Praveen Swami

Tallies of the numbers of those missing vary widely. But this should not be used to stonewall action against the perpetrators of human rights violations.

"MURDER," WROTE William Shakespeare, "will out."

News of the cold-blooded murder of five civilians by Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir have demonstrated, once again, the inexorable working of this maxim. What hasn't become transparent, though, is either the scale or significance of such incidents.

For the most part, reportage on disappearances in Jammu and Kashmir has consisted of little other than variations on a standard set of narrative motifs: faded photographs of the victim, his grieving mother or sister, his orphaned child. While emotionally compelling, such accounts tell us little of just how widespread such killings in fact are.

Ever since this newspaper obtained documents establishing that at least three separate Rashtriya Rifles battalions murdered civilians in cold blood, and then passed them off as unidentified terrorists, these questions have occupied the centre stage of political life in Jammu and Kashmir. Sadly, there have been few answers.

Facts and fiction

In 2003, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed moved to fill the fact void. In an effort to draw votes from supporters of the secessionist movement and win the support of the Hizbul-Mujahideen, Mr. Sayeed promised a full investigation into what he then characterised as large-scale killings of innocent civilians.

Within months, the government introduced numbers to the argument. In March 2003, Law Minister Muzaffar Beig announced that 3,744 people were missing from Jammu and Kashmir a figure that was seized on by activists to claim that their allegations of large-scale enforced disappearances had been vindicated.

Mr. Beig's figure was, however, only a compilation of the numbers of persons reported to be missing for any reason at all. Later that year, Chief Minister Sayeed declared that just 60 persons had in fact "disappeared" since 1990 or, put more bluntly, had been established to have been kidnapped and then presumably murdered by security forces.

Mr. Sayeed's figures came from scrutiny of a list of 743 provided to the Jammu and Kashmir Government by human rights groups, notably the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons. Led by Parveena Ahanger, the mother of one of those missing, and lawyer Parvez Imroz, the APDP had fought a sustained campaign on the issue.

Investigators first focussed their attention on the 84 disappearances human rights activists said had taken place between November 2002, when Mr. Sayeed took power, and August 2003. Of these, the Jammu and Kashmir Police discovered, the names and addresses of only 58 tallied with actual individuals.

For example, the lists put out by human rights activists contained the name of Mohammad Altaf Yatoo of Aripathan village in Beerwah. Investigators, however, obtained signed statements from Aripathan residents that no one of that name had ever lived in the village.

Of the 58 verifiable cases, the police said, 26 were traced to their homes a fact journalists were able to cross-check with relative ease. Another "disappeared" individual turned out to be in Srinagar central jail. Six others, the police said, had turned terrorists, while two were kidnapped by jihadi groups. Still others had been killed in exchanges of fire.

While human rights groups protested part of these findings, no full rebuttal was prepared. Given that organisations such as the APDP had long been claiming that between 8,000 and 10,000 individuals had been victims of enforced disappearances, the failure to put out a credible list of just a few hundred was a significant failure.

Research failures

One key problem, journalist Masood Husain reported in The Economic Times in September 2003, were Mr. Imroz's data-management procedures: "Lacking an organised data bank, another of his colleagues said they go on making the missing list on basis of the complaints they receive but there are no deletions."

Much of the literature on the subject, moreover, did not comprehend the distinction between missing persons and those subject to human rights violations. "Did They Vanish Into Thin Air," a compilation painstakingly prepared by journalist Zahir-ud-Din and often referred to in the literature, reflects the confusion.

A moving and passionate work, Mr. Zahir-ud-Din's compilation suffers from its failure to draw distinctions between innocent civilians kidnapped and killed by security forces and terrorists who crossed into Pakistan individuals for whom the Jammu and Kashmir Government or Indian Army cannot reasonably be expected to account for.

For example, several independent media accounts have said there were thousands of young men from Jammu and Kashmir living in jihadi training facilities or refugee centres in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Others may have been killed while crossing the Line of Control but security forces would have no way of establishing their identity.

Shoddy research has contributed to the confusion. In a November 16, 2003, article published in the Karachi-based Dawn, activist Rita Manchanda reported the illegal detention of Srinagar resident Tariq Lone in an operation that involved "the J Branch, the office of the Intelligence Bureau."

In fact, the Intelligence Bureau has no `J' Branch. The Border Security Force, which was also by Ms. Manchanda's account involved in the case, does have a `G' Branch, which among other things provides counter-terrorism intelligence. It is unclear, however, if this is the organisation Ms. Manchanda is referring to.

Activists have done themselves no favours with overblown comparisons of events in Jammu and Kashmir with the carnages perpetrated by General Augusto Pinochet's military regime in Chile or even Nazi Germany comparisons that serve only to valorise the dissent of those who use them, rather than accurately describe reality.

But India's use of such errors to stonewall action against the perpetrators of human rights violations both demeans its democratic project and undermines the credibility of its institutions. Even if Mr. Sayeed was correct in asserting that just 60-odd enforced disappearances have taken place since 1990, that is still five dozen too many.

As Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad pointed out, it would naïve to expect zero human rights violations in the midst of a quasi-war. But the Ganderbal killings have demonstrated that the system can deliver justice when it chooses after all, had investigators thrown away a mobile phone the truth about the murders would never have been known.

Mr. Azad has now put the figure of the missing at 1,017, after removing the names of who are known to be terrorists or living in Pakistan.

If he is serious about undoing the harm the Ganderbal killings have inflicted on India's credibility, the Chief Minister may do well to ensure those cases and any future complaints are fully investigated.