Boys who never came home


Parveena Ahangar’s small world came crashing down on the fateful night of August 18, 1990 when her 16-year old school-going son Javed Ahmed vanished under mysterious circumstances. The boy was picked up by Indian paramilitary forces during a midnight raid at his uncle’s house in India-controlled Kashmir. The grief-stricken mother spent sleepless nights waiting for her son to return. She never saw him or heard from him again.

This Himalayan valley of shimmering lakes and beautiful meadows has been the bone of contention between the estranged South Asian neighours India and Pakistan for more than six decades. The two nuclear powers have gone to war on two occasions to claim the disputed territory.

In 1989, a full-blown armed insurgency broke out in Kashmir. The anti-India sentiment assumed a whole new dimension. In order to quell the popular uprising, Indian armed forces would resort to unbridled use of force against the civilians. The sense of fear and susceptibility was overpowering. Young boys would leave home for a game of cricket and never return. Many of them would be abducted from their homes and dragged to various interrogation centers. The traumatized families would run from pillar to post to know the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Day of Disappeared

Like every year, the International Day of Disappeared was observed across the world on August 30. In Indian-controlled Kashmir, people assembled in Pratap Park in the heart of Srinagar to show solidarity with the families of the missing. The relatives – mothers, sisters, daughters – sat quietly, holding the posters, pictures and placards, as cameras zoomed into their wrinkled faces and sunken eyes. One of them was 80-year-old Hajira, who had come all the way from North Kashmir’s Bandipora district to attend the protest. Her three sons were killed at the time when militancy was at its peak, and the fourth went missing. She has become weak but the resilience is infectious. The protest was also joined by JKLF Chairman Yaseen Malik and parents of the youth who were killed by Indian forces during the 2010 unrest.

“For unknown reasons, unmarked graves in the disputed territory of the world’s largest democracy have not been deemed scandalous enough”

This year, the protest had a creative element to it. Many young artists took active part in the daylong silent sit-in. Some of them wrapped themselves in banners with faces white washed, while some scribbled notes in black ink on their bare bodies. The trend of artistic resistance has become increasingly popular in Kashmir of late, with the young breed of artists, cartoonists, singers, and poets taking the center stage. “The resistance movement has become inclusive and youth are taking the lead now. These are the children of conflict who grew up in the turbulent period of the 90s and they pretty much know the art and science of resistance,” says journalist Hilal Mir.

Events to mark the Day of Disappeared were also held in JNU New Delhi, and TISS Mumbai, where Kashmiri students and activists spoke on the phenomenon of disappearances in Kashmir.

Together for a cause

Ahangar’s is not an isolated case. Thousands of young men mysteriously disappeared during the turbulent 1990s. The law enforcement agencies did not move. With no help coming from anywhere, Ahangar decided to run the gauntlet. She got together some of the families whose members had disappeared under similar circumstances. In 1994, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) was born.

Without any formal education, she managed to create a stir. “I knew there were thousands of poor hapless mothers like me, so I decided to get them on board and carry forward our struggle collectively,” says Ahangar. There is another organisation by same name working for the same cause, run by J&K Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS).

“Young boys would leave home for a game of cricket and never return. Many of them would be abducted and dragged to various interrogation centers”

Over the years, both the associations have become bigger with more than a thousand members who have similar tales of despair and despondency to narrate.Nazima Jan (31) of North Kashmir district has been waiting for her missing three brothers for the last 15 years. She joins a protest in a public park in Srinagar – the summer capital of Kashmir – on the 10th and 28th of every month, against enforced disappearances.

On August 30, the families got together again and took a pledge to continue their search for the missing. However, their protests are largely ignored by mainstream Indian media. “No doubt India has a powerful and free media but many editors and other key players in the industry, if not all, have drawn a line in certain issues and areas including Kashmir. They call it ‘national interest’,” says Yusuf Jameel, senior journalist who covered Kashmir for BBC in 1990s.

