The Ganderbal exhumations

The Ganderbal exhumations

There is good news from Kashmir. The diligent reader of the Indian national press will be informed that wildlife poaching is down to almost nil. This is

Caption: Father of false encounter victim
Image: Indian Express

thanks to arms licenses for individuals having been suspended in Jammu & Kashmir after the outbreak of the insurgency a decade and a half ago. Of course, staying away from the deep, dark forest is also what common sense commands. Who in his right mind would want to run the risk of being encountered brandishing a firearm, and having his comparably benign poaching intentions mistaken for militant ones? Thus, the snow leopard, the spotted and the musk deer, the Himalayan black bear and the Pir Panjal markhor goat make merry in the absence of human poachers.

The media in Kashmir do not supply such happy news. Instead, the local papers are awash with stories of encounters – real or fake – between security forces and militants, as well as crackdowns, disappearances and intolerable living conditions. The current official optimism on both sides of the border notwithstanding, the truth is that the area is locked in a cycle of violence and counter-violence, exacting a blood toll from both combatants and civilians. In a 2006 report on patterns of impunity in J & K, the watchdog organisation Human Rights Watch held Indian security forces to account for systematic torture, disappearances and arbitrary detentions, while denouncing similar acts perpetrated by militant groups. Such has been the case for years.

In January, following the exhumation of at least five bodies in the district of Ganderbal, internal investigations revealed that army contingents and police units in J & K had killed innocent civilians in cold blood in order to pass them off as militants and thereby to receive rewards and promotions. Horrific through this revelation was, it did not surprise many. Some major Indian media outlets had little to say about the findings. Others expressed shock as, unlike ordinary criminals (who shame only themselves), the police and army personnel involved in the atrocities had "disgraced their uniforms and their country". The Indian defence minister duly gave assurances that human-rights violations would "not be tolerated", and that every complaint would be looked into by various officials. A simple word of sympathy for the victims' families, however, was not forthcoming.

The fake encounters most recently revealed could be just the tip of the iceberg. In late August, the Srinagar-based Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) put the number of people who have vanished from J & K since the outbreak of militancy at a staggering 10,000. Now this figure has come under attack. APDP has drawn criticism from the authorities for "lacking an organised data bank", while a human-rights activist has been accused of "shoddy research" for having mistaken 'IB' (Intelligence Bureau) for 'BSF' (Border Security Force), and for having written 'J' instead of 'G' when referring to G Branch, the BSF's intelligence wing – as if getting the alphabet right is so important in establishing state responsibility.

What one does know is that the constant exposure of the Kashmiri people to violence – physical, psychological, sexual – has led to a significant deterioration of mental health across age groups and genders. A 2006 survey on the psychosocial status of the population of J & K found that more than half of the interviewees (56 percent) was easily frightened, almost two out of five (38 percent) felt 'worthless', and more than a third (34 percent) had thought of committing suicide in the month prior to the interview. How does one square such findings with upbeat accounts by the national and state governments on the improving security situation and the restoration of normalcy in J & K?

Following the exhumations in Ganderbal, the people of J & K will have hard questions for ex-Chief Minister Muhammad Mufti Sayeed about what his "healing touch" did for the bruised Kashmiri soul. They may also want to ask the current Chief Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, what exactly he meant when he said that his opponents in the state assembly were "being emotional" in demanding an immediate troop withdrawal from J & K. But the hardest question yet may be reserved for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: In line with his "zero tolerance" policy on human-rights violations, will he support India's signing of the UN's new International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance? The convention opened for signature in early February, and its 'right to know' provision will be an important stepping-stone to meeting the demands for justice by the grieving families of Ganderbal. Barring that right, in today's Kashmir only one thing is certain: the brighter day will always be tomorrow.

~ Patrick Hoenig is a visiting professor at the Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.

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