By Nawaz Gul Qanungo
It was the February of 2007. “The countdown of zero tolerance on human rights violations has started,” said Ghulam Nabi Azad, the then chief minister of Kashmir. He boasted further: “Not only have the people of Jammu and Kashmir liked this gesture of the government, but at the national and international level our concern for protection of human rights is appreciated.”
The concept actually belonged to Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh’s promise of “zero tolerance” towards human rights violations. Disclosures against the Indian security establishment accused of disappearance and subsequent murder of Kashmiri civilians and passing them off as foreign militants, yet again, had set the valley on boil.
A couple of weeks later, Omar Abdullah – the chief minister now and who in those days as president of the main opposition party National Conference was still preparing ground for laying claim to the reins of government in Kashmir – went a step further as he spoke to the media in Jammu: “I feel people should know about all killings, those by the security forces as well as by militants… We want the state to correct the black history of the last 17 years of insurgency in the state…”. Abdullah was talking about truth and reconciliation. A commission on the pattern of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa should be constituted to inquire these killings, he said. “Everything should come up. People should know everything. There should be no doubts.”
A little over a year later, neither the word “truth” nor “reconciliation” figured even once in the Vision Document 2008, the manifesto of the National Conference for the state assembly elections of 2008, the one that Abdullah eventually won.
Today, in the wake of the revelation of the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission’s report on mass graves in Kashmir, not surprisingly, chief minister Omar Abdullah’s latest advocacy of a “truth and reconciliation commission” doesn’t find many buyers. Reacting to Abdullah’s statement, Kashmir’s most influential pro-liberation leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani said, “There is lot of difference between saying and delivering.”
The Indian Express revealed recently that “for the first time in Jammu and Kashmir, an official inquiry has said that it is ‘beyond doubt’ that there are scores of unidentified bodies in unmarked graves in the Valley — as many as 2,156 bodies buried at 38 sites since militancy began in 1990.” Relating the presence of such unmarked mass graves in the valley to thousands of “disappeared” Kashmiris in the last two decades, the SHRC report noted, “There is every probability that these unidentified graves at 38 places of North Kashmir may contain the bodies of those believed to be the cases of enforced disappearances.”
“That a state organisation has accepted the truth of mass graves is in itself something big,” said a noted Kashmir-based analyst (name withheld). “But beyond that acknowledgement, it doesn’t mean much.” What also is important, he added, is to see what recommendations the SHRC comes out with. “Connections [of the mass graves and the disappeared] were not being conjectured. And now there’s an official investigation to corroborate this,” he said.
Parveena Ahangar, chairperson of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), however, questions the relation between the SHRC revelation of mass graves and the disappeared. She said: “There are thousands of youth who tried to cross the border either from this side or the other. These are Kashmiris, Pakistanis, Afghans, others. Countless people were killed while crossing the border by the security forces. Some were left to be eaten by animals and some buried in their dozens. The truth is that the number of mass graves now being talked about and the people buried in them is far too less.”
“But our children were taken by the police, the security forces and the Ikhwan renegades during raids and crackdowns.” Ahangar questioned: “Why should they be clubbed with the unmarked graves? People in these graves may also be Kashmiris, our own children, but the police and the security keep a record of each and every person they arrest. Where are those records? We demand those be publicised.”
Ahangar’s son, Javed, then 16, was taken away from his house by the Indian security forces in 1990 during a night raid. There has been no trace of him ever since. Ahangar has been at the forefront of the group of people whose near ones have met similar fate as Javed’s. Based on research and individual testimonies, the APDP puts the number of the disappeared in Kashmir at 8,000-10,000 for the last two decades. These numbers gain significant importance going by the figures in the SHRC’s report, something which is based on research done only in the last two to three years. The J&K government, then led Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, itself in early 2003 had put the figure of the missing at 3,744.
The rights group International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir (IPTK) too, based on its research conducted between 2006 and 2009 had documented 2700 unknown, unmarked, and mass graves, containing more than 2,943 bodies. Of these, 2373 were unidentified and unnamed graves. What is essential to note is that the IPTK research covered only 55 villages in just three (Bandipora, Baramulla and Kupwara) out of ten districts of Kashmir. The findings of the research were released in late 2009 in the document Buried Evidence. “If independent investigations were to be undertaken in all 10 districts, notes the IPTK, it is reasonable to assume that the 8,000+ enforced disappearances since 1989 would correlate with the number of bodies in unknown, unmarked, and mass graves.” The actual numbers might as well turn out to be more than what the various human rights groups have so far claimed.
Following the report of the SHRC, DNA profiling of the buried and their comparisons with the families of the disappeared has been one of the main demands of various groups, including the SHRC itself. What is also demanded is an end to the immunity the government has provided to the police and security forces under draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Ahangar asked, “Is their no rule of law for the police, the security or the renegades? Yimai maaran… yimai karne verification? They are the ones who kill. Now, will they be asked to conduct verifications?”
The statement about truth and reconciliation is mere rhetoric in the face of solid evidence, said the Kashmir-based analyst. “Let the government clearly elaborate what process such a commission would entail. Is it going to be like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission where you acknowledge the wrong doings and forgive and forget about it? Or is there going to be a mechanism for a genuine delivery of justice? You cannot talk about reconciliation without bringing the perpetrators to book. But the possibilities of the latter happening are none.”
South Asia director at the Human Rights Watch Meenakshi Ganguly in a statement said, “If the government is serious about justice, it needs to get rid of AFSPA immediately.” There is no doubt that before any measures could be expected to make a difference in the lives of people in the valley, the security establishment in Kashmir needs to be reined in. But there seem to be no genuine reasons, even today, to believe that any such thing will happen. Above all, in such a scenario, who, if at all, will be entrusted with the job of justice delivery? A day after the news about the SHRC report was publicised in the media, the chief minister held a meeting to discuss “threadbare” the issue of mass graves. The meeting, expectedly, was attended by the top brass of the army, police, the Central Reserve Police Force and heads of other security agencies in Kashmir.
Nawaz Gul Qanungo is a Srinagar-based writer and independent journalist. He was formerly based in New Delhi with the financial daily Business Standard.(Daily Dawn)