What Lies Beneath

For years, people whispered about the thousands of disappeared young men in Kashmir. But only now are the bones finally speaking.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — On a pleasant September morning, Mohammad Sidiq, a sand-digger in his early 30s, pushes his long wooden boat out onto the River Jhelum, which cuts through the heart of Srinagar, the biggest city in the disputed, Indian-controlled province of Kashmir. As the sun rises over the blue-gray pines and bleached snows of the Himalayas circling the city, Sidiq paddles out with his partner, using long-handled shovels and corkscrews to draw sand from the riverbed. It’s slow, hard work, but a day’s labor nets a boat full of sand, which sells for $50. While describing the modest economy of his work, Sidiq speaks of his relationship to the Jhelum, a wide green river that flows quietly through the Kashmir Valley, across the disputed, mountainous border, known as the Line of Control, and into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. "No man can bear what this river has witnessed," he says, staring across water.

Sidiq has been working on the river for 12 years now. Every week or two, as he hoists a shovel full of sand from the riverbed, he finds himself staring at a skull, a broken skeleton, or a shattered femur. "Most of the dead were young men. You could see their shiny teeth; you could tell from the skull, he was very, very young. One day I found a young man…. He had been badly tortured. Both his hands and feet had been chopped off," says Sidiq as he sits beneath the majestic maple trees lining the riverbank.

A fellow sand-digger in his early 40s, Naseer Ahmed, found a skull in March. "It was a small skull. It would have been a 16- or 17-year-old boy. The other day, it was a thigh with flesh still on it," Ahmed said. "It is a haunted river."

The grim story starts more than two decades ago, in 1989, when a separatist insurgency blossomed in Kashmir. India had gradually eroded any sense of Muslim-majority Kashmir’s autonomy, rigging elections and arresting and torturing opposition political activists. Gun battles between the separatist guerrillas and the Indian troops were routine; land mines and hand grenades exploded every other day in crowded markets, on empty roads. Fear dominated the streets and nobody stepped out after dusk. By 1996, according to conservative official estimates, around 15,000 had been killed — a number that has since risen to 70,000. India’s military, paramilitary, and police forces deployed in massive numbers to pacify the rebellious province, and tens of thousands of Kashmiri civilians were taken into custody. Thousands never returned. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and several Indian rights groups have repeatedly urged the Indian government to investigate the disappearances in Kashmir, but the government and the Army consistently argued that the missing weren’t dead: They had crossed over to Pakistan to train as militants.

Stories of arrests, torture, killings, and secret burials were rife in Kashmir throughout the 1990s. Akhter Mohiuddin, a much-respected Kashmiri short-story writer, dedicated a collection of stories to "young men who were murdered at unknown places," and celebrated Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, who taught at New York University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote in his 1997 collection, The Country Without a Post Office, "And the night’s sun there in Srinagar? Guns shoot stars into the sky, the storm of constellations night after night, the infinite that rages on…. Srinagar was under curfew. The identity pass may or may not have helped in the crackdown. Son after son — never to return from the night of torture — was taken away."

The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, a Srinagar-based advocacy group, is led by 55-year-old former homemaker Parveena Ahanger, whose 17-year-old, speech-impaired son, Javed Ahanger, disappeared in January 1990 after a raid by the Indian Army. The NGO puts the number of enforced disappearances in Kashmir’s long, brutal war at around 8,000 men and boys. They are largely believed to have been killed, their bodies weighted and dumped into the river or buried in unknown, unmarked mass graves. "My son was taken from my home by the military. The government is responsible for him. I don’t know where they kept him, whether he is still alive. I want to know where he is," Ahanger told me.

In December 2009, the common knowledge that thousands were killed and buried in unknown places turned out to be true. The International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir (IPTK), a group of human rights activists led by a local rights group, published a report called "Buried Evidence" that established and conclusively documented the presence of 2,700 unmarked graves of unidentified people in three northern districts of the Kashmir Valley, close to the Line of Control. By 2009, the insurgency was almost over, and access to the heavily militarized border districts became relatively easier. Activists from the group had spent a few weeks in the border areas helping victims of the late-2005 Kashmir earthquake. "It was then that villagers began telling us about the unmarked and mass graves," says Khurram Parvez, an activist with Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, the main group within IPTK.

