Unmarked graves admission: Too little, too late

The news that the Jammu & Kashmir State Human Rights Commission has officially acknowledged mass graves holding more than 2,000 bodies – 574 of them now identified as local residents, i.e. not foreign terrorists – is welcome but leaves a bitter taste. It’s good that the Indian establishment can allow such an admission, but so what? That’s surely little consolation to the many "half-widows" of Kashmiris "disappeared" by Indian forces.

We could argue forever – and have been – about what Kashmir’s political status should be, or who is most to blame for the massive death and destruction wrought there over the past two decades. But morally honest Indians can’t avoid India’s culpability.

Indian-held Kashmir was the scene of an important early chapter in my political education. I first went there in 1994, initially lured by the romance of seeing the landscape, and meeting the people, that V.S. Naipaul had memorably written about in the brilliant middle section of his 1964 book An Area of Darkness. I spent many weeks in the Valley on several visits that year and the next. I put much of what I learned in Kashmir into the early chapters of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan because, while Kashmir is no more clearly part of Pakistan than of India, I wanted to show that, borders and Lines of Control notwithstanding, in truth the subcontinent is a seamless whole. I also wanted to do justice to the way my interest in Kashmir had led to my longstanding interest in Pakistan.

I spent a lot of time on the ground in Kashmir with Kashmiris in 1994 and ’95, and I listened not only to Kashmiris’ stories but also to their opinions and to what they said they wanted. Maybe because of my own provincial background, I’ve never appreciated the presumption that the na‹ve or wishful perspectives of people from small, neglected places should be considered somehow less valid than the views of people who hold power – unless it’s true that might makes right, which it isn’t.

"We are hungry for peace," a young Kashmiri told me. "But at the same time, we want to live with honor." The Kashmir problem was "not a law and order problem," another insisted. "It is the deserved rights that we want. No Kashmiri will believe any Indian, ever again." Said the human rights activist Jalil Andrabi: "We thought that if people of Romania can go out on the streets and get rid of a dictator, why can’t we go out on the streets in Kashmir?"

"We have to think about the future of our country, the future of our children," a businessman told me. "We don’t want to become another Afghanistan. My son, he was three when militancy started. Now he is almost in his eighth year. So good years are passing by, they are not coming back." That was more than 15 years ago, so that man’s son – if he’s still alive – is now in his early twenties.

Jalil Andrabi made a strong impression on me. He was a likeable and impressive young lawyer who, with colleagues in the Kashmir Bar Association, traveled to remote villages; painstakingly documented atrocities committed by Indian forces, and filed usually fruitless writs in the High Court. It broke one’s heart to think of the effort they put into raw documentation, the naming of persons and putting on record of events that otherwise would have been forgotten by all but the obscure sufferers themselves.

"What we believe is that human rights are guaranteed to every human being who is born on earth," Andrabi told me. "India recognizes this right, under Article 21 of the Constitution of India."

The last time I saw him was in his office, on the dingy upper floor of a dusty building in Srinagar. I had come because he wanted to give me some documents. He gave me a Pepsi and prevailed on me to stay for a few minutes. I asked him why he did what he did. He felt compelled to do it, he said; it had to be done; truth and justice had to be served, however ineffectually. Otherwise, he said, he could not have lived with himself.

I felt too tired to take notes – I was leaving the next morning and had many things on my mind – and among my many regrets is that I felt too distracted and rushed to stay longer with Jalil Andrabi that day. His words brought to mind something the American writer Wendell Berry once wrote: "Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence."

Jalil Andrabi was kidnapped in murky circumstances on March 8, 1996. Later that month his body was found floating in the River Jhelum, its eyes gouged out. I was in Bangkok, where I was living at the time, when I heard the report of his death on CNN.

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip.