Exhuming the Indian Army's Brutality in Kashmir

Late last month, the Hindu newspaper published an interview with Parveena Ahangar, the chairperson of an organization with one of the strangest and saddest names: the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir. The persons who "disappeared," now numbering in the thousands, were all Kashmiri youths. Picked up by the police or the Indian Army over the last two decades, they were never seen again, and remain alive in public memory only because of the collective will of their grieving parents.

For years, the parents of the disappeared have tried not to make the traumatic connection between their missing sons and unofficial reports of bodies buried secretly, sometimes by the dozen, by Indian security forces after "encounters" with alleged militants in the restive, unhappy and highly militarized Kashmir Valley. In turn, the Indian state denied that it killed anybody other than militants, and insisted that the missing had escaped across the Kashmiri border into Pakistan.
But in August, after years of pressure from reports circulated by the parents’ association and the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights, the Indian state was forced to acknowledge for the first time that there were more than 2,000 unidentified people buried in mass graves at different sites in Kashmir. Many of them had been labeled as "foreign militants," but the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission said that more than 500 bodies had been identified by Kashmiri family members. The Indian Express reported:

For the first time in Jammu and Kashmir, an official inquiry has said that it is “beyond doubt” that there are scores of unidentified bodies in unmarked graves in the Valley — as many as 2156 bodies buried at 38 sites since militancy began in 1990. […]

All these bodies, according to an inquiry by the investigative wing of the J&K State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), were handed over by the police to the local population for burial…and were classified as “unidentified militants.” […] The team scoured police records to count the number of “unidentified bodies” sent for burial, cross-checked this against testimonies from police officials, eyewitnesses, village committees, village heads, elders, mosque committees, gravediggers and records prepared by caretakers of the graveyards.

Held since 1947 by India as its only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir is claimed by Pakistan, and has been wracked since 1990 by a violent insurgency, partly sponsored by Pakistan, that has matured over the years into a homegrown intifada — the word is used self-consciously by Kashmiris — that has largely abandoned the use of guns in an effort to distinguish itself from the bloodshed of the past.

The disclosure of the mass graves, corroborated by several macabre interviews with undertakers in Kashmiri newspapers, was an embarrassment to both the Indian government and to the government of the state, which is run by the "pro-India" National Conference but effectively concedes power on the ground to the Indian Army.
But the real constituency for whom these reports should act as an eye-opener is the 1 billion or so Indian citizens in the rest of the country, most of whom have never been to Kashmir, understand its problems through the distorted lens of the mainstream national media, and maintain a narrowly nationalist position toward Kashmiri demands for azadi, or independence. For instance, when Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer and dissident, publicly backed the Kashmiri demand for independence last October, the response from the BJP, the main opposition party in Parliament, was to demand Roy’s arrest and declare that "anyone speaking against India should be hanged." The arrogance and hubris of that statement is shared by a large section of Indian opinion, and badly needs puncturing.
Very simply, no state can call itself a democracy that has kept such a large number of its citizens captive in a state of a permanent emergency for so long and that, as the reports on mass graves prove, has nurtured so many murky secrets. As much for the legitimacy of its own self-image as a democratic citizenry as out of sympathy for the rights of Kashmiris, Indian public opinion needs to ask harder questions of the government about the efficacy of the approach to the Kashmir issue. The public also needs to interrogate (and perhaps force to be rescinded) the laws and statutes that have allowed India to behave, effectively, like a police state in the northernmost corner of its domain, even as it works with evident pride to refine and improve democratic functioning elsewhere in the country.

Most draconian among these legal exceptions is an emergency law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA, which has been in place in Kashmir for more than 20 years and gives the military the kind of authority that it might enjoy in a police state. As the Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer, who wrote a striking essay last year describing the Kashmiri experience of the Indian occupation, explained in a piece on the issue of mass graves in Foreign Policy:
India continues to garrison half a million soldiers in Kashmir, nearly three times the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at the peak of the occupation. And India’s half-century-old Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which was extended to Kashmir in 1990, gives troops the legal authority to shoot any person they suspect of being a threat and guarantees them immunity from prosecution. To bring a soldier before a civilian court requires the permission of India’s Home Affairs Ministry; there are more than 400 cases still waiting for permission to prosecute troops known to have killed Kashmiri noncombatant civilians.

This explains why women such as Parveena Ahangar, who have lost their sons to the long dark night of the hydra-headed insurgency-occupation-independence movement, continued last month to insist that the official acknowledgment of mass graves was of no utility unless it resulted in changes in the law. On Sept. 26, Vinay Kumar reported in the Hindu:
Last week, the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission raised hope that Ms. Ahangar, and hundreds of other parents like her, might one day get an answer to their question. It ordered a “representative, structured” body to establish the identity of more than 2,000 men buried in unidentified graves in northern Kashmir. […] While Ms. Ahangar welcomes the decision, she isn’t celebrating. “The Army, the police, the BSF, CRPF [other paramilitary organizations] and others know where our sons are,” she says, “because it is they who picked them up in the name of interrogation. We have filed complaints with the police and lodged FIRs but nothing has moved over the past two decades.”

Ms. Ahangar argues that progress will only be possible when AFSPA is withdrawn from J&K. There is no reason, she says, to “give such powers to armed forces who use them in an arbitrary manner. Such laws have no place in a civilised, democratic society.”

So Ahangar would have been heartened to hear about the cross-country rally to protest against the AFSPA, starting in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, on Oct. 16. It will end 11 days later more than 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles) away in north-eastern Manipur, another state where the Act is in force and has been misused to blur the line between insurgents and dissenters.

A workable template for what may serve as a vision of political justice in Kashmir has for more than six decades eluded India, Pakistan, and the United Nations, largely because of the self-interest and caprice of the two great powers of the subcontinent. But in the meantime, Kashmiris would surely appreciate if the state demonstrated a commitment to justice at least in the legal sense of the word. The abandonment of this value, building up over the years, has resulted in the dreadful and damning testimony of the bones and skulls in mass graves in 2011.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com