HRW asks India to 'reverse its abusive policies and provide remedies for those whose rights were violated'
NEW YORK: The Human Rights Watch slammed India on Tuesday for its continued use of "harsh and discriminatory restrictions" in Kashmir ahead of the one-year anniversary of New Delhi's revocation of the occupied territory.
"The government’s unwarranted restraints on the rights to free speech, access to information, health care, and education have been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic," noted the rights group in a statement.
“Indian government claims that it was determined to improve Kashmiri lives ring hollow one year after the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status,” said South Asia director at Human Rights Watch Meenakshi Ganguly.
“The authorities instead have maintained stifling restraints on Kashmiris in violation of their basic rights,” said Ganguly.
The watchdog noted that prominent political leaders, including three former chief ministers, were among the thousands detained to prevent protests in the disputed valley. It also added that the Indian police has told the courts that 144 children have also been taken into custody.
HRW noted that there have also been several allegations of new arrests, torture, and ill-treatment by Indian security forces. It added that the Indian government has also used harsh counter-terrorism and sedition laws to clamp down on peaceful critics.
The group also raised questions regarding the new media policy imposed in the disputed valley by the Indian authorities. The group said the law allows officials to determine what is “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national activities” and to take punitive action against media outlets, journalists, and editors.
"The policy contains vague and overbroad provisions that are open to abuse and could unnecessarily restrict and penalize legally protected speech," said the statement. The group said international law provides that restrictions on freedom of expression must be necessary for a legitimate purpose, such as the protection of national security, public health, or the rights of others, and strictly proportionate to achieve that end.
The government crackdown adversely affected livelihoods, particularly in the tourism-dependent Kashmir Valley, Human Rights Watch said. It cited the figures from the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries that estimated that the first three months of the lockdown to prevent protests since August 2019 cost the economy over $2.4 billion, for which no redress has been provided. It also added that losses have nearly doubled since the government imposed further restrictions to contain COVID-19 in March.
Soon after students returned to classes following the lifting of restrictions on movement, the government announced the COVID-19 lockdown. Without proper internet, students are often unable to attend online classes.
The group asked the Indian authorities to take "immediate steps to protect rights by releasing political detainees; upholding the right to free speech, including by withdrawing cases against journalists and activists; restoring full internet access; and holding to account officials responsible for rights violations".
“Even as the pandemic is forcing the world to address discrimination and inequality, the Indian government is persisting with its repression of Kashmiri Muslims,” noted Ganguly. He asked India to "reverse its abusive policies and provide remedies for those whose rights were violated".
Last year on August 5, the Indian government rushed through a presidential decree to abolish Article 370 of the Constitution which granted special status to Indian occupied Kashmir, as tensions mounted in the disputed valley with unprecedented numbers of Indian troops deployed in the region.
Indian Home Minister Amit Shah had introduced a resolution to scrap Article 370 in Rajya Sabha, which revoked the special status granted to occupied Kashmir and made the state a Union Territory with the legislature.
The occupied valley has been bifurcated into two Union territories – Jammu and Kashmir, which will have a legislature, and Ladakh, which will be without a legislature, the home minister had said, amid uproar from the opposition in the Upper House.
Article 370 of the Indian Constitution is a 'temporary provision' which grants special autonomous status to occupied Kashmir. All the provisions of the Constitution which are applicable to other states are not applicable to occupied Kashmir.
According to this article, except for defence, foreign affairs, finance and communications, the Indian Parliament needs the state government's concurrence for applying all other laws. The residents of occupied Kashmir, therefore, live under a separate set of laws as compared to Indian citizens elsewhere in the country, including those related to citizenship, ownership of property, and fundamental rights.
Article 35A which stems from Article 370 was introduced through a Presidential Order in 1954. This article empowers the legislature of occupied Kashmir to define the state’s permanent residents and their special rights and privileges.
Under Article 35A, Indian citizens from other states cannot purchase land or property in occupied Kashmir.