For thousands of ‘half widows' and families in Kashmir whose members have gone missing, the SIT report confirming the presence of mass unidentified graves may finally bring some kind of closure…

Imagine a day when your husband, brother, father steps out of the house and never returns. Imagine some member of the family being taken off by the police or army for questioning, and they never return. Imagine living for years not knowing — whether they are alive or dead, whether you should mourn or live in hope, whether you should give up or fight for the truth.

This is the reality to which thousands of families in Kashmir wake up each day — families of the estimated 8,000 individuals who have disappeared since the beginning of militancy in 1989. This is not a new story. It has been told, and retold many times. Yet, despite the retelling, nothing seems to change.

Glimmer of hope

Today, there is a small glimmer of hope that the truth might finally come out. Despite ‘civil society' — yes, that same ‘ civil society' that kept all our media busy for over two weeks to the exclusion of all other news — producing reports and investigations that suggested that literally thousands of unidentified bodies lie buried in unmarked graves across Kashmir, that these graves might hold the key to the mystery of the thousands who have disappeared, the state government took no action.

Last month, a special investigation team (SIT) of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) produced a report that confirmed much of what was already known, but not accepted. The SIT's 11-member team took three years to follow through on information that had been placed in the public domain by groups like the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and the Indian People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir (IPTK). Its findings, made public through the use of the Right to Information and released to the local media, are explosive. They confirm that in 38 locations in four districts — Bandipora, Baramulla, Kupwara and Handwara — there are 2,730 unidentified bodies in unmarked graves. Of these, the SIT has already confirmed that 574 are local people and not the ‘foreign militants' as the gravediggers, ordered by security forces to bury these bodies, were told. That still leaves 2,156 bodies to be identified. The SIT has concluded that “there is every probability that these unidentified dead bodies (2156) buried in various unmarked graves … may contain the dead bodies of enforced disappearances”.

The SIT report confirms what the IPTK 2009 report, “Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves in Kashmir” revealed through photographs and eyewitness accounts. It surveyed 55 villages in three districts and identified 2,373 unidentified bodies in unmarked graves. The SIT figure is higher. It reports that many of the bodies were disfigured beyond recognition and several were charred. The majority were men and most had bullet injuries. This horrific secret lay buried in graveyards that local people knew existed but could not report for fear of reprisals. Now finally the truth is out. Or at least a part of it. A thorough survey in all districts would probably reveal many more such graves and unidentified bodies. And if they were matched with the DNA of the 8,000 or so who have disappeared, it is possible that after decades there would be a closure to the terrible and lingering loss that thousands of families in Kashmir have had to bear not knowing what has happened to their loved ones.

The worst off have been the women, whose husbands were pulled out for questioning, or just picked up, and who never returned. These women, ‘half widows' as they are called, are stuck in a unique situation in Kashmir. In July, APDP came out with another report that reveals the gender dimension of this tragedy. Titled “Half Widow Half Wife? Responding to Gendered Violence in Kashmir”, the report documents the plight of the estimated 1,500 such women that APDP has identified. The number might look small but it represents just a small part of a larger problem in the state.

Heart-rending

The individual stories in the APDP report are heart-rending. Most of these women are ineligible for pensions or government relief because they cannot produce a death certificate. There is confusion about whether they can marry again after four years or seven years. Many of them face problems with their in-laws while they wait for confirmation one way or another about the fate of their husbands. They live with high levels of mental stress and have to deal with children who also have deep psychological problems.

Insurgency, militancy, separatists, ‘stone-pelters', India, Pakistan — these are the words that get repeated in reportage from Kashmir. Yet another reality is what thousands of ordinary families suffer when their loved ones literally vanish into thin air. How can there be closure to the grief you experience when you have no idea whether the person you love is alive or dead? How can you mourn?

If, once the SIT report is handed over by the SHRC to the state government, action is taken to deal with the unidentified bodies buried across the state, perhaps there will be some kind of closure to this terrible story. Families can then, through DNA sampling, confirm whether the person they have been looking for all these years lies in one of these graves. This must also be followed up with steps to prosecute those responsible for these extra-judicial killings.

Yes, we need an India without corruption. But this violation of human rights, this terrible travesty of justice where people are picked up, killed and buried without anyone knowing about it is a more hideous form of corruption. It represents the misuse of powers granted in the name of fighting militancy. This type of corruption must also be addressed.

Indians in the so-called ‘mainland', those who filled the Ramlila grounds in Delhi, for instance, are only too ready to assert that Kashmir in the north and Manipur in the northeast are an ‘integral' part of India. If this be so, then the concerns of these half-widows, of the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters of the 8,000 disappeared persons in that state, should also be an ‘integral' part of our concern for a just and democratic society.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com