A Year Since Dissolution of J&K State Human Rights Commission in 2019: Centre’s Inaction Leaves J&K Helpless

On August 05, 2019 Amit Shah, the Union Home Minister introduced a Constitutional Amendment in the Indian Parliament abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution. As a result of this split the state into the two centrally governed Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. Simultaneously, the parliament revoked Article 35-A, which provided demographic safeguards for residents of J&K. Almost over a year since the abrogation, not much has changed for the people of Jammu & Kashmir; Human rights violations remain abundant with no effective recourse for the victims. The authorities in J&K, last year, also abolished the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission (SHRC); among seven other commissions.

J&K State Human Rights Commission (SHRC)

An autonomous state body with quasi-judicial powers, the J&K SHRC had over 10,500 cases lodged with it; until last August alone. According to former secretary of JKSHRC, Nazir Ahmad Thokar, at least 2,500 to 2,600 cases were heard on daily basis. The SHRC staffed nearly 100 officials including a separate investigation wing. This wing headed by the Inspector General of Police (IGP) rank officer, comprised of several police officials.

Since the dissolution of the commission and Indian government’s takeover, the people of J&K have lost a forum to approach in case of such greviances. The failure of state authorities in coming up with a substitute of the aforesaid commission, has only rendered the people of J&K more helpless.

Human Rights in the Valley: A ‘Stifled’ Issue

One year after the debatable call for abrogation of Article 370, the human rights situation in J&K has only worsened with time. On August 05, 2020 the UN appointed expert committee called for urgent remedial action. Moreover, the report alleged arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, to which the government recently replied; as well as the criminalization of journalists covering the situation and the unnecessary detentions. The forces in Kashmir have been accused of custodial killing, as well as, fake encounters. Human Rights groups have blamed Indian forces for custodial disappearances.

Adding to this, the international human rights watchdog said the government’s “unwarranted restraints on the rights to free speech, access to information, health care, and education have been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic”. It said that anticipating unrest after the abrogation of Article 370; and bifurcation of the State the authorities imposed broad restrictions on freedom of movement, shut down telecommunication services and educational institutions, and detained thousands of people.

While the Centre and state authorities majorly kept mum about the accusations levelled against them; both Army and Police have said that they were a “disciplined” force. While the government forces have dismissed several complaints of abuse of power against them levelled by the local people, the army personnel earlier found involved in “human rights violations” couldn’t stand trial before the civilian authorities.

Lockdown for J&K: A New Normal

While the world battled the pandemic of COVID-19 and faced months long lockdown for the first time; for J&K the pandemic lockdown only deepened the implications of the pre-existing lockdown since August 2019. The response to this unprecedented global health catastrophe of COVID-19 has been an authoritarian lockdown implemented by an aggressive state; creating a severe humanitarian crisis. 

The 11 months of lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir not only resulted in an “across-the-board violation of human rights”; it also led to the “denial of the right to bail and fair and speedy trial, coupled with misuse of draconian legislation, such as the Public Safety Act (PSA) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), to stifle dissent”. The COVID-19 lockdown has provided legitimacy for further repression under the garb of a public health necessity.

Subsequently, the people of J&K still battle for a right as basic as having internet services. The realization of the ultimate necessity of having connectivity has only increased with the COVID pandemic; but 4G services have hardly touched the valley. On Sunday, the Centre restored 4G services in two districts of J&K on a “trial basis”. After suspending phone and Internet services on August 5 last year; the government had restored mobile Internet services on January 25. But, it had asked service providers to limit access to only the websites white-listed by the government and restrict the speed to 2G.

The Media Suffrage

The local media has undoubtedly been the worst sufferer of the unprecedented clampdown. The new media policy introduced censorship by the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) in coordination with security agencies; what has been termed as a “death blow to the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression”. According to an independent report, the media content, readership and revenues suffered a sharp decline resulting in many journalists losing their jobs. 

Likes of Gowhar Geelani and Masrat Zahra have been booked under the draconian UAPA for ‘indulging in unlawful activities through social media posts’. That said, they are only among a thousand other journalists booked under the same law for posting “anti-national” content on social media.

Pending Cases Before the ‘J&K SHRC’

Human rights activist, Mohammad Ehsan Untoo, said that he filed at least 500 cases at the SHRC, that the commission was hearing before it was abolished. 

Constituting a separate commission or handing over the cases to the NHRC seems not to be the priority of the current government,

said a senior official of the law department

Jammu and Kashmir law secretary Achal Sethi said that the department was awaiting orders from the government on the opening up of cases which were pending with the SHRC.

We have not received any specific directions from the government over the issue,”

he said.

In order to review the pending cases, the government will either have to amend the Central Human Rights Act to set up a new Human Rights Commission in J&K or open the office of NHRC there. Since, transfer of all the complaints to NHRC, Delhi cannot be a tenable option; the decision on the change in laws has to be taken by the government. According to Jammu and Kashmir law secretary Achal Sethi, “Now, the NHRC has the jurisdiction over Jammu and Kashmir and fresh cases can be filed online or before their office in Delhi.”