Uncovering the Past – The Killing Fields of Kashmir

Image taken by: National Herald India
In the seventy-five years since the Partition of India, Kashmir has scarcely known peace. Its rich, beautiful lands, its diverse peoples, and its dynamic history are pockmarked with the scars of war and the land filled with the clandestine graves of thousands of dead. The killing fields and mass graves that dot the landscape are filled with thousands of innocent Kashmiri civilians who were deliberately targeted by the Indian Military and its agents, who used terror as a means of social control, with death and forced disappearances being the primary tools. Today, we open the mass graves of Kashmir, not only as a call out for justice but so that the inhumane slaughter might never happen again and with the hope that the international human rights communities continue to highlight such war crimes against innocent Kashmiris.

India’s modus operandi

The occupation of the 1990s is estimated to have claimed over 70,000 lives. Those buried in the currently known mass graves range between 8,000 and 15,000 people. Currently, there are over 2,080 unmarked mass graves in Kashmir. The overwhelming number of those buried in those graves have never been identified and have never been granted justice. During the occupation, India instituted a bounty system for each suspected militant they killed. As such, fake encounters were staged between the civilian population and the Indian Military. Usually, these encounters would target young Muslim men, who would be forcibly detained, tortured, and executed. Often they were “buried where they were shot.” Often, in the dead of night, the Indian authorities would bring the bodies to villages to be buried. Local graveyards would soon be filled. When families would inquire about the whereabouts of their sons, they were informed that their loved ones were militants who had returned or fled to Pakistan.

The dead speak

The village of Kichama lies west of Baramulla. It is also home to one of the many mass graves, and many of the bodies buried here date to 1994. In a report compiled by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in 2008. Muhammad Yousuf Malik, National Conference Block president of the Kichama village and Sarpanch of the village recalled how the graves were filled and who filled them. “Once, sometime in 1994, two dead bodies were dumped on the outskirts of our village. These bodies bore marks of brutal torture and were identified as that of Javaid Ahmad and Ghulam Rasool belonging to Srinagar. The duo had been arrested from a marriage ceremony. We buried both of them in our village, but after exhumation and identification of the bodies, their parents took the dead bodies to their native places.” This was not an isolated case. Malik recalled. We have buried around 250 unnamed dead bodies in this graveyard. Out of them, 8-10 bodies are of the locals of Kichama village. These locals were killed in different encounters with the troops. Police and Army have been claiming that the dead bodies we buried in this graveyard were all unidentified foreign militants.” These are not isolated stories. Dr. Angana Chatterji recounts her own experience traveling Kashmir, hearing the stories of village elders and family members. Each tells stories of the victims. Here inquiries did not go without notice. During a visit in 2008, she was stalked and intimidated by members of the Special Branch Kashmir (SBK) and CounterIntelligence Kashmir (CIK) personnel. The intimidation by Indian forces did not prevent Dr. Chatterji from contributing to Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves in Indian-Administered Kashmir. As effusive as these reports are, they represent only a fraction of the total number of clandestine graves in the region.

Erasing the identity of the victims

Many of the victims were subjected to horrific torture before they died, and the perpetrators went to great lengths to hide the identity of the dead. Faces are smashed and bodies are burned. Extremities are amputated, clothing labels are removed, and the identities of the victims are lost to the ages. In some cases, the bodies were dumped into rivers and streams. Two separate news stories that emerged in 2011 (You can view them here and here) tell the story of Mohammad Sidiq, a sand digger who sails the Jhelum River dredging up sand to sell at the market. “No man can bear what this river has witnessed,” he says, staring across the water. In the 12 years before the story was published, he extracts bone fragments of the dead- whether it be a skull, a femur, or other skeletal bones. “Most of the dead were young men. You could see their shiny teeth; you could tell from the skull that he was very, very young. One day I found a young man…. He had been badly tortured. Both his hands and feet had been chopped off.” A fellow sand digger, Naseer Ahmed tells a similarly grisly story. [Once] It was a small skull. It would have been a 16- or 17-year-old boy. The other day, it was a thigh with flesh still on it,” Ahmed said. “It is a haunted river.”

The long search for answers

For over a decade, thousands of families within the JK region would have their sons disappear. That the Indian government was targeting young men for execution was hardly a state secret. India counted on the terror to suppress, threaten, and dehumanize the region. The victim’s families demanded answers and to find their lost children to bring them home. Progress would not come from the government. It fell to NGOs, nonprofits, and even individuals to sort out the sordid history of these mass killings. Reports by the APDP and Dr. Angana Chatterji helped provide crucial reporting that helped shed light on the world about the events that had transpired in Kashmir. It would also fall to human rights lawyer Parvez Imroz. Over the years, he has witnessed his friends targeted and killed by the occupation. He even refused to marry, fearing creating a family that would become a target of the Indian Authorities. In 2011, he achieved a rare victory by uncovering murder by occupying forces with the killings of three men. The government claimed three militants were killed in a shootout, but Imroz filed a missing person’s claim, and the government found that it could not sweep the killings under the rug – it was forced to acknowledge those killed were Kashmiri youth and not militants. That same year, an explosive report by the B.B.C. and India Express would bring the mass graves to international attention. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called for an independent investigation to call for answers to find missing loved ones and to hold perpetrators to justice.

Could the past be a frightening prologue?

Despite the call for answers, progress has remained stalled. No one has served jail time or even been charged with the mass murder of thousands of people, and no one has been charged with war crimes. Injustice is baked into Indian law. Under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, soldiers and paramilitaries enjoy total immunity from prosecution, unless the Indian Ministry of Defense sanctions their trial. With the current nationalist government in charge, it is very likely the perpetrators will have their day in court, many remain part of the military today or live cushy civilian lives. While the European Parliament did condemn the killings in 2008, little has been done in the years since. The international community seems determined to ignore the current crisis and is less interested in addressing the war crimes from the 1990s. Justice for the dead seems frozen as a mosquito in amber and it comes down to dedicated people and groups who demand answers. Groups such as the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons continue to stage peaceful protests and demand answers. Finally, we should remember that the mass graves didn’t end when the 90s did. They were filled with new victims well into the 2000s. It is certainly possible they have never stopped. Since the revocation of the special status of Jammu & Kashmir in 2019, thousands have been arrested or disappeared. Kashmiris today are subjected to disappearances and indefinite detention, and their true fates remain unknown. It is said that the past doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. The depressing reality is that with no one held to account for the killings a quarter century ago, it is possible, even likely, that they could get away with it again.