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By Aliya Bashir
(WNN) Srinagar, Indian Administered KASHMIR: For over two decades, it has been an endless wait for families in the Indian Administered Region of Kashmir.
Missing what they fondly call “their dear ones” these families have experienced what they describe as “immense pain” for family members who have disappeared from the region as the unexplained silence of India’s government officials and the denial of justice in the cases continue.
What is left of the cases now are many unanswered questions.
On August 30, 2012 on the eve of International Disappearances Day, numerous Kashmir families took a pledge that they would fight the legal battle to prove that enforced disappearances in Kashmir have occurred over the past two decades. Women who have husbands or sons who are part of the ‘The Disappeared’ have also promised they would continue to work and not shy away from bringing justice forward.
Even though detailed documents of proof are currently available through the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in Srinagar that point to crimes involving security forces in Kashmir, the cases of those who suffered under enforced disappearance has met little formal investigation.
APDP is one of the organizations that is championing the cause of disappearance in Kashmir. Working to document the number of widows who have been impacted during years of conflict in the region, the organization is focused on human rights for victims who have often not been able to trust local authorities or the larger Indian government for help.
“Enforced Disappearance is abduction or kidnapping, carried out by State agents, or organized groups and individuals who act with State support or tolerance, in which the victim ‘disappears’,” outlines the APDP. “Authorities neither accept responsibility for the dead, nor account for the whereabouts of the victim… ….Increasingly the international community considers Enforced Involuntary Disappearance as a specific human rights violation and a crime against humanity,” continues the APDP.
Wearing white head bands with “Stop Disappearances” written on them in black, relatives with a majority of them women, came together on August 30 to form a ‘sit-in’ at Pratap Park in the Lal Chowk section of Kashmir’s capital city of Srinagar. This was their way to pay tribute and to bring international attention to those who have been subject to a denial of their rights under enforced disappearances.
Along with activists and volunteers, the memorial rally moved to land donated by APDP for erecting a statue which will be dedicated to all ‘The Disappeared’ in the valley.
“We have come here with a cause. I lost all my four sons to conflict. I was fortunate to get the dead bodies of two sons and others two sons are disappeared. I tried to search for my two sons everywhere but of no avail,” outlines Taja Begum, an elderly woman who has come to Srinagar from Kashmir’s northern mountainous Bandipora district to participate in the sit-in.
“I have no wishes. All I want is that before I’ll die I should be able at least to know whether they are alive or dead,” she said of her missing family members.
Begum is one of the thousands of Kashmiri victim families whose members are lost in the midpoint between officially missing and confirmed dead.
In a region where numerous police reports can be left with little to no official investigation, impacts for tracking crime in Kashmir falls on the homes of those most vulnerable. It does not help that the situation surrounding ‘The Disappeared’ has included a complex group of quarreling political forces in the region who have been juggling power for over the past twenty years. The players include regular security forces – the Indian Army, the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), as well as moving paramilitary groups in the region.
“…More than one hundred cases of detainees disappearing in the custody of the security forces have been documented by human rights groups since the conflict began,” said Human Rights Watch in a detailed report made over 15 years ago in 1996. Today the situation for many women has caused them and their families to get caught in the crossfires.
Even with continued pressure from global human rights organizations as well as attorneys, since the year 1996, government transparency and accountability has not been forthcoming.
“Lawyers in Kashmir have filed more than 15,000 habeas corpus petitions since 1990 calling on state authorities to reveal the whereabouts of detainees and the charges against them. However, in the vast majority of cases, the authorities have not responded, and the petitions remain pending in the courts,” said Human Rights Watch in 1996. “Even when the High Court has ordered state authorities to produce detainees in court or release those against whom no charges have been brought, state and security force officials have refused to comply. Lawyers have also filed petitions charging officials with contempt for non-compliance, but these petitions have also received no response,” added the 1996 report.
Today in 2012 the situation has not much improved, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) is now working with over 300 families who have relatives who are still unaccounted for. Many are husbands or sons who were taken away under unexplained arrests.
To answer the need for families to find answers, the APDP has demanded publicly that the government of India should implement all recommendations of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review-2 (UPR2), which calls for all violations of human rights in the region to be fully investigated.
“We have documented cases in [the] district Srinagar and out of all cases, almost 82. 25 per cent, have eyewitness accounts of the direct involvement of the security forces. Despite having all the first-hand accounts, no action has been taken against the perpetrators,” said Parveena Ahanger, President of the APDP. “Instead, the criminals are getting awards for killings and other human rights violation[s] in the name of ‘exemplary work’,” she added.
A formal petition by APDP partner, the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), was also made with APDP to the Jammu & Kashmir State Human Rights Commission branch of India’s National Human Rights Commission. It outlines 507 unsolved cases.
This isn’t the first petition. In 2011 JKCCS asked for the Jamu Kashmir Police Force to investigate other cases, but no response from the police came forward.
Out of the recent 507 systematically documented reports of disappearance, 369 of the missing are from the district of Baramulla, along with 138 cases from the Bandipora district.
