Behind search for Kashmir's “disappeared” lies quest for justice

Late one August night in 1990, Javed Ahmad Ahangar disappeared from his home in Srinagar. Ever since then, his mother, Parveena Ahangar, has been campaigning to know where he went —and what happened to him.

Last week, the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission raised hope that Ms. Ahangar, and hundreds of other parents like her, might one day get an answer to their question.

It ordered a “representative, structured” body to establish the identity of more than 2,000 men buried in unidentified graves in northern Kashmir — terrorists killed in encounters, the authorities say; many of them innocent civilians executed in cold blood, human rights campaigners insist.

While Ms. Ahangar welcomes the decision, she isn't celebrating. “The Army, the police, the BSF, CRPF and others know where our sons are,” she says, “because it is they who picked them up in the name of interrogation. We have filed complaints with the police and lodged FIRs but nothing has moved over the past two decades.”

Ms. Ahangar believes it is important to differentiate between two distinct issues: the identity of the people buried in unmarked graves, and victims of enforced disappearances. “Persons who disappeared forcibly are the ones who were picked up by security forces from outside their homes, shops or streets. Their cases are all documented, and complaints are already there with the police and government.”

The problem is that there has been little action: cases have been pending in the J&K High Court since 1997, because the Union government has not granted sanction to prosecute military personnel, a requirement under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).

Ms. Ahangar argues that progress will only be possible when AFSPA is withdrawn from J&K. There is no reason, she says, to “give such powers to armed forces who use them in an arbitrary manner. Such laws have no place in a civilised, democratic society.”

In 1994, Ms. Ahangar formed the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), a coalition of families whose loved ones were kidnapped by security forces. Representatives of the families regularly meet to protest in Srinagar; since then, she has become a symbol of their collective suffering.

Contentious numbers

Even though the issue has led successive governments to promise action, there is contention over just how many disappearances there have in fact been in J&K. Ms. Ahangar says “the number must be running into a few thousands,” but admits the APDP has not kept records.

In 2003, former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed promised a full investigation into what he then characterised as “large-scale killings of innocent civilians.” In March 2003, Law Minister Muzaffar Beig announced that 3,744 people were missing from J&K — a figure that appeared to bear out Ms. Ahangar's case that thousands had disappeared.

Later that year, though, Mr. 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. His figures came from police scrutiny of a list of 743 provided to the J&K government by human rights groups.

The weeding-out process illustrated the complexity of the issue. Investigators first focussed their attention on the 84 disappearances cases human rights activists said had taken place between November 2002, when Mr. Sayeed took power, and August 2003. Of this list, the J&K Police said, just 58 names and addresses could be located on-ground

From this list of 58, 26 were traced to their homes, six were claimed to be fugitive terrorists, two turned out to have been kidnapped by terrorists, and one was in Srinagar jail. The rest had been killed in exchanges of fire, but their names and addresses were recorded in official records.

Human rights groups protested these findings, but gave no full rebuttal — leaving the debate in limbo.

Ghulam Nabi Azad, J&K's next Chief Minister, returned to the issue. He said there were 1,017 missing people, after removing the names of those known to be fugitive terrorists or individuals who had fled across the LoC to Pakistan.

Even as the debate raged, there was no effort to actually speed up the prosecution of perpetrators in cases where credible evidence existed that the armed forces had engaged in extra-judicial executions.

The investigation the SHRC has ordered will, in theory, allow all those who believe their loved ones may have been killed in fake encounters to seek identification, opening up the way to further investigation —and, hopefully, justice. There is little doubt the process will be time consuming. India has 21 laboratories capable of conducting forensic DNA work, but each test can take two months or more. Even in ongoing murder investigations, the waiting time runs to several months.

Kuldeep Khoda, Director-General of Police, says his force is sensitive to the issue — and willing to act. “Let human rights groups give us an authentic list of disappeared persons,” he says, “which we can investigate. We are wiling to work together with people to redress their grievances, but the lack of authenticity has made this difficult.” “Even today,” he claims, “the APDP has not furnished a list to us.”

Ms. Ahangar believes the DNA profiling is important — but won't bring justice. “The men who killed my son are known,” she says. “I don't need a DNA test, I need the men who killed my son to be prosecuted.”

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 12:08:19 PM |

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