On the afternoon of 27 April 1996, Shafiq Hussain Bhat’s older brother Shabir Hussain Bhat, then 18-years-old, was “picked up by the army” from Bemina on the outskirts of Srinagar. He never returned.
When the family came to know about the arrest, they frantically searched for Mr. Shabir but in vain. “We even moved the court,” said Mr. Shafiq. Soon, however, the Bhat family abandoned all hopes. Twenty-four years later, Mr. Shafiq, 38, still awaits closure.
In 2001, Mr. Shabir’s father, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, had met with a member of a local non-profit support group for families of victims like his son, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), during a hearing in his son’s habeas corpus case in the High Court.
Since then, the APDP has documented Mr. Shabir’s forced disappearance and highlighted — along with many others — it at the United Nations (UN). The APDP supports more than 1000 families of disappeared persons.
On 28 October, India’s terror investigation agency, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) conducted a raid in the office of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in Hyderpora, Srinagar. The NIA seized several documents and electronic devices, including Ms. Ahanagar’s mobile phones.
The NIA simultaneously raided another prominent local right’s advocacy group, the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society’s (JKCCS). Raids were also carried out at the offices of Kashmir’s largest newspaper Greater Kashmir and the office of nonprofits, Athrout, and the JK Yateem Foundation.
The NIA said the raids were an inquiry into the financing for “secessionist and separatist activities”.
Since the raid, the JKCCS has not issued any statement. The JKCCS had last published its bi-annual human rights review on 5 August 2020, documenting the state of human rights in Kashmir in the past half a year.
Founded by Parveena Ahangar, whose 17-year-old son was also subjected to enforced disappearance, the APDP is a community of survivors who are documenting and campaigning against enforced disappearances and continuing to look for their dear ones since 1994.
The “APDP neither receives foreign funding nor engages in any illegal activities. The raid conducted by the NIA has no basis, and only exposes the State’s desperation to deter APDP from pursuing justice for hundreds of victims of human rights violations committed by State actors in Kashmir,” Ms. Ahangar said in a statement after the raid.
Ms. Ahangar also said that the documents seized by the NIA contained “sensitive information” about victims and their families and their testimonies. “There is a grave apprehension that the same may be accessed by other agencies, and/or lead to adverse consequences and reprisal against victims and families who have testified and are pursuing justice,” the statement noted.
The raids conducted by NIA have invoked criticism from various sects of society accusing the government of “political vendetta against the people” and “witch-hunting”. The Human Rights Watch, in a statement, said that the raids are part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s crackdown on civil society groups.
“India faces serious security challenges, but instead of addressing the problems in a rights-respecting manner, the authorities appear determined to crush peaceful criticism and calls for accountability. Using authoritarian tactics against outspoken critics and journalists needs to stop,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch in a statement issued on 30 October, two days after the raid.
“The Indian government seeks to be a global leader, but instead is drawing international criticism by systematically weakening the country’s long-respected democratic institutions,” Ms. Ganguly said, adding: “The government should alter course by upholding democratic principles and protecting the human rights of all its citizens.”
The APDP continues to demand an investigation into the nearly 8000 cases of enforced and involuntary disappearances in Kashmir. In 2017, Ms. Ahangar received the Rafto Prize for defending human rights in Kashmir for more than two decades and was also nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
Barely a kilometer from Mr. Shafiq’s house, another family waits for their son to return. Mohammad Irfan Khan was a student of the eighth standard in 1994, when he was “picked up by the army” in Haftyarbal in Safakadal, said Mohammad’s mother, Jameela Khan.
The family had sought help from police to trace Mohammad. Six years later, Ms. Jameela was told of the APDP by a pharmacist. Since then, Ms. Khan has participated in the monthly peaceful sit-ins held by the APDP, hoping that the plight of families like hers was not forgotten. On the tenth of every month, the APDP holds a sit-in in the Pratap Park in Srinagar’s commercial hub to commemorate their loved ones who have disappeared.
Ms. Khan lives with her husband, their daughter and her two children. The Khan family said that they have been supported by the APDP since the last twenty years. “Jeeji,” as Ms. Ahangar is fondly called, said Ms. Khan, “has taken the responsibility of our [her husband’s and her] medicines.”
Mr. Irfan’s sister Rubeena Khan remembers how nobody — except the APDP — ever opened the door for them. “She sends clothes for me too like she does for my parents,” said Ms. Rubeena. “She even helped us a lot during the lockdown by providing us with ration.”
“Jeeji cha me’a sokhas ti, dokhas ti. Jeeji [Ms. Ahangar] is there for me in my happiness as well as in my sadness,” said Ms. Khan, fighting back tears.
Ms. Khan believes that organisations like the APDP are important for their voices to be heard. “How else will my son and such cases be remembered?” she asked. “The hope of seeing my son again is alive because of them.”
The current government, said Mr. Shafiq, is “trying to close the doors on us, to suppress our voices with these raids” but “we will keep fighting as a family till our last breath. “We will always stand in solidarity with them like they have stood with us.”
The raid on the APDP, hoped Mr. Shafiq, wouldn’t deter the APDP from seeking justice for families of the disappeared. “If it wasn’t for them [APDP],” he said, “nobody would have raised voice for families like us.”
“Zani sui yemis gudran. Only those who have gone through it can feel the pain,” said Mr. Shafiq. “Parveena ji does.”