Free Khurram Parvez
This time last year, Indian-administered Kashmir was welcoming tourists to its lakes, Mughal gardens and mountain meadows. The state tourism board reported 300,000 visitors between July and September 2015, numbers helped by various foreign governments lifting travel bans. Today, Kashmir is once more plunged into chaos and violence. Burhan Wani, a commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed by Indian security forces on 8 July. Protests broke out across Kashmir the next day. The official crackdown was severe. Dozens of people have been killed and thousands injured. Shops, hospitals and schools have been shut, mobile phone and internet services cut, property destroyed and local newspapers closed.
Sajjad Ansari, the editor of the Kashmir Observer, who has been reporting on the conflict for more than twenty years, described the new situation as 'scary' and 'unprecedented'. Hundreds of young men, nicknamed 'suicide stone throwers', have been blinded in battles with armed forces using pellet guns. The Indian government is reacting with an extremity Ansari has not seen in years, targeting not only militants and trouble-makers, but also journalists and human rights activists.
On 14 September, Khurram Parvez, the chairman of the Asian Federation against Involuntary Disappearances and programme co-ordinator for the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society, was prevented from boarding a flight from Delhi to Geneva, where he was due to speak at a session of the UN Human Rights Council. On his return home to Srinagar the next day, he was arrested by security forces. A sessions court demanded his release, only for him to be arrested again and this time sent to Kupwara prison, hundreds of kilometres away from his lawyer and family, in a remote, militarised region of Kashmir near the Line of Control.
Parvez was arrested under the 1978 Public Safety Act, which allows him to be kept in jail for up to six months, accused of the same kinds of crime that the stone throwers have been arrested for: rioting, unlawful assembly, endangering life. He lost a leg to a landmine in 2004, so it is difficult to imagine Parvez being able to keep up with the young rioters even if he wanted to. (Having worked with him on a BBC documentary about Kashmiri militants who wanted to give up violence, I find it hard to believe the accusations.) His real crime, according to Ansari, is unrestrained criticism of human rights abuses in Kashmir. ‘Parvez has always been highly critical of the government,’ Ansari told me. ‘In the last decade they have been tolerant of extreme views against them, in local newspapers and from rights activists, but not any longer.’
In the days leading up to his arrest, Parvez's Facebook and Twitter accounts were updated daily with news of atrocities – including a photo of a 14-year-girl sitting up in a hospital bed, her face mutilated – and demands for freedom from India. Parvez understands the power of images on the internet. The site of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society stands out from other local news and NGO websites as a powerful piece of web design.
Skilful use of social media is one of the things that made Burhan Wani, the 21-year-old militant assassinated in July, such a figurehead. According to Ansari, Wani wasn’t an active fighter and hadn’t crossed over into Pakistan to be trained. Sadaf Munshi, who grew up in Srinagar and now teaches linguistics at the University of North Texas, says that Wani came across as 'immature and misguided' in his videos rather than as a 'dreadful terrorist'. But his flare on YouTube made him a household name; infamous enough for the Indian government to offer a million rupee bounty for his capture, and to make his death so incendiary. 'The killing of a militant is nothing new,’ Ansari said, ‘but Wani was the poster-boy for a new crop of militants who are hyperactive on social media.’
Parvez is in the public eye too, and his arrest has not gone unnoticed. News of it spread quickly across the internet. More than 50 scholars, writers and activists, including Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, signed a widely publicised petition calling for his release.
But while the use of social media in the conflict may be new, and may make it harder for human rights abuses to be committed with impunity, the very real danger that an unstable Kashmir presents for the people who live there, for the region, and for the world, is the same as it has always been.
Read more in the London Review of Books