam, Ganderbal, Bandipora and Kupwara.House after house, I encountered the same set of emotions. Of loss, pain and a sense of injustice. The only variance in their stories being the manner in which their loved one had died or suffered. Extrajudicial execution, custodial torture, murder, abduction, sexual violence. Words that will never be able to fully capture the horrifying experience of the victims or the long term crippling effect it had on their families.

Social barriers to justice

But Sheila, with her warm eyes and broad smile demanded that I not only rethink my idea of a victim of a human rights abuse, but also understand more deeply the barriers to justice that are unique for a woman. The alleged torture (including sexual violence) by a Deputy Superintendent of Police in 2004 had left her with long term medical complications and social isolation. She was 16 years old then.I remember Sheila’s testimony as being one of the most powerful ones. Her experience clearly revealed that the failure of the police to register a case against their own, or to complete investigations perpetuates impunity. But for women, social stigma and family pressures were often as big an obstacle on the road to justice.

Following the incident, Sheila faced constant harassment from her neighbors and censure from her father for having brought “shame” on her family. Her fiercest struggle was in knowing that what happened to her had affected the fortunes of her entire family—with her brothers unable to find employment and her sister a groom. She was not keen to pursue the case but wondered how a man killed by the security forces becomes a ‘martyr’ but a woman subjected to torture or sexual abuse is ridiculed and ostracized by society? I recollect how before I could say anything, she answered her own question smilingly. “I’ve just got to ignore it and do my own thing”.

Memory, history and the right to truth

There exists a near-complete lack of transparency and truth for families in the state who suffer human rights abuses. They rarely received any information about the outcome or status of investigations, even after repeated visits to police stations. At times, even their entry into the police stations was denied.

A letter from the family of Irfan Ahmad Ganie requesting for information regarding the status of the case. Pic © Amnesty International India
A letter from the family of Irfan Ahmad Ganie requesting for information regarding the status of the case. Pic © Amnesty International India

The existence and implementation of Section 7 of the AFSPA, 1990 in the state meant that several individual cases of victims and their families were denied justice because of the sanction process. Under this provision, security force personnel accused of rights violations cannot be prosecuted in civilian courts unless an executive permission or ‘sanction to prosecute’ is granted by the Ministry of Home Affairs or Ministry of Defence. To date, not a single case has been known to be granted this permission.

Not a single family interviewed for this report had been directly informed by the authorities of the status or outcome of a sanction request in relation to their case.

Most families got information and updates on their cases through the media. The police or lawyers (if they had one) felt no obligation to inform the families on the progress of the case. Pic © Amnesty International India
Most families got information and updates on their cases through the media. The police or lawyers (if they had one) felt no obligation to inform the families on the progress of the case. Pic © Amnesty International India

Lack of documentation emerged as one of the biggest barriers to justice. Some families didn’t even have an FIR copy, let alone updated case files with police investigation reports and court orders that could be read and verified.
The majority of the cases we were dealing with were from the 1990s. Many families had difficulty in remembering the case details and incidents accurately. In several cases, the people who had been responsible for pursuing the cases—mostly men—had passed away, and the rest of the family members were either not involved or unaware of the progress of the case. In general, most families we met were ignorant of whether their cases were ongoing or closed.

But not so with Ghulam Hassan Koka. His small living room was full of paperwork…dozens of applications made to the local police, courts and lawyers, newspaper cuttings of his son’s story, and piles of dusty documentation carefully preserved over the years. Ghulam Hassan has been fighting his son Mohammad Ashraf Koka’s case since 2001, when he was picked up from his residence and disappeared allegedly by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. Ashraf was a government employee, working as a junior assistant in the J&K judicial service.

Ghulam Hassan Koka narrating the case details of his son Md. Ashraf Koka’s abduction and disappearance in 2001. Pic © Amnesty International India
Ghulam Hassan Koka narrating the case details of his son Md. Ashraf Koka’s abduction and disappearance in 2001. Pic © Amnesty International India

A few years ago, Ghulam Hassan realized that with age, he was beginning to forget. So he wrote down everything that had happened in his son’s case in a notebook. He pulled it out and referred to it often while talking about his son’s case.