Parvez and his colleagues sought more information, eventually visiting 55 villages in northwestern Kashmir’s Baramulla, Kupwara, and Handwara districts, documenting the unmarked graves. "In the 2,700 graves we investigated, the body count was 2,943+. Within the 2,700 graves, 154 graves contained two bodies each and 23 graves contained more than two cadavers. Within these 23 graves, the number of bodies ranged from 3 to 17," their report read. Most of the bodies had been delivered to local police by the military. The police would register their deaths as foreign terrorists, take pictures of the bodies — and then, late at night, go to the villagers demanding that they be buried, quickly and quietly. Most bodies were bullet-riddled; many bore the marks of torture.

In late 2009, I traveled from Srinagar to Chehal Bimyar village near the Line of Control, one of the biggest sites of the unmarked graves. In a tiny mud-and-brick house, I met Atta Mohammad, a 68-year-old farmer who had buried 203 bodies that the police brought to his village, mostly at night. "I did it out of religious obligation. The dead have to be treated respectfully," said Mohammed, a shriveled, small man. Despite being haunted by the defaced bodies and the graves in his dreams, Mohammad continued with the burials. A personal tragedy moved him to the task. His nephew, an orphan whom he had raised, had disappeared in the mid-1990s without a trace. A few hundred yards from his house, the graveyard spread out on the slope of a hill beside a school — rows and row of mounds of dark gray soil.

In one instance, in December 2006, officers and men leading the police’s counterinsurgency effort lured Abdul Rehman Padder, a carpenter from Larnoo village in southern Kashmir, to Srinagar with the promise of a low-level government job for a bribe of $2,000. In Srinagar, when the village carpenter met the policemen to check about his promised job, he was taken in an unmarked car to Ganderbal, 30 miles outside the city, where he was kept in a police station. The following night he was driven in a police car to a nearby forest by a group of policemen, soldiers, and paramilitary men. They shot him in the face to make identification impossible and recorded in the official reports that a Pakistan terrorist from Multan, named Abu Hafiz and a commander of the insurgent group Lashkar-e-Taiba, was killed in a gunfight. The head of the Kashmiri police awarded the officers around $3,000 for their bravery.

This is the political economy of the Kashmir counterinsurgency. Two decades of insurgency and counterinsurgency have resulted in the creation of a state of affairs that provides incentives to troops and policemen to show "kills." Counterinsurgency officers receive fast-track promotions, as well as monetary and other rewards, for showing results.

Padder’s aged father filed a report about his missing son and met with several police officers, looking for answers. A few months later, an internal police investigation revealed that Padder and a few others had been assassinated by police and Army teams with an eye on fast-track promotions and monetary rewards. Padder’s body was exhumed; his father told me that, despite the gunshot wounds to his son’s face, he still recognized him. DNA tests confirmed it. Seven policemen were arrested and charged with killing Padder and passing him off as a Pakistani terrorist. Their trial continues.

There are thousands more like Padder, and tens of thousands of relatives still looking for their disappeared loved ones. The "Buried Evidence" report had raised slim hopes of an investigation into disappeared relatives, but the national and local governments ignored it. A year later in December 2010, six months after riots convulsed Srinagar, officials from the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), a semiautonomous body related to the Kashmiri government, approached IPTK. The SHRC’s police investigation wing had finally decided to pursue the report of unmarked graves after a wide range of international and local rights groups and activists petitioned the commission. Eventually, with support from Parvez and other activists, a team of police investigators linked to the SHRC began traveling through four border districts of northwestern Kashmir.

