Human Rights Developments
Two dramatic events focused international attention on the continuing crisis in Kashmir. A two-month-long standoff between militants and the Indian army at a Sufi shrine in the town of Charar-e Sharief ended in catastrophe on May 11 when the shrine was torched and it and most of the town burned to the ground. It was not clear who set the fire; the Indian government blamed the militants while most Kashmiris blamed the army. Because the press was barred from the site, no independent reports were available. Several Kashmiri leaders who attempted to visit the area were arrested. According to the Committee for Initiative on Kashmir, a human rights group, the government claimed that twenty-nine militants were killed in the fighting, yet only fourteen bodies were recovered, five of which were identified as civilians, including a disabled seventy-year-old woman. The disaster forced the Rao government to cancel its plans to hold elections in July; polls were tentatively scheduled for later in the year, but as of November, no date had been announced. All the militant groups in the valley vowed to boycott any election, demanding instead that a plebiscite be held under U.N. auspices.
In July, a previously unknown militant group, Al Faran, kidnaped six tourists in Kashmir: two Americans, one of whom later escaped, two Britons, one German and one Norwegian. The group, believed to be associated with Harakat-ul-Ansar, a militant organization responsible for several 1994 kidnapings and bus bombs, demanded the release of twenty-one detained militants. On August 13, police discovered the beheaded and mutilated body of the Norwegian hostage, Hans Christian Oster. The murder was widely condemned by political leaders and most other militant groups in the Kashmir valley. As this report went to press, the remaining hostages were still in Al Faran's custody. Other groups also engaged in kidnapings; at least four Kashmiris were kidnaped by militant organizations in the same month that the foreign hostages were taken.
Throughout the year, Kashmiri militant groups resorted to the indiscriminate use of explosives, including car bombs and letter bombs, not only in Jammu, but in heavily-trafficked areas of Srinagar, where such attacks had been rare. Civilians were the principal victims. As with the kidnapings, many of these attacks appeared to be the work of Islamist groups whose leadership included Afghans and other non-Kashmiris. Harakat-ul-Ansar claimed responsibility for a July 20 bomb blast in Jammu that killed sixteen and wounded forty-five. According to a statement by the group, the attack was meant to frighten Hindus on pilgrimage to the area. On September 7, a letter bomb delivered to the office of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in Srinagar killed photojournalist Mushtaq Ali, and wounded BBC correspondent Yusef Jameel. A militant group was believed responsible.
Militant violence also resumed in Punjab. Beant Singh, the chief minister of the north Indian state of Punjab, was assassinated by a car bomb explosion on August 31. His driver and twelve security officers were also killed, and some thirty others were injured. The militant organization Babbar Khalsa claimed responsibility. On September 26, bomb blasts in Delhi and Panipat in neighboring Haryana injured nine. The Khalistan Liberation Force, a Punjab militant group, claimed responsibility for blasts that injured about fifty persons in Delhi on September 25.
Victims of abuse in Punjab and their families continued to file court cases against police responsible for torture, disappearances and extrajudicial executions during the government's decade-long conflict with Sikh separatists in the state. According to the official National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the government initiated prosecutions of fifteen Punjab police officers in five cases of disappearances and other abuses. No convictions were announced. In May, the NHRC decided to intervene in the case of Harjit Singh, who disappeared after being arrested by the Punjab police in April 1992. The commission appointed an advocate to pursue an inquiry at the High Court. At the same time, human rights groups continued to report "disappearances," including that of Jaswinder Kaur, who disappeared after she and her father were arrested on February 26, 1995. Her father was later released, but police, seeking to arrest her husband, continued to deny that Jaswinder Kaur was in custody. Human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra disappeared after being taken into custody on September 6. (See The Right to Monitor, below).
In Assam, police continued to murder detainees in what they claimed were "encounters." On February 16, Ripunjay Acharjya and Hem Chandra Sharma were arrested from their homes in Nayakpura, Assam, and accused of links with a militant organization, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). Their bodies, bearing bullet injuries, were later found at a local hospital. In another case, Samarendra Sharma of Tamuligaon village was arrested on February 2. After his body was discovered at a local hospital, the police superintendent claimed that Sharma had been killed in an "encounter."
