In a jam-packed room of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in the summer capital, Srinagar, people stood in shock. A man in his late sixties was pleading before the judge for a dead man. Government forces after arresting the dead man had inserted an iron rod through his rectum making holes in his intestines, liver, diaphragm and lungs. The old man who wasn’t schooled to be a lawyer wasn’t seeking blood money. He told the court: “We the Kashmiris have the right to die in a decent way”.
The old man wasn’t a legal greenhorn. In a time of unabated human rights abuses— at the beginning of a militant fight against the Indian rule in Kashmir— Hriday Nath Wanchoo had earned a supreme distinction of chronicling the rights abuses which were rampant.
Born on May 25th, 1925, in a middle-class family in Old City’s Ganpatyar, Wanchoo since childhood was moved by the plight of down-trodden. It was, therefore, no surprise that he during his student life joined the freedom movement against Dogra rule and was sent to prison at least twice.
After graduation from the Lahore University in 1947, the humanist joined the Red Cross society to help the poor. Few years later he went on to join Srinagar Municipality. It was Wanchoo’s untiring efforts which led to regularisation of thousands of sweepers in the organisation. There was another side to this social engineer. In 1960s he founded a consumer society exclusively for the poor sections of the society at no profit no loss basis. By opening a school for the children from poor families, he ensured an honorable place for them in the society.
His vein of conscience didn’t died when the militant insurgency erupted in the Himalayan region in 1989. In fact his work become sharper. Writer K Singh Balgh wrote: “How could a person like Wanchoo remain aloof? His age didn’t allow him to fight with a gun. He decided to expose the apostles of Ahinsa by documenting and highlighting human rights violations.”
Those who worked with Wanchoo at the peak of militancy say he would come out of his home in Balgarden with a bunch of files in his hands early morning and spend the day in the court arguing for the rights of Kashmir people. He would file Habeaus corpus petitions in the High Court asking the government to produce hundreds of illegally detained people. Author Balraj Puri writes: “No human rights activist in Kashmir has done such a methodical work in complete objectivity in documenting human rights violations in the Valley.”
In those dark times, he would visit far flung area to collect data and visit hospitals to console the wounded. A political commentator notes Wanchoo would send letters, petitions to embassies of different countries, prime ministers and presidents about rights abuses and would appraise the delegations from foreign countries visiting Kashmir about the ground situation. The government never liked his work, he recalls.
His work came as an embarrassment for the government particularly when he in a landmark effort met a team of Amnesty International in November 1992 and provided the world’s biggest human right group with concrete proof of human rights abuses in the region.
“He didn’t run away from the Vale. Instead he stayed back and falsified the claims of administration that the ongoing struggle was communally motivated. While migrants were taking out processions in Jammu and Delhi to malign the struggle, Wanchoo was busy filing petitions in the court to expose the apostles of Ahimsa,” Balgh wrote in an article titled ‘Wanchoo the humanist he was’.
To make the point, Wanchoo had unsuccessfully filed a petition in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court to assert his right as a Kashmiri to travel freely across the Line of Control.
In the December of next year, the man who recorded the death of every person in the valley and was a relentless foe of the government detention and torture was lured from his home by three men and shot dead.
The government blamed a militant group for Wanchoo’s killing, but human rights defenders see a government hand in the killing. The government claims his work had a secularising effect and therefore he had become a thorn for Muslim militants.
But the Amnesty International in its report stated Wanchoo may have been extra-judicially executed because he was one of the most vocal human rights activists in Kashmir. The Amnesty’s view was also toed by various other human rights groups.
The government booked Wanchoo posthumously. In a charge-sheet filed before the addition session judge of Jammu, police accused him of bringing arms from Pakistan administered Kashmir and harbouring militants. “The DSP crime Jammu, who in his attempt to try Wanchoo posthumously, claims in his charge-sheet that his murder spread a wave of happiness among patriotic Hindus of Jammu, particularly Nagrota, who distributed sweets on the occasion,” Balraj Puri noted in the article titled ‘Wanchoo: posthumous persecution’.
Author Sumatra Bose, who is a professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, in his book Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace thinks that government had a role to play in Wanchoo’s death. “Between 1992 and 1994 several prominent members of the Srinagar intelligentsia known for independent convictions and JKLF leanings were mysterious murdered. Some of these killings— including that of Hriday Nath Wanchoo, a Pandit human rights activists were probably the work of elements within the Indian security establishment,” he wrote.
The New York Times in a report published on April 18, 1993, noted: “Although each of these men was a foe of the Indian Government, there is no conclusive proof of who killed Mr. Wanchoo and Dr. Guru. But in the valley and here in Srinagar, people are firmly convinced that they were assassinated by the Government to end their determined publicizing of Government atrocities.”
In the courtroom Wanchoo had pleaded for dignified death of Kashmir people, but little did he know that destiny had not acceded to his wish to die in a decent way.
The article was first published on 10 December, 2013 in Kashmir Dispatch.