The last time Bilkees Manzoor saw her father was 10 years ago on a snowy January night when a dozen soldiers took him from their family home in Srinagar, capital of Indian Kashmir.
“They said he was needed for questioning and would be released in a couple of hours. We never saw him again,” she said.
Rights groups say as many as 8,000 people, mostly young men, have been “disappeared” by the security forces in Indian Kashmir since an armed insurgency against Indian rule erupted in the Muslim-majority region in 1989.
Manzoor insists her father, who ran a small medical business, had no links to any militant group and she has never been told why he was taken into custody.
For years, she and many others have campaigned to find out what happened to their missing relatives. Now, for the first time, an answer may be in reach.
Last month, Kashmir’s State Human Rights Commission surprised everyone — not least the Indian authorities — when it submitted a report detailing the existence of 2,730 bodies lying in unmarked graves in northern Kashmir.
Crucially the report said 574 bodies had been identified as those of local residents — a finding that challenged the long-held official insistence that any unmarked graves belonged to foreign militants.
The commission recommended DNA testing to determine the identity of the remaining 2,156 bodies and the creation of an independent body to monitor the process.
The graves are not mass graves of the sort uncovered after the Balkans conflict, but individual plots in rural town graveyards.
The report marked the first time a state-funded body has formally acknowledged their existence.
“It’s a big victory. They have taken one step, a big step,” she said. “I have the right to know if my father’s alive and where he is, or if he’s dead where he’s buried.”
The state government has yet to endorse the commission’s findings, but in the state legislature last week, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said DNA tests would be carried out.
Allegations of rape, torture and extrajudicial killings have been leveled at the security forces — army, paramilitaries and police — in Kashmir for years and detailed in reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
However, the few cases taken up by the judicial system have gone nowhere, largely because of special emergency powers that require the government in New Delhi to sanction the prosecution of military personnel.
Bashir ud-Din, chairman of the State Human Rights Commission, said he has no way of knowing whether the recommendations of his report will be properly implemented.
“We have done what we can. Now it is up to others. If they don’t want to do anything, what can I do? My conscience is clear,” the retired High Court judge said.
Until now, he said, official inaction had been the default response to serious charges of rights abuses leveled against the security forces.
“The fact is that those who matter, at the state or central level, have yet to be sensitive enough to respond in a way that would at least instil some confidence ... that the system is there to bring wrongdoers to justice,” he said.
The old adage of the truth being the first casualty of any conflict rings particularly true in Kashmir, a region of striking Himalayan beauty divided between India and Pakistan and the trigger for two wars between the South Asian rivals.
The official Indian view on the armed separatist movement is that of a largely Pakistan-sponsored insurgency fueled by “jihadist” militants from as far afield as Afghanistan, Chechnya and Tajikistan.
The counter-narrative has India’s only Muslim-majority state run as a giant army camp, where the security forces act with total impunity to violently repress Kashmiris’ desire for self-determination.
Estimates for the number killed since 1989 vary from 40,000 to 70,000 and the breakdown of those figures — militants, security personnel, civilians — is bitterly contested.
Kashmiri human rights campaigner Khurram Parvez said the state commission report is the “biggest breakthrough” of the past 20 years, but he also believes its findings are just the “tip of the iceberg.”
His organization, the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, claims it has proof of thousands more unmarked graves in Kashmir.
“We just want the state to acknowledge the phenomenon of enforced disappearances and begin delivering justice,” he said.
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