A few years ago, Ghulam Hassan started writing down everything that had happened in his son’s case in a notebook. Pic © Amnesty International India
A few years ago, Ghulam Hassan started writing down everything that had happened in his son’s case in a notebook. Pic © Amnesty International India

At one point, the entire research seemed like a study in contrasts. We had cases shortlisted in Srinagar but also visited families in far flung villages where reaching their homes involved a 15 minute trek by foot. Chacha almost refused to take us to some of the places I mentioned, complaining that having survived several riots, arson and stone-pelting incidents, it will be my selection of areas for interview that will be the cause of his death. Dramatics aside, it did give me an insight into how much fear there still exists in the hearts of locals—both young and old—of what they perceive to be ‘army areas’ or ‘no-go areas’.

The untold stories

One such ‘remote’ place was ironically right in the heart of Dal Lake. Maqbool Gachoo was a ‘lake-dweller’, meaning that his family lived in houses built directly onto the man-made landmasses on Dal Lake. He used to earn his living by selling tea to the BSF camp nearby. In December 1991, Maqbool was picked up along with his neighbours in a BSF crackdown. According to witnesses, he was tortured in the camp for several hours and died in custody.

When we approached the victim’s son Nasir Hussain and his cousin Rafiq Ahmad, they said that no one—media, politicians or activists—had ever come to visit them or hear their story before. They were under the impression that the case had been disposed of in the military courts. The victim’s uncle had attended the military court hearings and testified in 2012, but never heard about the outcome of the trial. The family now live on a monthly income of INR 3000 earned from doing some plumbing and electrical odd jobs.

This case has never been profiled before. It took me a while to explain to them why I would like to interview them. They talked in detail after that, but in the end were clear: pursuing this case after two and a half decades was of no use. They’ve never had enough money to hire a lawyer and they couldn’t afford one now. “If we leave everything to the government or depend on courts for justice or compensation, humein sham ki roti bhi naseeb nahi hogi (we won’t even get one square meal a day).”

Is the glass half full or half empty?

As the research progressed, it was becoming clear to me that geography played an important role in how families viewed their chances of attaining justice. The closer they were to the capital, and the more exposed they were to the media and politics, the less hopeful they were of their chances of finding the truth about their husbands and sons. But the ones who were at a considerable distance from Srinagar—with limited access to lawyers, police, media or courts—were more optimistic about the judicial process. Cynicism had not yet reached their doorstep.

Mehrajuddin Dar’s family. They filed an FIR for Dar’s disappearance after much difficulty but did not take further action. It is unclear whether this case ever came up for grant of sanction. Pic © Amnesty International India
Mehrajuddin Dar’s family. They filed an FIR for Dar’s disappearance after much difficulty but did not take further action. It is unclear whether this case ever came up for grant of sanction. Pic © Amnesty International India

Another interesting thing I observed while doing this research was how in J&K, unlike other parts of the country, poverty was not necessarily a major or particular barrier to getting justice. Be it the disappearance case of Mehrajuddin Dar in 1997 or Jalil Andrabi’s kidnapping and murder in 1996; the killing of 13 year old Wamiq Farooq Wani in 2010 by police tear gas shell or Mohammad Maqbool Dar’s extrajudicial execution – access to justice in J&K was equally difficult for all families. Regardless of whether they were rich or poor, active or inactive in pursuing their cases, truth and closure for these families remained stubbornly out of reach.

13 year old Wamiq Farooq Wani was killed in 2010 by police tear gas shell. Pic © Amnesty International India
13 year old Wamiq Farooq Wani was killed in 2010 by police tear gas shell. Pic © Amnesty International India

‘What does justice mean to you?’

I usually ended all the interviews by asking the families what justice meant to them, and if they were willing to pursue it against all odds. Several families said that putting the perpetrators behind bars would be justice, while others, especially in enforced disappearance cases wanted to know the whereabouts of their loved ones. In a few cases of extrajudicial exeuctions, the parents said that all they wanted was to look the perpetrator in the eye and ask why?

The range of answers that I got was revealing of how we are all a sum of our experiences, and it’s so hard to club personal tragedies as a ‘pattern’ or call them ‘representative’.

