Imagine a day without knowing where your loved one is. Now imagine a lifetime. But for the hundreds of families in Kashmir — whose sons, brothers, husbands and fathers have been missing for years — there is little left to imagine since this is a reality they must live with every day.
More than 50,000 people have lost their lives while hundreds have been incarcerated in the strife that has scarred Indian-Administered Kashmir for decades now. Amid this chaos and uncertainty, nearly 8,000 Kashmiris have ‘disappeared’ in the custody of Indian forces, according to the Srinagar-based Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). With no trace of their whereabouts, the families spend each day wondering if they would ever see their loved ones in flesh and blood, or just the latter.
Parveena is the chairperson for the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons — an initiative that seeks to bring together the families of all those who are missing and exert collective pressure on the relevant authorities. PHOTO COURTESY: PARVEENA AHANGAR FACEBOOK PAGE
Most of this burden is carried by the women of the valley — the mothers, wives and daughters of these disappeared persons — who continue searching for their kith and kin, often in abject poverty. They have little on their side except hope, but in this case, that is reason enough.
A relentless daughter
Bilquees was a ninth-grade student when her father, Manzoor Ahmad Dar, was picked up by the Indian forces during a midnight raid in Rawalpora, Srinagar, on January 18, 2002. She remembers every detail of that fateful night, from the exact date and name to the face of the accused Indian army officer.
Dar — who worked as a chemist and earned the nickname ‘Doctor’ for treating patients in the area — was picked up by the Indian army on charges of sending Kashmiri boys across the Line of Control (LoC) for arms training. But Bilquees vehemently denies any such charges. Initially, the local police even refused to file an FIR for Dar’s disappearance but gave in after protests by the family and locals. Col Kishore Malhotra, who was identified as the main accused during the investigations, ironically, rose from the rank of major to colonel since the incident.
Zaina Begum, with a portrait of her husband, Ghulam Mohidin Mir who has been missing for 17 years. She prays that her four children will one day get to see their father but has lost all hope for justice.
Bilquees says her father was picked on the pretext of questioning but never returned. The family was unable to trace him since they had no clue of his whereabouts. “There was another guy who was also arrested by the Indian army. He confirmed that my father was with him in custody at Cargo, a notorious torture centre in Srinagar used by the Indian forces,” she says. When the family went to Cargo, one of the personnel confirmed that Dar was lodged there, but another higher-rank officer denied any such information and forced them to leave.
Bilquees claims they visited every police official who they believed could help but to no avail. In the last week of March, 2002, she received a call from an unknown person asking her and a few other family members to meet him at a ground, adjacent to their locality. “When we visited the place, we were questioned by four different Indian army officials for hours. One of the officials included Kishore Malhotra, who had headed the raid at our house,” she says. “After the questioning, an army jeep revolved around us a few times and we were told that our father was in it, watching us. But we could not see him.” Another member of their neighbourhood who had business connections with the Indian army and was believed to have some information on Dar’s whereabouts was also arrested, taken to the canal and killed.
Rafiqa Bano with a portrait of her son, Irshad Ahmad Khan, who went missing at the age of 28 and hasn’t been found since.
Few months after Dar’s disappearance, a Major Parmar from the Indian army called Bilquees and informed her that her father was lodged in Tihar Jail in New Delhi. He initially stated that Dar was severely tortured, as a result of which his legs were amputated but later refuted the statement saying he had been killed during interrogation in the Indian army’s custody. “We did not believe him, we believe our father is alive,” says Bilquees.
The Indian army has tried all kinds of tactics from harassment to offering money to the family to give up litigation but they refused to cave in to the pressure. “Our house was raided again in 2007 by the Indian army and we were asked to close the case. But we did not give in.” Later that year, the family was summoned by the Jammu and Kashmir Police and informed that Dar was killed in army custody and buried in some village. “We were told that we will be shown some photographs as evidence and that a DNA test will be carried out to match the evidence. But that was never done,” says Bilquees. “We have not seen his body and we don’t believe that he has died. Police may claim so, but how can we?”
Dar’s wife, Jana Begum, does not now talk much about his disappearance. The years of searching and waiting have taken an emotional and physical toll on her. “Her blood pressure rises and her health deteriorates now if anyone asks her about our father,” says her eldest born. The once-young Bilquees is now married but her resolve to bring her father home and get justice is still fresh. “I will never give up,” she says.
A hopeless mother
Rafiqa Bano’s first born, Irshad Ahmed Khan, crossed the LOC in the early years of militancy for training but instead of joining an armed group upon return, he started his own business. That, however, did not spare him from the scrutiny of the Indian army. On December 17, 2004, Khan was called in by the Indian Army’s Colonel GPS Gill of 15 corps BB cantonment, under the pretext of his life being in danger and, hence, needing army protection.
