SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Living in hope

Where are they?: At a APDP protest.   | Photo Credit: Photos: Nissar Ahmed

SHUJAAT BUKHARI

When security forces in Kashmir picked up her son, Parveena Ahangar chose to fight back.

From Srinagar to Jodhpur, Parveena visited every jail in vain. "So far I have not succeeded, even after 17 years but I hope that one day I will know whether he is dead or alive."

PARVEENA AHANGAR and the Srinagar-based Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) are synonymous with each other. On August 18, 1990, Parveena, an illiterate woman, lit a candle of hope for hundreds of hapless parents whose kin have disappeared since 1989, when the armed rebellion broke out in Kashmir.

No clear figures

The number of those who went missing is an area of conflict. Those associated with the APDP simply say "it is in thousands" but the government figures are not clear. Various top functionaries have admitted from time to time that the number is nearing 3000. Former Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, invited severe criticism in 2003 when he put the number merely at 60. The APDP has documented around 1000 cases so far. Parveena's pain and anger, at the arrest of her son, Javed Ahmad, on August 18, 1990, gave the phenomenon of disappearances a new direction. The mother of five children, Javed was a student in Std. IX when soldiers picked him up. "He had a stammer and could not explain to the soldiers that he was innocent," she recalls and breaks down. Though Parveena was only one among many such mothers who continued to live with pain of losing their sons and husbands, her grit and resolve led her to make all efforts to trace her son. From Srinagar to Jodhpur, Parveena visited every jail in vain. "So far I have not succeeded, even after 17 years but I hope that one day I will know whether he is dead or alive," says Parveena, the chairperson of APDP. "I visited almost every big jail of India. I looked for him in Tihar, Meerut, Jodhpur, Heeranagar and Jammu jail, but he was nowhere. I must have met at least a hundred officials from civil, police and security forces." Finally she filed a Habeas Corpus petition at the Jammu and Kashmir High Court to seek her son's whereabouts. She motivated other affected families to follow suit. There are thousands of such petitions pending before the court and the judges are not satisfied with the responses of civil and police administration. "These orders are not being implemented and on one excuse or other the officials buy time," says lawyer M.S. Latif. And one day, in 1994, all those assembled in the court shared their woeful tales and decided to constitute a forum to coordinate all their efforts. So the APDP was born. Besides the parents of young Kashmiris who are missing in custody, a number of women whose husbands met the same fate are also members. These women, half-widows as they are called, face a peculiar situation. Unaware of their husbands' fate, their lives have become miserable. Some have been waiting for news for more than 12 years. Unable to decide whether to remarry or not, they are also caught in a debate between religious scholars on how long a woman should wait after her husband disappears. "It is difficult to think about marrying again. You are emotionally wedded to someone. You have children in front of you. Is it possible," says 34-year-old Shakeela of Wagar Budgam whose husband Mohammad Shafi Lone went missing five years ago. The children's condition is also sad, as the mothers have next to no resources to bring them up or educate them.

Fight is on

Despite the intimidation and harassment from various quarters, Parveena says that the fight is on. Parveena, who represents the APDP in the Philippines-based Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), firmly believes "one day the government will be forced to tell us the whereabouts of our dear ones". "The APDP's constitution is clear that any person who is not a victim cannot become a member," said Parveena. "We will not allow anyone to exploit our cause." The APDP members meet every month and launched a hunger strike in April 2003 when the then Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Srinagar. On World Disappearance Day and World Human Rights Day, the APDP makes it a point to register a protest in Srinagar. A memorial is also being constructed near Narbal to remember those who went missing since 1989. But officials say that there was a sharp decline in the allegations about disappearances now. "We offered compensation for the missing ones after a certain period though only after proper verification but not many came forward," said a top official. He said numbers were exaggerated but admitted, "this is a serious issue". Former Law Minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig told the State Assembly on March 25, 2003 that since December 1992, 3744 are reported missing of whom 135 have been declared dead and the number of disappeared could be even more. Some officials believe that many people crossed over the Line of Control but cannot substantiate the claim.