On May 16, the government decided not to renew the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA), a widely criticized security law that permitted, among other things, the use in trial of coerced confessions. The law had prohibited any act that questioned the integrity of India, thereby criminalizing free speech. The government's decision appeared to be prompted by its interest in winning Muslim support in the 1996 general election; TADA had been widely used against Muslims and other minorities. A draft bill for a criminal law to replace TADA and incorporate many of its offensive provisions was submitted to parliament, but no action was taken. Meanwhile, some 6,000 prisoners detained under TADA remained in custody; human rights groups and the NHRC called for a review of their cases.
Official complicity in "communal" violence received scant attention from either the central or state governments. Following elections in the western state of Maharashtra, the extremist Hindu Shiv Sena party formed a coalition government with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Shiv Sena, believed to have wide support among the Bombay police, was responsible for instigating violence against Muslims that left hundreds dead in the January 1993 "riots." Police participated in many of the attacks, and, nearly two years later, an official inquiry into the violence dragged on without result, despite criticism by human rights groups and the NHRC which urged that the authorities take action to expedite the work of the commission. With the election of the Shiv Sena-BJP government, however, it appeared increasingly unlikely that any police would be prosecuted. The election also raised fears about the security of Muslims in Bombay, particularly migrant workers from other parts of India. Almost immediately after the government was formed, Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackery vowed to deport "illegal Bangladeshi immigrants," and police raids targeted poor Muslim neighborhoods of the city.
Women and girls continued to be trafficked from Nepal into Indian brothels in Bombay and other cities for the purpose of prostitution and kept in conditions tantamount to slavery. Held in debt bondage for years at a time, they have been raped and subjected to severe beatings, exposure to AIDS, and arbitrary imprisonment. Both the Indian and Nepali governments have been complicit in the abuses suffered by trafficking victims, and neither government took significant steps to end the practice by arresting and prosecuting traffickers and punishing police who protect brothel owners.
The Right to Monitor
In Punjab, Jaswant Singh Khalra, general secretary of the human rights wing of the Akali Dal political party, was arrested outside his home in Amritsar on September 6. In January 1995, his office had filed a petition in the High Court claiming that hundreds of individuals had been killed and secretly cremated by the Punjab police. As of November, Khalra had not been produced in court and his whereabouts were unknown.
On the night of June 15, Sheikh Mohammad Ashraf, president of the Baramulla branch of the Jammu and Kashmir bar association, which regularly documented abuses by Indian security forces, was arrested by the Rashtriya Rifles unit of the Indian army. He was released on September 9; throughout his detention, his family was denied access to him. Earlier, on May 1, Mohammad Ashraf, an advocate at the High Court in Srinagar, was reportedly arrested and charged under the Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law. On April 22, two unidentified gunmen opened fire on Mian Abdul Qayoom, president of the Jammu and Kashmir bar association, seriously injuring him. Qayoom had vigorously investigated human rights violations by Indian security forces in Kashmir.
On April 14, Parvez Imroz, secretary of the local branch of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL, a human rights group), was shot and injured, reportedly by militants who later claimed that Imroz had been shot by accident. On March 31, journalists protesting against human rights abuses by security forces were beaten by police in Srinagar.
India's official human rights commission, the NHRC, continued to perform a useful though limited role, undertaking investigations of a range of abuses, particularly deaths in custody, and recommending prosecutions of police officers responsible. According to the commission, state governments initiated prosecutions of police involved in eighteen cases of deaths in custody; the NHRC intervened to recommend prosecutions in two additional cases, and the accused police officers were arrested and tried. In other cases, however, the commission appeared to accept at face value official accounts of alleged abuse, despite contradictory reports by local human rights groups. Earlier in the year, the NHRC pushed for the repeal of TADA and for granting the ICRC access to Kashmir.
On June 22, the government of India signed an agreement to permit the ICRC to visit detainees and undertake its other humanitarian services in Kashmir. The ICRC was scheduled to begin its operations by November 1. The government decision followed years of pressure by domestic and international human rights groups. Earlier in the year, the ICRC conducted human rights training courses for Indian security personnel.
In July, the Indian government unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the accreditation of two human rights groups_Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and Freedom House_at the U.N. committee on NGO consultative status. Both groups had been critical of India's human rights policies, particularly in Kashmir.
