Amnesty International India recently organised an event in Bangalore as part of a campaign to seek justice for victims of human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, following which an FIR was registered against the organization under various IPC sections, including sedition, for alleged raising of "independence" slogans by "pro-freedom" Kashmiris present in the event.
In an interview with Majid Maqbool, Executive Director Amnesty International India, Aakar Patel says the sedition case charges against Amnesty International India are "baseless" and that "peacefully supporting or advocating political positions is protected by the right to freedom of expression, as long as it does not constitute incitement to violence."
The event was held as part of a campaign based on the report "Denied: Failures in accountability for human rights violations by security force personnel in Jammu and Kashmir", published in July 2015, and publicly available.
The report documented the obstacles to justice faced in several cases of human rights violations believed to have been committed by Indian security force personnel in Jammu and Kashmir. It focused particularly on Section 7 of the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990 (AFSPA), which grants virtual immunity to members of the security forces from prosecution in civilian courts for alleged human rights violations.
We had planned to organize events in three cities—Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi this August. At these events, families from Kashmir who had suffered rights violations (and who we had interviewed for the report) were to share their personal stories of grief and loss with people from outside Kashmir, as part of a campaign seeking truth and justice for them and other victims of human rights violations.
The three families invited for the event were:
Relatives of Shahzad Ahmad khan (who was killed by Army personnel in the Machil fake encounter in 2010): Showkat Ahmad Khan (brother) and Aisha Begum (mother).
Relatives of Manzoor Ahmad Mir (who was allegedly disappeared and extra-judicially executed by Army personnel in 2003): Raja Begum (mother) and Bashir Ahmad Mir (brother).
Relatives of Altaf Ahmad Shah (who died from alleged torture by Army personnel in 2002): Mymoona Begum (mother) and Ali Mohammad Shah (father)
Yes. In light of the prevailing tensions in Kashmir and potential security concerns, we had approached the Bengaluru police in advance to inform them about the event. On 11 August, we submitted a formal letter to the Commissioner of Police, with the details of the venue and the agenda. The police were invited to be present at the event in the interest of the security of the families and those who attended.
Amnesty International India has been in contact with the families since the launch of the report. We had informed them about the campaign prior to their visit to Bengaluru. We had also recorded videos with the families for the digital platform www.brokenfamilies.in. The families supported the campaign and told us that they wanted to travel to share their personal stories.
Amnesty International India staff accompanied the families from their homes in Kashmir to Bengaluru, were with them throughout their stay in Bengaluru, and accompanied them back from Bengaluru to their homes in Kashmir.
Amnesty International staff accompanied the families from Bengaluru to their homes in Kashmir. They expressed their desire to attend more events as part of the campaign.
The event began with a welcome address by Tara Rao, Programmes Director, followed by the screening of three short videos profiling the cases of the three families who had been invited. This was followed by an enactment by the Shehjar theatre group of the alleged extra-judicial execution of 21-year-old Altaf Ahmad Shah, based on the testimony of his father Ali Mohammad Shah.
Senior journalist Seema Mustafa then moderated a discussion with members of two families – Showkat Ahmad Khan (the brother of Shahzad Ahmad Khan, who was allegedly killed in a fake encounter by Army personnel in 2010), Raja Begum (the mother of Manzoor Ahmad Mir, who was allegedly arrested and killed by Army personnel in 2003) – and R K Mattoo, who Amnesty International India had invited to speak about violations faced by the Kashmiri Pandit community.
The event ended with a performance by Roushan Illahi (also known as MC Kash). Following his performance, some of those who attended raised slogans, some of which referred to calls for 'azaadi'. The Bengaluru police then asked us to leave the venue, and informed us that ABVP workers were protesting outside the venue.
The complaint filed against Amnesty International India by an ABVP representative states that the event featured "anti-national" songs, slogans and speeches, and indirectly supported Pakistan and terrorists. All these allegations are baseless, and will be proved to be so after the ongoing investigation. We have issued a point by point rebuttal, available here: https://www.amnesty.org.in/show/entry/amnesty-international-indias-response-to-complaint-filed-by-abvp
Peacefully supporting or advocating political positions is protected by the right to freedom of expression, as long as it does not constitute incitement to violence. If anyone finds such statements offensive for political, religious or other reasons, they have every right to express opposition to these statements – but that is not a legitimate reason to prohibit the statements.
We have not closed our offices. We had asked our staff to temporarily work from other locations on Thursday as a precautionary measure, based on advice from the police. Our office in Bengaluru was open on Friday. The events in Mumbai and Delhi have been put on hold due to concerns over the security of families.
The sedition case will not affect our work. We are and will continue to be committed to working on and highlighting human rights abuses in India and around the world.
The allegations in the sedition case against Amnesty International India are baseless. We would hope that this controversy does not affect the fight for justice for affected families, who have already had to wait for far too long.
We had asked for the sedition case filed against a Kashmiri man in Chhattisgarh for sharing "anti-India" posts to be dropped: https://www.amnesty.org.in/show/entry/sedition-case-for-anti-india-facebook-posts-must-be-dropped
Over the last few years, the space for dissent in India has been shrinking. Amnesty International India will continue to oppose the sedition law, and to defend the right of everyone in India to freedom of expression.
We have issued several statements opposing the use of excessive force by security forces in Jammu and Kashmir, the use of so-called 'pellet guns', and the blanket network shutdowns.
'Pellet guns' (which are in fact pump-action shotguns) are inherently inaccurate and indiscriminate, and their use is not in line with international standards on the use of force. The blanket and indefinite suspensions of telecommunications services affect the ability of phone and internet users to seek, receive, and impart information, which is an integral part of the right to freedom of expression. Restrictions on telephone services in particular affect other rights as well, including the right to life.
The government must also ensure that all people in Kashmir have access to medical assistance, and medical professionals can carry out their work without interference.
We are continuing to monitor the situation.
The alienation and anger in the Kashmir valley is linked in part to the long-standing and widespread impunity for human rights abuses (which goes beyond the use of the AFSPA). It is crucial that the government of Jammu and Kashmir and the central government address these issues, and listen to the concerns of people in Kashmir, rather than ignoring or suppressing critical voices.