Disappeared Men and Searching Women: Human Rights and Mourning in Kashmir

In not so recent past most Kashmiri women shared two notable traits. They did not like to buy meat from the butcher and at no cost would they make their grief public. The butcher’s shop was a shunned site maybe because it typified exposure to uncouth, aggressive and bloody masculinity. As for grief, it was a private affair. The emotions around bereavement were especially kept discrete. Families liberally shared their pain with each other and friends, but the mourning was limited to the four walls of the home. This is what was socially expected. In 1989 as the armed insurgency began; enforced disappearances of men became part of the Indian policy. Kashmiri women, mostly mothers and wives, overstepped all traditions and spilled into the streets, making explicit their grief for the men who "disappeared" in the custody of Indian armed forces. The women initially connected in an informal network of parents, relatives, and other concerned people. In 1994, Parveena Ahangar and a human rights lawyer-activist Parvez Imroz formalized the group as the Association of the Parents of the Disappeared (APDP) .  Ahangar is the mother of a teenage boy who disappeared in custody of Indian army. APDP became a pioneering group of human rights defenders; it was mostly women.


The region of Kashmir is saturated with a half million troops and has suffered widespread human rights abuses. India has implemented strict counter-insurgency laws. The two most dreaded laws are the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act (AFPSA) and the Jammu and Kashmir Disturbed Areas Act. These laws grant immunity to the Indian troops and allow them to arrest citizens without a warrant and to use force against any person. The Indian army and other state forces have carried out large numbers of summary executions, custodial killings, torture, disappearances, and arbitrary detentions. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 cases of politically-motivated disappearances including combatant and non-combatant Kashmiris.

Amnesty International describes enforced disappearance as a particularly cruel human rights violation: a violation of the person who has ‘disappeared’ and a violation of those who love them. The army, police, and informal militia caused the disappearances, which often began with illegal detention, arrest or abduction. The state then denies that the person is being held or conceals their whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law. In the majority of the cases, armed forces abduct the victims in front of witnesses, often family members, and then deny outright any such action. Enforced disappearance is a continuing violation which persists often for many years after the initial abduction.  




The disappeared in Kashmir simply vanished – without a trace.  After taking the person into custody, the state or its agents do not follow any due process. They do not disclose the cause of detention and the person is not produced before the Magistrate. There is systemic disregard for even accepting the First Information Report (FIR), which the family must lodge with the police when a person disappears. The police are under instructions to refuse registering complaints without first obtaining permission from higher authorities. It is the obligation of the courts to uphold the rights of the individual, even against an approved policy of the state, but that does not happen in Kashmir. Even the writ of habeas corpus known as “The Great Writ” ceases to be a guarantor of freedom as assumed by liberal-democratic politics.  Ideally the writ of habeas corpus is available against any restriction of personal liberty by the state administration. The court is empowered to demand the defendant’s presence and justify the arrest. If the court deems right, it has the authority to release the prisoner. The courts in Kashmir have a huge backlog of habeas cases and if anything the writ has become the marker of the extent of state’s hegemony over the lives of people. The legal process for preserving human rights in Kashmir admittedly falls short of the much heralded international standards. A case in the point is Masuda whose lawyer turned business-man husband was first disappeared and later killed in custody. Masuda painstakingly collected evidence against the perpetrators but the Supreme Court dismissed her case. The court supported the army’s version that the deceased had been a ‘militant’ negating the evidence which pointed to his innocence. In another instance, Sara whose shop-owner husband was disappeared in custody won a favorable judgment from the Supreme Court. The Colonel who had arrested Sara’s husband was directed to appear before the Special Investigating Team. Despite the favorable decision, there has been no further progress and the case remains unsolved. Such examples emphasize the deferred nature of justice and the legal dead ends faced by the Kashmiri women activists. However, the mere existence of these cases, whether upheld or dismissed by the courts, emphasizes the scourge of enforced disappearances in Kashmir. They raise important questions about whether Indian army can use such sweeping methods of torture, killing and harassment against the people in custody which are totally contrary to Geneva conventions. 


Justice never comes; it is always arriving

As seen in the activities of the APDP, Kashmiri women have broken all the traditional and decorous barriers to find their missing sons. They have not hesitated to enter interrogation centers, prisons, police stations, military camps, courts, and morgues, to search for the disappeared. These zones are beyond the abhorrence that the Kashmiri women had previously reserved for the butcher’s shop. 

As in the case of the Madres de Plaza Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza Mayo) in Argentina, who began a movement to search for their children who had disappeared during the Dirty War, Kashmiri women also invoke the values of universal human rights.  They pursue court cases, stage demonstrations and conduct workshops to increase awareness about the issue of enforced disappearances.   This work is dangerous and the women face threats to their life. In the early 90’s, a pioneer activist Haleema Begum was shot dead along with her child by unidentified gunmen. Some local observers link her assassination to her with persistence for tracing her son (Amnesty International 1999). 

On the 28th of every month, the women activists of the APDP gather to demonstrate against enforced disappearances. Their protest at prominent spots in the capital city of Srinagar resembles a family funeral, albeit the presence of signs and photographs of the disappeared. Many of the women weep and lament, displaying their grief in full public glare. They sing elegies that honor the lives of their lost sons, and make promises to continue searching for them. In sheer exhaustion from the passionate lamentations some women faint while others sob uncontrollably. This spectacle of public grieving is in direct opposition to the value of privacy, which is dear to Kashmiri culture, especially when it pertains to womenfolk. 