“The phenomenon of enforced disappearances started in 1990, says Zahir ud Din, senior journalist and activist. “Initially it was not part of a bigger design to scare people. Brutal torture claimed hundreds of lives and their bodies were disposed of in rivers, lakes and elsewhere. Then the security agencies realized how it can be used as an effective tool to scare people. It became a policy,” says Zahir ud Din, who authored a book ‘Did they vanish into thin air?’ on Kashmir’s disappeared.

APDP has played an instrumental role in bringing the issue of enforced disappearances in Kashmir into limelight. Ahangar (49) is now a member of AFAD (Asian Federation of Involuntary Disappearances). She has travelled to many parts of the world like Philippines (2000), Indonesia (2004), and Europe (2008) to speak on the phenomenon of enforced disappearances in Kashmir. In 2008, the United Nation’s Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture granted funds to APDP, which are spent on the medicines, clothes and other necessities of the families of victims.

Mass graves and missing people

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance adopted by UN General Assembly on 20 December 2006 explicitly terms the systematic practice of enforced disappearances a ‘crime against humanity’.

Human rights activists in Kashmir claim that close to 8,000 people, including combatants and non-combatants, have been subjected to enforced disappearance in the region over the last 20 years. The International Peoples’ Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir (IPTK) in its report released in December 2009 revealed 2,700 unmarked graves containing more than 2,900 bodies in more than 50 villages in north Kashmir. Due to some operational constraints, the research was confined to select villages, so the observers believe the number could be much higher.

In August 2011, the 11-member police investigation team of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) verified 2,156 unidentified bodies in unidentified graves in Bandipora, Baramulla, Kupwara, and Handwara districts. It was a moment of vindication for the families of victims; however, no further investigation was done to get to the root of matter. “For unknown reasons, unmarked graves in the disputed territory of the world’s largest democracy have not been deemed scandalous enough,” says Mirza Waheed, author of The Collaborator, a critically acclaimed novel set in Kashmir. “Doesn’t such an astonishing discovery merit a serious inquiry and investigation by the Indian State?” he asks. “In the long run, state will not want to penalize itself on anything, least of all disappearances which it enforces as a matter of representational threat to people to safeguard its imagined sovereignty,” says Ather Zia, Kashmir-born and US-based anthropologist and writer.

Many believe the missing persons have been killed and dumped in these unmarked graves. “Many families are ready to volunteer their DNA samples to confirm if their kin is buried in these graves to gain closure, at the same time many see it as another deferral tactic by the government, since the tests are not happening any soon,” says Zia.

To be or not to be

Twenty-nine year old Nusrat (name changed) is a resident of southern Kashmir district. She is known in her locality as a ‘half-widow,’ a term used for women whose spouses are missing. “The simple fact that their men have disappeared and not been declared dead has left thousands of these women in a wretched state with no legal protection,” says Aliya Bashir, Kashmir-based journalist, who has done extensive research on the half-widows of Kashmir.

“Half-widows face the worst kind of economic, social and emotional insecurities. They live between hope and despair, hope of seeing their loved ones again, and despair of not finding a clue since last 25 years,” says Zia.

Perpetrators and inaction:

On December 6, 2012, the IPTK released a report, “Alleged Perpetrators – Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir”. The meticulous research work of two years uses data from official state documents and witness testimonies. It examined 214 cases of human-rights abuses and the role of 500 alleged perpetrators. Among the 500 perpetrators were 235 army personnel, 123 paramilitary personnel, 111 Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel and 31 government-backed associates. The list of alleged perpetrators included two major generals, three brigadiers, nine colonels, three lieutenant colonels, 78 majors and 25 captains. “Cases presented in this report reveal that there is a policy to not genuinely investigate or prosecute the armed forces for human-rights violations,” said a press handout by the IPTK.

