|Relatives of disappeared persons protest in a park in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir [Showkat Shafi]|
Two decades of conflict have left Indian-administered Kashmir economically, socially and psychologically decimated. The systematic use of enforced disappearance – there have been a reported 8,000 to 10,000 in Indian-administered Kashmir – has been recognised as a crime against humanity. And while the number may have fallen dramatically since the height of the insurgency in the 1990s, India’s refusal to seriously address the issue has left Kashmiris searching for closure.
Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa speaks to Athar Parvaiz Bha, a Kashmiri journalist, about the conflict, disappearances and trauma in the valley.
As a journalist working in Indian-administered Kashmir what is your assessment of the situation regarding enforced disappearances in the valley? How can we account for the different figures suggested for the number of disappeared?
The lack of any authentic figures about the disappeared people in Kashmir is presently one of the major concerns.
While the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) asserts that the number of disappeared people since 1989 is more than 10,000, latest official figures presented by the National Conference government in the legislative assembly put this number at just 1,105.
No attempt has so far been made by any social or human rights organisation (local or foreign) to come up with the exact figures and [to] contest the figures given by the government or the APDP.
We have seen different governments coming up with different figures about the disappeared people over the last seven years. In 2003, the then coalition government led by the Peoples Democratic Party said in the assembly that 3,931 people had gone missing since 1989, but in 2007, the Congress-led coalition government put this number at 1,017 quoting a survey conducted by government agencies.
How have enforced disappearances influenced the movement for self-determination?
Enforced disappearance is one of the many repressive measures (like killings, illegal detentions etc.) aimed at breaking the resolve of [the] people. It was especially practised in the initial years of armed rebellion against India. And, therefore, it is definitely one of the reasons for dissatisfaction with India and actually motivates most of the people to root for the freedom struggle.
In your experience, how does the trauma of enforced disappearance affect Kashmiri society and what has been done to address this?
Kashmiri society in general is a traumatised society, but those who don’t have any clue about their loved ones are even more traumatised. A person who is sure about having lost a loved one somehow manages to come to terms with the loss, but the one who is living on a false hope while seeking the whereabouts of the dear one finds it too hard to carry on with the uncertainty.
The women whose husbands have disappeared are referred to as half widows. I personally know a woman whose husband disappeared in custody 19 years back. She didn’t remarry for the sake of her children. But despite sacrificing [the] rest of her life for her children, she couldn’t [afford to] educate them and her family is in dire straits.
As regards [to] addressing the trauma of these families, the response is as pathetic as it is regarding addressing the concerns of [the] rest of the conflict’s victims.
The scale of [the] damage the conflict [has inflicted upon] Kashmir is indeed beyond description. The two-decade-long conflict and years of mis-governence has wrought havoc in Kashmir. You have the basic sectors of civic amenities in tatters. As regards the social fabric of the society, insecurity about [the] future reflects in their social behaviour as well.
How would you describe the use of enforced disappearance as part of India’s fight against insurgency? Is it a type of silent war, a type of terrorism? It was at its peak in the mid-1990s, but does it still continue today?
As someone who has been observing events [in Kashmir] since 1989, I don’t think this is still used as a weapon in the changing dynamics of [the] Kashmir conflict.
One might argue that it was a silent weapon in early 1990s and mid-1990s given the frequency with which it would occur during those days, but presently the Indian government has a far more potential challenge to handle – the challenge which I call ‘soft resistance’, wherein people resort to peaceful means of struggle like peaceful protest demonstrations, effective use of social media etc.
So in [the] earlier days of [the] struggle when, say, some five per cent of people in Kashmir were gunmen, it was understandable to see this tactic being used, but not now when you have almost all the people up against you and your policies.
Since 2008, Kashmiris have managed to redefine their freedom struggle in tandem with the acceptability benchmarks of the international community, especially of the West. Since then we have witnessed peaceful mass uprising twice. This has helped in removing the tag of ‘armed freedom struggle’ which invites hostility from the Western powers, especially after 9/11.
The Indian state’s response has been ambiguous. Is this a purposeful attempt not to address the issue?
Whether you mean response to enforced disappearances or response to resolving the Kashmir dispute, my answer is ‘yes’ to either of the two.
It is a classic case of ‘if you can’t convince them, confuse them’.
The fact is that India has so far managed to manage the Kashmir conflict rather than resolving it thanks to a divided leadership in Kashmir and the involvement of too many international players in the Kashmir dispute.