Endless search for youth in Kashmir push families to brink

“My son had nothing to do with militancy… His “disappearance” is unbearable for me. Neither his person is shown to me nor is his dead body shown. I am right now helpless. It is very difficult for me to manage the household affairs. His “disappearance” has virtually brought us to the level of begging. God knows what will happen to us. I went from pillar to post to get any trace of my son but to no avail. I lodged a report in the police station … but the officer in charge refused to register a case. I filed a petition in the court and pursued it for some time but could not continue for lack of money as I am very poor…” said Haleema Begum about the “disappearance” of her son Bilal Ahmad Bhat.

Such was her determination to trace Bilal that Haleema found herself in quagmire situation that eventually cost her life. The 30-year-old son, a mason, disappeared on December 3, 1992. Haleema was shot dead in September 1998 by unidentified gunmen; her death is being linked to the persistence with which she sought to trace her son. It was recently that her above statement recorded by the Amnesty International came to light. She is just one of thousands in strife torn state of Jammu and Kashmir whose lives have been disrupted by the “disappearance” of a near ones. Torn between the hope that their loved ones will be found and the despair when their search fails again and again, such relatives cannot mourn and overcome the loss.

The Amnesty International puts the onus on Indian government and admits that over the past years of insurgency, the human rights watchdog has repeatedly submitted cases of disappearances allegedly perpetrated by Indian security forces to the government calling for impartial investigations into these allegations. In response the government denies that these violations have occurred.

The plight of family members of those, who have disappeared, is heart rending. What is worrisome that 26 fresh cases have been reported after Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed took over in November 2002. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee claimed that free and fair elections were held in the state to install the new coalition government led by Mufti. One of the poll planks of Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party was to end the agony of tens of hundreds of people whose kin went missing and to appoint an independent commission to help locate them. But six months since, 26 more have reportedly disappeared under such conditions.

The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, which fights the cause of these families, maintains that two people have disappeared from custody during the visits of Prime Minister Vajpayee and federal government’s new interlocutor on Kashmir N.N. Vohra. The APDP findings reveal 8,000 people have disappeared in custody in the past 14 years. The state government agrees on nearly half – 3,744. The families of those disappeared went on a week-long hunger strike on April 17 coinciding with Prime Minister’s visit to Srinagar. The seven-day hunger strike was observed by the relatives of victims of from different parts of the state, as a mode of protest against the indifferent attitude of the government towards their plight.

It is for the first time that the victims of human rights violations went on hunger strike. Mufti threw a gauntlet by admitting before the Indian Prime Minister that only 60 persons have disappeared in past 14 year and rest has crossed line of control. This as per Mufti’s version implies that the others have crossed over to Pakistan for arms training. According to APDP, Mufti has contradicted his own statement made on February 26, 2003 in the state assembly whereby he had admitted that 3,744 persons were missing since 2000. The assembly was informed that 1,553 reportedly disappeared in 2000, 1586 in 2001 and 605 in 2002. “During his election campaign Mufti Sayeed (Chief Minister) repeatedly promised to set up an enquiry commission into the disappearances if he came to power. His promises, however, proved a hoax as about 26 new cases have hitherto taken place since Mufti assumed office in November last,” said Pervez Imroz, a lawyer who heads the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons.

State Law Minister Muzaffar Hussain Beigh had stated on March 25 that 135 have been declared dead up to June 2002 and the investigations are on and the number of disappearances could be even more. The APDP goes on to argue that more than 500 custodial disappearance cases have been established by the judiciary itself.

“Vajpayee can understand the lingering pain a person with a disappeared son, father or husband in family has to endure”, the relatives of Kashmir’s disappeared men said. Sahil Meraj, a seven year-old kindergarten student holds a photograph of his disappeared father in his lap and fumbles for words to describe the tragedy of which he is only half aware. His grandmother, Rahtee, crying behind feeds him the words. The victims, mostly non-combatants, include a 15-year-old boy and a 75-year-old former teacher as well.

The self-contradictory statement exposes the Mufti’s doctrine of so called “Healing Touch”, the victims said, adding the policy is nothing but a hoodwinking process. “They are misleading international community by providing false data regarding the disappearance cases” said 15-year-old Bilquees, whose father was allegedly taken in custody by army and later he got disappeared.