Taking serious cognizance of the report, Amnesty International called for an “impartial probe into the allegations of human-rights violations made in a report”. The Asian Federation Against Enforced Disappearances said the study “clearly points to a high level of command decision, given the involvement of top ranking officers of the Indian Army”. So far, no action has been taken on the report. “Many people in Kashmir,” says Waheed, “have resigned to the idea that justice is a far-fetched dream, and the perpetrators may never be booked.”

Notwithstanding the hopelessness and helplessness, Ahangar is not tired of waiting for her son. “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.

~ Zafar


Living on the edge — LoC flare-up


A Hindu protestor shouts slogans during communal riots with Muslims in Kishtwar

For the residentsof Silikote – a small nondescript village on the Line of Control (LoC) – the fear of the ongoing skirmishes turning into a full-blown war between the two estranged South Asian neighours has marred Eid celebrations. They find themselves trapped in the line of fire.

The latest flare-up on the 740-km line that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, followed by bellicose statements, can have serious repercussions on the peace parleys between the two countries. After New Delhi blamed Pakistan Army for a deadly overnight ambush last week that killed five Indian soldiers, Indian Defence Minister AK Antony did not rule out the possibility of a strong military retaliation. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, caught in an embarrassing situation, urged both sides to take swift measures to shore up the 10-year ceasefire.

  Article Box
  An Indian woman walks along a border fence on the Line of Control
An Indian woman walks along a border fence on the Line of Control
  Article Box

Pakistani military officials on Thursday accused Indian border troops of opening fire and injuring a civilian in the Tatta Pani sector along the LoC. Similar border skirmishes in January had stalled the peace process between two countries. Despite the pledge taken by Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of the two countries to ‘de-escalate’ the situation along the LoC, the sabre-rattling has only continued. The peace process had resumed after a long hiatus triggered by the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. India accused Pakistan of engineering and sponsoring the attack.

This is not the first such outburst. The two countries have a history of flashpoints and flare-ups. In 1947-48, India and Pakistan went to war over Kashmir. The war was ended with a UN-brokered ceasefire and a resolution demanding plebiscite for Kashmir. In 1965, the two countries went to war over Kashmir again. The war ended with a UN ceasefire again. In 1971, the two countries fought for the third time, over East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. In 1988, an armed revolt against Indian occupation in Kashmir gained fresh momentum, and India blamed Pakistan for arming Kashmiri militants. In 1998, India carried out nuclear tests, and Pakistan followed suit. In 1999, India and Pakistan fought another war in the mountains near Kargil. In July 2001, the high-level Agra summit between Pervez Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpaaye proved a disaster. In December 2011, the Indian Parliament was attacked by terrorists and India accused Pakistan-based groups.

Khursheed Shah blamed the escalated tensions on the new government’s “weak policies”

Making sure not to take sides, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a diplomatic tone: “We are aware of these unconfirmed reports and are concerned about any violence along the Line of Control”. Reiterating the ambiguous US policy on Kashmir, she said the pace, scope, and character of dialogue on Kashmir was for India and Pakistan to determine.

Hurriyat Conference (M) Chairman Mirwaiz Umer Farooq expressed serious concerns over the deadly attacks, and said they had the potential to harm the improving relations between the two countries. “The killing of Indian or Pakistani soldiers along the border has always been a matter of worry and concern. Hence, Kashmiris have repeatedly stressed resolving all outstanding issues including Kashmir to stop the wastage of lives on both sides of the LoC,” Mirwaiz said while addressing a religious gathering in Kashmir. He urged both the countries to demilitarise the border and ensure the safety of Kashmiris living along the LoC on both sides of the divided valley.

In Jammu region, communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in the wake of the LoC skirmishes have already claimed three lives

Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly of Pakistan, Syed Khursheed Shah, blamed the escalated tensions on the new government’s “weak policies”. He said no such incidents had taken place in the PPP government’s tenure.

