The subcontinental air has recently been thick with talk of the possibility of peace in Kashmir. Indian government officials say that violence has decreased and that ‘infiltration levels’ have come down. The security bunkers in Srinagar, which have stood like blots on the city’s face for the last 15 years, have been given a facelift: before the new tourist season began, wooden cubicles replaced the old ones made of brick-and-sandbag. President Pervez Musharraf threw down his gauntlet of possible Kashmiri self-rule, and most of the Kashmir-based political parties — including the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference — are discussing his proposals. On the ground, however, things have yet to change significantly. In particular, Kashmir Valley continues to witness enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and custodial killings.
On 11 January 2006, Mushtaq Ahmad Ganie, in his mid-twenties, was arrested by the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) during a raid on an Anantnag District village. He died in custody and his body was handed over to police. Amidst widespread protests, an army spokesman claimed that he had died of cardiac arrest, though the suspicion was that Mushtaq was tortured. After Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad called for an official enquiry, Inspector General of Police K Rajendra Kumar told a Jammu-based daily the following day that, “Ganie was an innocent civilian and it is also a fact that he died in the army’s custody. However, two separate enquiries have been ordered to ascertain whether Ganie died an accidental death or was tortured to death.” At press time, results from both probes were still awaited.
Three days later, on 14 January, two youths, Abdul Majid Parray and Fayaz Ahmed Bhat, were picked up from Baramulla District, again by RR troopers, and tortured. Parray succumbed, but Bhat lived to tell his horrific tale to the media. Again, there were protests. Bhat’s relatives later disclosed to the media that the army had tried to rearrest him while he was recovering in a Srinagar hospital, apparently wanting him to change his statement. Army officers, meanwhile, claimed that they had simply wanted to move Bhat to an army hospital.
These incidents took place just a few days after the Congress-led state government boasted that custodial deaths had ceased under its rule, with one local newspaper headline trumpeting: “No Custodial Killings in First 50 Days.” In yet another blow to the chief minister’s assertions, on 17 January, three madrasa caretakers were killed by RR personnel in an ‘encounter’ in Pulwama District. The three maulvis — Wali Muhammad Khatana, Farooq Ahmad Dar and Muhammad Farooq — were killed while collecting hides of sacrificial sheep for their madrasa in southern Kashmir. Army officials claimed the three were militants, but the public was unconvinced. Residents near the madrasa claimed that the army had suspected the three of spreading fundamentalism. Their deaths provoked huge antigovernment protests throughout the Valley, and relatives of the three refused to bury the victims until a probe was ordered into the killings.
The opposition National Conference expressed its ‘concern’ over the increasing number of custodial killings, and on 19 January Chief Minister Nabi Azad was compelled to warn the army to avoid custodial deaths. He also asked the local police to accompany army personnel in all search operations, which in the past have been a source of constant harassment to the Kashmiris. The independent Public Commission on Human Rights reported that during the first four months of the Congress-led government — whose term started on 5 November — the number of custodial killings had already reached eight. During the previous three years of the People’s Democratic Party-led government of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, 122 such cases were recorded.
The number 8000
Reliable activist groups claim that about 8000 people have gone missing in Jammu & Kashmir over the last 16 years of insurgency. The official count is not reliable, particularly because it depends on the political party in power and a host of other factors. The earlier National Conference government put the figure at 3184 in July 2002. The PDP’s Mufti Sayeed, however, told the state assembly in 2003 that 3741 persons had gone missing since 2000 alone, a figure that he repeated at a press conference in the presence of then-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Only a week later, he retracted that statement, saying that no more than 60 people had actually disappeared “following their arrest by security forces” in the previous 13 years. The flip-flop came as a rude shock to the Kashmiri public.
Zahir-ud-din is a journalist who has documented more than 4000 cases of forced disappearances in his book Did They Vanish in Thin Air? He says as many as 500 cases of disappearance have been proven by the state’s High Court. The Srinagar-based Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), which began collecting information on enforced disappearances in 1994, say the actual number goes well beyond 8000.
On 29 March this year, Jammu & Kashmir Police named two Indian Army officers for engineering a fake surrender of 27 militants in November 2004 at the Army’s headquarters at Nagrota. At that time, it was considered a major success by the establishment. The story, however, was soon exposed, leading to a year-long police enquiry, which has subsequently concluded that these ‘militants’ were in fact unemployed youth from central Kashmir, who were lured by a surrendered militant-turned-Congress politician by offering them jobs in Delhi. He instead handed them over to the Army officers, who kept them in custody for more than six months before presenting them for the ‘surrender’.
Although for most cases of disappearances the military has been blamed, militants too have been responsible for a significant number. In early 2003, a teenager named Fayez Ahmad Malik, from the town of Doda, was abducted and later killed. Militants of Hizbul Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the killing, accusing the young man of being an informant for the security forces.
While custodial deaths and disappearances represent the most severe misuse of state power, under the Congress-led government the incidence of arbitrary arrests, molestations and excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators continues to be significant. On 16 January, local media agencies reported the arrest of 11 civilians by RR soldiers during a search operation at the village of Kheru. The detentions triggered angry protests against the troops, but the prisoners were not immediately released. Instead, the locals were thrashed by the army men.
The lack of effective agencies to investigate acts of human rights violations has made it extremely difficult to pursue complaints of alleged custodial death and disappearance. Section 19 of the Protection of Human Rights Act (PHRA), which also provided for the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), restricts the Commission from investigating allegations of violations by the armed forces (see Himal Nov-Dec 2005, “The healing can begin here”). Meanwhile, it is also a fact that decades-old killings of prominent activists in the state remain to be investigated.
Not so long ago, the running joke in Kashmir — a dark one — was: Beta soja, warna Mufti Saab ‘Healing Touch’ de denge (Sleep son, or else Mufti Sayeed will give you his ‘Healing Touch’). With new Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad taking over the reins of the government last fall, the joke has lost its sheen. As the political actors in and out of Jammu & Kashmir scramble for places on the official roundtables and counter-roundtables to discuss the state’s situation, many of those who have lost friends and relatives are far from amused either with the joke or the peace process.
“What peace process? It means nothing for us,” says Mugli, a widow whose only son disappeared after he was taken into custody 15 years ago. “If India and Pakistan are talking about Kashmir, they should talk about our miseries first … My son was my only hope. From interrogation centres to jails and to shrines, I went everywhere and pleaded before everybody, before Khuda, but could not find him.”