The Human Rights Commission of the Indian-controlled portion of the state of Jammu and Kashmir has just reported that it has found 38 unmarked sites with thousands of bodies. Several hundred of these it is believed are of civilians who went missing since the onset of an indigenous ethno-religious insurgency that erupted in 1989.
Questions now will inevitably be raised about how the identified civilians met this tragic fate. Allegations of human rights violations have long dogged India’s security forces as they sought to suppress the insurgency. Some of these claims were frivolous and politically motivated. However, they can’t all be so dismissed. In virtually every counter-insurgency campaign from the French in Algeria, the British in Kenya and the Americans in Vietnam and later in Iraq, otherwise highly professional armed forces have resorted to harsh tactics to extract information and have meted out arbitrary punishment. It would strain credibility to argue that, at least on occasion, India’s security forces didn’t exceed their brief.
It would be churlish to rush to judgment and issue a blanket condemnation of soldiers and paramilitary forces who witnessed the transformation of a domestic uprising transformed into an externally-manipulated, well-armed, ideologically-charged and lavishly-funded extortion racket over the better part of a decade. Simultaneously, the plight of those exhumed from these mass graves can’t be ignored.
Political authorities both in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar as well as the national government in New Delhi shouldn’t even attempt to sweep the dirt under a carpet. Instead, they should forthrightly seek to ascertain the identities of those whose bodies have been uncovered, inform their aggrieved relatives, make public the information about the likely causes of their deaths and to the extent that it is possible mete out condign punishment to the perpetrators.
Pakistan’s complicity in fanning discontent in Kashmir aside, the Indian state has to come to terms with its own democratic deficit in Kashmir, especially during the long years of the insurgency. An honest and candid admission of its flawed policies and dubious choices may actually have a cathartic effect on the long-traumatized population of the state. The horror and shock that the discovery of these graves brings might actually be an opportunity for the state’s political leadership, and that at the national level, to atone for some of the misdeeds of their predecessors.
(Sumit Ganguly is the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations and a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington and author, co-author of twenty books on South Asia. )