The worst part, Shafeeq Bhatt says, is not knowing.
One day in April of 1996, he was walking to work at the family carpet shop in Srinagar with his brothers Zafar and Shabir Bhatt. The three of them were picked up by the Indian army. It was the height of an insurgency against Indian rule and troops ceaselessly patrolled the streets of the Kashmiri capital.
They were taken to a military camp; Shafeeq and Zafar were questioned and released the same day. But the family has not seen Shabir since. “The army would just say he was being punished – for what, and what kind of punishment, they wouldn’t say,” said Mr. Bhatt, who added that Shabir, who was then 18, had no involvement with the militant resistance.
“We even asked them, ‘If you have killed my brother then tell us where the body is: we will give him proper burial. And if he is in some jail then also tell us.’ But nobody said anything.”
Mr. Bhatt joined a local group called the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, which has waged a long campaign to force the army to account for what it says are at least 8,000 people who have vanished in the conflict in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The group, and other human rights organizations, have alleged for years that the Indian army carries out extrajudicial killings of civilians and dumps their bodies in mass graves, passing them off as foreign militants.
This week, the Bhatt family and others were vindicated when a state investigation found there are at least 2,156 bodies buried in unmarked graves in the Kashmir valley, many of them the remains of civilians killed by Indian security forces.
The new report, from the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission, marks the first time that a state body has confirmed the role of the security forces in extrajudicial killings. “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 report says.
Gautam Navlakha, an activist working on the issue of abuses by state security forces in Kashmir, called it absolute vindication.”
“This lays open the truth of all the charges that people in Kashmir have been making for so many years,” he said.
The investigators wrote that the bodies, all of them marked with bullet wounds, were handed over by police to local people living in the areas near the graves, with instructions to bury them. At the time, the police said they were the bodies of “unidentified militants,” usually foreigners, killed in fighting.
“Now it becomes very clear that those foreigners were in fact local,” Mr. Navlakha said.
Of the 2,156 bodies or skulls exhumed, investigators were able to identify 574 as the remains of local people.
Tens of thousands of people, many of them civilians, have died in the long-running separatist conflict in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both. An organized uprising began in 1989 and was met with brutal force by the Indian army. Some of the missing – who are mostly young men – have crossed into Pakistan, which has funded and armed the Kashmiri insurgency in India, to train as militant fighters, and then been killed in conflict. But families in Kashmir insist that many people, mostly men and mostly young, were picked up by soldiers or paramilitaries and taken away to detention and never came home.
The report backs their claims, noting that police failed to take any steps to identify the bodies before burial, such as acquiring dental records or DNA to match them with the cases of civilians reported missing.
Mr. Bhatt is unwilling to accept the idea that his brother lies in one of the newly identified graves, but takes heart from the official acknowledgment, saying he hopes it will force the Indian government to engage with the issue of the disappeared with new seriousness, and perhaps yield answers on Shabir’s whereabouts.
The SHRC, which has only recommendatory power and cannot direct actions the way a government inquiry would, concludes by saying that it should be the practice that DNA is collected from anyone killed by the authorities, along with other information to establish a positive identity. This, it says, would help end “misuse” of special laws which protect the military from prosecution for actions in Kashmir.Report Typo/Error