Under a situation where families face what might include torture and extra-judicial killings in their family, stress and grief for the women who have been left behind is undeniable. Psychological trauma may also include episodes of heightened depression and chronic wishes of suicide. Children of fathers who have gone missing also often face the similar psychological fate as there mothers.
When a husband has not been declared dead, nor alive, by local and/or national Indian authorities, their wives exist in a prolonged twilight that forces life to stay in a shallow limbo. Even after many years these ‘half-widows’ cannot remarry easily.
While India’s law allows a widow to file for divorce after her husband has been missing for 4 years, half-widows in Kashmir must also prove that their husband has never been involved in any actions that might be interpreted as ‘politically suspect’. Because half-widows are denied the full rights of other widows, they often live in poverty without the usual 100,000 rupees assistance given to widows by the Indian government.
35-year-old Tahira Begum’s husband, Tariq Ahmed Rather, has been one of those missing since 2002. Like other half-widows Tahira has been struggling on two fronts — trying to earn a living to survive without her husband as the only head-of-household; and fighting an ongoing legal battle to seek transparency and justice for her family.
“I don’t know whether my husband is dead or alive,” Begum shared during a tearful interview with WNN – Women News Network.
“Enforced disappearance is one of the worst human rights violations and a large number of people throughout the world are affected by this war crime,” outlined Tahira. “As a civil society, it is imperative for all the organizations who are working for a cause and governments to forge solidarity in bringing to an end the practice of enforced disappearance.”
According to JKCCS, a low estimate of disappearance cases in Kashmir currently shows numbers reaching up to 8,000+ mysteriously missing people with more than 1,500 half-widows now living in the Jammu and Kashmir region. Numerous victims continue to say that their helplessness has been compounded, rather than addressed, by the legal and administrative remedies currently available to them.
“We have sought SHRC’s intervention [the State Human Rights Commission which is the regional part of the larger India's National Human Rights Commission] to probe all the enlisted cases of disappearances. The victim families of these disappeared persons fear that their loved ones might be buried in some unmarked graves across Jammu and Kashmir,” adds Tahira Begum.
Adding her wish that families of relatives who have gone missing can get India’s government to carry out investigations at these unmarked graves by using all modern available means of investigation, Begum outlined that investigations using DNA testing and other forensic methods could answer many questions.
“The government of Kashmir has rejected wide-scale DNA testing of bodies in thousands of unmarked graves despite pleas by the families of those who disappeared during two decades of fighting in the restive region,” says Forensic Magazine, a bimonthly publication that brings the most accurate and up-to-date information on forensic science available to the public.
New technologies for DNA forensics have been expanding greatly. Rapid DNA Analysis Systems have been developed to enable law enforcement agencies to process DNA samples with amazingly fast results, in 84 minutes. These and other new forensics technologies are now available to aid in the mystery of mass graves worldwide.
JKCCS claims today that there are more than 2,000 unmarked graves and mass graves in three districts of northern Kashmir. Their fate and the fate of their families may be dependent on DNA driven investigations.
“A police investigation in 2011 by the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) found 2,730 bodies dumped into unmarked graves at 38 sites in north Kashmir,” recently outlined Human Rights Watch in World Report 2012: India. “At least 574 were identified as the bodies of local Kashmiris. The government had previously said that the graves held unidentified militants, most of them Pakistanis whose bodies had been handed over to village authorities for burial. Many Kashmiris believe that some graves contain the bodies of victims of enforced disappearances,” continued the 2012 report.
Three years ago, Dr. Angana Chatterji and other members of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir brought forward a witness who’s testimony cannot be denied. When 68-year-old gravedigger, Atta Mohammad from Chehal Bimyar, Kashmir, shared his compelling first-hand witness account from the Baramulla district the case of extra-judicial killings may have been brought to light.
Stating clearly during his testimony at the Tribunal, Bimyar admitted that he had personally been involved in the burial of 203 bodies between 2002-2006: “I have been terrorised by this task that was forced upon me. My nights are tormented and I cannot sleep, the bodies and graves appear and reappear in my dreams. My heart is weak from this labour. I have tried to remember all this… the sound of the earth as I covered the graves… bodies and faces that were mutilated… mothers who would never find their sons. My memory is an obligation. My memory is my contribution. I am tired, I am so very tired.”
Under years of documents and legal petitions, as the year 2013 approaches, Indian government officials in Jammu and Kashmir have now promised to start a formal process toward investigation. But the prosecution of numerous cases may find many challenges to reach even a measured amount of success.
“…the identification and prosecution of perpetrators will require the cooperation of army and federal paramilitary forces. These forces in the past, have resisted fair investigations and prosecutions, claiming immunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code,” says Human Rights Watch in their latest 2012 World Report on India.
‘The Disappeared’ in Indian Administered Kashmir has been been part of a decades long story that has asked for government involvement to solve the crimes. At the very bottom of the crimes though the families, especially its women, are its ongoing victims.
“If my husband is alive I want to see him,” says half-widow Tahira Begum. “If he has been killed let authorities hand over his body to me,” Begum added.
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