Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her groundbreaking work on the phenomenon of enforced disappearances in Kashmir, Srinagar-based human rights defender, Parveena Ahanger, is finding herself pushed to the wall after the National Investigations Agency quizzed her on 28 October, Wednesday, in the terror funding case.
Popularly known as the ‘Iron Lady of Kashmir’, Ahanger, who founded the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), is, however, determined to carry on the fight for justice for the victims of enforced disappearances and other excesses committed against ordinary people in Kashmir.
She spoke with The Quint at her red-bricked, double-storied residence in Gangbugh on the city outskirts where she lives with her husband, two sons and a daughter.
The National Investigations Agency (NIA) claims to have recovered incriminating material during the raid at your office? How do you respond?
My life is an open book. In three decades of my work, I have never been humiliated like this. It make me sad. It has been thirty years since my son disappeared. He was abducted by the Army in 1990. I have searched him in the plains and trekked the mountains in order to find him. Am I committing a crime by demanding to know the whereabouts of my son?
What is the role of the APDP?
I formed this association in 1994, when the government as well as the courts failed to deliver justice in my son’s case. Using newspaper cuttings, I traced the families of other victims who were subjected to enforced disappearance and brought them on a common platform to demand justice.
In 2008, I went to the United Nations, where we had a meeting with a working group on enforced disappearances. The UN funds our work. We help the families of the victims of abuses.
Tell us more about your son.
Javed Ahmad Ahanger, my son, was abducted by the Army in 1990. I asked the government to help me in tracing him. But no one helped me. The judiciary used to be the house of justice. I petitioned the courts for four years but even there, mothers like me were let down. We have seen many ministers, many governments. But our plight has failed to move them all.
Then I decided to take this battle to the streets. We used to hold a sit-in on the 10th of every month in Srinagar as a mark of protest but because of the pandemic, we haven’t been able to meet.
I have promised my creator that I will fight for this cause till I am alive. If they snatched our children, they should tell us where they have kept them.
What happened on the day of the raid?
They (NIA) raided my house after predawn prayers. I and my daughter Saima, who also works with the APDP, were having morning tea in the kitchen, when my husband walked in and, with a stern face, said that someone was asking for me at the main door.
When I came out, there were hundreds of security personnel on the road. I was shocked. I am doing a noble work, and in the past 30 years, no one has asked me questions. No one has raised a finger on my integrity. This is the first time I am finding myself in this situation.
There was a cavalcade of cars, both official and private. There were women security personnel, too. They asked who was inside the house. I told them there is no one except my family. Then, they took away our mobile phones and asked me to lock all the rooms, except the kitchen.
I kept telling them that I have nothing to hide. They asked for my work related documents, so Saima, my daughter, and I took them to our office. The raid started at around 7 am, and it ended at 4 pm. It was a traumatic experience.
Did the NIA investigators make any seizures from your office?
They took away hard drives from a computer and xeroxed the data of the victims and their families. They asked for my bank account details, which I gladly shared with them. They also made us sign some documents. I have nothing to hide. My office works on a UN grant.
Whatever assistance I have got, it is all accounted. I told the investigators that I have a relationship with thousands of families whose loved ones have been subjected to enforced disappearances. I have worked with pellet, torture and rape victims. These are important issues. Wherever there are abuses, I work with the survivors. I try to share their grief. If it is a crime, I am guilty as charged.
There are unconfirmed reports doing rounds that you may have amassed disproportionate wealth while doing activism in Kashmir?
My office runs out of a private building and the rent is paid out of the UN grant. I have won the Rafto Prize for Human Rights in 2017, which carried cash assistance. I was nominated for a Nobel as well. Last year, the BBC named me among the 100 inspiring women.
I have spoken at many universities in the country and abroad. Whatever savings I have, it is all accounted. My conscience is clear. During the questioning, an NIA official took away a blank cheque from the booklet, and I jokingly told him to let me sign it so that we can divide the money later. He burst into laughter.
Did the NIA investigators treat you well?
I would be lying if I say they didn’t. But they treated me well because we cooperated with them. I have nothing to hide. There are people who support families of victims but whatever financial assistance they have provided so far, it is all accounted. I told them that I have visited 17 countries, and I will continue to raise voice for justice. One officer told me that I was a strong lady.
I told him that I am not strong but the iron lady. I asked him what mistake I had committed that my son was snatched from me. The government orders inquiries and sets up commissions. What has come out of them. Courts have failed to deliver justice. Who should we go to?
Besides your exhaustive work on the phenomenon of enforced disappearances in Kashmir, do you work in other fields of rights abuses as well?
We were recently working with torture and pellet victims as well as those who have been booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA). If a person is booked under the PSA and he is the sole bread earner of his family, am I at fault if I take care of their families’ daily needs. Over 600 persons in Kashmir have been blinded by pellets. They have become a burden on their families when they should be a support. How are their families responsible for what they do? Why should they be punished?
Did the investigators ask you to give up?
I told them to resolve our issue first. Where have our children vanished? If the law applies to us, why can’t it apply to the Armed forces as well? I have turned down compensation offers. Money can buy anything, but it can’t return our loved ones. Some mothers have lost two, some three sons.
If I am not there to help them, they will die of starvation. Let them tell us where our children are, and we will sit at home.
Do you feel troubled by what has happened? Will the APDP continue its work?
Not at all. I am not afraid. We all have to die. I am fighting for my right. I am not a leader. I am a victim myself. When I went into the dark alleys of Kashmir, I found more painful stories. I am not committing any wrong. Except Allah, I am not afraid of anyone. My children have suffered because of what I do. I couldn’t raise them properly which is why they aren’t doing well in their lives. Perhaps I was not meant to serve my children. I was called upon to help the victims like me, and my creator has taken care of my children. I was offered cash assistance by the Army to give up, but I didn’t accept it.
On one hand, we have been victimised by the Armed forces, the government and the judiciary, and on the other, we are being treated like criminals. I am not doing business. My office is not a shop where any customer can come and make purchases. It is a sacred place where I try to apply balm to our wounds. Many governments came and fell but no one helped us. Instead of giving us justice, we are feeling harassed. They should go through the files of victims and see for themselves what has happened in Kashmir.
If everyone decides to give up their fight, I will be the last person standing. It is a long battle. Till I am alive, I will continue to pursue justice.
(Jehangir Ali is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @gaamuk.)
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