Q&A with Kashmiri politician, Shehla Rashid, charged with sedition in India

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Shafaqna Pakistan: In late August TRT World spoke to Shehla Rashid, a pro-India politician with the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement, who has criticised India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomous status. Today, New Delhi police filed multiple cases against her.

You tweeted about the Indian army’s excesses in Kashmir’s Shopian [an area in southern Kashmir with a reputation for resistance], which was based on what you heard from someone who had returned from the Valley. What was the purpose of that tweet?

Shehla Rashid: Kashmir valley right now has been pushed into the 18th century where human messengers have to be sent to physical locations to carry messages. That is how we are sending messages to people back home. We have been pushed into a primitive mode of communication: the press are not allowed to report; direct communication is impossible with people. So how do we know about the situation? And why do we need to know about the situation? This is because people ask us.

People coming from abroad to celebrate Eid with their families, for example, ask us ,‘Is it safe if we go to Ganderbal?’ Or ‘Is it safe if we go to Baramulla?’ And the only way for us to know that is based on testimonies of people who come from there. So we keep a track of the situation.

There are some places where I have highlighted the positive work of the administration also. I have no vested interest in lying or painting a certain picture. But when somebody comes [from Kashmir] and tells me that this is what happened in Shopian, this is what armed forces are doing, I see no reason why I should self-censor.

I think that people’s testimonies are really important right now. When history will be written, it will be written from the state’s perspective. And the state we know is showing a very lopsided [picture].

The state is lying and trying to create a false impression that things are normal, which is not the case. We need to show the situation as it is. And I trust people’s testimonies over media. Because media, especially India-based satellite TV, is acting as PR agencies of the government. Which is why I felt people’s narratives are more truthful and they should be put out.

What exactly happened in Shopian?

SR: I have the details of the incident, but I am not giving them away. I will give away the details if the government or any other government agency, like the Army, were to constitute an independent investigation. Because I don’t want the people of that particular village to be targeted.

What I have been told is that in a certain military camp, people were called and they were interrogated. And we know that in Kashmir, interrogation is another word for torture.

They were tortured and there was a microphone kept nearby, and the sound was amplified and relayed to the whole area, so that people live in fear of the army. This is what I have been told. And I see no reason why would anyone lie to me. Because this was told to me by an ordinary person. Unless the government has proof to show otherwise, I would believe the people.

How do you see the ongoing lockdown and communication blackout in Jammu and Kashmir?

SR: This is a murder of democracy. This is the murder of the rule of law. This is the suspension of law. There is absolutely no law that is being followed in Kashmir right now. Forget international laws, even India’s own laws are not being followed.

The people who are detained or arrested, as per Indian law, they are to be produced within 24 hours before a magistrate. Has that been followed? Is it on record that how many people have been arrested? No. Tomorrow there may be disappearances and the state will just say, ‘We did not arrest them.’

Tomorrow people may be tortured, they may be injured and they state would say ,”Sorry, we do not know how that happened.”

We are being treated worse than animals right now. Kashmir has been turned into a zoo where people are caged within their own homes. It seems we have no rights.

How do you see the current situation in Kashmir as a pro-India politician?

SR: As a political party (I think), the Indian government is doing what it is known for doing. Till now, the disillusion and alienation among the Kashmiri people, especially the youth, was based on history. It was based on what happened to Sheikh Abdullah, it was based on what happened to the Muslim United Front, Plebescite Front, etc. It was all based on history.

But now, it is based on the present. The alienation, the disillusionment that follows will be based on present. We used to assure people that 1987 or 1953 cannot happen again, because this is the age of social media. The BJP government has made a mess out of Kashmir.

After your tweet, a criminal complaint [the same cases were later officially filed by New Delhi police] was made against you for allegedly spreading rumours and false news. How do you respond to that?

SR: I congratulate the citizens living in Delhi and Mumbai who have filed complaints. There are two complaints filed against me. One is by a Supreme Court lawyer and another by a Bombay High Court advocate. They still have the right to file a complaint. We have been stripped even of our right to file a complaint. My party colleague is missing, I would say. It is not even an arrest. It is abduction. The state has turned into an abduction gang. Our people are just going missing and we cannot even file a complaint.

People have been asking for proof. Do you plan to provide proof to substantiate your claim?

SR: This has never been about proof. In the case of Major Gogoi, who tied a civilian to the bonnet of an army jeep, there was ample proof, there was no dearth of proof of what happened.

Lt Gen H S Panag said this was a violation of the Indian Army’s Standard Operation Procedure and the army never does that. What happened? Was he punished? He wasn’t.

