Fortnightly Feature- Once again, the ghost of enforced disappearances echoes from mass graves

“My son’s body was full of torture marks; they killed him,” Rashid’s mother, Khera, repeatedly mumbles as visitors enter their house to pay condolences. Her dried-up eyes only meet the helpless gazes in response. The entire region is breathing in fear after seeing the cut-up body of their beloved Rashid.

Over a month has passed since the dead body of 27-year-old Abdul Rashid from Kunan Poshpora in North Kashmir’s Kupwara district was handed to the family.

The twin hamlets of Kunan and Poshpora hit international news when on the night of February 23rd, 1991, the Indian Army conducted a mass rape of over 100 women in the hamlets. The soldiers forced the men out of their homes, confined them to a place away from the village, and then proceeded to mass rape women – young and old, not even sparing children.

“The Army can repeat these acts whenever they want and wish. The cold-blooded murder of my son dragged the memories of the people to the ‘mass murders’ committed by the Indian Army here three decades ago,” Khera says.

Abdul Rashid, 27, was picked up by the Indian Army over two and half months ago for ‘questioning.’ Rashid’s family heard loud bangs on their door on December, 2022. Shabir Ahmad Dar, the older brother of Abdul Rashid and a Special Officer in the police force, opened the door to discover a sizable army presence dominating the courtyard. Shabir was alerted by the Indian military that Rashid was being sought as part of an ‘inquiry.’ Rashid was imprisoned without the J&K police being present, breaking yet another rule.

He was then transported by the Indian Army, who instructed the family to take Rashid to their home the next day from the Trehgam army camp. However, the next day the family was informed early that Rashid had “escaped” from army custody. His mother, Khera, was photographed protesting with a bandaged nose on December 21st in Srinagar’s Press Enclave. When the troops picked up Rashid on December 15th, Khera fainted and injured her nose.

Khera’s 33-year wait for justice as a victim of the horrifying Kunan-Poshpora mass rape by Indian forces has never ended. Still, her wait to see her son ended after three arduous months when they received a call from the Kupwara police station on March 1st. Little did she know that a pierced and punctured body would be waiting for her.

Human Rights watchdogs claim that the number of Indian Armed Forces permanently stationed in Indian-occupied Kashmir, which has been heavily militarized and frequently referred to as an open-air prison, is around 7,00,000. After New Delhi unilaterally repealed Articles 370 and 35A, granting Kashmir semi-autonomy, in August 2019, the number of occupying forces in the valley has continued to increase under the fascist regime.

As the number of troops grows, Kashmiris are subjected to severe human rights abuses and war crimes. One such heinous violation is the state-enforced disappearances. The recent incident has once again opened the scars of the 1990s.

“In the process of militarizing civilian spaces to fight against a homegrown insurgency since 1989, the Indian army and its state forces have subjected 8,000 to 10,000 Kashmiri civilians to enforced disappearance,” as per the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). The association was formed as a civilian effort to provide trauma relief and some form of hope to those whose family members had been picked up by the Indian forces and never seen again. Many of these women, whose husbands have been taken and buried in mass graves, are called ‘half-widows.’

The constitutional assurance that no one will ever be the victim of enforced disappearance is codified in the International Convention for the ‘Protection of All People from Enforced Disappearances,’ which India signed never ratified; hence its terms are not entirely binding.

Notwithstanding the enormity of the crime, India currently lacks a system to prevent enforced disappearances; on the contrary, it encourages it and uses it as a matter of state policy in occupied Kashmir. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) provides impunity to the Army and has historically benefited the Army and prevented any accountability in the state-ordered disappearances. The legislation forbids any enforcement against the violator; in this case, the perpetrator is the invading Indian Army.

Article 33 of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Convention expressly allows States to locate missing persons of the adverse group. However, it is hard to put this duty on the Indian government because, in non-international armed conflicts like Kashmir, most victims of enforced disappearance are not foreign nationals and are accused of supporting Kashmir’s resistance movement.

This recent case of State-enforced disappearance that resulted in cold-blooded murder has come back as a monster lurking in the unidentified graves, haunting the people of the valley. Two thousand seven hundred unmarked single or mass graves are dispersed throughout 55 villages in the Kupwara, Baramulla, and Bandipora districts of Indian-occupied Kashmir, according to a report by Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS) and the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights. About 3,000 single or mass graves were discovered in the districts of Rajouri and Poonch.

The organizations working on documenting these crimes are under attack themselves. The coordinator of JKCCS, Khurram Parvez, has been in prison since November 2021 without a trial for standing up for justice. A former associate and journalist, Irfan Mehraj, was arrested in the same case on March 20th, 2023, from Srinagar and immediately transferred to New Delhi.

United Nations has stated that former associates and volunteers of the JKCCS are facing coercion and intimidation from the authorities while calling for the release and the closing of the investigations against Kashmiri human rights defenders.

At Rashid’s home, the air is tense. “We don’t know how to console her this time,” says a relative who has come to pay his condolences. “30 years back, I came here to console her after she became a victim of rape. Today, I have come here to mourn her dead son, who disappeared and was then killed. It is a cycle, and this family has seen it all,” the relative says.