NEW DELHI: I received a call from Amnesty International, India asking whether I would be free to moderate a short panel discussion as part of a campaign on human rights violations in Kashmir. The task, their team assured me, would be confined to questioning some of the families who had lost a near and dear one about their plight, and their search for justice. No politics, no solutions, no wider canvas, just a short question and answer with the families.

That sounded interesting, as for me as a reporter, interviews such as these have always been far more interesting and worth the while than interactions with die-hard politicians. It sounded easy, and as Kashmir has been an area of focus for me ever since I was sent there as a young reporter to cover the years of militancy, it was right up my street as the phrase goes.

So I was in Bengaluru that day, amidst some chaos arising from organisational details. The Amnesty team, mostly young enthusiastic kids, had pieced together a program that sounded good on paper: a video of the victims families; a play by a Kashmiri group to illustrate the story as told by a victim’s father; a song by a popular rapper from Kashmir and somewhere in between my 10-12 minute discussion with at most three persons. I did protest about the time allocated for my little moment in the spotlights as 10 minutes was certainly not enough in my view to get even two coherent sentences out from the traumatised families.

When I reached the venue I was introduced to the three panelists, one the mother of a young boy who had disappeared and whose body was found from a construction site; and the other the younger brother of one of the men killed in the Machil encounter; and a Kashmiri pandit from Bengaluru one RK Mattoo who had been a journalist, but said he would be speaking for the community. The Amnesty staff briefed me and the others that the discussion would be only about the personal histories as it was insofar as the Kashmiris from the Valley were concerned. Mattoo was not particularly keen to speak on just the personal trauma of having left the Valley and to give him his due, made that fairly clear from the start.

Just before the function began many who had come later with Mattoo occupied the front row seats and positioned themselves in different parts of the auditorium. The hall filled, with some from the local Bangalore civil society, some who were interested in what they had thought would be a basically cultural evening, and Kashmiri students. As soon as the function started, the Amnesty moderator was shouted at when she mentioned a number for the Kashmiri pandits who had been displaced, with the representatives shouting angrily that she correct it to four or seven lakhs...I am not sure which. From then on she was constantly interrupted by them but it became a little quieter when she pleaded that she be allowed to continue, and that the function should not be disrupted.

The families, including Mattoo, lit the candles with the Amnesty staff. By the time the function went through the documentary, and the play, and reached the panel discussion there was little left for us to discuss as it had all been covered at some length. So when my turn finally came, I opened the panel discussion with the observation---in a bid to calm the environment---that in my years of writing on Kashmir I had not come across a single Kashmiri Pandit or Muslim who did not understand the others suffering, except of course for the politicised fringe. And that every home in Kashmir had been impacted, either by militancy and terrorism through the 1990s or by human rights violations by the security forces. And then turned to Mattoo, as the only new element in the discussion, to speak about his trauma. He started by observing that the Army was the most disciplined force, or words to that effect, some Kashmiri boys shouted, the men sitting in the front stood up, they all shouted at each other at the top of their voices, but finally calm was restored. We went back to a discussion for just about a few minutes, the Kashmiri women ( who had sobbed throughout the earlier narration of their plight) had no idea what was going on; Mattoo spoke of sharing the plight of all; it was a desultory discussion by any standards more so as the Kashmiri had to be translated and we ended really before we even began.

Then the Kashmir rapper came on----rap by the way across the world is protest music---he sang a few lyrics about growing up in conflict, and by the time he finished the one song the time was up as per the permission given to Amnesty. The front benchers started trooping out before the rap, but outside a few ABVP chaps had gathered ---I actually did not see them but heard the sloganeering----and Kashmiri youth in the hall were up shouting some slogans for ‘Azadi”.

So where is the sedition, except in the minds of those who play dangerous political games. As for the obviously mischievous FIR that has sections of the media frenetic, the part that is actually amusing is of me singing songs! At least someone has upheld a talent that all who know me insist I do not have, even if that someone is the RSS/BJP. As for speeches against the soldiers, that would be like attacking my own father who was an officer of the Army. I don’t think I need to even counter this fiction of a prejudiced mind. As for the Army and its role in Kashmir, the Army itself has confirmed its intervention in Machil, that earlier was refuted by many as a false claim by the victims. And has held a court martial convicting at least six soldiers!

FIRs today are intended to intimidate, threaten, harass with filth and lies from bigoted minds. Of course decent persons do not like to be dragged to police stations and to the courts, but in an environment where the effort is to divide through a propaganda of lies and hate Gandhi was spot on when he said, “A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave."

Amnesty International India’s response to complaint filed by ABVP

On 15 August, a First Information Report was reportedly registered against Amnesty International India with regard to an event held on 13 August, based on a complaint filed by an ABVP representative.

The allegations mentioned in the complaint are without substance. They are preventing the families of victims of human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir from having their stories heard. And preventing civil society organisations from enabling these families to exercise their constitutional right to justice.

Amnesty International India's vision is for every person in India to enjoy the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, other international human rights standards, and the Constitution of India. We are independent of any political, economic or ideological interests.

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 documents 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 focuses 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.

The report was based on in-depth research in Jammu and Kashmir, including interviews with family members of victims, Right to Information applications, examination of police and court records, and interviews with civil society groups, lawyers, and government officials.

The families of three Kashmiri victims that were interviewed for the report were invited to share their stories at the event.

Below is a point-by-point rebuttal to the allegations raised in the complaint.

1) “Sindhujaa Iyengar, a political science lecturer at a private university in Bengaluru, Seema Mustafa and Roushan Illahi sang anti-national songs and raised anti-national slogans.”

Sindhujaa Iyengar is an employee of Amnesty International India. She was not present on stage at any point during the event. Seema Mustafa is a senior journalist. She moderated a discussion with affected families at the event. Neither of them sang any songs or raised any slogans at any point.

The only musical performance was a song by Roushan Illahi (also known as MC Kash) at the end of the event, about growing up amid violence in Kashmir.

Video footage of the event which was recorded by Amnesty International India has been shared with the police.

2) “Sindhujaa Iyengar, Seema Mustafa and Roushan Illahi…delivered anti-national speeches against soldiers.”

The only speech delivered at the event was by Amnesty International India’s Programmes Director, Tara Rao, which referred to allegations of human rights violations by security force personnel. These allegations are laid out in detail in Amnesty International India’s 2015 report, and have been widely reported and discussed. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which is part of the current ruling coalition in Jammu and Kashmir, had welcomed the recommendations of the report when it was published.

The families who attended the event spoke of their own personal stories of loss, as per the programme of the event. One of the families who attended the event was that of Shahzad Ahmad Khan, one of the men killed in the Machil extra-judicial execution, for which five security force personnel were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Amnesty International India also invited R.K. Mattoo, a representative of the Kashmiri Pandit community in Bengaluru to speak about the human rights violations faced by members of the community.

3) “Slogans were raised that Indian Kashmir should be part of Pakistan.”

No Amnesty International India employee shouted any slogans at any point.

4) “The event indirectly supported terrorists.”

The only discussion at the event was about allegations of human rights violations and the denial of justice to families in Kashmir. These are issues that have regularly been discussed in the media. They have been written about at length by members of Parliament, politicians, judges and civil society. In July 2016, the Supreme Court, in a ruling relevant to the issues discussed at the event, stated that the armed forces do not enjoy impunity for human rights violations.

5) “The event…indirectly supported Pakistan and the ISI.”

The focus of the event was squarely on allegations of human rights violations and the denial of justice in Jammu and Kashmir.

Amnesty International has worked extensively on human rights violations in Pakistan, including the enforced disappearances and unlawful killings of political activists in Balochistan, violations by security forces in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) , and violence against journalists by groups including the ISI.

6) “When ABVP activists tried stopping the attack, people tried to assault them.”

No Amnesty International India employee was involved in any form of assault against anyone.

Towards the end of the event, some of those who attended raised slogans, some of which referred to calls for ‘Azaadi’ (freedom). Amnesty International India as a matter of policy does not take any position in favour of or against demands for self-determination. However, Amnesty International India considers that the right to freedom of expression includes the right to peacefully advocate political solutions

Amnesty International India had invited the Bengaluru police to be present at the event, in the interest of the security of the invited families and other attendees. We have shared our footage of the event with the police.

The Supreme Court of India has ruled on multiple occasions, notably in the case of Kedar Nath Singh versus State of Bihar, that speech would amount to sedition only if it involved incitement to violence or public disorder. The court ruled: "[C]riticism of public measures or comment on Government action, however strongly worded, would be within reasonable limits and would be consistent with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.”

In the case of Shreya Singhal versus Union of India, the Supreme Court ruled: “‘Mere discussion or even advocacy of a particular cause howsoever unpopular is at the heart of [the right to freedom of expression].” It stated that the right could be restricted “only when such discussion or advocacy reaches the level of incitement”.

(Photograph: Basit Zargar of curfew in Srinagar)

(Seema Mustafa is the Editor-in-Chief of The Citizen)