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THE DISAPPEARED

Jennifer McKay

For many, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Report on Human Rights Abuses in Kashmir, was an ‘eye opener’ to this almost-forgotten, 70-year conflict. To date, there has been no action by India on accepting an international, independent probe into the many atrocities, nor the other specific 14 points of action recommended to the Indian Government.

Indian-Occupied Kashmir is one of the most heavily militarised regions in the world. Around 700,000 Indian troops maintain a looming presence over the daily life of the civilians. Laws that make it all but impossible for civilians to get justice have reinforced the culture of impunity within the Indian Armed Forces.

Until the release of the Kashmir Report, little international attention had been paid to the decades of brutality inflicted on the citizens of this beautiful region. Despite courageous and determined efforts of many local human rights groups the world has looked away. We salute the courage of these human rights defenders and their fight for justice for their people.

Approximately 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising against occupation and the crackdown by the Indian military. The Indian Armed Forces have frightening powers that provide impunity against prosecution for human rights abuses and subsequent legal action by the victims. The Indian Armed Forces Special Powers Act grants the military wide powers to arrest, shoot to kill, and occupy or destroy property. Combined with the equally repressive Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act which grants security forces almost unlimited powers of arrest and detention, justice is impeded and human rights are denied. Enforced disappearances of persons are part of the larger policy of repression by the state, including extra-judicial killings, custodial torture, rape, and pellet-gun blindings,

Between March 2016 and March 2017, over 1,000 people, including some under the age of 18, were detained under the PSA. The whereabouts of many of these is uncertain. They have disappeared.

A frightening reality for Kashmiris under AFSPA and the PSA is the possibility of joining “The Disappeared.” The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons and the Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, report that more than 8,000 people have been ‘disappeared’. While the authorities dispute this figure, they admit that the number is at least 4,000. Men and teenagers, taken from their homes by the Indian Army, often in the middle of the night, detained without trial and most are never seen again, If more than 1,000 people were detained in just one year, the question can asked “what is the real total over so many years of this conflict?”

Despite the endless pleas of the families to the authorities, mostly, nothing is heard from them again. For the few who do return, despite the torture inflicted on them, they will never receive justice. The system protects the perpetrators.

When men disappear, the families are alone. The wives become ‘half widows’, unable to grieve properly, unable to fend properly for themselves and their children, and often condemned to a life of misery. Children become old before their time, taking on the responsibilities of their fathers and older siblings. Their education suffers. The women cannot remarry for seven years from the date of a disappearance. So they are left to raise their children, struggle to defend their rights to their husband’s property, fight against harassment and sexual abuse, poverty, loneliness, and despair.

It is highly likely that many of ‘the disappeared’ are dead, buried in unmarked graves in the forests of Kashmir. Amnesty International has been reporting on human rights abuses, the unmarked mass graves, and the impunity of the Indian Armed forces since the 1990’s. In 2015, Amnesty International published a report titled “Denied’ and highlighted the plight of the disappeared and the mass graves in Kashmir. They requested action but to date, nothing.

In August 2011, the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) in Jammu & Kashmir stated that it had found 2,730 unidentified bodies buried in unmarked graves in three districts of north Kashmir. The SHRC announced its intention to attempt to identify the bodies through DNA sampling. The state government refused their request citing inadequate resources as their excuse. No further action has been taken on this or investigating other mass graves in other parts of Jammu & Kashmir. Without a proper independent, expert investigation into all aspects of enforced disappearances and of the mass graves, the disappeared will remain forever, just that. Disappeared.

In her Opening Address to the 39th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, High Commissioner Michele Bachelet said when addressing issues related to India, “In Kashmir, our recent report on the human rights situation has not been followed up with meaningful improvements, or even open and serious discussions on how the grave issues raised could be addressed. The people of Kashmir have exactly the same rights to justice and dignity as people all over the world, and we urge the authorities to respect them. The Office continues to request permission to visit both sides of the Line of Control, and in the meantime, will continue it’s monitoring and reporting.”

The High Commissioner is correct. The people of Jammu & Kashmir deserve justice and dignity. The enforced disappearances of Kashmiris must stop. The families of those who have been disappeared deserve answers from the Indian Army and the Government. Where are they? Are they alive? And if not, how did they die?

The international community must support the UN High Commissioner’s call for action on Kashmir and not let the report on human rights abuses be sent to the trash can of history due to Indian pressure designed to avoid meeting and fulfilling it’s international and human rights obligations. The international community, and the United Nations, must not neglect the rights of the people of Jammu & Kashmir.

Let there be an end to the misery and grieving of Kashmiri families. We call on the Indian authorities to set ‘the disappeared’ free. Let them come home! Stop the enforced disappearances NOW!!