The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, a Srinagar-based advocacy group, is led by 55-year-old former homemaker Parveena Ahanger, whose 17-year-old, speech-impaired son, Javed Ahanger, disappeared in January 1990 after a raid by the Indian Army. The NGO puts the number of enforced disappearances in Kashmir's long, brutal war at around 8,000 men and boys. They are largely believed to have been killed, their bodies weighted and dumped into the river or buried in unknown, unmarked mass graves. "My son was taken from my home by the military. The government is responsible for him. I don't know where they kept him, whether he is still alive. I want to know where he is," Ahanger told me.
In December 2009, the common knowledge that thousands were killed and buried in unknown places turned out to be true. The International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir (IPTK), a group of human rights activists led by a local rights group, published a report called "Buried Evidence" that established and 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. By 2009, the insurgency was almost over, and access to the heavily militarized border districts became relatively easier. Activists from the group had spent a few weeks in the border areas helping victims of the late-2005 Kashmir earthquake. "It was then that villagers began telling us about the unmarked and mass graves," says Khurram Parvez, an activist with Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, the main group within IPTK.
Parvez and his colleagues sought more information, eventually visiting 55 villages in northwestern Kashmir's Baramulla, Kupwara, and Handwara districts, documenting the unmarked graves. "In the 2,700 graves we investigated, the body count was 2,943+. Within the 2,700 graves, 154 graves contained two bodies each and 23 graves contained more than two cadavers. Within these 23 graves, the number of bodies ranged from 3 to 17," their report read. Most of the bodies had been delivered to local police by the military. The police would register their deaths as foreign terrorists, take pictures of the bodies -- and then, late at night, go to the villagers demanding that they be buried, quickly and quietly. Most bodies were bullet-riddled; many bore the marks of torture.
In late 2009, I traveled from Srinagar to Chehal Bimyar village near the Line of Control, one of the biggest sites of the unmarked graves. In a tiny mud-and-brick house, I met Atta Mohammad, a 68-year-old farmer who had buried 203 bodies that the police brought to his village, mostly at night. "I did it out of religious obligation. The dead have to be treated respectfully," said Mohammed, a shriveled, small man. Despite being haunted by the defaced bodies and the graves in his dreams, Mohammad continued with the burials. A personal tragedy moved him to the task. His nephew, an orphan whom he had raised, had disappeared in the mid-1990s without a trace. A few hundred yards from his house, the graveyard spread out on the slope of a hill beside a school -- rows and row of mounds of dark gray soil.
In one instance, in December 2006, officers and men leading the police's counterinsurgency effort lured Abdul Rehman Padder, a carpenter from Larnoo village in southern Kashmir, to Srinagar with the promise of a low-level government job for a bribe of $2,000. In Srinagar, when the village carpenter met the policemen to check about his promised job, he was taken in an unmarked car to Ganderbal, 30 miles outside the city, where he was kept in a police station. The following night he was driven in a police car to a nearby forest by a group of policemen, soldiers, and paramilitary men. They shot him in the face to make identification impossible and recorded in the official reports that a Pakistan terrorist from Multan, named Abu Hafiz and a commander of the insurgent group Lashkar-e-Taiba, was killed in a gunfight. The head of the Kashmiri police awarded the officers around $3,000 for their bravery.
This is the political economy of the Kashmir counterinsurgency. Two decades of insurgency and counterinsurgency have resulted in the creation of a state of affairs that provides incentives to troops and policemen to show "kills." Counterinsurgency officers receive fast-track promotions, as well as monetary and other rewards, for showing results.
Padder's aged father filed a report about his missing son and met with several police officers, looking for answers. A few months later, an internal police investigation revealed that Padder and a few others had been assassinated by police and Army teams with an eye on fast-track promotions and monetary rewards. Padder's body was exhumed; his father told me that, despite the gunshot wounds to his son's face, he still recognized him. DNA tests confirmed it. Seven policemen were arrested and charged with killing Padder and passing him off as a Pakistani terrorist. Their trial continues.