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Recently, I came across the work of Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun and found myself unexpectedly distressed, even outraged, after reading his short poem Not the War. In the words “Not the murder, silence brings one back to the scene of the crime”, Salamun is perhaps talking of love. But I am thinking war, and am transported back home, to Kashmir, to scenes of nameless burials and sites of extra-judicial killings.
I was angry at the silence of the Indian State, and more crucially perhaps, the hushedness of the country’s vibrant civil society, at the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves in troubled Jammu & Kashmir. It has been nearly a year since the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), a human rights body appointed by the state government, released an extensive report on the presence of 2,156 bullet-ridden bodies in unmarked graves in the border districts. It confirmed what a local rights group, the International People’s Tribunal of Kashmir, had revealed in a landmark investigation in 2008. Hundreds of the bodies were of men described as “unidentified militants”, killed in fighting with the armed forces during the armed insurrection of the 1990s. But, according to the report, at least 574 of them were of those “identified as local Kashmiri residents”.
Like many Kashmiris and Indians, I waited for something to happen—international outrage perhaps, a furore, a commission of inquiry and, one might be forgiven for thinking, even the possibility of justice—for the State cannot exonerate itself from its responsibility of delivering justice with a mere investigation. (Surely, one doesn’t hear too often of mass graves these days, except perhaps those of the Balkan conflict of the 1990s or of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq!) But, apart from news reports in the Indian and the international press, and the local administration’s vague talk of a truth and reconciliation commission—I wonder how one can reconcile in the absence of truth—nothing significant has happened.
Kashmiris have, of course, always known that the hundreds of Kashmiri men who disappeared, mostly in the 1990s, but also in subsequent years, did not vanish into thin air—they were buried, unaccounted and unrecorded, in nameless graves in the Himalayan tracks near the LoC. We have also known that not all of them were combatants killed in fighting with the armed forces. Many of them were victims of fake encounters and extra-judicial killings, as has been revealed in the many cases of men previously described as “dreaded militants” found to be innocents killed for medals or money. In one appalling instance of wilful perversion of justice—the Pathribal fake encounter of March 2000, around the time US president Bill Clinton was to visit India—the Indian State has so far refused to prosecute army officers involved in the premeditated murder of five innocent men portrayed as terrorists who had massacred 35 Sikhs of Kashmir. This, when the Central Bureau of Investigation has submitted evidence that the men were “killed in cold blood”. Many in Kashmir have reconciled to the idea that justice may never be done, the guilty may never be punished and grieving relatives may be condemned to Sisyphean waiting.
The publication of the SHRC report last year, confirming the presence of unmarked graves at 38 sites near the mountains of Kashmir, while reopening old wounds also gave fresh hope to the kin of those who had disappeared—that there may be some closure after all; that the Indian State may, in a rare moral turn, address one of the darkest chapters of the 22-year-old uprising against its rule in Kashmir; that it may finally be willing to listen to what rights groups, journalists and the parents of the missing have been saying for years.
Surely one does not hear of mass graves too often these days, unless they are those of Saddam’s iraq or the Balkan conflict? So why the silence over those found in a Democracy’s garden?
The report came out last August, and the same commission subsequently ordered a further probe, citing the presence of nearly 3,000 more graves in the remote districts of Poonch and Rajouri—some allegedly with multiple bodies in them. But apart from one impassioned editorial expressing shame, a couple of speciously-framed TV shows attempting, among other things, equivalence between the all-powerful state and a beleaguered people, the media, while running the story, largely ignored the issue. “There is every probability that these unidentified dead bodies buried in various unmarked graves at 38 places of north Kashmir may contain the dead bodies of enforced disappearances,” the SHRC report had said. How can we not, then, express outrage over what could potentially constitute evidence of crimes against humanity? We’d do that if, say, the graves were made in Tripoli, under a dictatorship, wouldn’t we? Somehow, and for reasons unknown, unmarked graves (some with only heads in them) found in the disputed backyard of the world’s largest democracy have been deemed not heinous enough. Are we to assume mass graves made in a democracy are somehow more humane?
Does not such a discovery merit even a customary response from the Indian State? As far as I remember, there has been no official comment by the Central government in Delhi, so deeply entrenched is India’s policy of indifference and denial on Kashmir. And what of its intellectual classes who were on site, and rightly so, when India signed the UN resolution against Sri Lanka for its atrocities against Tamil civilians during the campaign against the ltte? If the conscience of a nation is not stirred by the discovery of thousands of nameless burials in what it claims as an integral part, the claim not only rings hollow, it was and will only ever remain a claim.
In recent months, some well-meaning commentators and Kashmir experts have started talking about moving on, about the dividends of peace, about economics as opposed to politics—as though these dual aspects were congenitally detached. This is more or less consistent with the outpourings of some members of India’s new class of beat intellectuals—they move from issue to issue, or studio to studio, with equal panache—and their callousness towards the tragedy of Kashmir is matched only by their disdain for even contemporary history. Perhaps the most serious and bizarrely anti-intellectual assertion, and therefore an insidious one, seems to project the idea of peace as somehow incompatible with the idea of justice, and those who demand it as some kind of violence fetishists—as though talking about massacres stems democracy and progress.
In the Indian establishment—and indeed the political philosophy espoused in statist writing on Kashmir employs language disturbingly reminiscent of an ‘establishment project’—there has been a sudden spurt in conversations around the ‘dividends of peace’ in Kashmir. This is, of course, not possible without the buy-in of a thriving comprador class in the conflict-torn land. Translated into realpolitik, this otherwise benign phrase seems to convey to a subject population that it is time they forgot their long-held aspirations for freedom, as also about possible crimes committed by a state that has been nothing but militaristic in its dealings with them. The jackboot comes draped in a flag emblazoned with the words “Let bygones be bygones”.
As for the talk of a truth and reconciliation commission to close the story of unmarked graves, while it is unambiguously noble in its pacifist aspirations and surely the right thing to do to assuage the pain of a people, it seems ludicrously premature in a place that is run by a system of repression. (It must be noted that, for all practical purposes, the Indian State and its client elites operate without a moral system in Kashmir.) One is, again, compelled to ask some elementary questions: truth and reconciliation, yes, but on who on whose terms? Can it mean anything if the terms are set by a repressive state? One hates to suspect this, but the people who tout this as a solution may not even fully understand the import of the phrase and have perhaps forgotten that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa came into effect after the end of apartheid, not while it was in full play. Even if one were to make an attempt to attend to the views of those who preach “moving on”, a single, simple, inquiry stands in the way: How does one move on from thousands of graves in one’s front garden?
(Mirza Waheed, who lives in London, is the author of The Collaborator.)