Recently the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission released a report 'Inquiry Report of Unmarked Graves in North Kashmir' wherein the SHRC has confirmed presence of 21,56 unidentified bodies at 38 sites in north Kashmir's Baramulla, Bandipora, Handwara and Kupwara districts. The investigation was conducted by an 11-member SIT under the supervision of an SSP from the investigative wing of the SHRC, for over 3 years. For long there have been accusations by civil rights groups against the Indian security forces in Kashmir for killing civilians in fake encounters and then claiming them to be militants.
The SHRC inquiry was initiated after they took suo-moto cognizance of media reports and repeated claims by civil rights groups including Amnesty International about the presence of unmarked ‘mass graves’ in Kashmir. According to the SHRC report there were 21 unmarked graves in Baramulla, 11 in Kupwara, 3 in Bandipore and 3 in Handwara areas of north Kashmir. As per the report all of these dead bodies had bullet injuries and had been handed over by the police to the local population for burial, classifying them as unidentified militants. It has been reported that of the dead a few bodies were defaced, five only had skulls remaining and there were at least 18 graves with more than one cadaver inside them. Of the more than 2000 bodies buried in these mass graves in north Kashmir (reports says that there are about 2730 bodies in these north Kashmir graves) 574 had been identified as local residents by their kin and out of them 17 have been shifted to their native graveyards, while 2156 bodies remain yet unidentified.
The report further says “There is every probability that these unidentified dead bodies buried in various unmarked graves at 38 places of North Kashmir may contain the dead bodies of enforced disappearances,” The report said the government did not account for 1,692 bodies.
However as per the APDP (Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons) around 10,000 have gone missing during the two decades of conflict pointing out that most of them went missing in custody, many of whom may have been buried in these unmarked mass graves. The APDP is an association of people whose kith and kin disappeared during the turmoil years, most of the family members claiming that their loved ones were picked up the security forces never to be seen again. The APDP had released a report in 2008 called “Facts Underground” where it had mentioned about the presence of unmarked graves in Kashmir.
The SHRC report further calls for probing of these mass graves by an ‘impartial agency’, “A proper FIR should be registered keeping in view the claims and investigated thoroughly by an impartial agency — not only in north Kashmir but across the state wherever such unmarked graves exist”
The reports about these unidentified mass graves is bound to create more distrust and cynicism among the local population who have been viewing the state government with pessimism. There have been further suggestions that DNA profiling be conducted on the dead bodies in these mass graves to match the relatives of the missing persons of Kashmir. The commission report further says that “The scope for DNA extraction is still very bright. As time goes, chances will be dim,”
The missing of Kashmir have been facing a strange identity crisis ‘neither dead nor alive’. Since there has been no trace of the missing for decades, no response from the government or the agencies that are accused of picking them up, it is hard to presume if they are alive or dead and it is their families often who bear the brunt of maximum agony. Wives of such men live lives of ‘half widows’ who know not if their husbands are living or dead and the children of such missing men keep searching for their fathers, most of these youth would have been toddlers when their fathers were subject to enforced disappearance.
Again in September 2011, the SHRC recommended investigation by an independent "representative structured". The SHRC bench recommended "An independent duly representative structured body having due credibility and weight, fully empowered to go in (to) all questions (and) aspects regarding unmarked graves, disappeared persons ... be constituted and put in place in time”.
Skepticism about Justice
However owing to past experiences people on the ground are skeptical about the any moves by the govt to unravel the whole truth and provide them justice: such skepticism is not unfounded. May be recalled in 25th March 2000, Indian security forces claimed to have killed five "foreign militants" in Pathribal area of Anantnag District in south Kashmir. Officials then had claimed that security forces had after a gun fight blown up the hut where the men were hiding. The bodies charred beyond recognition were soon buried without any postmortem examination. Locals soon pointed out that the killed were innocent civilians and protests flared up seeking exhumation of bodies and identification of killed. After many protestors had been killed and injured in police action in Anantnag, the state government ordered an investigation about the Pathribal killings. DNA samples from the five bodies were sent for medical examination to forensic laboratories. However it was discovered in March 2002 that the DNA samples of Pathribal victims had been tampered with and the lab DNA samples were found to be of females instead of the five men killed at Pathribal. After the DNA fudging controversy fresh samples were collected and with these fresh DNA samples it was proved that the five killed were in fact innocent civilians. In January 2003 the case was handed to the CBI by the state government. The CBI investigation alleged that officials of 7 Rashtriya Rifles had in fact staged the fake encounter wherein they had killed the five innocent civilians and later on labeled them as “foreign militants”. In spite of a proven case against the officials, till date no action ahs been taken against them and justice has eluded the Pathribal victims.
In another incident in April 2010 a defense spokesman in Srinagar had claimed that troops had gunned down three infiltrators in the Machil sector of north Kashmir on 30th April. Meanwhile locals in Nadihal village of north Kashmir Sopore had already been protesting seeking the whereabouts of three missing youth Shahzad Ahmad, Riyaz Ahmad and Mohammad Shafi. After protests had erupted and the news of missing youth became public, a magisterial probe was ordered by the government, bodies were exhumed and it was established that the killed were innocent civilians who had been killed by security force officials in fake encounter for career advancement, medals and monetary rewards associated with killing militants in Kashmir.
In September this year Chief Minister Omar Abdullah in a TV interview said “There are cases that have seriously embarrassed us and put us on the defensive. Pathribal is one of them and unfortunately Machil is developing into another one. The reluctance of the defense establishments to be seen to be taking action on what clearly are the cases of human rights violations is something I am unable to paddle”. Paradoxically Chief Minister is the head of ‘unified command’ which consists of arms of the same defense establishment: top brass of army, paramilitary forces, state police and Intelligence Bureau. So where does the buck really stop?
More unidentified graves
Meanwhile in another development the SHRC has taken cognizance of an application filed by the APDP (Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons), which claimed existence of more mass, unidentified graves in J&K, as per APDP application there are over 3,844 unmarked graves at 208 sites in Poonch and Rajouri districts of J&K.
Now news of 2500 unidentified more unidentified graves was coming from Poonch district, all buried by a lone 90 year old grave digger. According to statements given by the 90 year old Sofi Aziz Joo to a media correspondent, the bullet ridden bodies were handed to him by the police or army and many times these bodies were without limbs, some of these bodies were mutilated beyond recognition. In a single incident Sofi Aziz Joo recalls 16 bodies were buried in a single grave, and according to him all these burials were conducted without the involvement of locals for fear of protests. Incidentally the graveyard is close to the army garrison.
How many more unmarked, mass graves wait to be unraveled in Kashmir and how many civilians subject to enforced disappearance are lying in these graves only time will tell? Till the time justice remains elusive, the families of these disappeared will keep searching for the whereabouts of their loved ones.
But in the unending desolation of these graveyards in Kashmir the search for that one ray of hope continues, a quest for truth against all state enforced barricades.
Hope never dies.
(The article is a part of series on unmarked graves in Jammu and Kashmir on www.kashmirdispatch.com)