Grave Mystery

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 After attempting and failing in getting the unmarked graves in Kashmir investigated, the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) has issued a fresh order, this time, seeking similar scientific investigations in the graves found in Poonch and Rajouri. But will the order pave way for investigations, asks  Saima Bhat

The unmarked graves have returned to front pages. This time, it is the sprawling cemeteries in Pir Panchal valley, precisely in Rajouri and Poonch. These could unfold many mysteries, anytimesoonif the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) directions are taken seriously by the government.

Discovered in the border region six years ago, SHRC has asked the government to investigate the grave secrets, numbering around 2080 – 1486 graves in Poonch and 594 graves in Rajouri as mentioned in the report filed by the state’s home department.The order was passed by Commission Chairperson Justice (retd) Bilal Nazki after going through the report.

“I do not think this Commission needs to hold any further enquiry into the matter as the Home Department has accepted that there are 1486 graves in Poonch which are unidentified and unmarked,” the order said. “In Rajouri, it is admitted there are 594 graves which are unmarked and unidentified, so in these two districts there are 2080 graves which are unmarked.”

The order was passed on a petition filed by advocate Parvaiz Imroz, patron of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), an NGO that works on issues related to the enforced disappearance and unmarked graves in Jammu and Kashmir.

APDPfiled a report in September 2011 in the commission about 3,844 unmarked graves – 2,717 in Poonch and 1,127 in Rajouri, the twin districts that literally live on the Line of Control (LoC).

The report was filed soon after a special team of the SHRC declared the existence of 2,730 graves at 38 sites across three districts in north Kashmir. It was a major breakthrough for the APDP members who were running from pillar to post to find out if their missing ones were dead or alive.

The report filed by APDP mentioned 53 cases in which bodies were exhumed from unknown graves. Once exhumed, it was found that 49 were civilians and one was a local militant. The other three bodies were not identified.

However, in the official records, all the 53 were dubbed as foreign militants by the government as was reported by various media channels then.

The then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah too feigned ignorance and ruled out thepresence of any mass graves in the state. Insome rare cases, he had said, two unidentified bodies had been buried together. However, he had asked people whose family members had gone missing since 1989 to deposit their DNA samples with the authorities so that government can establish the identity of the unidentified bodies. There was no follow up.

The SHRCwas headless between October 2011 and October 2016. AfterJustice (retired) Bilal Nazki took over as its head, he picked up threads from the process that had halted for want of a presiding officer. “The commission has no hesitation to issue the same directions, which were already issued in the case,” the recent order reads.

Acknowledging the presence of 2,080 unmarked graves, the commission hasasked the government for a comprehensive investigation to be completed in six months, including DNA tests of the bodies to compare it with family members of the disappeared.

Khurram Parvez, the human rights activist,says the decision is yet another important milestone against the existing impunity for crimes in Jammu and Kashmir, which is second confirmation of unmarked graves in the state following the 2011 SHRC decision in north Kashmir.

“The decision is unfortunately limited to only 2080 unmarked graves in Poonch and Rajouri (APDP had documented 3844) but the import of the decision is the key: unmarked graves exist and the government needs to investigate them,” Parvez said“Once again, we must see the response of the government to this decision. In the past, they have refused to investigate unmarked graves. But, APDP will continue to push and struggle for justice on this important issue.”

Last time, the government ruled out the possibility of DNA profiling. “It will take years and that it involves thehuge requirement of resources including forensic facilities and economic cost,” the government said, besides claiming, “The exercise can also act as a trigger point or event for causing serious law and order disturbances in the Valley.”

Justice Bilal Nazki

In 2011, after APDP’s claims of the existence of unidentified mass graves in Rajouri and Poonch, the SHRC ordered the district magistrates of both the districts for the investigations on September 16. Notices were issued to respective DC’s, DGP J&K Police and Home Secretary to furnish factual reports.

Two years later, the ADPD received copies of the responses from the Home Department, DC Poonch, and DC Rajouri, till then they were either denying the presence of unmarked graves. It was on basis of these reports that APDP filed a joint rejoinder before the SHRC and claimed that there were2717 unmarked graves across 90 graveyards. Based on the local inputs, therejoinder report reads that there are also those illegal immigrant workers from different parts of India and Bangladesh buried who had been using the Poonch border route for infiltrating and ex-filtrating to Pakistan in order to visit Gulf countries via Pakistani ports.

The locals, according to report, had alleged many of these illegal immigrant workers after being caught by the army were imprisoned; many were killed in fake encounters and branded as foreign militants. In many jails of Jammu and Kashmir, some of these Bangladeshis and Indian citizens are still imprisoned. These allegations can be affirmed or negated by DNA profiling of those buried in unmarked graves, reads the rejoinder report.

As per the report from Rajouri district, itmentioned they have receivedcredible information about the existence of 1127 unmarked graves across 118 graveyards.

APDPalso talked about the dichotomy in the state response. In a report by the Home Department in 2013, the government said that there are no unmarked graves.But later they reported 1486 unidentified ‘militants’ are buried in unmarked graves in Poonch. In Rajouri, they reported 594 unmarked graves.

While mentioning the report submitted by DC Poonch, who had first completely refuted the claims of theexistence of unmarked graves, ADPD submitted a report on 110 pages which revealed that there were 1489 unidentified ‘militants’ buried in unmarked graves.

DC Poonch’s report had mentioned 201 militants but claimed they were identified with their aliases prefixed with Abu. But the APDP raised the issue with the SHRC insisting that the other identification details, the aliases, cannot be used to determine the identity of the unidentified ‘militants’.

In the meantime, the APDP had also filed applications under RTI with the police in both districts seeking the list of encounters. After comparing the RTI information and that the report released by the concerned DC’s, APDP claimed there were serious contradictions.

The DC Poonch and the DPO Poonch have even presented contradictory numbers of encounters which took place in Poonch district between 1990 and 2012. APDP claims there are 430 contradictions. Like “Excluding the number of unidentified militants, there are names, among the identified ones, around 201, who have aliases like Abu Umar, Abu Talha, Abu Haider and Abu Hamza etc., which are repeated several times. It is therefore clear that these 201 unidentified ‘militants’ be treated as still unidentified persons buried in unmarked graves,” APDP said.

Poonch encounters DPO Poonch through RTI DC Poonch report
Police Station Poonch 97 99
Police Station Loran 27 27
Police Station Mandi 176 145
Police Station Gursai 111 62
Police Station Mendhar 166 184
Police Station Surankote 617 347
Total from 1990 to 2012 1194 864

 

APDP maintains 8,000 people, most of them from  Baramulla district, have disappeared in the decades of conflict in the state. It accuses the army, paramilitary forces, and police for the enforced disappearances.

Meanwhile, an independent local movement in the Poonch district claimed in 2007 that at least 59 youths disappeared in the past decade in border districts of Rajouri and Poonch and out of these 37 were killed in fake encounters.

There have not been any formal investigations in the cases of disappeared persons. However, in certain individual cases, police investigated after the interventions at the chief minister’s level. Tasleema, a widow, a single mother of two children, was a member of APDP. Her husband went missing from Lal Chowk. After his body was recovered in Ganderbal in February 2007, the then chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad ordered a probe. His body was exhumed and the law took its own course. Since then, she is not participating in the monthly protests of APDP.

“The case is still going on in various government offices but at least I am satisfied that he is in the grave and most importantly I know where his grave is and I have an address to mourn around,” she says.

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