The demonstrations held by the women are often ended brusquely by the police. If the sounds emanating from the group attract wider attention, or the allegations against the perpetrators become too specific, the police will charge with batons and disperse the group. If the women resist, they are beaten and at times they are shoved into waiting police jeeps and arrested. This cycle repeats too often; an unchanging choreography of contention between the state and resistant women.  

The spectacle of the search for the disappeared has become a social and a political relation among the activist women. During winter when the snow and ice prevents the women from staging protests, a litany of engagements at the court or prisons etc. continues to be a part of their life. They make sure to visit the small APDP office. Cold and determined, they exchange news, shed tears, dry each other’s faces, and give countless hugs. They are hardly seen without plastic bags that bulge with legal documents, news reports, every bit of relevant paper that serves as the documentary evidence of their beloved’s existence. Although most of them are not formally educated, they are astute enough to collect documents of significance to boost their case, which are duly discussed with others parents, lawyers and activists.  Every month they must reiterate the disappearance of their beloved children, and anything associated with the search - be it the sit-in, a chat with the other parents, or checking the status of their case even when no progress has been made in the last 2 decades. The women must mourn and memorialize. Says a mother whose son has been missing for almost 18 years, 

"We can't forget our loved ones, we cannot let people forget, we need to talk about them, we need to remember them, we need to tell everyone” 

The Spectacle of Mourning

Enforced disappearances are an intriguing penal specimen. The ‘disappearing’ of the body becomes meaningful (for the state), as it emerges as a method of creating a representational threat which is aimed at all those potentially deviant.  In place of an open execution, or killing, or incarceration which would have occurred once, the torture on the disappeared body multiplies, replays, and becomes an unending invisible spectacle within the personal and collective imagination of the survivors. It gets entrenched in their physical and mental lives.  For Kashmiris enforced disappearances become a perpetual torture and murder by another name.  A Kashmiri mother of a disappeared person says,

“What did they do to him…where is he? I am terrified of my own thoughts… I imagine they killed him, his blood is splattered on the ground, they drag his corpse…...I think he is in the prison, maggots crawling over his wounds…..asking for water…when someone says a body has been found I run to see it, that terrifies me...those limbless, eyeless bodies, did they do the same to him? There is no end…there is no end…I hear his moans every day….” 

Such narratives play continuously in the public imagination, constructing the spectacle of the ‘disappeared’ person on the invisible scaffold in varying degrees of duress. The “disappeared” person appears as a constant reminder, a perpetual, invisible presence. Simultaneously, the potent physical absence of the men is represented by the bodily presence of their kin, mostly mothers and wives (in some cases sisters and brothers or fathers as well).

While on one hand, the specters of the disappeared men have become a fuel for resistance and human rights activism. On the other hand, the strict adherence to the idiom and ethics of international human rights does not yield much information about the disappeared nor any alternative juridical recourse. Not a single case of disappearance has been solved so far. The civil administration in Kashmir keeps changing the number of disappeared persons to the consternation of the parents and human rights activists. Although, India has signed the International Convention against Enforced Disappearances in February 2007, it has yet to ratify the convention. Moreover the crime of Enforced Involuntary Disappearances is not codified as a distinct offence in Indian penal laws.  Institutions such as the State Human Rights Commission and the National Human Rights Commission do exist, but they have not been productive.  It is generally understood that these organizations have paid mere lip service to the cause of justice in the last two decades for the Kashmiris. 




International human rights organizations such as the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch amongst others, have conducted investigations, and have published several reports on the state of Human Rights in Kashmir. India has been unyielding on the implementation of the authoritarian counter-insurgency laws, which entails mounting human rights abuses. One might be tempted to say that in such a situation that the framework of human rights, is limited to becoming a means of mourning and memorialization rather than tangible deliverance or recovering the disappeared either dead or alive.

Despite the bleak scenario, the activist women show an unflagging zeal in pursuing their cause.  The women have travelled within and outside Kashmir protesting and raising awareness about the situation. In 2008, they presented their case before UN Committee for Enforced Disappearances in Geneva. As a measure of their efforts, it might be said that today amidst the cacophony of soundbytes required by the media concerning Kashmir, there is a placeholder for these activist women. It is a small but a significant victory. These women have become meaningful even if political clout eludes them.  They are focused and determined to overcome constraints in order to find what happened to their loved ones. Summing up in the words of one mother, “Marun chu akh gud, rawun na kehn, ass rozuw tchandaan”(Dying is ‘one’ pain, not disappearing, we have to  keep on searching)



• International Covenant for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, adopted December 20, 2006, G.A. Res. A/RES/61/177, not yet in force, art. 2.

• AFPSA: A Study in National Tyranny, ?, South Asia Documentation Center

• Survey, Accessed on 3/3/10 at http://www.kashmiraffairs.org/JKCCS_dead_not_forgotten_survey_death_toll_baramulla.html

• Dabla Bashir Ahmed, 2007, A Survey of Widows and Orphans in Kashmir Conflict, Department of Sociology Kashmir University 

• See India: ‘An unnatural fate’- "Disappearances" and impunity in the Indian States of Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab, Amnesty International (AI) Index: ASA 20/042/1993; India: "If they are dead, tell us": "Disappearances" in Jammu and Kashmir, AI Index: ASA 20/002/1998; Open Letter to Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, AI Index: ASA 20/020/2002 and India: Armed groups in Jammu and Kashmir targeting civilians, AI Index: ASA 20/016/2005.

• This is an excerpt from interview with a mother whose son disappeared 16 years ago in the custody of Indian army. Translated by the author from Kashmiri. 



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