Updated at 5:46 p.m. ET on 2017-10-20
Two noted Indian activists who are set to receive an international human rights award next month for their non-violent struggle against alleged rights abuses in Indian-administered Kashmir said the honor had further strengthened their resolve to battle injustice in the disputed Himalayan region.
Parveena Ahanger, 55, who heads the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), and Parvez Imroz, 60, founder of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), will be formally awarded the Rafto Prize in the Norwegian town of Bergen on Nov. 5.
Rafto Foundation for Human Rights announced their names last month. Each winner will receive $20,000.
Ahanger and Imroz have “long been at the forefront of the struggle against arbitrary abuses of power in a region of India that has borne the brunt of escalating violence, militarization and international tension,” the foundation said.
“Their long campaign to expose human rights violations, promote dialogue and seek peaceful solutions to the intractable conflict in Kashmir inspired new generations across communities,” it said.
The People's Democratic Party (PDP)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government, which is power in the state, declined to comment on the international honor received by the two rights activists.
"To protect human rights and fight against corruption are the top most priorities of the PDP-BJP coalition government," Indian Kashmir's Law and Rural Development Minister Abdul Haq Khan told BenarNews.
"Indeed, there have been instances of enforced disappearances, but all of them occurred when opposition parties were in power, not during the tenure of our government," he said.
Ahanger founded the APDP in 1994, four years after her 16-year-old son, Javid Ahmad, went missing after allegedly being picked up by Indian security forces for questioning.
“Javid was mercilessly beaten by security officials in front of my eyes and then forcibly taken away. They said they would bring him back after asking him some questions. But he hasn’t returned since,” Ahanger told BenarNews.
“My son’s disappearance and my failure to trace him made me realize there may be many more like him. That is what gave birth to the idea of APDP – a group that would provide emotional and financial support to families of disappeared people to continue their search for their loved ones,” she said.
Ahmad is among some 9,000 Kashmiris, a large majority of them in their teens or early 20s, who have disappeared after being taken into custody since 1989, when a separatist insurgency broke out in Indian Kashmir, Ahangar said.
More than 70,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in nearly three decades of violence in the area, according to official figures.
India and Pakistan both lay claim to the Muslim-majority region and have fought two full-blown wars over the territory, which is divided between the two sides by a de facto border called the Line of Control (LoC).
Refuting allegations of rights abuses in the region, the state's police chief, S.P. Vaid, said Indian security forces were committed to upholding human rights.
"We are doing our best to protect human rights and restore peace in Kashmir. We are a law-abiding force and everyone is accountable before the law," Vaid told BenarNews.
"All rights activists are working freely across Kashmir without any intimidation from the police or any other security agency. And if any official is found guilty of committing rights abuses he will not be spared," he said, adding that the activists should refrain from pointing fingers at Indian forces.
The APDP, which is supported by the United Nations voluntary fund for victims of torture, regularly holds peaceful protests to pressure state authorities to end enforced disappearances and take legal action against the responsible security personnel.
Ahanger, nicknamed “The Iron Lady of Kashmir,” said she was aware that her fight against the all-powerful state authorities had put her directly in the line of fire, but she was “not afraid.”
“They have tried to implicate me in false cases innumerable times,” she said, referring to state authorities. “When that didn’t work, they tried to offer me money and a job in lieu of my son’s disappearance. No government can compensate for a human life, which is simply priceless.”
The Rafto Prize, named after the late Norwegian human rights activist Thorolf Rafto, has strengthened Ahanger’s resolve to continue her fight against enforced disappearances, she said.
“But more significantly, the award vindicates the APDP’s claim that Indian security forces have been misusing their powers to commit rights abuses on innocent Kashmiris,” she said.
Four past winners of the award – Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, former East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta, former South Koran leader Kim Dae-Jung and Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi – have gone on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ahanger’s co-laureate, Imroz of the JKSCC, which promotes non-violence and human rights and has also documented the authorities’ use of torture in Indian Kashmir, said the award was bound to draw the attention of international rights groups toward arbitrary abuses in the region.
“The award will also dent hollow claims of the Indian government that rights abuses are not being committed in Kashmir,” Imroz, a lawyer, told BenarNews.
Imroz’s struggle against state government-backed torture, illegal detentions and extra-judicial killings has been “anything but a cakewalk,” he said.
“There have been several instances when I have been intimidated. The government would obviously never want you to document the abuses it commits. But if you are an activist in the real sense you must stop bothering about consequences and carry on doing your job,” he said.
“An activist is not an activist if he or she does not have to face challenges in the course of duty. And being an activist in a conflict zone like Kashmir is as challenging as it gets,” he said. “But you have to stay committed and deliver come what may.”
Rights activist Parveena Ahanger at her office in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, Oct. 16, 2017. [Amin Masoodi/BenarNews]