As the world today—30th August—is observing International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances, thousands of families in Kashmir are continuously struggling to keep their indomitable movement against enforced disappearances alive. An Indian researcher pieces together different details of the disappeared she gathered during her recent visit to the Valley.
Winter was approaching in Kashmir when 24-year-old Zubaida Begum was going about her routine. It was November 25, 1990 and nothing perilous was in the air. But that day, her artisan husband Abdul Rashid Sheikh unwittingly walked into a trap at Kripalgrah, Pattan, which was cordoned off by the Indian troops. He was abducted along with his three cousins. It was BSF’s 24 Battalion, Zubaida was told. While all his three cousins returned home, Rashid vanished forever.
Unlike the nocturnal military drill, Rashid was detained in a broad daylight in front of his relatives and neighbours. When he didn’t show up for about two months, his father went to lodge an FIR at Sopore police Station. Amid bloodbath and butchery on streets, Police didn’t file it. The state’s response further shocked the family.
Back home, everyone was getting anxious. Zubaida was inconsolable. But as one after another young Kashmiri was subjected to enforced disappearance across the Valley and a new normal unleashed itself on the valley, she decided to shoulder the responsibility of bringing up her two daughters, alone. Then her elder daughter Mashuka was 4-year-old, while younger Samshada was only 4-month-old.
On her two-kanal farmland, Zubaida began walking in man’s shoes for the sake of her daughters. But being a single parent, a homemaker and a campaigner did make it difficult for her. “I did a lot of hard work,” she told me, beaming a smile. “I am an illiterate, but I wanted to educate my children.” Despite toiling hard, she only managed to educate Mashuka till Class 9 and Samshada till Class 7. Then, the economic crunch made it impossible for her to continue her children’s studies.
Back home, her father-in-law had become a ‘court and police station’ regular for the sake of his son. He visited all the jails in Kashmir and also in Rajasthan. With each passing moment, Zubaida would disturbingly mull over the remarks of those three cousins of her husband: Rashid was severely tortured in custody.
That brutal torture, she was told, included de-skinning.
Hearing her mother recalling the fate of her father, her elder daughter Mashuka welled up. The fatherless daughter is aware how one Captain Sharma of BSF had once informed her mother: “Mat dhundo. Hum log mar diye” (Stop looking for him. We killed him).
With that damned revelation, 10 years after Rashid’s disappearance, Zubaida’s decade long search ended on an elusive note. As silent mourning ensued, she was told that her husband might have met the fate of masses: fake encounter.
After years of struggle and suffering, Zubaida approached the DC office for the application of SRO43 in 2009. She was given an ex-gratia of Rs 1 lakh and job in Sericulture Department.
But even today, 26 winters after, Zubaida clearly remembers the fateful night. Now a granny, she has grown stronger with time. Zubaida never thought of remarriage all these years. She was focused on bringing up her two daughters. Her beautiful younger daughter is now keen to work in handicrafts like her father.
Like so many half widows in Kashmir, Zubaida sometimes can’t believe that her husband won’t come back. During those moments, she often wonders: what would have been her life, had she and Rashid lived together in a family of four!
Like Zubaida, this burden of pain and agony is carried by thousands of women of the Sufi valley – the mothers, wives and daughters of these disappeared persons. They are still waiting for some miracle.
More than 10,000 civilians have been subjected to enforced disappearance by variant fraction of Indian Army in past two decades in Kashmir. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘disappearance’ as “an act or the fact of someone or something going missing”. In Kashmir, it is tagged as 10,000 civilians.
Enforced disappearance is used as a strategy to spread terror within the society. It occurs when people are arrested, detained or abducted against their will and when governments refuse to disclose the whereabouts of these people. But being a global problem, it’s not restricted to a specific region of the world.
The use of enforced disappearance by governments to silence its critics and instill fear into targeted groups continues unabated in every region of the world, from Syria to Mexico or from Sri Lanka to Gambia, holding hundreds or even thousands in secret detention. In many countries, the authorities continue harassing and intimidating those who are looking for their relatives.