This August, the SHRC finally submitted its report on the unmarked graves, which marked the first acknowledgement from any Indian official body of the presence of mass graves and murdered civilians being buried after being falsely described by Indian troops and police as foreign terrorists. "Kashmir Police handed over 2,730 unidentified bodies to villagers for burial, claiming they were unidentified foreign militants. 574 of such unidentified bodies were identified by families and turned out to be locals. Eighteen graves include more than one body. Twenty bodies were charred and in five cases, only a skull was left of the dead person and that was buried," the SHRC investigators’ report said

There are 3,844 more unmarked graves at 208 sites in Kashmir’s Rajouri and Poonch districts; the identities of the dead there remain as of yet unascertained, according to IPTK. The SHRC has agreed to expand the investigation to those graves. And the SHRC investigators have recommended DNA profiling of the remains of the more than 2,000 dead that lie in the unmarked graves in northern Kashmir to see whether they correspond with the list of Kashmir’s approximately 8,000 disappeared civilians. "Some of the dead in these graves are certainly militants, but as several cases have shown, many bodies in the unmarked graves are likely to be of Kashmiri civilians who were disappeared," says Parvez. "The investigations shall include digging inside and around the infamous torture centers of the 1990s such as Papa-2, Hari Niwas, and Cargo, which are in Srinagar city."

The head of the Kashmiri government, Omar Abdullah, agrees that these graves shall be investigated and the identities of the dead established. "We also want to know who are buried in these graves," Abdullah told a television channel in late August. A time-bound independent commission of inquiry, with power to question the Indian military, paramilitary, and the police, is inviting applications and information from the families of disappeared persons. Amnesty International has suggested securing all unmarked grave sites and bringing in impartial forensic experts to carry out investigations in line with the U.N. model protocol on the disinterment and analysis of skeletal remains. But for any of that to happen, the SHRC has to make a formal recommendation to the Kashmiri government, which would then have to move to constitute such a commission.

The odds remains stacked against such a move. "Even if, a few months from now, the Kashmir government creates an independent commission of inquiry, how would it be able to question and get operational information from the military and paramilitary forces given the legal protection they enjoy?" wonders Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

India continues to garrison half a million soldiers in Kashmir, nearly three times the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at the peak of the occupation. And India’s half-century-old Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which was extended to Kashmir in 1990, gives troops the legal authority to shoot any person they suspect of being a threat and guarantees them immunity from prosecution. To bring a soldier before a civilian court requires the permission of India’s Home Affairs Ministry; there are more than 400 cases still waiting for permission to prosecute troops known to have killed Kashmiri noncombatant civilians.

The summer of last year, after the killings of 110 protesters in Kashmir, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government rejected repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act — even though a committee set up by the prime minister himself four years ago had recommended doing so. Singh backtracked because of intense pressure from the Indian Army’s leadership. Take Lt. Gen. B.S. Jaswal, the then-head of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, who in the summer of 2010 told a television network, "I would like to say that the provisions of the Armed Forces Special Power Act are very pious to me and, I think, to the entire Indian Army. We have religious books; there are certain guidelines which are given there. But all the members of the religion do not follow it; they break it also. Does it imply that you remove the religious book or you remove this chap?" But thousands of unmarked graves make clear that this is more than just a few bad apples. "These graves suggest the possibility of mass murder," says Ganguly.

Until the Indian political establishment can stand up to the pressure from the military, the path to justice for thousands of victims will remain blocked. Unearthing the mass graves is one thing; punishing the murderers another. But India cannot rightly claim to be a democratic society that cherishes the rule of law unless it’s willing to shine a harsh light on its military’s conduct. It’s always easy to blame Pakistan. Indeed, an India confident of its economic and political standing in the world might choose to callously ignore the crimes committed in its name in Kashmir, but the embers of dark memories continue to burn, fanning a desire for freedom from Indian rule in Kashmir.

But while Kashmir’s youth have taken to the streets in protest and rage, Sidiq, the sand-digger, is more contemplative, more sullen. From the banks of the Jhelum, he looks up at the barbed-wire fence of an Indian paramilitary camp in the distance and watches the opaque Jhelum glide downstream. "It will take us many more years to understand what India did to us," he says. He stares at his hands calloused by years of hard labor, hands that have surfaced bones from beneath the green waters, hands that have quietly returned bones to their sandy, submarine resting place. "Even if nobody cares, we will not forget."

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