I observed that those families which were more hopeful and willing to fight a long battle were involved in the more recent cases. Like in Irfan Ganai’s case, where the 17 year old was allegedly killed outside his house in 2013 by army personnel. Irfan’s uncle was confident that justice was just a matter of time. “It can take 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, but AFSPA is on its way out…I will wait until my last breath. I have lost everything, I have nothing more to lose. I will reopen this case even if 15 years have passed and I will make sure those people are punished for what they did.”

Irfan Ganai’s family continues to fight for justice, running from police station to court hoping to get the guilty punished for the death of their 17 year old boy. Pic © Amnesty International India
Irfan Ganai’s family continues to fight for justice, running from police station to court hoping to get the guilty punished for the death of their 17 year old boy. Pic © Amnesty International India

The families fighting the older cases, especially from the 1990s, were more cynical. For instance, Mushtaq Ahmad Dar’s mother was quite dismissive of my question. “What justice? I could be anywhere from 70-150 years old. Losing my son has made me old. Trying to get justice made me even older. Nothing keeps me going anymore.” She has been fighting for over a decade to know the truth about her son’s disappearance in 1997. The case is pending sanction to prosecute, which has not been granted.

Mushtaq Ahmad Dar’s mother. “What justice? Nothing keeps me going anymore.” The case is pending due to the sanction requirement, which has not been granted. Pic © Amnesty International India
Mushtaq Ahmad Dar’s mother. “What justice? Nothing keeps me going anymore.” The case is pending due to the sanction requirement, which has not been granted. Pic © Amnesty International India

But there was this one family that was neither hopeful nor cynical about the system. They had left everything to God. When I met Altaf Ahmad Shah’s family, I mildly marveled at their faith in the divine. The family is deeply religious and does not believe in prosecution as a means of justice. They were convinced that whoever is responsible for the killing of their son in 2002, will be punished by Allah in the afterlife.

Altaf Ahmad Shah’s mother. The family is deeply religious and does not believe prosecution equals justice. They believe Allah will punish the perpetrator. Pic © Amnesty International India
Altaf Ahmad Shah’s mother. The family is deeply religious and does not believe prosecution equals justice. They believe Allah will punish the perpetrator. Pic © Amnesty International India

It’s never too late

It’s never too lateInterviewing people you hardly know, getting them to confide in you, and trust you to tell their stories with integrity is always challenging. But during this research, what I struggled with the most at the end of each long day was this question—what did I have to offer them in return? Knowing that your aim in documenting these stories was to eventually influence the powers-that-be to deliver the long delayed justice wasn’t enough. I was fully aware that my questions may rake up old wounds, make old men cry, women beat their chest and leave the children confused. While I couldn’t offer them any tangible help myself—like financial or legal assistance—or provide them with any answers. Then were my efforts worth anything?

The answer came slowly but surely in Ashiq Hussain Ganai’s family home in Baramulla. I entered the house with trepidation as I had been informed only minutes earlier that Ashiq’s father had passed away a few days ago. But the youngest son and Ashiq’s brother Imtiyaz Rasool Hussain spoke at length about his brother’s case—who was allegedly tortured and killed by the army in 1993. Suddenly, he looked up from the case file he was reading from and said:

“You know, my father pursued this case for over 20 years to bring my brother’s killers to justice…it was his way of ensuring that something like this doesn’t happen to anyone else’s son. But he died without getting justice. As the head of the family now, I have responsibilities… and I wasn’t sure if I have the fight left in me to pursue this case any further. But today, seeing how people like you still remember my brother after 20 years gives me hope… If you haven’t forgotten my brother after so long, how can I? It’s perhaps a sign from God and my father that you have come to visit us today. It was my father’s desire [to get justice] for my brother, and now it is mine.”

A letter of solidarity to Ghulam Rasool Ganai from Amnesty International Japanese section in the 1990s. Pic © Amnesty International India
A letter of solidarity to Ghulam Rasool Ganai from Amnesty International Japanese section in the 1990s. Pic © Amnesty International India

It’s been 25 years since the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1990 came into force in Jammu and Kashmir. 25 years since families have been waiting for closure. But if there’s one thing I have learnt from these families, it is this—- It is never too late to stand up and fight for what is right. It is never too late for justice..