Since 2011, the UN officially declared that it would annually observe the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances on August 30 each year.
Mehraj Din Khatana was 35 years old when he was enforced to disappearance. Being the only earning member of his family, he was living with his wife Meema Khatoon and younger brother Farooq Din Khatana in Uri’s beautiful Pehlipora village.
He was abducted along with Farooq on the evening of August 20, 1999 by an army major D.K. Sharma of 29 RR (Rashtriya Rifles). The brothers were taken to the BSF camp in Boniyar, Baramulla. By 9am next morning, Farooq was released. But his brother never made it home.
A week later, Farooq filed an FIR in Police Station, Boniyar. But he didn’t receive any information regarding his brother’s disappearance. Instead he felt threatened. “The Army personnel used to come in the village, forcing me flee to my relatives’ place,” he told me. He tried to keep himself out of Army’s sight, changing residences. This continued for three months.
During this time, Meema was alone. And since there was nobody to look after her, she was coerced into begging for food and money to survive. The family had built another house 3km uphill because of the terror of the Army. (I visited the old house from where Mehraj and Farooq were abducted. I could not meet Mehraj’s wife as she could not come down because of her health problems.)
When Farooq again enquired about the incident, the police told him how Major Sharma got himself transferred to some other state, 18 days after he abducted the brothers. But this hardly derailed Farooq’s hunt for his sibling.
He went to Jammu’s Kotbhalwal Jail where he met a fellow Kashmiri man. When Farooq told him about his problem, the man told him that only well-off people receive some assistance in such cases and since it was only one such case in the whole village, it would not receive much attention from the officials.
Farooq was left disheartened after hearing this. Because of his financial condition, he could never approach any court. However, he did go to State Huamn Right’s Commission (SHRC) but again, the family wasn’t given ex-gratia under SRO-43. Even a visit to the DC office proved futile.
When I asked him about Meema, Farooq said she was suffering from bronchitis from the past 13 years. She never remarried, even when Farooq and their relatives insisted her. She became quiet after Mehraj’s disappearance and her health problems started soon after.
She does not have any kind of emotional support since she has no child and is living in hope of seeing her husband again. She receives Rs 200 per month as pension from Department of Social Welfare, District Baramulla, but it does not suffice expenses for her treatment. She has to pay for her regular check-ups at hospital, for medicines, etc.
It’s Farooq—doing farming, labour work, cattle trading—who supports her. According to him, Meema does not even know about her husband’s disappearance case accurately. She is uneducated and does not understand the legal and political nuances. She was only 25 when her husband was abducted and was completely dependent on him. When that source of support departed, she became weak and ill.
According to conservative official estimates, by 1996, around 15,000 Kashmiris had been killed — a number that has since risen to more than 100,000 now. Deployment of Indian military, paramilitary, Intelligence Bureau and Police forces in massive number pacified the rebellious province and tens of thousands of Kashmiri civilians were taken into custody. Thousands never return.
Different Human rights wings like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and several Indian right groups urged the Indian government to investigate the disappearances in Kashmir, but the government and the Army consistently argued that the missing weren’t dead. “They had crossed over to Pakistan to train as militants,” they argue.
However, thousands were indeed killed and buried in unknown places. Soon then a report Buried Evidence was published by the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir, a group of human rights activists led by a local rights group. This report conclusively documented the presence of 2,700 unmarked graves of unidentified people in three northern districts of the Kashmir Valley, close to the Line of Control.
Abdul Ahad Bhat was a father of eight children when he was abducted from his home in Malgonipora, Watergram. He was working as a farm labourer to feed his family.
As I walked in his house this summer, the family welcomed me with warmth. It was a mud-walled house and it spoke a lot about the poor economic condition of the family.
I met Bhat’s grandson Ayaz Ahmad Bhat who narrated the story of abduction to me. His wife Kausar Zabeena sat silent in the same room with their 2-year-old beautiful daughter, Alissa. Ayaz seemed quite nervous while answering the questions posed by an outsider.