On the contrary, he was rewarded for that behaviour. In the Pathribal fake encounter, the CBI also said it was a fake encounter. But nothing happened because the Army is protected by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

So the Indian TV channels are trying to make it about proof. When you give proof, they justify it with something else. Imagine this happening in Maharashtra or any other state, where all the opposition are put in jails. There would be crisis, there would be a massive human cry over that. But this does not happen in Kashmir. So even if tomorrow we go to prove somehow that the torture voices were actually amplified, it will be justified or ignored.

You are a mainstream politician. You tweeted about what the army had done to civilians in Shopian. Why didn’t you file a police complaint instead?

SR: One could do that too. But, first of all, I don’t have that locus standi. I would have had to go to Shopian to file the complaint. And under AFSPA you can’t file a complaint. There are many technical issues. But I feel that as a mainstream politician, as an activist, I think it is my duty to highlight the miseries of people. We should not call ourselves activists if we cannot call a spade a spade.

Both you and Shah Faesal are Kashmir-based politicians. Don’t you think you should have been in Kashmir right now with the people of Kashmir?

SR: I made a very conscious choice to come to Delhi. I was in Bengaluru the day Article 370 was abrogated. I was supposed to travel to Srinagar the next day. I cancelled my flight and came to Delhi and met the lawyers. Since that day (when Kashmir’s special status was revoked), I have been working on petitions and getting petitioners together to challenge the abrogation of Article 370. Our petition is really a people’s petition.

Usually, mainstream politicians in Kashmir have not been raising human rights violations in the region – especially when they are in power. You are also a mainstream politician, and you tweeted one such recent case. What is your take on the human rights violations committed in Kashmir over the past thirty years?

SR: Both Peoples Democratic Party and National Conference in recent times have been spoken about Human Rights violations in Kashmir. It is not that mainstream does not talk about it. Mainstream also include people like Engineer Rasheed (Independent Lawmaker) who is also very outspoken. So, what the mainstream does not talk about is plebiscite.

Jammu and Kashmir has been kept as a display piece, an ornament to show how secular India is – that we have a Muslim-majority state. But at the same time, our rights have been stripped at every juncture and that needs to change. And if the mainstream politicians in Kashmir have not been speaking about Human Rights violations, it is not because the constitution prevents them from doing so, it is because maybe they have been compromised.

You talked about plebiscite (for Kashmir). What is your take on that?

SR: I and my party believe that there should be a peaceful and dignified resolution of the Kashmir issue, taking all the parties onboard. And most importantly, taking the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh on board. A solution that is acceptable to everyone.

Now, it is up to India and Pakistan to develop a process which can actually be the plebiscite, because they are both signatories to that. The United Nations can actually hold a plebiscite. It is in the UN resolutions.

Now that Article 370 has been abrogated, how should mainstream political parties in Kashmir go ahead?

SR: We don’t even know if the crisis is still unfolding or has it ended. We don’t actually know what India is planning. There might be de-limitation of the Jammu and Kashmir next. So I think when all the political leaders come out (of detention), there should be a consultation on how to go forward — depending on what all has happened until then.

Most of the politicians in Kashmir have been arrested or put under house detention, including your party leader Shah Faesal. Why do you think you were not detained?

SR: It is up to the government. Everyone should have been out, because we are not criminals or fugitives. All these arrests are illegal and undemocratic.

After the abrogation of Article 370, have the Kashmiri mainstream political parties and the politicians lost faith in Indian constitution?

SR: I cannot speak on behalf of all the mainstream political parties, but the people have definitely lost the faith in the Indian constitution. It is very hard to keep faith in these times. We definitely don’t have faith in the ruling party. The BJP is out to kill democracy. But we have faith in the judiciary.

After the revocation of Kashmir’s special status, do you think Kashmir’s pro-India political parties were rendered irrelevant and the separatist parties gained more relevance?

SR: I can’t say who has become irrelevant or relevant. I don’t know about pro-freedom leaders. If anything will be strengthened by it (abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomy), it is the armed insurgency and that is the biggest worry. It has strengthened the case for armed insurgency because that is exactly what the insurgent groups say about India. And India just proved them right.

If there is a protest call given by pro-freedom groups in Kashmir against the abrogation of Article 370, will you join the protests?

SR: I would join the protest call given by my own party. I am a part of a political party. So I will only join protest calls that are either given by my party or supported by my party.

EDITOR’S NOTE: New Delhi police filed two cases against Shehla Rashid on September 6, 2019. The interview was conducted on August 21, 2019. 

The First Information Report (FIR) against Shehla Rashid has been filed under Indian Penal Code Section 124-A (Sedition), 153-A (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony), and 153 (wantedly giving provocation with intent to cause riot). 

This interview has been edited and condensed.