SHOPIAN, India 09/29/2009— Indian forensic experts exhumed the bodies of two slain Kashmiri women Monday in an investigation aimed at defusing the latest tensions plaguing this bloody Himalayan region.
Many in Muslim-majority Kashmir accuse Indian security forces of raping and murdering the women and say justice will only be served when the troops leave.
“India has militarized every facet of Kashmir. These kinds of incidents are bound to happen as long as this occupation continues,” said school teacher Fayaz Ahmed.
Underscoring the ongoing violence in the region — claimed by both India and Pakistan and a perennial flashpoint between the rival nations — three suspected militants and a civilian woman were killed Monday in a shootout with security forces in the village of Tral in southern Kashmir, said Col. K. Umamaheswar, an army spokesman. Two paramilitary soldiers were wounded, he said.
The attacks on 22-year-old Neelofar Jan and her 17-year-old sister-in-law Asiya Jan dramatically rekindled anti-India sentiments in the territory, where militant groups have been fighting for independence since 1989 but where violence has been waning over the past few years.
The two disappeared in May as they walked home from their family’s apple orchard. Local authorities first said the women had drowned when they found their bodies a kilometer (half a mile) apart in a shallow stream on May 30. But police later declared the two had been raped and murdered.
Authorities, however, failed to make any arrests and called in national investigators after weeks of violent protests by residents.
The national investigators, and the security forces, have declined to comment.
The deaths led to 50 days of violent protests that shut down Shopian as protesters chanted “We want freedom,” hurled rocks at security forces and ransacked government offices. Troops responded with gunfire and tear gas. At least two people were killed and 400 injured in the clashes that spread across the Kashmir valley.
On Monday, police and paramilitary forces with rifles and flak jackets closed the main roads leading to Shopian. The paths to the Muslim cemetery where the two women were buried were sealed with razor wire, and a tent shielded the grave sites from view.
A team of Indian doctors and forensic experts in the tent exhumed the bodies and conducted autopsies on the bodies throughout the day Monday, a local official who witnessed the process told The Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media while the investigation was ongoing.
The mood in Shopian was somber Monday, despite deep skepticism that the investigation will lead to arrests. Businesses were closed, and the streets were empty of vehicles as residents shut down the town, 35 miles (60 kilometers) south of Srinagar, the main city of Indian-controlled Kashmir.
“We have decided to fully cooperate so that they don’t have any excuse to say that locals disrupted the exhumation process,” said Javaid Ahmed, a local activist.
Indian soldiers remain a constant presence in Kashmir, even as deaths connected to the insurgency dropped from 4,507 in 2001 to 541 last year.
The shift was the result of India’s peace process with Pakistan, as well as pressure on Islamabad to curtail militant camps on its soil after Sept. 11. Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, and the South Asian powers have fought two of their three wars over it since independence in 1947.
The Shopian protests reflect the deep-seated skepticism in Indian-controlled Kashmir that India’s security forces would be held to account. Human rights groups have long accused the troops here of brutality and using rape to intimidate residents.
“The government and its institutions have no credibility in Kashmir. People say, from experience, that these probes are conducted to camouflage reality,” said Sheikh Shokat, a law professor at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar. He said only an international investigation would satisfy the public.
Four police officers arrested on charges of suppressing and destroying evidence in the case were freed earlier this month, further stoking skepticism.
Throughout Shopian, black flags in memory of the women hang from shops and buildings. Dozens of women — some wailing with grief — gathered at the homes of the victims’ families near the graveyard Monday.
“This fear will remain with us forever,” Neelofar Jan’s mother, Ayesha, said as she sobbed. “We are exhausted now. What can we do with this pain?”
When the investigators left the cemetery in the evening, hundreds of residents ran inside, shouting, “We want justice,” and “We are ashamed, sisters, that your killers are still alive.”
“All one can do is wait to see what the investigators can do,” said resident Abdul Ahad, an apple farmer from Shopian. “But frankly speaking, no one expects the state to indict itself.”
Courtesy AIJAZ HUSSAIN (AP)