Kashmir longs for lost sons
Up to 10,000 men have disappeared amid the insurgency and rights groups blame the Indian Army, writes Rajeshree Sisodia
The moments before lives are destroyed are usually filled with everyday things.
Shabnam Abdul Rashid Wani's head swam with excitement as she looked forward to her niece's wedding a little over 10 years ago. But what should have been a day of celebration unfolded into a living nightmare for the 40-year-old.
The mother-of-two is guarded as she reflects about July 7, 1997, the day her husband, Abdul Rashid Wani, disappeared while running an errand in Srinagar, Indian Kashmir.
'We had gone to a wedding and we got back at around 6pm,' she says.
'The neighbours told me that my husband had gone to give a friend some money. I started worrying but I thought he would come back. [Now] I don't think he's alive. If he was alive, I would have had something ... a note.'
On the evening he disappeared, relatives scoured the neighbourhood for the 30-year-old truck driver. Neighbours told Mrs Wani they had seen her husband picked up by the Indian Army, a vital nugget of information.
So started a decade-long battle to discover what had become of him. The family sought the help of the police, Indian Army and courts to discover the truth, but to no avail.
'We went to the police station and they told us that he had been in their custody but that he had a small injury. Twenty-eight days later the police told us they did not have him, the 2/8 Gurkha Rifles [Indian Army regiment] took him ... I went to the district commissioner of police's office ... I went to every army camp, to [the cities of] Delhi, Jammu, Amritsar and found nothing,' adds Mrs Wani.
The insurgency that first exploded in Kashmir in 1989 has lulled in recent times. But its legacy lives on quietly, in the hearts of thousands of families, through their missing relatives.
Human rights workers at the Srinagar-based voluntary group the Association of Parents of Disappeared People estimate that between 8,000 and 10,000 Kashmiri men and boys have disappeared. Most of the missing men, association officials claim, have either been rounded up or arrested in counter-insurgency purges by the Indian Army and security forces during military operations which began in 1990 and continue to this day.
None of the missing people has been found, the association says.
For 10 years Mrs Wani has lived in a terrible limbo - neither knowing her husband is dead and being allowed to grieve, nor being allowed the comfort of knowing he is alive.
'It's really hard. I cry every day. The children need their father. Even for a father to put his hands on his son's head, they don't have that,' she says in the home in Bemina, northwestern Srinagar, she shares with sons Junaid, 21, and Arsalan, 18, and her 72-year-old father, Abdul Salam, and 68-year-old mother Azizi.
'Sometimes I think my husband's alive. It does not seem like it was 10 years ago. It seems like it was yesterday. All I have are my memories. I dream about him sometimes,' she adds.
The dusty streets outside are lined with discarded coils of barbed wire. An armed soldier loiters lazily in the shade, a reminder that the region's volatile past is not so distant.
For the Wani family, and thousands of Kashmiris like them, the cost of not knowing what has happened to loved ones is inadvertently amplified by religious custom. In the state's predominantly Islamic society, Muslim edicts mean those children whose fathers have been killed but whose paternal grandfathers are alive do not stand to inherit any property.
Women who have been widowed must also wait either seven years or 90 years, depending on varying sects of Islam, before they can remarry. In communities where men are often the sole breadwinners, the economic adversity families are put through once a father, husband or son vanishes or is killed compounds the psychological toll of the ordeal they face.
The Wani family received a 100,000 rupee (HK$19,500) ex gratia payment from the Jammu and Kashmir state government - once a district magistrate's committee investigated and decided Abdul Wani had disappeared. For the missing man's elder son Junaid, however, the loss of a father has been overshadowed by the practical reality that he must now support his family.
The 21-year-old was forced to sacrifice his dreams of becoming a doctor and left school early to work as a hire-car driver so he could earn 5,000 rupees a month, money his family relies on.
Junaid says: 'I used to be a model student. [But after my father disappeared], there was a lot of pressure on me, so after 10th standard I started working. I felt this pressure that I had to do something.
'I used to get 85 per cent, then my marks started falling. I wanted to be a doctor and my father was happy I wanted that, [he] always encouraged that.'
His mother eventually filed a case of disappearance at Srinagar High Court. Judges ruled that her husband had been detained by the Indian security forces, had 'thereafter' disappeared and that the case should be investigated. But India's civilian courts are near powerless to initiate prosecutions against army personnel for actions alleged to have been committed during formal army duties.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), deployed in the state by the federal Indian government to counteract the insurgency, prevents soldiers, armed police (distinct from ordinary police) and paramilitary forces from prosecution for abuses alleged to have been carried out while on military operations in 'disturbed' areas without permission from New Delhi.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, say the law gives soldiers freedom to commit abuses without fear of retribution because the federal Indian government, under pressure to deal with Kashmir's insurgency, will not sanction members of the armed forces being brought to trial.
Parvez Imroz, a Srinagar-based human rights lawyer, says: 'Since there is impunity in the AFSPA, they [the army] say they can only be prosecuted if there is sanction from the federal government, which will not give permission. So impunity is a major factor behind disappearances.'
The Indian Army and the Jammu and Kashmir police deny this, claiming that the majority of missing men have left Kashmir voluntarily or under coercion either to join the militants or to seek work elsewhere.
Spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Anil Kumar Mathur says the families of the disappeared had made 'false charges' against the army in order to get financial compensation. He added the Indian army followed strict procedures when detaining men and boys during operations, including informing families and handing detainees over to the state police after 24 hours.
When asked whether the armed forces could have been involved in any disappearance cases, he adds: 'So far that has not been found to be true.'
Inspector General of Police for Kashmir Shiv Sahai, based in Srinagar, disputed that as many as 10,000 men had vanished, but failed to provide figures for the number of disappearance cases lodged with the state police.
He added that in cases where police investigations had found the security forces or soldiers had been involved in crimes, the police had launched investigations or the army had court-martialled those accused.
'There is an assumption that they [those who disappeared] have been taken by the security forces; that's not the right assumption,' he said.
Navigating the competing viewpoints of families, human rights groups, state authorities and the military is one of the biggest hurdles in pinpointing precisely what has happened to the missing men, according to Dr Suba Chandran, assistant director at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, a New Delhi think-tank.
'The state says most have gone across [the border into Pakistan] and got killed,' Dr Chandran says.
'Human rights groups say that most have been taken by the state. The families say that all have been taken by the state; everyone is telling half-truths.
'[But] I would put the blame on the state's side, the [Jammu and Kashmir] state government and the federal government, because if there are accusations it is the state's responsibility to prove it has not taken these people.
'If it has been proved that they have been taken, the state has to accept responsibility. The AFSPA has to be repealed or modified. In a conflict situation, many things happen but when you have something happen which is wrong, people should be held accountable.'
While a debate over possible amendments to the AFSPA has raged between academics, human rights groups and politicians, progress has been slow.
For Kashmiris, the officials' reluctance to look for their relatives and the lack of state accountability have heightened mistrust and tension in a region already familiar with living on a knife-edge.
'It's the way the security forces deal with the local people that is the issue. I would say it has made the entire Kashmir anti-Indian,' says Dr Chandran. 'I don't know whether Kashmiris would all pick up the gun, but there is an anti-Indian sentiment primarily because of the way the security forces have acted.'
While politicians, the armed forces and analysts question the truth behind the disappearances of thousands of men and boys, the waiting continues for Mrs Wani.
'When I hear a sound at the door, I think it may be my husband,' she says. 'All I want to know is whether he is alive or whether he is dead, and for the people who did this to be punished.'