In India, there are concerns about the role of the jingoistic media and the right-wing BJP. BJP’s top leadership managed to corner the Congress-led government over the repeated ceasefire violations on LoC. According to Defence Minister AK Antony, the number of infiltration attempts from the Pakistani side of Kashmir has doubled in the period between January and August.

For the Congress-led government in New Delhi, the flare-up has brought more headaches on the domestic front. The party may not be able to pass its ambitious Food Bill before August 20 – Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary.

Meanwhile, in Jammu region, communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in the wake of the LoC skirmishes have already claimed three lives, while several men are critically injured. The clashes erupted in Kishtwar after venom-spewing Hindu men apparently belonging to some Hindutva groups attacked an Eid congregation. Muslims retaliated with full force. Soon, clashes broke out across the Jammu region. Houses were attacked, shops were set ablaze, and places of worship were desecrated. The situation remains tense, and curfew has been imposed in six of the 10 districts of Jammu.

Like the residents of Jammu, people living along the LoC on both sides of the divided Kashmir continue to live on the edge, with the threat of war looming large over them.

~ Zafar

Taliban In Context of Kashmir

kid82A palpable buzz in the town is that after the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the hard-bitten Talibani guerillas may trickle over to the Indian-occupied-Kashmir. Local media has been sent into a tizzy as seasoned political pundits discuss its possible repercussions. While most of the blustering Kashmir experts on prime time shows play it down as gibberish talk, some are not ruling out the possibility of Kashmir being Pakistani Taliban’s next pit stop. Amidst all this shrill noise from different sides, a poor common man on the street looks panicky and frightened, not knowing who to believe.

The threat, according to naysayers, comes from Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is an umbrella organization of militant groups in the federal areas of Pakistan along the Afghan border, formed in 2007 under the patronage of Baitullah Mehsud. While their stated intent is to fight the pro-US governments in Pakistan and to enforce a system of Sharia (in which minorities have no place), they have also been aggressive in their war against the NATO forces in Afghanistan.

In December last year, after Hurriyat Conference (M)’s much-publicized Pakistan visit, Chairman of his faction of Hurriyat Conference, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq warned New Delhi of “Taliban spill-over with impact beyond Kashmir” if the dispute was not resolved before US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. He came under blistering criticism for his ‘surreptitious’ remarks bordering on paranoia, but was he only stating the truth based on his observations or was it a blatant invite to the Taliban?

Recently, a 42-minute video was released by Pakistani Taliban, in which their chief Hakimullah Mehsud and his deputy Wali ur Rehman addressed media persons and answered queries on the strategies and methods of Taliban warfare, its relations with Afghan Taliban, and plans of extending their operations to Indian-occupied-Kashmir. “The practical struggle for a Shariah system that we are carrying out in Pakistan, the same way we will continue it in Kashmir. And this is the only solution for people’s problems,” said the beaming duo, vowing to liberate Kashmir and establish Islamic Shariah.

On one hand, the possibilities of Taliban coming to Kashmir look slim, because they are also engaged in a fight against the government in Pakistan and NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 is not likely to end their ‘turfwar’ within Pakistan. Political analysts believe the change of guard in Pakistan is not going to discourage them or dampen their spirits. Even though the newly crowned PM is known for mollycoddling Taliban and their shady fringe groups, now he also has to entertain Obama and go with a begging bowl to bail out his country from economic crisis. That, in all likelihood, will keep the Taliban fighters busy in Pakistan and they would find it difficult to sneak through Line of Control without the aid of army.

On the other hand, there is a small section that is loudly and vociferously sounding the alarm bells. They are not ruling out the possibility of Taliban ‘liberating’ Kashmir, post NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. Talibani fighters may be inclined to extend their operations beyond the Pakistani border and as stated in the video released by TTP, the liberation of Kashmir from Indian occupation may be one of their prime objectives. After all, they won’t come for skiing and paragliding, they mean business.

