Relatives of Kashmir's disappeared refuse to give up search for truth


Indian authorities deny more than 8,000 people have gone missing since a separatist rebellion began in 1989

ON THE 10th of every month, hundreds of people gather at a central park in Srinagar, the summer capital of India’s disputed northern Kashmir province. They are protesting against the enforced disappearance of their relatives following the armed Islamist insurgency that erupted in the principality in 1989.

Wearing white headbands bearing the names of the missing persons, members of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons sit solemnly in the park for a few hours before dispersing hopelessly only to reconvene four weeks later for the same forlorn objective.

Many have been following this ritual since 1994, when the association was founded to prevail upon the authorities to provide conclusive information about the 8,000 to 10,000 of their relatives across Kashmir who have been forcibly disappeared.

They believe many were apprehended by the army, paramilitary police or varied security agencies over the 21 years that the insurgency for an independent Muslim homeland has raged in Kashmir. It has claimed more than 65,000 lives.

“We demand that the government establish a commission to investigate these disappearances,” said the association’s head, Praveena Ahanger (48), whose son, Javed Ahmad, was picked up by the army in Srinagar in August 1990 and disappeared. Successive administrations have failed to do so, she said.

“We come here to protest and to tell the authorities that we are fighting for our children. We don’t need compensation but information. If they are alive, tell us, if not, show us their graves,” she said. “At least we can then have closure.”

For years after her son was marched off by the army in the middle of the night, mistaken for someone in the neighbourhood with a similar name and militant connections, Praveena doggedly visited military camps and jails across the Kashmir Valley looking for him. She even badgered barbers, cooks and numerous others with access to the incarceration camps hoping for news of Javed, albeit with no success. “But I knew who had taken my child,” she said, and with the help of activist lawyers filed a case in the state high court seeking his whereabouts.

In India’s notoriously slow legal system it took Praveena 13 years to identify the soldier responsible for her son’s arrest. But it was a pyrrhic triumph, as the case was referred to the federal government for sanction to prosecute the guilty. It never happened.

The draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act invoked in disturbed areas grants immunity to all Indian military personnel deployed on internal security duty in war-torn Kashmir. This covers all acts performed in the course of duty including the shooting dead of innocent and unarmed protesters for defying curfew.

Most requests like Praveena’s to prosecute soldiers and paramilitary personnel have been routinely rejected by the federal administration, fearing a lowering of morale among the security forces and the giving of succour to militants.

“It is no longer a fight for my son,” Praveena said. “It’s a fight for all the disappeared. They are all my sons.”

India, which controls a third of Muslim-majority Kashmir and claims the rest seized by Pakistan after independence from colonial rule in 1947, denies responsibility for these missing people.

The Indian authorities claim that fewer than 1,000 Kashmiris have disappeared and less than 150 of them are dead. They maintain that the majority of the “disappeared” had fled to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to obtain arms training from army and security specialists before returning to fuel the insurgency.

Pakistan denies the existence of any such insurgent training camps but has grudgingly accepted that its territory was used by Islamic insurgents to launch strikes on India’s mainland and across Kashmir.

The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons has also taken up the case of Kashmir’s “half-widows”. These are the wives of the “disappeared” men who cannot remarry because they have no proof of widowhood, and under Islamic law are required to wait at least seven years before taking another husband.

The association estimates that these women in limbo number between 2,000 and 2,500. Even though the women come mostly from poor families, state policy does not allow them any relief for seven years, after which they are entitled to either a one-time grant of between €750-1500 or a monthly pension of about €10.

Some of the women, in an attempt to have closure, erected a collective memorial stone in a Srinagar graveyard in 2005. Within hours the authorities had demolished it.