Amnesty International Director, Programs (India), Shahshikumar Velath and campaigner, Sanhita Ambast, tell JEHANGIR ALI that the J&K government is falsifying the age of children to ‘put them out of circulation.’
KL: You have been campaigning in Kashmir for revocation of the draconian Public Safety Act. Has the government made any commitments to you?
SV: This visit was primarily an advocacy visit. We have been trying to get in touch with chief minister, Omar Abdullah, but it hasn’t happened which is disappointing. Otherwise we met all stakeholders across party lines including legislators, intellectuals, civil society members, Hurriyat leadership and people affected by violations. We had very successful engagements.
KL: India is signatory to a treat for protection of human rights. Despite this, there have been numerous instances of such violations in Kashmir. What is Amnesty doing in this regard?
SV: Amnesty has taken note of violations related to AFSPA, on the issue of unmarked graves, torture, and we have been regularly issuing press statements. These matters come up for discussions with various stakeholders. India has binding commitments with regard to international conventions it has signed – the conventions on civil and political rights. From that point of view, India must oppose any violations.
SA: The other interesting thing we highlighted in the context of our report was that the PSA is a state law and the primary responsibility for its repeal lies with the state government. The legislative assembly and the legislators across party lines can come together to repeal it. This does not require centre’s intervention.
SV: Administrative detentions lead to a system of informal justice. There is overwhelming evidence that administrative detention is not really a good practice. We are saying if there are charges against someone, file chargesheet and have a fair trial. The authorities do admit they use mechanism of administrative detention to put people out of circulation. It is not a good practice in a democracy to arrest or detain on the grounds of suspicion. It could be any one; it could be you walking on the street and they detain you on the grounds of suspicion to put you out of circulation. It is not a good practice is what we are asking the legislators and appealing them to think about it.
KL: Have you been given access to data on the exact number of detentions made by the government under PSA?
SV: No. In fact, there should be a centralized registry of all the detainees. It is very difficult to get this data and there is a figure based on newspaper reports that over the past 20 years, there are 15,600 PSA detainees. We have quoted that figure because that is the only accurate information about PSA detainees.
KL: Recent reports which appeared in Kashmir press suggested that 120 minors were detained this year by J&K police, although no official had come on record to say this.
SV: Access to data is a huge problem. In our March 20, 2011 report, we had special focus on detention of children. There are a bunch of amendments which say minors cannot be detained under PSA from April this year. But we have instance that the practice of arresting minors is still in place. These minors have been shown as above 18 years. So while they are 14 or 15, the authorities say they are 19 and arrest them under PSA. We are very concerned that if this is the practice, then amendments may not be able to help. They are circulating the amendments and falsifying the age of children.
The authorities claim they are not children but adults and show their age as above 18. They have done medical tests to prove that. So our submission was if that was the case, in the interest of transparency, good governance and good police factors, those medical reports should be made public.
KL: Is this the problem of accessing data only specific to Kashmir?
SV: Access to data is always a problem. We can talk through our experience on human rights issue. So far we have not worked for human rights issue in northeast states. We don’t have research output coming out from northeast. It is very difficult to make a comparative analysis. But certainly, at a global level, at 74 places across the world where we work, access to data is a problem because our job is to hold the states accountable whenever and wherever they are failing to protect human rights. So whenever you try to hold governments accountable, I am not sure they appreciate that they are being held accountable.
(Transcripted by Saima Bhat.)