Rights activist’s detention and India’s Kashmir paranoia
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Rights activist’s detention and India’s Kashmir paranoia

Critics have long argued that the Indian government lost the plot in Kashmir ages back. But as an incident on Saturday shows, it is now increasingly turning schizophrenic — imagining enemies where there aren’t any.

Well-known human rights activist Gautam Navlakha was detained at Srinagar International Airport on his arrival there on Saturday. He was not allowed to enter the city, and was served an order under section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Core (CRPC). Navlakha, who’s a frequent visitor to Kashmir but was there this time on a personal visit along with a friend, was asked to return to Delhi. Since return flights had already departed for the day, Navlakha was detained at the airport. He is to return today.

The International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir (IPTK), of which Navlakha is the Convenor, reacted by saying, “His denial of entry raises urgent concerns about the status of freedom of speech and movement in Kashmir. Given the egregious violence that was inflicted on people by state forces in the Summer of 2008, 2009, and 2010 in Kashmir, we are deeply concerned that state forces not suppress democratic activities in the Summer of 2011, and not isolate Kashmiris from human rights defenders that travel to Kashmir to bear witness to atrocities and speak for peace and justice.”

The People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), of which Navlakha is a member, described the incident as “an illustration, albeit a minor ones of the arbitrariness and audacity with which fundamental rights are routinely violated (and have been for years) in the name of law and order in Jammu and Kashmir.”

This is the first time that an Indian human rights activist has not been allowed entry into Kashmir. In November 2010, Professor Richard Shapiro, an academic from the United States and life-partner of IPTK Co-convenor Angana Chatterji, was denied entry into India without any charges or due process.

Earlier, in June 2008, IPTK Co-convenor Pravez Imroz and his family were targeted and an explosive device was thrown at his home. Imroz has been denied a passport. In July 2008, a First Information Report charged Angana Chatterji and IPTK Co-convener Zahir-Ud-Din, then editor of Etalaat English daily, with acting to incite crimes against the state, following his publication of an article on mass graves written by Chatterji. IPTK Liaison Khurram Parvez has been threatened and is extensively surveilled. All Tribunal communications and the movements of its members in India and abroad are monitored.

The police’s contention was that Navlakha’s presence could disturb order and peace in Kashmir. Section 144 of the CrPC is essentially used against individuals or groups of people to prevent obstruction, annoyance of injury to any person lawfully employed, or danger to human life, health or safety, or a disturbance of the public tranquility, or a riot, or an at-fray. Using this tool against a peace activist goes beyond curbing dissent, it is a pre-emptive move that smacks of sheer paranoid desperation.

Prominent Kashmir leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, Yaseen Malik and Shabir Shah are time and again put under house arrest. All calls for processions or public meetings that are even remotely perceived as shows of strength, are dealt with a heavy hand and nipped in the bud. The draconian Public Safety Act is rampantly used in Kashmir to illegally incarcerate youths on grounds of suspicion alone.

In Kashmir, the battle of guns has long made for the battle of ideas. But the detention and deportation of a human rights activist on a personal holiday shows that the government will not only crack down ruthlessly on speech, it will do so on thought too. It is running mortally scared of all those who think.