Indian-administered Kashmir

Kashmir’s Unmarked Graves Contain Uncomfortable Answers

SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR – Since chaos erupted in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989, there have been countless allegations of human rights abuses in the region. Reports of state enforced disappearances are common. And now, a prominent rights group has linked these disappearances to thousands of recently discovered unmarked graves across the region.

Activists say between 8,000 and 10,000 people have gone missing in the region over the last 20 years and now allege that many were picked up by Indian police and state troops, but have never been accounted for.

The International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice (IPTK) in Kashmir released a report in December 2009 that revealed 2,700 unmarked graves that contained more than 2,900 bodies in more than 50 villages in northern Kashmir. The researchers limited their studies to a few select villages due to operational constraints, but they suspect the number of unmarked graves to be much higher.

Some of the discovered graves have contained as many as 17 bodies.

Most of the graves, activists say, held bodies that were handed over to locals by police for burial. According to the report, many of the bodies were mutilated. The state police said the graves contained the bodies of foreign and local militants killed in gunfights with security forces in the last two decades, but IPTK wants an international investigation to examine the identities of the bodies.

Based on the accounts of gravediggers, local men who say they were often forced to bury bodies, and other circumstantial evidence, IPTK is contesting the state explanation of the graves. The report cites at least 50 instances where state investigations or exhumations have revealed the bodies to be of non-combatant local residents. New Delhi-based rights activist, Gautam Navlakha, one of the report’s authors says, “The findings are only the tip of an iceberg, as the study was limited only to 55 villages in three northern districts of Kashmir.”

Atta Mohammad, 68, a gravedigger and caretaker at Chehal Bimyar in Baramulla district, spoke on the record before the State Human Rights Commission in Srinagar, about burying 203 bodies on a hillside adjacent to the Jhelum river from 2002 to 2006. The bodies, he says, were delivered to him by the police, primarily after dark.

Mohammad told the IPTK that the bodies have appeared in his nightmares.

“I have been terrorized by this task that was forced upon me. My nights are tormented and I cannot sleep, the bodies and graves appear and reappear in my dreams,” he told investigators. “I have tried to remember all this … the sound of the earth as I covered the graves … bodies and faces that were mutilated … mothers who would never find their sons. My memory is an obligation. My memory is my contribution. I am tired, I am so very tired,” he says.

Unmarked Graves in the News since 2008

The presence of unmarked graves first came into focus in Kashmir in 2008 when a local rights group discovered the presence of 1,000 graves in several villages of northern Kashmir. Afterwards, the IPTK was created as a collective of Kashmiri, Indian and international rights activists to take the investigations further.

The prominent members of the IPTK include Dr. Angana Chatterji, a professor of anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

“The Indian state’s governance of Indian-administered Kashmir requires the use of discipline and death as techniques of social control. These techniques of rule are used to kill and create fear, of not just death, but of murder,” said Chatterji at the report release conference.

The IPTK report claims the bodies in the 2,700 graves they investigated were routinely delivered at night, some bearing marks of torture and burns. Photographs of the dead have reportedly been documented by local police stations, but have not been released to the public.

At one burial site, called ‘Martyrs Graveyard’ by local residents in Trehgam village, which is situated in the border district of Kupwara closer to the line of control dividing it from Pakistan, 82 unidentified bodies are mostly recorded as “foreign militants” by the police and armed forces.

IPTK has kept the identity of most of its field researchers and sources confidential due to threats against its activists. The members allege they have faced severe harassments during the course of investigations.

At press time, the government had not responded to the report allegations.