The Role of the International Community
European Community Policy
Commercial interests dominated British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd's visit to India in January. Endorsing India's policy on Kashmir, he promoted the sale of British military aircraft to India.
In January, U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown led a trade delegation to India, clinching business deals worth billions of dollars, and stating publicly that since "commercial diplomacy" was a way to effect human rights improvements, "one doesn't have to wait for the other." In the first such visit by a defense secretary since the mid-1980s, Secretary William Perry signed a historic "framework of understanding" to pave the way for more military cooperation between India and the U.S. In a welcome move, Secretary Perry called on India to permit the ICRC to operate freely in Kashmir.
Visits to India by senior administration officials reflected the administration's concern with reassuring Indian government officials anxious about a U.S. "tilt" toward Pakistan. On a visit to India in March, Assistant Secretary for South Asia Robin Raphael denied that the U.S. had downplayed human rights issues for the sake of commercial interests. However, her harshest public criticism_that human rights in practice was "not always consistent with the guarantees in the Indian constitution"_was conspicuously mild in contrast to her praise for government measures and what she called the end of India's "denial" phase about human rights abuses.
In testimony before Congress on March 7, Secretary Raphael again praised "positive developments, " particularly the work of the official NHRC, but acknowledged that "more needs to be done." Her observation that the Punjab police "often do not respect normal criminal procedures" was notably lame. In fact, the Punjab police have routinely resorted to torture and murder. Her remarks suggesting that the conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir would hinder Indian efforts to gain a seat on the U.N. Security Council angered Indian officials, and the administration was quick to respond. Visiting India several weeks later, Under Secretary for Political Affairs Peter Tarnoff reassured Indian officials that the U.S. had not ruled out a seat for India on the security council.
In its efforts to walk a fine line on the question of elections in Kashmir, the administration sent mixed messages on its view of the value of such a vote. While reiterating the administration's official policy recognizing Kashmir as a disputed territory, Secretary Raphael observed in January that "it would be premature" to say whether the government's controversial plans for elections in Kashmir would be an appropriate part of the political process. Later in the year, Ambassador Frank Wisner called for Kashmiri leaders to participate, even though most have questioned India's right of control over the territory and have raised questions about whether a fair election would be held.
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visited India on her South Asia tour in March, and although she met with a wide range of women's organizations, her public remarks did not focus on human rights abuses affecting women.
The human rights officer and other staff at the U.S. Embassy met regularly with Indian human rights groups. In a welcome move, Ambassador Frank Wisner raised the case of "disappeared" human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra during a visit to Punjab later in the year.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Asia
While furthering its contacts with the official NHRC and nongovernmental human rights groups, Human Rights Watch/Asia continued its work on areas of endemic abuse, particularly communal violence and the trafficking of women and girls.
In July, Human Rights Watch published Rape for Profit: Trafficking of Nepali Women and Girls into India. The report documented Indian and Nepali police complicity in the trafficking and abuse of Nepali women and girls, thousands of whom have been abducted or coerced into prostitution in Indian brothels.
In March, Human Rights Watch published Playing the "Communal Card": Communal Violence and Human Rights, a report that analyzed the role of the police and other government agents in many parts of the world in fostering "ethnic" and "communal" violence. The chapter on India documented the government's failure to prosecute police and security forces responsible for abuses in incidents of violence following the destruction of the Babur mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992 and in the Bombay "riots" of January 1993.
Human Rights Watch/Asia pressured U. N. High Commissioner for Human Rights José Ayala Lasso to visit detention centers in Kashmir and to be outspoken about abuses by all parties. We also urged that human rights issues be raised by India's donors at the World Bank-convened meeting in June.
Human Rights Watch/Asia also challenged the U.S. government's new "commercial diplomacy" in India and its failure to speak out critically about continuing abuses in India. In January, we wrote to Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and Defense Secretary Perry, asking them to meet with nongovernmental human rights groups and raise human rights issues publicly. Following Secretary Brown's visit, Human Rights Watch/Asia published an opinion piece in the Boston Globe, accusing Secretary Brown of squandering an important opportunity to demonstrate the administration's avowed commitment to human rights.