On the morning of December 14, 1990, Ayaz said, Indian Armed Forces picked up around 80 people from three villages including their native Malgonipora. His grandfather was also taken away. However everyone from the lot was released by the evening except Bhat. Bhat’s son and Ayaz’s father Ghulam Hassan lodged an FIR with Police Station Sopore. BSF men from Wadoora, Sopore camp were held responsible for the abduction.
Ayaz told me that all the sons of Bhat are dead except his father Ghulam Hassan, who, he said, was fortunate enough to survive. Bhat’s wife also died four years after the disappearance, notwithstanding emotional distress of losing her better half.
Ayaz’s wife Zabeena explained how the family owned big orchards that once could produce 400 boxes of apples. But they sold it long back to contribute money toward the case. “Even my mother-in-law is suffering from serious liver problem,” she said. “It’s becoming difficult for us to look after her, about whom we feel guilty as well as helpless at the same time.”
But after years of legal battle, the family finally won the case in High Court. SHRC also approved the ex-gratia and SRO 43, but the family has not yet received any of it despite approaching the DC office with their plea. Currently, the family is under serious economic distress.
In Kashmir, the Noble for Peace nominee, Parveena Ahangar needs no introduction. She is known for her steadfast campaign for the persons of disappeared persons. Apart from a celebrated campaigner, she is a broken mother. She has not seen her son Javaid since he was picked up by the government forces during early 1990s.
Despite not being sure about her son, she hasn’t lost her hope. She has travelled to various parts of Kashmir and India in search of him. It was during these testing times that she met the families who were suffering from the same fate. Their sons were also picked up by the forces.
It was then Parveena decided to hold meetings with these families regularly to collectively decide their course of action. It was the consequence of thousands of such episodes in 1994 that Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) was commenced by her with a motto to seek justice and gain information about the victims.
On 10th of every month, APDP stages a silent sit-in protest against enforced disappearances in Jammu and Kashmir. Holding faded photographs and wiping away tears with their scarves, these women have doggedly rallied behind their missing sons, siblings, fathers.
But in a situation where India has not ratified the International Convention for Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearances and the vagueness of India’s Domestic Law that does not enumerate Enforced Disappearance as an offence, the challenges in pursuing legal struggle are insurmountable.
On the fateful day of January 22, 2000, 23-year-old Shabir Ahmed Gasi was picked by the 6RR army and was taken to Hafrada, Taratpora Vilgam army camp. He was never heard of, or seen after that.
Gasi was a kind-hearted man, his wife Shamima said, who was earning his living by selling fruits on a kiosk. Their son Waseem was just a few months old while her daughter Bisma wasn’t even born when he was subjected to enforced disappearance.
Soon after his abduction, Shabir’s father, Ghulam Nabi approached Police to file a missing report. The missing report was lodged on March 7, 2000.
“Army personnel came to our house and first picked up my father-in-law,” Shamima told me. “Then they came again and picked my brother-in-law.” Later that night, she said, army came again and detained her husband. Her father-in-law and brother-in-law were released the next day.
After police and other allied agencies did nothing to find her husband, she filed Letters Patent Appeal. The family also filed an application to broadcast an S.O.S message through Prasar Bharti to make announcement in favour of missing persons.
Shameema’s father-in-law alleges in his complaint to SHRC that Shabir has been killed but his dead body has not been shown yet. SHRC acknowledges the act of disappearance and stated in its judgment dated Sep 09, 2000 that Shabir was picked up by the army. But there is a complete denial on part of the state which added to the family’s apprehension. Also to be noted is the fact that when Shabir’s father went to P/S Bemina to lodge an FIR, only a missing report was filed.
Since then, 17 years have passed and Shamima is still hopeful that her husband will return home, one day. When asked about her plans on Eid, she became tearful and said that she hasn’t bought anything for Eid; neither for herself nor for her children.