Bilquees with a portrait of her father, Manzoor Ahmad, who was picked up by the Indian army during a midnight raid.
“We begged them to release Khan but they did not listen to us,” says Rafiqa. The family also approached the State Human Rights Commission [SHRC] which in its final decision found that, “There was nothing on record to show that said Irshad Amin Khan may not have been killed after he was called and taken into custody by Col GPS Gill of 15 Corps at Headquarters Srinagar on December 17, 2004, as he has not reached home for more than seven years.”
Ten years on, despite the media attention, Rafiqa has lost all hope of ever seeing her son again. “Did anyone ever get any help with these news reports? Will it bring back my son?”
A bereft wife
Zaina Begum was barely 10 years old when she was married to Ghulam Mohidin Mir, who was a year or two older than her. For years they lived together happily and started a family until the 1990s when the political situation in Kashmir took a sour turn.
In the early years of the armed uprising in Kashmir, thousands of young Kashmiris joined militant groups to fight the Indian rule. Ghulam Mohidin Mir also joined the wave and crossed over to the other side of the LoC for training. After he returned, he was arrested by the Indian army and put in jail for nearly two and a half years. Upon release, Mir returned to his family and started working as a gardener.
Things were normal until April 11, 1997, when the army condoned Mir’s village and raided their house in the wee hours of the morning. All the family members were locked up in one room, except Mir who was taken to another room, tortured and then finally lugged along by the Indian army.
For three months after the incident, Zaina received different clues of her husband’s whereabouts from various sources. “For the first 10 days, I was told that my husband was lodged in Dooru Army camp (a village in central Kashmir’s Budgam district). I would pack clothes and food for him and wait outside the camp every day, but I never got as much as a glimpse of him,” she recalls.
After Dooru, Mir is said to have been shifted to another unknown location. Despite repeated attempts, Zaina has had no luck in finding out where and how her husband is. Even though she wants her children to meet their father after 17 years, Zaina has no utopian ideas about getting justice. “There is no hope in this system. Those who [are involved] in my husband’s disappearance can never deliver justice to me.”
An unusual saviour
On the night of August 18, 1990, the police, who had set out to arrest Javaid Ahmed, a Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front militant, picked up his young namesake instead. Javaid’s 57-year-old mother, Parveena Ahanger, filed an FIR in Sher-e-Gari police station, Srinagar and scourged every police station and jail for her son but found nothing.
It was not until 1992 that the police verbally accepted that they had arrested Javaid. Parveena was asked by the higher authorities to go to Ram Nagar jail where they said Javaid had been detained. Upon reaching there, she was informed that her son was not there and she had to leave without any answers.
The pattern continued for a long time. Each time Parveena found a clue about her son, she would rush to the spot only to return empty-handed. It was during these visits that she came across hundreds of families, who like her were seeking the whereabouts of their relatives. They would occasionally hold protests in courts but would be dispersed each time.
Parveena started holding meetings with the parents of the disappeared persons at her residence in Batamaloo, Srinagar, and discussed future strategies which eventually led to the formation of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) — an association that seeks the whereabouts of the disappeared persons. “When I realised that there were thousands of mothers like me, I decided to bring them all together under one association so that our voices together could bring a change,” says Parveena, who serves as the chairperson of APDP. On the 10th of every month, Parveena along with other members of APDP hold a sit-in at a park in the capital city of Srinagar.
Parveena’s quest for justice has not been limited to Kashmir. She has travelled to the Philippines, Indonesia, Europe and many Indian states to push the issue of missing persons. As a result of her efforts, APDP has been instrumental in building up pressure on the government who acknowledged that more than 8,000 persons had gone missing under the custody of Indian forces and also assured a halt on these disappearances.
Her relentless struggle for justice earned her the nickname of the ‘Iron Lady of Kashmir’. She was also nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace prize and the Frontline Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk in 2011. She may have lost a son, but in Parveena, a lot of mothers found the will to live.
Each day is a lifetime
Like every year, the global community observes the International Day of the Disappeared on August 30 to draw attention to the fate of those who are imprisoned in places unknown to their families. Many mark it in their diaries as an important photo opportunity. Some even show initiative and issue an emotionally fuelled statement. But for these families it is another reminder of what they had been robbed of — justice, closure and, most importantly, another day they could have spent with those who are now missing.
Qadri Inzamam is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir.
He tweets @Qadri_Inzamam
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 31st, 2014.