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Grave Concerns

Unmarked graves & half-widows


HEAR, HEAR: Affected families have resorted to demonstrations and protests.

The official confirmation of over 2, 000 bodies in unmarked graves in Kashmir exhumes a truth that families, whose men disappeared, have lived with for years.

"These look like sad, mournful dunes of mud basically, like faceless sleeping ghosts. . . . Five pretend graves in three days - I will never be able to finish this but someone will at last discover them some day and tell others about what he has seen. . . "
- From 'The Collaborator'
by Mirza Waheed

Kashmiri writer and former BBC journalist Mirza Waheed whose novel was published earlier this year spelled out his reason for fictionalising real events. In an interview he said that in this bizarre age that we live in "we see novels that make reality more real". His dark tale on Kashmiri youths who disappeared in the 90s is a stunning denouement on an issue that the state, for years, has been in deep denial of.

Last week, what Waheed had perforce to disguise as fiction, was acknowledged by officialdom. Three police officials confirmed what had at first been just whispered about and then become Kashmir's most open secret - the presence of nameless, unidentified graves, some of them mass graves, in remote districts near the Pakistan border.

Although the state human rights commission still has to submit its findings, media reports say that official sources have confirmed the presence of 2, 156 unidentified bodies in such graves in four districts of Kashmir.

It is widely believed that the graves contain the bodies of thousands of men who were victims of enforced disappearances, of extra-judicial killings and fake encounters conducted by security personnel or the state-recruited militia of renegade militants called Ikhwanis. The state has long held that the youths who disappeared had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) to become militants. Now, officials who conducted the probe, have asked for DNA sampling to compare them with next of kin of people who suddenly "disappeared".

The state's probe has come in the wake of a sustained campaign by the Kashmiri people and civil society for answers on what happened to an estimated 8, 000 people who disappeared during the militancy.

In Kashmir, mourning the dead is a customary practice of dissent. Graveyards are well-maintained and cared for by local people and organisations, so when clandestine graveyards and often unmarked, unnatural graves began springing up, shivers of suspicion went down the spines of Kashmiri people and civil society.

The Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCS) along with Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) began its own investigations and thereby uncovered the gory truth. Says Khurram Parvez of JKCS, "In one instance in North Kashmir the official version was that the graves were those of foreign extremists. But locals said the faces had been mutilated. We investigated 50 cases in which bodies were exhumed through court orders. Of them 46 bodies were identified as locals. Only one was that of a militant. "

The findings were then re-verified and research was extended to other districts like Bandipora, Kupwara and Baramulla under the constitution of the International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir. The research on 2700 graves conducted between November 2006 and December 2009 entitled "Buried Evidence" was presented to the home ministry and chief minister Omar Abdullah in 2009.

Demonstrations and protests by the affected families who have waited in anguish have added weight to the written word. Parveena Ahangar, who founded the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, cannot forget August 18, 1990, the day her 19-year-old, Javed Ahmad Ahangar, was picked up by security troops from Batmaloo in Srinagar. "There was a crackdown and a number of boys from the locality were rounded up. Later the boys were released but not my son, " she says. Javed had a stutter, and Ahangar believes that perhaps it was his impediment that prevented him from providing quick answers to the troops.
Witnesses told her he was paraded naked in the neighbourhood. "I was distraught and wanted to tear my clothes in grief. I went in search of him everywhere. I was told that the troops would release him but when that did did not happen I filed a case in the police station. "

Thus began a systematic search for her son in all jails that housed detainees. The elusive hunt took her from the jails of Jodhpur, Jammu, Meerut, Heeranagar to Tihar in Delhi. She made the rounds of detention centres like the infamous Papa II in Srinagar and knocked on every possible door for justice. A habeas corpus petition filed in court is still pending. It has only exposed the helplessness of the judicial system, which has been unable to get the concerned defence unit to appear in court.

But over time Ahangar realised that she wasn't alone. Not highly educated, she says that when she began her association in 1994 she possessed no telephone or documents. All she had was a shared grief. Her movement, which began with a little documentation work and then routine protests in a public park in Srinagar now has over 500 members. A centre established in 2010 has begun the painstaking task of documenting the disappearances. Zahoor Wani, who works at the centre, explains the difficulties. "The state has maintained that the youths must have crossed the LoC and gone to Pakistan. In those early days of militancy very few families dared to file FIRs. In the absence of FIRs our search for authentication becomes really challenging. "
The APDP also looks at the fallout of enforced disappearance, its economic impact on families and and tries to provide necessary succour. The movement might not have come up with accurate statistics but has succeeded immensely in highlighting the issue. The plight of "half widows", of single women heading households after husbands went missing has found resonance in almost every section of Kashmiri society. The term half-widow evolved because customary Islamic law deemed them ineligible to marry again for a number of years. Nor can they avail of monetary and other widow benefits.

Most harrowing of all is the lack of closure, the inability to get on with life because of not knowing. Ahangar recalls the agony of Mughli, a single mother whose son disappeared. In the last few days of her life she had taken to talking to her hookah because she had no one else. "I promised her that I will continue with the search for her son, " vows Ahangar.

So will the SHRC's belated admission of what has been a burning issue in Kashmir help resolve the pain? Its findings have prompted chief minister Omar Abdullah to call for the setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to unearth human rights violations.

For rights activists such as Umar Qadiri of the Centre for Law and Development (CLD), such talk is mockery. Qadiri, an exengineer, now works with CLD which has done extensive documentation work on human rights and has collaborated on a monograph to show the impossibility of justice for victims in Kashmir and the failure of courts. "When judiciary cannot even uphold its own decisions and when the dispute is still going on, how can one speak of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee?" he demands. "Such a Committee works only when victimisation has stopped, when enforced disappearances stop taking place. The numbers might have come down but extra-judicial killings are still on. " Ironically his words echo Waheed's final pages:

"I am aware that these bodies, these remains of our 'disappeared' boys might serve as evidence one day. . . for someone to order a judicial inquiry. But then, who actually cares or does anything in the end? No one is ever punished here. "

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