Kashmir: The Disappeared
-- By Anuj Chopra
A wood-fired heater warms the tiny room, taking the edge off the biting cold outside. Wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf, or hijab, Tahira Begum, sits in a corner, her knees drawn to her chest. Choking back tears, the 32-year-old tells me how the search for her missing husband has consumed her life for the past six years.
"I've looked in every prison, every morgue in Kashmir. I've searched and searched and searched," she says.
She and her husband Tariq Ahmad were childhood sweethearts and were married when she was 15. She says her husband was looking for work when he disappeared. He left home one morning and never returned.
I've come to Srinagar in Indian-held Kashmir to find out more about Kashmiris who have "disappeared" during the territorial dispute that has torn apart this beautiful region since partition in 1947. (Learn more about Kashmir’s turbulent history in the background feature.)
Abdul Aziz Mir (right) said his son Mohammad (pictured below) left home to make offerings at a nearby mosque. Four days later, officers from the 52 Rashtriya Rifles division returned his body. They claimed he was a militant killed in an army ambush of insurgents in a remote village in the district of Baramullah, which is several hours from Srinagar.
According to Begum, there are eyewitness reports that Indian army soldiers arrested her husband, bundling him off the streets and into a waiting van. The army has denied this, and she has no idea whether he is alive or dead.
Women like Begum suffer a double blow for their loss. Classed as neither widows nor wives, they are referred to as "half-widows,” and under Islamic law, they cannot remarry until they can show proof that their husbands are dead.
"Give me back my husband if he's alive or show me his dead body," Begum says with frustration.
She admits there's little hope these days of her husband returning alive. But she would like some dignified closure and peace of mind for her and her three children.
Accusations of Army Abuse
Since the Muslim insurgency began in Indian Kashmir 17 years ago, thousands of Kashmiris have been killed or disappeared. Kashmiris claim that many of the deaths and disappearances followed arrests by Indian security forces.
The Indian army moved thousands of troops into the region at the beginning of the 1990s, when Muslim militants, with backing from Pakistan, infiltrated Indian-Kashmir and began targeting Hindu residents. A reign of bombings, kidnappings and high-level assassinations during the early years of the insurgency drove an estimated 100,000 Hindu Kashmiris, known as "Pandits," from the valley.
Since then the Indian army has established a firm hold on the region, and the insurgency has waned, but there are still skirmishes and claims of human rights abuses by Indian forces.
Staged gun battles, called "fake encounters" by many Kashmiris, have become common practice in the disputed territory. In these encounters, Kashmiri civilians are killed by Indian security forces, which accuse them of militant behavior. Officials with the security forces say that flushing out these elements are part of legitimate counterinsurgencies operations.
The practice has sparked several federal investigations in India, which revealed that some of the country's army officers were filing false reports about killing militants in hopes of impressing their senior officers and gaining a reward or promotion. According to local human rights groups, there's often a bounty attached to killing suspected insurgents. That's enough of an incentive, they say, to turn uniformed officers into criminal thugs. The government has promised to fully investigate the killings, and a handful of officers have been prosecuted, but the ongoing violations have severely tainted the Indian army, which is deeply unpopular with Kashmir's predominantly Muslim population.
By the Indian government's estimates, the number of Kashmiris missing or killed in the so-called fake encounters is just over 1,000. But human rights groups put the number at ten times that amount.
Although organizations such as the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) have taken up numerous reported abuse cases across the region, many have languished in the local court system for years. Pervez Imroz, a human rights lawyer and head of the APDP, told me that accused enlisted men often seek legal protection under antiterrorism measures introduced by the Indian government at the beginning of the insurgency.
Under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the army can forgo warrants and use force. In fact, they can shoot or arrest anyone on the mere suspicion of an offence. "AFSPA grants the army sweeping impunity to carry out human rights violations across the state," Imroz says. In a report released in October 2006, Human Rights Watch excoriated the Indian government for failing to hold its security forces accountable for suspected abductions, detentions and killings.
After a human rights worker from the APDP gives me details about a case regarding a recent fake encounter I go to meet the family involved in the case.
I find a houseboat beautifully carved out of cedar wood and anchored beneath the frigid waters of Srinagar's Dal Lake. I'm led into a sparsely furnished living room, and offered almond cookies and a cup of kawa, a traditional green tea prepared with spices, from a neatly prepared tray. Sitting opposite me on the carpeted floor is Abdul Aziz Mir, an old man wearing a pheran, a Kashmiri overcoat; he's holding a picture of a young man.
"That was Mohammad Yakoob Mir, my son," he says, jabbing his finger at the young, handsome man in the picture. "He's dead."
Mohammad was the breadwinner in this family of 10. In winters, he earned a living as a plumber, and in summers, he worked on Dal Lake, taking tourists out in shikaras, traditional rowboats.
