The International Committee of the Red Cross hasn’t been able to work in India-held Kashmir since it was stripped of its political autonomy on August 5, foreign aid workers are not being issued visas and Kashmiris are being left without support.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has stopped its humanitarian works in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir ever since August 5, when the Indian government stripped the region of its political autonomy and enforced a security and communications clampdown that continues to this day in some form or other.
The Indian government had in 2016 only stopped ICRC officials from visiting jails and working for inmates, which was the Geneva-based organisation’s key mission in Kashmir, approved after it signed a Memorandum of Understanding in the mid-90s with the Indian government.
Simultaneously, the ICRC had also been helping released prisoners who were struggling to earn livelihoods. Families whose only breadwinners were in prisons also received such help. The ICRC also helped the families that couldn’t afford travel and other expenses incurred on visiting their kin in jails.
That the ICRC’s low-key programmes have come to a standstill became evident only after media reported that many people have not been able to visit their family members jailed thousands of miles away from their homes in various Indian cities, such as the family of Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, a 70-year-old longtime activist of religio-political organisation Jamaat-i-Islami, who was detained in July last year.
Police had informed Bhat’s son Muhammad Hanif Bhat on December 24 last year, that he should travel to Allahabad, 1,500 kms away from his home, in Uttar Pradesh state of India, and fetch his father whose release from preventive detention had been sanctioned by the authorities concerned. Hanif told him that they couldn’t afford travel—for a return trip, it would cost two people about Rs 30,000 ($424).
Besides, Hanif told the police, they should bring him home the way he was taken away. The family had not seen or talked to Ghulam Muhammad since his detention.
In the makeshift mortuary of Allahabad Jail, however, four bodies were shown to Hanif. He took no time in identifying his father who was wearing the same clothes he had on four months ago when he was detained. Hanif said the only other layer of clothing his father had been provided was a flimsy sweater that was no match for the cold nights of the place.
The Bhats and other families like them usually turned to the ICRC for help in such cases. But India’s decision to abrogate laws that granted autonomy to Kashmir, besides downgrading its status further by dividing it into two federally ruled Union Territories, has left the ICRC clueless.
“ICRC didn’t know how it was supposed to operate in a Union Territory. Whether laws guiding its presence in Jammu and Kashmir had changed after it ceased to be a state. How would laws related to foreign funding work in the Union Territory and other such questions,” said a government official who has been engaging with international humanitarian organisations in Kashmir.
The ICRC has a longstanding policy of avoiding media and directly engaging with governments.
Besides the livelihood support programme and assistance to prisoners’ families, the ICRC organised training for health professionals of the Jammu and Kashmir government. In the past, the organisation trained hundreds of junior security officers, media professionals and rights activists to human rights during dozens of seminars. During emergencies like 2005 earthquake and 2014 floods, the ICRC also carried out relief missions.
The August 5 decision has left unaffected only the working of the two ICRC-funded artificial limb centres in Srinagar and Jammu cities.
Jail visits and meetings with government officials were primarily conducted by ICRC’s foreign staffers, who would often travel from its office in New Delhi to Kashmir. But only Kashmiri and Indian employees have been operating the offices since the BJP government stopped issuing visas to its foreign staff.
The ruling right-wing perceives NGOs as an impediment to its vision of nation building and economic growth. In February 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said NGOs were acting as fronts for foreign lobby organisations or terrorist groups conspiring to destabilise India and defame him.
At least 25 Indian NGOs have lost licences to receive international funding because of their “anti-national” activities and thousands others for failing to renew licences.
But governments of all hues have been uneasy about the presence of international organisations in Kashmir because unsavoury details about India’s brutal anti-insurgency war had been exposed to international scrutiny.
WikiLeaks in 2010 revealed that US diplomats in Delhi had been briefed by the ICRC staff about the use of electrocution, beatings and sexual humiliation against hundreds of Kashmiri detainees.
An April 2005 cable from the US embassy in Delhi had reported that the ICRC had become frustrated with the Indian government for not acting to halt the "continued ill-treatment of detainees".
ICRC staff had told the US diplomats that between 2002 and 2004, they had met 1,491 Kashmiri detainees in 177 detention centres in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere.
Of the 1,296 inmates interviewed privately, 852 reported ill treatment, 171 described being beaten and 681 said they had been subjected to one or more of six forms of torture: electric shocks, being suspended from the ceiling, their muscles crushed in their legs by prison personnel sitting on a bar placed across their thighs, stretched by being ‘split 180 degrees’, water and ‘sexual’ assault’.
The ICRC was the first major international organisation to enter Kashmir. Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Holland, Save the Children and Action Aid International followed. MSF had to face the government’s ire for releasing a comprehensive report documenting the trauma suffered by nearly the entire Kashmiri population While the ICRC works with local Red Cross societies in India, the MSF, Save the Children and Action Aid now have Indian chapters.