Frontline
Volume 28 - Issue 20 :: Sep. 24-Oct. 07, 2011
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
from the publishers of THE HINDU
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THE STATES

Grave issue

SHUJAAT BUKHARI

The SHRC report on Jammu and Kashmir's enforced disappearances and mass graves puts the State and Central governments on the spot.

MUKHTAR KHAN, FILE/AP

A FARMER AMONG unmarked tomb stones in a graveyard in Bimyar, about 100 km west of Srinagar. He says he helped bury 235 unidentified dead here.

IN the third week of August, a “new reality” was added to the human rights record of Jammu and Kashmir. The police investigation wing of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) confirmed that 2,156 unidentified bodies lay in unmarked graves at 38 locations in north Kashmir.

For the past 20 years, human rights defenders as well as the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) have been pressing for a “fair, independent and transparent” investigation into the “mass graves”. Ironically, the fight for justice for families whose loved ones had allegedly disappeared in “custody” had been reduced to proving the numbers. Whereas the APDP and the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) maintain that over 8,000 people have disappeared over the years, only around 500 cases have been documented. Human rights defenders feel that more than the numbers, the phenomenon deserves attention.

The SHRC had ordered the investigation after taking cognisance of a December 2009 report on mass graves titled “Buried Evidence” by the International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir (IPTK). The investigation was headed by a Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), who is in charge of the investigation wing of the SHRC.

Even as the SHRC maintained that it was yet to approve the report, pending rejoinders from the State government and the IPTK, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah promised that his government would not do any cover-up.

In its 17-page report, the SHRC's 11-member team has revealed that 2,730 bodies had been buried in north Kashmir's Baramulla, Bandipore and Kupwara districts. “These were claimed to be the bodies of unidentified militants by the police and handed over to local people for burial in various unmarked graveyards of north Kashmir,” says the report. Subsequently 574 bodies were identified, of which 17 were shifted to their native graveyards. The report says that 2,156 bodies still remain unidentified. The team discovered five skulls, 20 charred bodies and 18 graves with more than one body. Though the team got details from many people in these areas, it has put in black and white only the “facts” given by 62 witnesses who agreed to come on record. “Others were not ready in view of security concerns,” the report says.

Comparing its investigation with that of the APDP, the team has said that statistics of the State police reveal that nine bodies were recovered from the Jhelum river. The APDP, in its report, had maintained that 2,373 bodies were buried in the mass graves.

“It is beyond doubt that unmarked graves containing dead bodies do exist in various places in north Kashmir,” the SHRC report says. “The maximum bodies have bullet injuries,” it has concluded. The report says that the government does not account for 1,692 bodies.

The report says that the only way to negate or affirm the statements given by the police is to compare the DNA profile of the unidentified bodies buried in the unmarked graves with the DNA profile of the next of kin. “Scope for DNA extraction is still very bright. As time goes, chances will be receded,” it says, adding that the Commission should do what is needed.

The report suggests that in order “to stop the misuse of powers under AFSPA [Armed Forces Special Powers Act] and Disturbed Areas Act, it is necessary that wherever anybody is killed — whether he is a militant or an innocent civilian — his or her identification profile including DNA profile should be maintained properly”.

The SHRC report has created ripples in the State, which has been plagued by disappearances and fake encounters since 1989. The state has not brought to justice those responsible for these encounters, save for an SSP who was jailed in a fake encounter case in Ganderbal in 2005. In the March 2000 fake encounter case in Pathribal, where five civilians suspected to be “foreign militants” were killed, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) indicted a brigadier and four others. But the Government of India refused to prosecute them.

Although the SHRC report concludes that the chances of DNA profiling of the bodies are bright, the top brass of the State security forces do not think so. “There were many people who came into the State as militants in the early 1990s and might have been buried there. How can we maintain an account of all of them as many were foreigners?” a top official told Frontline, dismissing the prospect of DNA sampling.

Amid mounting pressure from mainstream and separatist parties, the State government said that it was waiting for the final report. “There is no question of shielding anyone. Let the report come. We will do whatever is to be done under law,” said Ali Mohammad Sagar, Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs.

The Union government has been maintaining, on the basis of the annual report of the Ministry of Home Affairs and inputs from other sources, that 6,000 foreign terrorists were killed in the last 20 years in the State. However, the Jammu and Kashmir Police website puts the figure from 1998 to 2010 at 569. So where have the rest gone, ask human rights defenders. “It needs to be investigated,” said a human rights activist.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its comprehensive report in 2006 that “enforced disappearance by troops has been widespread since the early years of the conflict”. The report noted: “The problem has been so pervasive that it was a major issue in the 2002 State Assembly election campaign.”

The Manila-based Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearance (AFAD), which pursues the issue of disappearances in Kashmir, has lamented the government's apathy on the issue.

However, international pressure has not helped to sensitise the government on the issue. Successive governments have ignored the demand of international human rights bodies for an independent commission to probe rights violations.

The contradictions in the government figures have not helped matters. On August 14, 2009, the government told the State Assembly that the number of people missing in custody was just 110, out of which cases had been registered in respect of 98 and four had been challenged (or prosecution completed). But 10 days later, the government admitted in the Assembly that the number was 3,429.

This has been the hallmark of the government approach if one looks at official pronouncements since 2002. Interestingly, the official figures have been going down – from 3,931 in June 2001 to 3,429 in August 2009 – though complaints of disappearances have only increased.

As the Omar Abdullah government grapples with the challenge of removing the Disturbed Areas Act, which gives justification to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and faces the litmus test in the Assembly on a resolution seeking clemency for the Parliament House attack convict Afzal Guru, the mass graves issue is all set to put it in a tight spot.



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