Shamima recalled with mixed emotions of joy and sadness how Shabir used to get her new clothes on Eid. She was not fond of cosmetics, but Shabir used to insist her to wear them for him. All these memories welled her up. She was blushing and smiling at the same time. She told me how her house used to get filled with bakery, meat during Eid, but now, she does not feel like preparing a single meal on Eid.
Seeing her mother in this condition, Bisma, her daughter kept her head down as if the burden of her mother also weighed her down. I asked Bisma about her future plans, what she wants to become and she replied, “Jo bhi Allah ki marzi hogi (Whatever Allah wishes).”
Shamima, however, wants to see her daughter become a doctor. Her eyes tingle while saying that. Her daughter is her only hope and her strength to be hopeful. Her son Waseem dropped out from school when he was in Class 7.
She showed me around her house, which she built on her own after Shabir’s enforced disappearance. The house has two rooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The walls are not painted and the room had only a woollen carpet.
She told me that one night, long ago, she went to work in a wedding where she had to wash dishes, make and serve tea. She earned Rs 3,000 that night. From that amount, she bought the only carpet she has in her house. To run homely expanses, she is working as a domestic servant.
But now, she often complains about pain in her arms and poor health. At the same time, she vows to support her children by working even harder to see her prosper in life.
Enforced disappearances began in 1989, following the armed uprising against Indian state in Kashmir. The heavy deployment of forces (over 600,000—the highest number of forces during peacetime anywhere in the world) as part of the effort to suppress the movement for independence has contributed fundamentally to this problem.
Enforced disappearances of persons were part of the larger policy of repression followed by the state, including other means like extra-judicial killings, custodial torture, rape, forced labour, etc. A large number of civilians, students, political activists and militants have disappeared in custody, both during direct central rule (1989-1996) as well as rule by elected state governments (1996-2004).
Besides struggling to meet economic needs in the context of the disappearance of often the sole earning member, the relatives of disappeared persons continue to suffer constant agony and uncertainty, trans-generational trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. Over a number of years in cases of disappearances, and custodial deaths and torture, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the courts have given some relief in the form of compensation. The state did not render any assistance, either directly or even indirectly to the organization formed by the relatives of disappeared persons.
The economic dimensions of disappearances are of considerable significance. The disappearance of the earning member of the family threatens the very survival of the whole family. The “half widows” (spouses of disappeared persons) are often thrown out of marital homes, along with their children, following the disappearance. They are forced to depend on their own often-impoverished parents. This economic dependence affects the education and the future of their children.
In majority of the cases, the relatives of the disappeared fear that those who had supposedly disappeared may have died during torture, and their bodies disposed of. For surviving family members, the despairing wait for their return is combined with the struggle to make ends meet. Personal laws do not allow distribution of the property of a disappeared person unless he is “declared” dead, and surviving family members have to wait for seven years to even apply in court to have some access to the property, and ease the struggle of survival. The process takes another two years in court.
Half-widows and family members of disappeared persons therefore, have to wait at least nine years before being able to use the property. For women whose husbands disappear, the option of re-marriage offers some source of both emotional and financial support for themselves and their children.
For half widows, life is tough. Unaware whether their husbands are alive or dead, their lives and social status become uncertain. There are half widows in Kashmir today who have been waiting for 13 years and have not remarried. If they do want to remarry, they are caught in the midst of the debate among Muslim theologians of different schools of interpretation of Islamic law, about how long a woman has to wait after her husband’s disappearance to remarry.
In most of the cases, the relatives have spent thousands of rupees to know the whereabouts of their missing loved ones. They have travelled to know the whereabouts of the disappeared in different jails of India like Coimbatore, Jodhpur, etc. The relatives travel to different interrogation centres in and outside the state. The relatives, at the first instant, are hesitant to seek the judicial remedy, as they fear that it will endanger the life of the detainee.
Finally with the passage of time and exhausting all the options, the dejected, desperate relatives take the legal recourse.