The silencing of the largest democracy in the world

Democratic discussion questioning the fundamental order of India is increasingly silenced by authorities backed by the Hindu majority. Kashmiri Rafto laureates honor the memory of Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani, a human rights defender who experienced the worst consequences of prejudiced Indian media, and the arbitrariness of the Indian legal system.

In 2017 the Rafto Foundation awarded its annual human rights prize to Parvez Imroz and Parveena Ahangar of Kashmir, India. These laureates have a lifetime behind them as spokespersons for Kashmiri citizens who have suffered human rights violations at the hands of Indian military and police.

Kashmir has for a long time been considered a state of exception within the Indian federation. Since the end of British colonial rule in 1947, it has been a borderland edged between and occupied by the three mutually hostile powers Pakistan, China, and India. India has fought wars four times with the two others, against Pakistan in 1947, 1965 and 1971, and against China in 1962.

Kashmir has a majority population sharing faith and culture as much with fellow Muslims in Pakistan as they do with the citizens of India, a secular state dominated by a Hindu majority. The Kashmiri population is divided between those who prefer to remain in the Indian union, those who prefer independence, and those who prefer to join Pakistan. What the vast majority of Kashmiris do agree about, is their right to self-determination, a human right regardless of what kind of statehood self-determination might lead to for any particular population. Militant organizations have operated within the territory or across the lines of control, but the vast majority of Kashmiris renounce armed struggle against either of the states that control their territory.

In the West it is commonplace to count India among the camp of democratic states ruled by law, although of course imperfect and challenged by a difficult history. The presumption is also probably widespread that India by necessity must be a multicultural and secular state. Although Hindus comprise 80 % of its population, the 15 % of its citizens who consider themselves Muslim nevertheless constitute well above 200 million. The smaller minorities are too many to list.

The rise of Hindu nationalism shows that something very disturbing is happening in India, questioning its rule of law, and consequently, also its democracy. The story of one Kashmiri human rights defender, remembered and honored by the Rafto Laureates on the anniversary of his death on 24th October 2019, may serve to illustrate this development. His name is Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani.

Geelani was born in Kashmir in 1969. He moved to Delhi to study in the nineties, and eventually became father of two children and Professor of Arabic. Geelani was among the many Kashmiris who supported self-determination for his country, and who chose to express this view within the framework of democratic discourse and by appealing to human rights, rather than by the use of violent means and appeal to an exclusive identity as a Kashmiri or as a Muslim. In the early nineties, his brother Bismillah was arrested and tortured by the police in Kashmir. Geelani did accuse and condemn atrocities perpetrated against the Kashmiri population by representatives of Indian authorities.

On 13 December 2001, a terrorist attack was carried out by five gunmen at the Indian Parliament. 14 people were killed, the terrorists among them. Within two days Geelani was arrested and brought into custody, where he was beaten, chained on the floor, and threatened that his wife would be raped by the police unless he confessed to the crime of complicity in the attack. Telephone records proved contact between Geelani and other accused parties, but no connection with the five gunmen. The press speculated aggressively in the sparse evidence, and declared Geelani, an outspoken student and later member of the university faculty, the mastermind of the attack. A Special Court was set up under Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) in Delhi, where Geelani was sentenced to death.

Thereafter began a long and hard process of appeals, informed and run by a group of supporters among which were several of the most renowned intellectuals in Indian public life. This campaign for Geelani highlighted the very questionable nature of POTA. This law is akin to a host of laws applying in Kashmir and other conflict areas, such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act AFSPA and the Public Safety Act PSA. Such laws allow the government extensive powers to use violent means at their own recognizance, to detain suspects for years without trial, and secure what in practice amounts to impunity for violation of the rights of citizens carried out by police or military personnel.

Geelani was finally acquitted of all charges by the High Court in 2003, the verdict upheld by the Supreme Court of India in 2005. Two other men accused of being part of the plot were not so lucky, however. Shaukat Hussain had a death sentence converted to ten years in prison, while the death sentence of Afzal Guru was upheld. Guru claimed to have confessed to his crime under torture and threats similar to what Geelani experienced. The Supreme Court infamously stated that “the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender”. Afzal Guru was finally executed 9 February 2013.

This ordeal, and Geelani’s conviction that the men accused with him were also innocent, made him a campaigner for a fair trial for his co-defendants and others persecuted under the POTA or similar laws, for example Adivasi and Dalit activists. The “collective conscience of the society” did not accept his acquittal, however. Before the final ruling of the Supreme Court, he was attacked and hit by seven bullets on 5 February 2005. Geelani survived, with three bullets in his body that could not be removed. He campaigned for human rights until his heart failed a year ago.

In Kashmir and other areas of conflict in India, the response of the Indian state has for a long time been to secure control by force under emergency laws which have become permanent states of exception, and the conditions under which a whole generation has grown up. This means that India has become a hybrid state. In some areas, a semblance of democracy and rule of law prevails, in others not. Parallel to this institutional hollowing out of rule of law, the democratic culture presupposing that all citizens are equal, entitled to equal protection by the courts, and always to be considered innocent until proven guilty, has given way.

The reasoning of the Supreme Court in the case of Afzal Guru has infected Indian public life in a very harmful and dangerous way. The nation of India is increasingly seen as Bharat, the nation of the Hindus. Non-Hindus are increasingly perceived not as proper citizens. The burden of evidence is lighter if accusing a non-Hindu of a crime than if a Hindu is accused. Guilt by association has condemned the entire Muslim population of Kashmir, around 8.5 million, to live collectively as terror suspects. In eastern India, millions of Muslim citizens with a family background from the Bengal Bay, and perhaps from districts now within the borders of the state of Bangladesh, have had their citizenship questioned or denied.

Activists opposing Indian rule in Kashmir, or the regime of Hindu nationalists in India proper, claim that in public discourse, the grounds for dismissal as an enemy of society has shifted progressively over the last decade. Where once guilt by association with terrorists was required, it now suffices to be declared as of anti-national mind. The nation is then a Hindu nation, not a nation of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jain, and all others born there or living there.

Thousands of critical intellectuals and defenders of human rights, and especially defenders of the rights of minorities of various kinds, have been arrested during the last few years. Hundreds of civil society organizations have been deprived of access to funds, and many are disbanded. This month Amnesty International closed its offices and left India.

Darkness gathers over the world’s largest democracy. Brave and principled defenders of human rights like Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani, are lights in the darkness. May he rest in peace and be a source of inspiration for everyone committed to human rights in India and the world.