The question, however, to be asked is: should TTP be welcome in Kashmir? Who will host them in Kashmir if they come? Will it help the cause or damage it further? Or, to put it plainlyis there a need for TTP to come to Kashmir in the first place? Unlike Afghan Taliban, TTP is only known for its notoriety. Former was the creation of America to fight Russians in Afghanistan, while latter came into force essentially to wipe out the pro-west institutions in Pakistan and to enforce most strict form of ‘Shariat’. Has it been successful in doing just that?

Pakistan continues to be an important ally of America in its ‘war-on-terror’. They can still come in with permission and launch drone strikes. They still have their embassy and other offices across Pakistan. The relations between Pakistan and America have only got better, at least at the governmental level. With Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) in power, things are not going to change much. Then what has TTP been fighting for all these years? What has it achieved? Yes, there are some achievements to their credit.

Over the years, TTP has only managed to wreak havoc in Quad e Azam’s Pakistan. They have declared ‘others’ as ‘apostates’ and take it upon themselves to wipe them off. The dream of an Islamic republic where all Muslims live in peace and dignity stands in tatters today, and much of the credit goes to TTP and the monsters it has created in the form of Sipah e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar e Jhangvi (LeJ). If you do not subscribe to a particular line of religious thought, you are only inviting trouble for yourself. Chances are you can be shot dead on a crowded street, killed in a targeted attack, blown up in a mine blast, offloaded from a bus and shot dead and other far more diabolical ways. That is their achievement, their way of enforcing Shariah, establishing a Khilafah, in which minorities like Shias or Ahmedis or Christains have no place.

Now, since they have expressed their desire and keenness to come to Kashmir, I cannot help but fear for the worst. Our freedom movement has stood the tests of time primarily because we, cutting across sects and communities, have stood together. I don’t want to see them spilling the blood of my brothers and sisters to ‘liberate’ Kashmir and to ‘enforce’ their brand of Shariat. We know how to resist and we know how to fight, and we can do that without any unsolicited help of Taliban or their proxies. There is no dearth of leadership, but truth be told, the movement presently is led by people themselves, and this shift has been more visible after the 2010 popular uprising. Keeping TTP out of the picture is important.

While India is not particularly happy with the Taliban upsurge in Afghanistan, it has no such issues with TTP. The internal war in Pakistan is in the interest of India. No matter the honeyed rhetoric of peace emissaries, the truth is India wants to see Pakistan crumble, and vice versa. Even if TTP comes to Kashmir, India should not fret much so long as TTP carries out its sinister sectarian agenda, which will only benefit India and weaken the freedom movement in Kashmir. It is one of the reasons why India has pledged the assistance of staggering 2 billion dollars to Karzai led government in Afghanistan, while carrying out the proxy wars in insurgency-hit provinces of Pakistan, in collision with TTP.

~ Zafar

Days of Zionists numbered


By Syed Zafar Mehdi

Quds Day means standing in solidarity with our brethren in Palestine, and at the same time standing up for our own rights and raising a banner of revolt against the oppressors and occupiers of our land.”

Observed every year on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, International Quds Day has become a permanent fixture on the annual calendar.

For all the campaigners of truth and justice, the day has an extraordinary historical significance, lessons for the present and prophecies for the future. Al-Quds is Arabic for Jerusalem. The day was first observed in Iran in 1979, soon after the Islamic Revolution, as an affirmation of the Ummah’s solidarity with people of Palestine in their struggle for the liberation of Jerusalem.

Since then, Quds Day is observed across the world every year in this holy month to express solidarity and support for Palestine and to condemn and protest Israel’s forceful control over Jerusalem. Ramadan is the month of struggle (jehad e akbar). It is the month that granted Muslims a historic victory in the battle of Badr. It is the month in which Mecca was rid of idol worshipers (mushrikeen). So it seems appropriate that a day of this blessed month is dedicated to the struggle for liberation of Palestine and Al-Quds.

