Parveena Ahanager, the chairperson of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and Parvez Imroz, the president of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) have not allowed the State’s abysmal human rights record kill the hopes of thousands of people at the receiving end of rights violations.
For these people, they are the two heroes of Kashmir, who do their work silently away from TV crews and camera flashes, and help them by providing them legally, by providing moral support, as well as monetary help.
The two have been at the forefront of struggle against rights violations and impunity in the State.
Their painstaking efforts and struggle for basic human rights in Jammu Kashmir is now being acclaimed internationally with the two set to receive the prestigious Rafto Prize for 2017 on November 5 at Bergen Norway.
The Rafto Prize, named after Prof. Thorolf Rafto, a Norwegian human rights activist, is awarded annually since 1987 by the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights that was founded in the humanistic tradition of the Helsinki Accords to promote fundamental human rights of intellectual and political freedom.
After being declared winners of the Rafto Prize 2017, Ahanger and Imroz both dedicated the award to the resilience of Kashmiri people for not being cowed down by atrocities they were subjected to and for deciding to share their stories in search of justice.
Ahanger, who is referred to as the “iron lady of Kashmir” has been seeking the whereabouts of over 8000 people subjected to enforced disappearance in Kashmir.
One of those disappeared is her son Javaid, who at the age of 17 was picked up by paramilitary forces from Batmaloo locality of Srinagar on August 18, 1990.
In search of her son, Ahanger went from one notorious interrogation centre to another notorious interrogation centre and office to office.
It was in 1994, four years after her son’s enforced disappearance, that she decided to float the APDP when she saw miseries of parents of other disappeared persons.
“They are all my sons,” Ahanger says much like Joe Keller, the character of Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons.
She went to every family whose dear ones had been subjected to enforced disappearance.
“I used to tell them not to give up and follow me and they join APDP,” Ahanger says.
Initially, the APDP members led by her used to assemble at her house on the 15th and 30th of every month but observing that the protest was getting unnoticed decided to stage sit-in protests at Sher-e-Kashmir Park on 25th of every month.
In 2003, Ahanger attended the United Nations Working Group meeting and a year later, a UN team got the visa to visit Kashmir and see the condition of the APDP members.
In 2010, when APDP got UN grants, she announced publicly that she would use this grant to help the victim families whose dear ones were subjected to enforced disappearance.
With the help of her team, she carried a survey of such families and is now helping them by providing medicine and cash assistance for education of their children and marriage functions of their daughters.
“I never bowed before any government, be it the governments led by Farooq Abdullah, Ghulam Nabi Azade, Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, Omar Abdullah or Mehbooba Mufti,” she says. “They promised me MBBS seats and jobs for my children and wanted me to take the compensation from the State and give up my fight for demanding the whereabouts of the people subjected to enforced disappearances.”
Last year, Ahanger married off five daughters of APDP members.
“I have seen their pain and won’t let them down because I remember my own pain,” she says.
Ahanger was nominated by CNN IBN for an award, which she rejected for the failure of Indian media in highlighting the pain and tragedies of Kashmiris.
She says she did not take her lunch for 13 years as everyday she would go looking for the whereabouts of her son, only to return broken-hearted.
Imroz, the founder and President JKCCS has for decades now been documenting human rights violations and providing legal assistance to the victims.
He also works to build local alliances between Kashmiri civil society groups and runs advocacy campaigns.
Also a recipient of the 11th Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize by Human Rights Institute of The Bar of Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France, and the European Bar Human Rights Institute (IDHAE), Imroz has filed thousands of habeas corpus petitions on behalf of the families of persons subjected to enforced disappearances.
He terms the Rafto Prize 2017 to him as an acknowledgement of the struggle of the civil society in Kashmir and human rights activists working in conflict areas where human rights defenders have been killed.
It was Imroz who along with his team in 2008 first discovered 7000 mass graves in Jammu Kashmir, bringing shame and embarrassment to both the State government and Government of India.
He says that the award would invite attention of the global civil society toward Kashmir.
“The award is the acknowledgement of the Kashmir struggle and the struggle of victims,” Imroz says.
He also sees the award as a reward to the consistency demonstrated by JKCCS to meticulously and painstakingly record the cases of rights violations and then plead them in the courts.
“While we failed to engage the international community, India was successful in preventing international concern by projecting terrorism, proxy war and cross border terrorism,” the JKCCS president says.
Citing example of Palestine, he says while the 5 million Palestinian diaspora had worked hard to bring international attention to their cause, people in Kashmir needed to work harder to attract attention to Kashmir.
“This award will provide me an opportunity to lobby with the politicians in Norway, their civil society, students from Bergen and oslo, women’s groups and media and provide them first-hand information about Kashmir,” Imroz says. “This is not just an award function but an opportunity to engage all sections of the society about the truth which New Delhi has succeeded in obfuscating before the international community.”
For him truth can be eclipsed but not suppressed and he believes that people in Kashmir need to work to ensure that the truth is not suppressed.