The Silence of Kashmiri Mass Graves

New evidence shedding light on two decades of heinous oppression by Indian military forces in Kashmir is fast surfacing. Too long in denial, the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), a state government-instituted body, has finally acknowledged the existence of thousands of unmarked graves dotting regions close to the Line of Control, which divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. SHRC initially announced that it had found 2730 such graves in Kupwara, a border district. News reports now suggest that a further 3000 unmarked graves have been discovered in two adjoining districts of Poonch and Rajouri. Kashmiri human rights groups, like the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and the International People’s Tribunal in Kashmir (IPTK), had already claimed the existence of these graves in their reports, Facts Underground (2008) and Buried Evidence (2010), respectively. In Kashmir, therefore, the SHRC disclosure has not come as a surprise.

For years, APDP has requested an impartial, international probe into about 8000 cases of enforced disappearances that have taken place in Kashmir over the past 20 years. The group’s fear that many of those disappeared may have been killed in custody and dumped in these unmarked graves is turning out to be correct. Despite the Indian government’s assertions that the persons buried at these sites are foreign guerrillas who had crossed into Kashmir to fight Indian troops, SHRC has already identified 574 of the bodies as those of local Kashmiris, while the identification of the rest was going on.

Indian authorities have sought to obfuscate the issue further by suggesting that since most graves in Kashmir are traditionally unmarked there is nothing unusual in these new discoveries. While it is true that graves in Kashmir are often marked only by their small, unnamed, oval headstones, those graves are part of communally designated graveyards and each grave is well recognized by the family members of the person buried in it. In rural Kashmir, families generally visit the graveyards once a year to pray for their dead and give meals to the poor. The unmarked graves that have been discovered are neither part of any traditional graveyards nor do local people recognize who is buried in them. What is certain is that these graves have materialized during the past two decades, and there are many that contain more than one body. Other kinds of graves have also cropped up in these two decades—the ones in the mazar-e-shuhada, or the martyr’s graveyards. People buried in them, often ones killed by Indian soldiers, are hailed by Kashmiris as martyrs. Their graves have commemorative epitaphs with names, dates of martyrdom, and places of residence engraved on them.

Although Kashmiri press has reported cases of custodial killings and fake encounters for long, it is only over the past few years that such news has begun to circulate in media outside of Kashmir. A series of cases have come to light that show Indian soldiers killed locals and labeled them as foreign militants to claim rewards instituted by the Indian government for killing militants. These cases have come to light only after sustained protests.

The discovery of unmarked graves in Kashmir, however, hasn’t evinced interest so far from the UN or any international powers. India’s rising profile as a lucrative market prevents meaningful debate over the question of Kashmir. A recent discussion on human rights abuses in Kashmir in the British Parliament was criticized as imprudent by British officials. Even the mention of the Kashmir issue was seen to have the potential to affect trade ties with India. A deathly silence was maintained last year when around 115 Kashmiris, including boys as young as 8, were gunned down by Indian paramilitary forces to quell widespread protests against Indian rule in the region.

In India, in an atmosphere of heightened nationalist one-upmanship, it seems unlikely that the news about unmarked graves will lead to an acknowledgement of military abuses in Kashmir at the highest levels of the ruling coalition. At the same time, the possibility of debate to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), an emergency law that provides an unreasonable degree of immunity to security agencies from prosecution over human rights abuses in Kashmir, looks distant. In the meantime, these draconian laws continue to incentivize the ruthless behavior of Indian security agencies, the seeds of which have now borne a bitter fruit along the border in Kashmir.

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This article was first published in Anthropology News, November 2011, Vol 52(8).

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