The idea of solidarity rallies on Quds Day was implemented and given shape by Ayatollah Khomeini, who made passionate appeals to Muslims across the world to stand up and speak out for their brethren in Palestine. It is also a day to remember and extend solidarity to people in other occupied territories, subjugated and crushed by strong military powers. “The Quds Day is a universal day. It is not an exclusive day for Quds (Jerusalem). It is a day for the oppressed and the supporters of oppressed to rise and stand up against the arrogant oppressors,” Ayatollah Khomeini said.

In Iran, millions of people march on the streets on this day to protest against Israeli occupation and aggression in East Jerusalem. In August 1979, in solidarity with the people of Palestine, Ayatollah Khomeini declared the liberation of Jerusalem ‘a religious duty of all Muslims’. “I invite Muslims all over the globe to observe the last Friday of Ramadan as Al-Quds Day, and to pledge support and solidarity to the people of Palestine and their legitimate rights. I ask all the Muslims of the world and the Muslim governments to join hands and sever the hand of this usurper and its supporters,” said Ayatollah Khomeini.

During the first Palestinian Intifada in January 1988, the Jerusalem Committee of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) declared that Quds Day be commemorated publicly throughout the Arab world. Their official endorsement of Quds Day was significant as some Arab countries that have strategic ties with Israel found themselves in catch 22 situation. They had to pledge their support to Palestine and at the same time not antagonize the Israelis.

Over the years, Quds Day has become an international public event. Massive rallies are taken out in Britain, Canada, Sweden, Russia, India, Pakistan, United States etc. Events are also held in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza Strip. Organisations like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine have publicly endorsed Quds Day ceremonies in Palestine.

Last year, on Quds Day, millions of Iranians participated in the rallies, waving Palestinian flags and chanting slogans like ‘Death to Israel and America’, ‘Israel Your Days Are Numbered’, ‘Zionism must go’ and ‘From River to the Sea Palestine Will be Free’. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Israel an ‘insult to humanity’ and said the ‘Zionist black stain’ will soon be washed off. “The Zionist regime and Zionists are a cancerous tumour. Even if one cell is left in one inch of (Palestinian) land, in the future this story (of Israel’s existence) will repeat,” warned the Iranian president, who is soon to be replaced by new President Hassan Rohani.

In Lebanon, where Quds Day is observed on a grand scale every year, Hezbollah Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah in a televised speech on this day last year warned that only a few rockets by Hezbollah could result in massive casualties in Israel. “Rockets are ready and directed at these targets. We will not hesitate to use them, if we have to, at any point in time… Hezbollah cannot destroy Israel but we can transform the lives of millions of Zionists in occupied Palestine into a real hell. We can change the face of Israel,” said Nasrallah.

In Britain, on Quds Day, people march through the streets of London and assemble outside the American embassy. Anti-Zionist Jews and Christians also take active part and speak in these rallies. “We hope and pray for the end of Zionism. It is a curse, it is a cancer,” said Yakov Wsisz, a Jew, at one such rally last year. He was seconded by Stephen Sizer, a senior pastor of the Anglican Christ Church in Surrey. “No country and no people on earth recognize Israeli’s sovereignty over Jerusalem.” In Canada, Quds rally takes place every year at Queen’s Park, participated by people from all spheres of life. In Australia, hundreds of people gather in Hyde Park to observe Quds Day every year.

To start with, there has to be a complete and unconditional withdrawal from all Israeli occupied territories including Jerusalem, acknowledging and facilitating the return of the Palestinians who were forced to leave their land after 1948 Nakba, compensation for the damage of land and property, and ban on the building of new settlements and immediate evacuation of all existing settlements. These excavations, which are also in direct violation of The Hague and Geneva Conventions, threaten Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock and violate the sanctity of the holy Islamic sites.

Hence, it is the duty of all Muslims, and people of conscience, to raise their voice against this naked aggression. Quds Day means standing in solidarity with our brethren in Palestine, and at the same time standing up for our own rights and raising a banner of revolt against the oppressors and occupiers of our land.