x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Hope for closure after existence of mass graves is confirmed in Kashmir

Official acknowledgement of the existence of mass graves containing thousands of missing persons offers hope of closure for families who have been waiting for answers for over two decades.

Bijbehara Martyr's Graveyard. Photo Courtesy Murtaza Shibli
Bijbehara Martyr's Graveyard. Photo Courtesy Murtaza Shibli

Bijbehara, a sleepy town on the banks of the Jehlum river, on the Indian side of Kashmir, is famous for some unusual things. This small community (population: 29,703, according to a 2001 census), where I was born and brought up is home to what is thought to be the largest maple tree in Asia, known locally as Chinar. The Mughal emperor Jehangir was said to have been enthralled by the sheer immensity of it during his visit to the garden, which is called Padshahi Bagh (the King's Garden).

Bijbehara is historically most famous for producing world-class cricket bats, although the industry is now dormant.

In recent years, the town can also lay claim to producing India's first Muslim home minister, the only Muslim to have done so in the Republic of India, where the Muslim population is nearly twice that of arch-rival Pakistan.

Mufti Sayeed later became Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and his daughter Mahbooba Mufti is currently the leader of the opposition in the pro-India local assembly.

Other developments have been more gruesome. On October 22, 1993, India's paramilitary Border Security Force opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilian protesters, killing 37 and injuring hundreds in the Bijbehara Massacre.The misfortune does not end there.

Many people have vanished during the ongoing low-intensity war in Kashmir; Bijbehara has suffered its fair share of victims. They have been snatched by gun-wielding men in civilian clothes who arrive under cover of darkness and by others wearing uniforms who appear in army trucks during daylight.

Hanifa Begum, a retired government schoolteacher, lives barely a dozen metres across the road from my parents' house. We call her Amma Ji (Beloved Mother), a title given to her by her four children - two of whom are now dead, one claimed by cancer, the other, a militant commander with Hizbul Mujahideen (the largest armed resistance group in Kashmir) , killed in a firefight in 1996. This happened two years after Amma Ji's husband went missing.

Amma Ji is a "half widow", a term that describes thousands of Kashmiri women, a phenomenon reproduced in all of Kashmir's towns and villages. The term means that she is not sure if her husband is dead or alive.

One evening in the summer of 1994, when her husband Nisar Sonaullah, a secondary school lecturer, came out of the nearby mosque after maghrib prayers, he was seized by gunmen waiting in an unmarked car.

More than 17 years have passed since he was snatched, allegedly by the members of an elite Indian army unit, the Rashtriya Rifles. There has been no news of him since.

On more than half a dozen occasions the family was assured by the army and other security authorities of their father's safe release. But in Kashmir promises by military or military-backed civilian authorities are always written on water.

Amma Ji is not alone living in this kind of suspended animation, uncertain of the fate of a beloved family member. Thousands of Kashmiris are waiting for someone to return.

The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), a Kashmiri human-rights group campaigning for missing persons, estimates that around 10,000 people have disappeared since the insurgency began in 1990. Parveena Ahanger, founder and chair of the APDP group, is also waiting for her son. Indian paramilitary forces raided her house in August 1990 and took away Javed, 16, away. More than 20 years later, she still knows nothing of his fate.

Recent confirmation by the official State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) that mass graves exist has given thousands of missing people's loved ones some hope of closure.

In its report, the commission identified 38 sites in north Kashmir containing more than 2,700 bodies. It also called for an investigation by an impartial agency into all disappearances in the restive region. The commission's inquiry was in response to the discovery of mass graves by the International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir, an independent rights watchdog.

In early 2008, the tribunal released a report claiming to have found 2,700 unmarked and mass graves containing the bodies of 2,943 people across 55 villages of the north Kashmir districts of Kupwara, Varmul and Bandipora.

Dr Angana Chatterji, the co-chair of the 2008 report, an Indian-born American academic, welcomed the latest report as an important step in the official acknowledgement of the unknown dead and disappeared.

However, she maintained that "extrajudicial killings have been part of a sustained and widespread offensive by the military and paramilitary institutions against civilians of Jammu and Kashmir".

The SHRC report is certainly a welcome step. It is the first time an official inquiry has admitted "beyond doubt" that there are thousands of unidentified bodies in unmarked graves in Kashmir.

The pro-Indian chief minister, Omar Abdullah, who has presided over brutal killings of civilians in the past three summers of civil unrest, was quick to respond to the SHRC report. He suggested forming a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an idea he floated in 2008.

Given his own dismal record on human rights, Omar Abdullah's idea about truth and reconciliation has yet to find a taker. The main pro-freedom opposition leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, rejected the idea, saying that an investigation by those who are responsible for killing people could neither be just nor impartial.

An editorial in a leading English daily, Rising Kashmir, comments: "If a government cannot do justice to individual cases, it is wishful thinking on its part of delivering through [the Truth and Reconciliation Commission]."

Back in Bijbehara there is a faint sign of hope at Amma Ji's house. Every Eid, while laying her table for lunch, she has wondered about her husband's fate, imagining only sad outcomes.

This year the atmosphere was slightly different, as there was hope of some news. After decades of uncertainty, closure may be forthcoming after all. But the SHRC has yet to conduct similar investigations in other parts of Kashmir, including Bijbehara.

I am not entirely without hope, either. I now think I may learn something about the fate of my friend, Farooq Ahmad Bhat, a local chemist and human-rights activist.

On December 1, 1993, at around midday, while serving his customers, an army unit from 1st Rashtriya Rifles pulled up outside Farooq's shop in a truck. In broad daylight and in front of scores of people, two soldiers whisked him away in their truck for an "investigation".

The next day, when his family contacted the army unit, they were told that Farooq had escaped from their custody only moments after his arrest, jumping from the truck near Pazalpora, on the outskirts of the town. Almost 18 years have passed since he is alleged to have escaped from army custody, but he has yet to make the short journey home.

Perhaps, there may be cause for hope too in the home of Showkat Ahmad Sheikh. On October 1, 1993, the 17-year-old left his house to run an errand and never returned. A few years back his mother said to me: "I have preserved everything of his. I hope one day he will come back."

Roohi Jan, daughter of Mohammad Amin Shah, alias Kawa, is also waiting for some news. Her father, a former militant, went missing in early December 1992 when she was just a few months old. All these years she has grown up without so much as a fatherly hug. Recently engaged, she is desperate to see her father and have him by her side to bless her forthcoming marriage.

There are several other young people missing from my town, some of them for decades now. While the Mazar-e-Shuhada, the martyr's graveyard for the victims of the 1993 massacre, is a grim and depressing sight, these people are lucky, says one of my friends. At least their families can locate them. By contrast, the families of the missing have no respite from their lingering despair.

As for me, I would like to dedicate the mighty Chinar, the maple tree that once held the Mughal emperor Jahangir in awe, to those who have gone missing. Under the luxuriant shadow of the giant tree, their memories must remain fresh until they return - dead or alive.

Murtaza Shibli is a trainer, writer and consultant on Muslim issues in Europe and South Asia. He divides his time between London, Lahore and Srinagar.