Bilquees is not the only voice for the disappeared. Nazim Jan, from a village in border district of Uri, is looking for her three brothers. “I want justice. I have been searching for the last 13 years but in vain,” said Nazim. ”How could Mufti, and his daughter, who claims to champion the cause of violence-hit people, close their eyes on our plight. Are they not the same people who promised us the healing touch,” said APDP member Parveena Ahangar. Her son went missing 13 years ago. ”And what about the independent commission that Mufti and his daughter promised to set up to investigate every disappearance case,” said Akbar Jehan whose two sons were allegedly picked up by Army in Mashichod, Uri, five years ago.

Ghulam Mohammad Bazaz, whose son Sajjad was picked up by paramilitary Border Security Force on February 12, 1992, said he met chief minister twice who reportedly assured him his case would be looked into. “My son was arrested by commandant Rathore of 30 Battalion of paramilitary Border Security Force and it has been proved by court. But no action is taken against the officer”, he regretted. Bilqees, whose father is missing said, she wants government to stop more such cases. “We know what disappearances mean and we do not want others to suffer”, she bemoaned, with tears rolling down her tears.

Better late than never, the parents of the disappeared Kashmiri youth got some reprieve as India’s National Human Rights Commission asked the Jammu & Kashmir Government to inform it about whether the state Government has established a system to record allegations of enforced or involuntary disappearances and, if so, the nature of that system, the number of such allegations recorded by it, the details of the system established thus far to investigate such allegations and the results, thus far, of such investigations. The commission also sought information on the measures that are being taken to prevent the occurrences of enforced or involuntary disappearances.

While the NHRC, the apex rights watch dog body seeks to enquire on the state of disappearance cases, its state wing claimed that 60 persons have disappeared from custody in Kashmir during the past 14 years.The State Human Rights Commission has received 55 cases in one year alone. In its annual report 2001-2002, the SHRC says it received 474 complaints of human rights violations from different districts of the state. Giving the breakup, the Government-controlled commission says 55 cases of enforced disappearances, 25 of custodial death, 56 of harassment, 137 of relief, 2 of rape, and others, were lodged with it from April 1, 2001 to March 31, 2002.

The Indian government has imposed draconian laws like “Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act,” in Kashmir. Section 6 of the Act bans prosecution of security men involved in heinous crimes. According to the Act, sanction to prosecution has to be obtained from the Government of India for bringing the accused to justice. Although scores of petitions have been filed in the Home and Defense Ministries, till date sanction has been accorded in one case only.

A security person can arrest or shoot a person, blow up a house merely on the opinion that such person may pose a threat to the country. By virtue of this Act security forces enjoy full-fledged impunity… Though there has been a considerable improvement in overall situation in the disturbed areas of the State, but continuous enforcement of the special laws and provisions of the laws, which makes the trigger-happy forces not accountable. Giving full impunity to the forces is against international treaties on human rights and Geneva Convention.

Indian defense ministry has indicated that army personnel have allegedly been involved only in 85 of the 364 cases; and that even in respect of these 85 cases, in 29 cases essential details are missing, thus rendering an investigation into the latter cases impossible. In respect of the remaining 56 cases, however, the ministry of defense has, in the intervening period, thus afar sent its comments in respect of 31 cases, indicating that it is continuing in its effort to investigate the allegations in respect of the other cases, despite the fact that many of the cases dated back a number of years, that army units and formations engaged in counter-insurgency operations were frequently shifted, and that the information provided by the APDP was sketchy and often lacking in rudimentary details. For its part, the Government of Jammu & Kashmir has responded in respect of 93 cases thus far.

The state judiciary meant to protect the life and liberty of the citizen and to enforce the guidelines laid on by Supreme Court of India has failed, seldom has any perpetrator been punished or booked under contempt for violating the guidelines. The exhaustive litigation has only given impression to the relatives that the institution is dysfunctional to redress their grievance or provide justice. Notwithstanding, the institutional failure, the relatives are relentlessly continuing their struggle by resorting to other measures like lobbying with the civil society groups, press etc. The relatives are struggling on the individual as well as collective levels to know the fate of their beloved ones but the government is shying in acknowledging the plight of the relatives and to accept the demands of the Association made from time to time at different occasions. It seems that all the governments are helpless under the prevailing circumstances to address the problem, which they believe will demoralize the army.

Disappearance is a crime against humanity, according to the Rome Statute adopted on 17th of July 1998, and according to the International Criminal Court (ICC) the persons responsible for disappearances shall be personally responsible for violation of the International Humanitarian Law. The relatives demand an end to enforced disappearances in Jammu and Kashmir so that other people should not undergo the similar plight and trauma they are facing. They also want that perpetrators responsible for disappearances be punished. In the meantime, there seems no end to the woeful tales of innocents like Bilquees and Sahil. But all of them have this very strange wish, “Declare our dear ones dead if they have been killed!”