Reconciliation and Human Dynamics

The mass graves unearthed across 28 graveyards in Baramulla, Bandipora, Handwara and Kupwara districts of Jammu and Kashmir revealing 2100 bodies in unmarked graves has sent a shiver down many spines in the Valley and within wider circles around the region. Given the region’s traumatic recent history, though, it would not be wrong to say that many disappearances, killings, tortures and rapes are but the more macabre aspects of the impact of the armed conflict between state and non-state actors. This is to be seen in the background of severely strained Centre-State relations and flouted federal contracts, the debilitating and suffocating militarisation of civilian rural and urban areas, the public humiliations and subjugation of elite and plebeian civilians, the strength, popularity and religious appeal of movements, displacements, hate crimes, the many sponsored Islamic fundamentalisms and the terror and violence of the militant movements of the late-1980s to late 1990s to date. Today, caught between militancy and security forces, two decades of brutal violence have left civil society exhausted.

Those whose loved ones have been killed or have ‘disappeared’ have had to live in with the constant sense of sudden loss, of mourning, of not knowing ‘why’. In a recent visit to a village in Pulwama, a widow pointed to her utensil shelf in her one-room house and said, ‘I have not moved his plate and glass, they lie there exactly as they were, since 2003… I miss him every single day.I want to know why they killed him’. A father in Bemina wants to perform his son’s last rites or have his son back; the young man, all of 23 years, ‘disappeared’ in 1997.  For these families, and perhaps also for the thousands of other households in Kashmir living with the daily void of missing kin, there is, in parallel, a sense of what Jonathan Glover (1988) researched and wrote, about an amputee ‘feeling’ the missing limb with absolute and complete certainty, to the extent of ‘experiencing’ movement, mobility and action with that limb. Last week, a man recounted how, growing up in Killora in the 1960s, his mother used to send across the milk from their family’s cow, every day, to poorer families in the village; the question of financial gain or transaction did not even arise. And today, he continued, we Kashmiris have learnt to keep quiet or avert our eyes to the destitution of parents, widows and children with callousness or indifference and without questioning the intimidation and fear visited upon us by the gun-whether militant or security. Yes, Kashmir has suffered, and lost a significant lot, from myopic vision, self-interest and co-option. 

Politics and political resolutions apart, the urgency is on the social sense of justice that needs to addressed. Loss is what many Kashmiris live, or have learnt to live, with, whether in livelihood, homes, kin, kith, health or in honour, dignity, hope, trust, compassion, and, peace. How do we, to refer to Ghalib, deal with the breaking and re-ordering of our worlds? How does one deal with grief and recover? Or gain relief from loss? Truth is required, but also the strength to deal with it and the ability to take responsibility for something larger, including our own complicity in the situation. A truth commission can document and expose injustice, but only to a limited extent since there is always more than one version to the ‘truth’. Witness the murkiness around the Shopian ‘deaths’ or even the recent Sopore killings of the two teenage sisters. As Michael Ignatieff wrote in the first volume of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report: ‘All that a truth commission can achieve is to reduce the number of lies that can be circulated unchallenged in public discourse’.

And, even with documentation, how do we make reparation? Some victims’ families and activists place a premium on punishment, with no amnesty. In this, of course, we place undue emphasis on governance and institutional functioning, many of which, if truly fulfilling their mandate, would have already contributed to the prevention and decline in the disappearances and killings. That they have not done so is part of the malaise. Some families have asked for accountability and for remorse from the perpetrators. This, they say, will bring relief to their incessant thoughts around the ‘why’ of the killing or disappearance and help them begin to heal. Implicit in this is the restorative power of truth-telling and remorse and the curative empowerment it can offer to the victims. This has been effective with public engagement and creates a common narrative which the perpetrator and victim help build in the presence and encouragement of the local community or wider region. While sundered communities and individuals can reach common understandings, it vindicates, publicly, the sufferer’s personal injury and helps re-shape how an individual re-looks at the future. Others wish for adequate material rehabilitation and compensation as a means to help them look to the future.

Some others feel that a situation of conflict is materially clearly present in Kashmir and that therefore processes for closure are both inappropriate and impractical. It is true that if the conditions- that led to the abuses and the psychosocial, economic and physical upheavals – are not changed the solutions found will not lead away from violence. It is equally true that the justice must be pursued, relentlessly. However, resolving the overarching situation between regions and nations need not, indeed cannot, be a precondition to the healing of individuals, families and communities. By this logic, the fester will transfer itself to yet more generations without necessarily helping- but probably negating- any resolution. Further, the perspective that conflict resolution is a precursor to conflict transformation breeds both complacency and lack of vision. Does reconciliation with wrong done reinforce the sense of fatalism? That depends on the way that reconciliation is effected. It needs a reaching out of governments in taking wrongs seriously but more important is the toba of the perpetrator of suffering caused, the need for closure in the individual and the sulh and musalaha forms appropriate to the specific context of the Kashmiri situation. The overall orientation here is towards rejuvenation such that repair and transcension of the injury, affirmation of identity and restoration of meaning come about. Suitable local practices dealing with injustices, including local level peace-building organizations can be highly beneficial, and perhaps include a timeline of reconciliation points and their ideation, circulation and internalisation. Necessary will be the views and contributions of peace negotiators, human rights activists, political moderates, security personnel, academics and similar.

In the light of the latest finding of unmarked mass graves in North Kashmir, some have advocated the setting up of a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’, mandated, to quote one instance: ‘to probe all the killings in the state. Whether the killings were carried out by militants or security forces it needs to be probed’ (Kashmir Times, 22nd August, 2011). Ideally, in any stable democratic society, these are but the normal functions of various state institutions: to document and probe criminal acts and to invoke and implement the law in bringing order back to society. The linking of a truth commission to ‘reconciliation’, however, is on a vastly different plane and needs much further thought. Rejuvenation needs the reflective acceptance of ‘truth’ in its entirety and an acknowledged self-vision to create dignity and hope in the next generation in Kashmir. There are obviously no easy answers but the need to reflect on responsibility has never been greater.