– N.D. Pancholi
In the sad demise of Shri Balraj Puri at Jammu India has lost a great champion of human rights and a political analyst of high repute. He was 86. He was participant in momentous political events such like ‘Quit India Movement’ of 1942’ and ‘Quit Kashmir Movement’ of 1946’ in association with Sheikh Abdullah and Pt. Prem Nath Bazaz against Dogra Ruler Maharaja Hari Singh. He did his utmost to prevent outbreak of communal violence or check its spread in Jammu in 1947 and on many occasions thereafter- even at the risk of his life. Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, sought his opinion on Kashmir affairs on crucial occasions. Puri always tried to bridge the gap between Nehru and the Sheikh Abdullah. He rendered great help in the conclusion of Indira-Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah Accord in 1974.
Puri’s activities encompassed various fields– from active social and political to academic and journalistic work of high standard. His friends and associate are writing about his many-faceted work elsewhere. However, I would confine here myself to some aspects of his human right work in which I had the privilege to associate with him on few occasions.
Jayprakash Narayan had inaugurated the Citizens For Democracy in April 1974 at Delhi and he became its founding member. I came in touch with him at that time. He was also founding member of the PUCL in 1976. He was member of the National Council of both the organizations for several years and was very active.
Militancy had started in Kashmir at the end of 1989 and by the start of January 1990 Jammu & Kashmir was under Governor’s rule under Jagmohan. Militancy was at its height leading to killings of large number of people– both Muslims and non-Muslims whom the militants suspected as government agents and it led to exodus of Kashmiri Pandits on large scale. On the other hand the entire Kashmir valley was placed under army rule and the Kashmir police was sent to the barracks by Jagmohan as he suspected almost all the Kashmiris. Clashes between militants and security forces were the daily occurrences and indiscriminate firings by the security forces in retaliation was resulting into large number of casualties of the innocent people. Curfew used to be imposed between 21 to 22 hours daily which was causing great deal of misery and hardship to the people and this situation continued for several months. Patriotic Indian journalists were crying for blood and asking Governor to block the electricity, water supply and the other essential necessities from reaching the people with a view to discipline them. There were frantic messages to the PUCL and CFD from the people in the valley requesting for sending a team to investigate into human rights violation by the security forces.
It was with the initiative and assistance of Balraj Puri that a team of PUCL & CFD was formed for the purpose which visited the valley in the last week of March 1990. The team members were Justice V.M. Tarkunde (Retd.), Justice Rajinder Sachar (Retd.), Balraj Puri, Inder Mohan, Ranjan Dewedi, T.S. Ahuja and myself. On the first day when we were at Hazaratbal in Srinagar in connection with an incident, suddenly 4/5 militants with AK-47 rifles appeared and began to enquire about us and our purpose. Our local guide conversed with them in Kashmiri. However he told the militants that we were Christians and not Hindus as he felt afraid that militants might do some harm if they come to know that team members were Hindus. We did not know Kashmiri but Balraj Puri knew and as soon as he heard the team members being described as Christians he became angry and reprimanded our guide. He told the militants that we were not Christians but Hindus and that we were not representing the Govt. or any party but were representing Indian Human Rights Organizations and had come to the valley for the cause of ‘Insani Haquq’. Militants appeared to be confused and after some deliberations among themselves disappeared from the scene.
The report which was brought out by the team exposed the darker side of the rule of Jagmohan at that time and was widely discussed and debated nationally and internationally. Subsequently several human rights teams used to visit the Kashmir valley and in most of them Balraj puri either used to be part of the team or adviser. He not only took up the issues of human rights violations in Kashmir but also of Punjab, North-East and other parts of India.
He had deep commitment for human rights issues and his whole life was a supreme dedication to the cause of secularism. He has always been a great inspiration to me and many others in the human rights movement.