Srinagar recently witnessed the brusque cancellation of Amnesty International India’s press briefing on the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act. In an atmosphere where voices of dissent are facing the heat, Zahoor Wani, a lesser known human rights activist from Kashmir is fighting tooth and nail to restore the sense of nonviolent activism in the valley.
Inside a chic café tucked in an English-style building at Srinagar’s Poloview, Zahoor Wani talks like an adept raconteur. He voices staggering stories of activism — be they coming from the heartland of Dal Lake, or from the defiant hinterlands of southern Kashmir. As an established activist now, he asserts that the concept of human rights can’t be placed in only social or political containers.
“Even access to potable water is an undeniable right that’s owed to the citizens,” says Wani, as we catch up in the café, on close heels of the denied presser.
His organization, Amnesty International India was lately cut short in Srinagar, ahead of its scheduled presser to release its third report, titled ‘Tyranny of a Lawless Law’, on Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act.
As Amnesty’s field researcher, Zahoor had pulled out all the stops for his field research, collecting data through RTIs from the government departments/authorities that primarily include J&K Police, Directorate of Prisons, Deputy Commissioners of 22 J&K districts, J&K SHRC, J&K High Court, etc.
Working on the report since April 2018, Wani traveled around 150 kilometres every day to meet ex-detainees, families, RTI activists, lawyers and local students involved in the movement against the rash and uncorroborated execution of JK-PSA.
As per his findings, most of the detainees were picked up from North Kashmir and caught in the system of ‘revolving door detentions’, where they were implicated in new orders and FIRs so as to prolong their imprisonment.
With a unique impression of the ongoing conflict, the man behind a plethora of globally-recognized reports on Kashmir conflict traces his journey as a little boy growing up during warring times.
“I was in ninth grade when I was picked up by the armed forces on a few times during crackdowns,” Wani reminiscences, amid growing din in the cafe. “They didn’t physically harm me but kept me in isolation for hours together.”
Such humiliating episodes greatly shaped his understanding and resolve to work towards bringing harmony. But before that, he had to slog his way out.
As a youngster, Wani recalls, he had moved with his cousin’s family to Srinagar for undergraduate studies during the valley’s most turbulent years. “When I was in my second year, our annual examinations were deferred half way for almost a year,” he recollects. That restricted routine had its own impact on his generation.
During those times, a weekly column run by the reputed Srinagar daily Greater Kashmir in collaboration with a South African-born environmentalist, Charles H Goshan, caught his eye.
“Goshan wrote about environmental issues and his postal address was given in the newspaper,” Wani recalls a memorable moment of his life. “I impulsively wrote a letter to him about my interest in ecological issues and to my surprise, he replied suggesting that I join him. That’s where my journey began. We established first environmental NGO in Kashmir called ‘Green Kashmir’.”
Soon Wani would start working on waste disposal in Dal Lake, which had begun to show signs of ecological damage due the unchecked rate of pollutants.
“We engaged with the J&K Pollution Control Board for six months followed by a short span of time with UEED,” the rights defender continues. “During that time, the Indian government had decided to take 10 lakes under its fold for conservation and Dal Lake was one among them.”
In order to leverage this opportunity, the duo of Wani-Goshan evolved their program. And today, the Dal Lake waste management plan is fully operative with Wani being one of the founders of the initiative.
“Like most small organisations, our members went their own ways after doing substantial work for the initiative,” the rights defender says. “That’s when I started HOPE, a modest union that worked for causes of women empowerment, afforestation and pollution alleviation.”
During the 2005 earthquake, Wani associated himself with Oxfam, a prominent non-profit group focusing on the alleviation of global poverty, as a co-ordinator in Uri. From 2007 to 2010, he worked as volunteer with APDP (Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons) and later as project manager for a United Nations supported project in the same organisation.
“We had to deal with real cases of physical and psychological torture,” he recounts. “It was chilling to see the plight of the families.”
Making a gradual transition from environmental issues to human rights, Wani built his profile on diverse and soul-stirring experiences. It was at the beginning of 2016 when he joined Amnesty International India as a full-time senior campaigner and became its first employee of Kashmiri origin.
“Since Amnesty does a lot of work in the valley, being the only Kashmiri in the team is really taxing,” he smiles. “We need more Kashmiris working for human rights as it would make everyone’s life a lot easier.”
He hopes that his work in Amnesty brings an end to the violence and starts a new era of non-violent discourse in the valley. “If the United States and Taliban can talk across a table, we can do it as well,” he says. “Our society needs to produce more advocates, activists and campaigners.”
Resolution in conflict, Wani says, is the prerogative of the commoners. “While people should raise their voices against any form of subjugation, armed forces in JK must abide by their duty to facilitate such resistance,” he says. “We need peace and dialogue.”
But even he realizes it that his job isn’t easy — as it invites risks and unwanted attention. Wani says he’s being constantly watched by different parties with varied interests. The activist has also been regularly harassed due to the nature of his work.
Unaffected by the difficulties of his profession, he says, “I’m quite satisfied with my growth curve, but I’ve a tremendous amount of stories to cover. My loyalties strictly lie with the citizens and as long my conscience is clear, my work will never stop.”
Drawing inspiration from Kashmiri women, he says, watching them combat the system with persistence and raise their children fills him with motivation. Living in tiny settlements scattered around the frontiers of Kashmir, Kashmiri women, Wani says, fight systematic oppression and patriarchy at the same time.
“They’re the real heroes and change-makers who’re only trying to normalise their lives,” the activist says. “The people working on their desks, merely documenting their struggle, are given the spotlight when these resilient women are the true fighters.”
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