On a crisp January morning, Mohammad left home to make offerings at a nearby mosque. Four days later, officers from the 52 Rashtriya Rifles division returned his body. They claimed he was a militant killed in an army ambush of insurgents in a remote village in the district of Baramullah, which is several hours from Srinagar. (Villagers later interviewed by APDP said no such encounter occurred).
Mir is baffled by how his son reached Baramullah, and vehemently denies that he was a militant. He accuses the army of foul play and has taken his case to the state's human rights commission.
Looking for a Political Solution
Kashmir has the highest soldier-to-civilian ratio of any region in the world. When the insurgency began in 1989, there were 36,000 Indian troops. Today, there are 600,000 in a state with a population of roughly 10 million.
In recent years, human rights groups, civilians and local politicians have joined a growing chorus demanding demilitarization of Kashmir.
In April, the issue gained further attention when the People's Democratic Party (PDP), which shares power in Indian Kashmir with India's Congress party, threatened to pull out of the coalition unless the Indian government agreed to start withdrawing troops and roll back its antiterrorism laws.
At first, India's prime minister Manmohan Singh responded that troop levels would not be reduced until insurgent violence had been eradicated. "There are intelligence reports that militants will engage in major strikes this summer," he warned.
But Kashmiri politicians kept up the pressure, and in late spring, the prime minister did an about-face. He announced that a committee led by India's defense minister would study the feasibility of troop reductions and consider ending the special powers act.
Some military analysts argue there's good reason for the Indian army to draw down troops. The insurgency has slowed to a simmer in recent years, a far cry from the intense fighting of earlier years. Government figures show that militant-related killings have dropped by two-thirds since 2001, from 10 to 3 a day-- the lowest since 1989. Numbers of reported Islamic militants operating in the valley are also down, from nearly 10,000 in the early 1990s to an estimated 1,400 today.
One morning I set out to meet an officer in the Indian army. He serves with the Rashtriya Rifles, a unit often at the center of abuse accusations in the valley. He told me he was not authorized to speak to the press, so I promised him anonymity.
Inside his barracks on the outskirts of town, he explains why the Indian army should not withdraw. "There's only peace in Kashmir because the army is here," he says, over a steaming cup of chai.
He credits the army with restoring peace along the Line of Control that separates the Pakistan and Indian-occupied zones. For the first time since partition, he says, farmers can cultivate their land right up to the "zero line," without fear of cross-border firing. "This has brought economic prosperity to residents of the border areas," he says. "People are happy there."
When I question him about the disappearances and civilian detentions, he says his own intelligence suggests that the majority of "missing" Kashmiris aren't languishing in prisons but have crossed over into the Pakistan-controlled area of Kashmir. He also says that while he doesn't condone the actions of some of his colleagues, these abuses of power are isolated incidents.
Many of his men have "lost their lives defending their land," he says -- some 1,342 officers have been killed fighting terrorists in Kashmir since 1989, and as many as 5,400 have suffered severe injuries. "The media only reports one side of the story," he tells me. Until the "terror infrastructure" in Pakistan, which has long supported militants in Kashmir, is dismantled, the Indian army has every reason to stay here, he says.
Later, I contact Muhammad Yahya Mujahid in Pakistan, the information secretary of the Islamic group Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely believed to be an offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, a violent militia known to be active in Kashmir.
"Those opposing withdrawal of troops are doing no good to the people of Kashmir,” he tells me by phone. "If we wait for the last gun to fall silent, it would be only daydreaming," he says, refusing to comment on Pakistan's role in supporting militants in the region.
Despite no clear political resolution in sight, there have been some positive steps in Kashmir since the India-Pakistan peace process resumed in early 2004. The reopening in 2005 of a bus route between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, was a breakthrough in reconnecting families separated by the border.
But what angers many Kashmiris, I realize, is not only the disappearances and "fake encounters," but the raids on their homes and the constant security checks carried out by the army. For many Kashmiris, the army is an unwanted occupying force. Even though militant activity has declined sharply in recent years, the place looks like a conflict zone: Soldiers are visible on most streets and their guns ominously jut out of concrete bunkers and armored patrol vehicles.
During the winter in Srinagar, few set foot outside after dark. On my last evening in Kashmir, I was running late. An auto rickshaw driver, a man with salt-and-pepper hair and a scraggly beard, offered me a ride to my hotel, even though he already has a passenger in the backseat.
On the way to the hotel, two soldiers stop us.
"He's a tourist," one of the soldiers says, glancing at me. No one asks for my credentials and I'm told to step aside.
The other passenger and the driver, both wearing pherans, are aggressively questioned and searched.
While the passenger grows more agitated, Abdul, the driver, exudes a gentle radiance, patiently responding to their interrogation.
"I'm a Muslim, and I have a beard. Right? That makes me a suspect," he tells me, after we are finally allowed to move on. "I'm used to this harassment."
Anuj Chopra is a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. Chopra lives just outside Mumbai in India and is the 2005 recipient of the CNN Young Journalist Award in the print category.