Enforced disappearances are a serious problem in almost all regions of the world; however, in the conflict-affected regions like Kashmir, the forced disappearance is being used as a political weapon to subjugate and silence the dissenting voices and instill a sense of fear in the society. The region that has undergone intermittent periods of sporadic violence since 1989 continues to be in the whirlwind of state oppression that has led to killings and forced disappearances of innocent Kashmiris by the Indian forces on an enormous scale. Decades’ long conflict had left tens of thousands of Kashmiris dead; more than 7000 bodies of missing persons still lay buried in unmarked and unknown mass graves unearthed in and around the Kashmir valley.
It was almost a decade back, that the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir released an eye-opening report on mass graves in the IoK. The report titled ‘Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves made a shocking revelation about the existence of 2,700, unnamed mass graves, containing 2,943 bodies, across 55 villages in Bandipora, Baramulla, and Kupwara districts of Kashmir. “Of these, 87.9 percent were unnamed, 154 contained two bodies each and 23 contained between three to 17 bodies”, the report said adding that the government of India should allow an independent inquiry to ascertain the facts.
Years have passed but family members of enforced disappeared persons still continue to wander from pillar to post trying to exercise their rights to know the whereabouts of their loved ones. Social, psychological, legal, and financial effects of this tragedy of immense proportions have made their lives a living hell. The painful saga of half-widows is yet another off-shoot of this illegal and ignominious practice of enforced disappearance in Kashmir. As per reports, the number of ‘half-widows’ in Kashmir are around 2,500. It is feared that the bodies buried in these unmarked graves are of the missing husbands of the half-widows who have been picked up from their homes and disappeared after getting killed in the custody of the Indian army. On July 10, 2008, the EU Parliament passed a resolution lending support for the investigations into the discovery of mass graves and enforced disappearances.
Unfortunately, the Indian authorities are reluctant to acknowledge the very existence of mass graves and to hold an inquiry despite the fact that the State Human Rights Commission in 2009 took a suo moto notice of the report. A special investigation team that was tasked to conduct an inquiry confirmed the presence of 2,730 unidentified bodies buried across 37 sites in the three districts of north Kashmir. Citing lack of technology, expertise, and human resources the Indian government refused to conduct the investigations, even though the European Parliament had offered financial assistance to take it forward. In November 2017, SHRC unearthed 2080 unmarked and unknown mass graves in Poonch and Rajouri district in IoK. Till now there has neither been a probe nor an Action Taken Report from the government.
In Kashmir, more than 8000 – 10, 000 cases of enforced and involuntary disappearances have been reported since 1989. The government of India (GoI), however, had grossly underreported the number of forcibly disappeared persons – something that many victims and rights groups have contested publicly. The GoI puts the number of enforced disappearances at 4,000. This discrepancy in the number has been highlighted by the OHCHR in its first-ever report released in June 2018.
Since the early 1990s, rights groups have time and again regretted the rising trend of enforced disappearances in the region urging New Delhi to stop the vicious cycle of violence. But the Indian state has miserably failed in bringing to justice the military, paramilitary and police personnel who have been found guilty of abducting civilians, murdering them in fake encounters just to get a promotion or cash reward.
Kashmir happens to be the only place in the world where men in uniform are being awarded cash money and gallantry awards for killing innocent civilians. Using civilians as human shields and terrorize and torture people have become a norm; rape has been leveraged as a ‘weapon of war’ by the so-called Indian security forces. During the years of turmoil, many Indian soldiers and even the top-rank officers have been found involved in these heinous crimes but no soldier was ever punished or held accountable.
As per the international law Enforced disappearance is considered a crime against humanity. The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (2010) compels States to fight enforced disappearance in their respective territories. In particular, it affirms the right of individuals to know the fate of their disappeared relatives and to obtain justice and reparation.
The Indian authorities’ perpetual denial to respect the international law and the fundamental rights of the Kashmiri people is gravely threatening peace and stability in the restive region. It is time that the world should come forward in a big way and compel the Indian state to halt gross and systematic human rights violations in the region.
Tale piece: The world’s inaction would only further embolden the occupying power (India) to escalate its actions with impunity in Kashmir.
The writer is Chairman Kashmir Institute of International Relations and Vice Chairman JKNF