Will the govt follow through on call for DNA profiling of Kashmir's unmarked graves?
Thousands of bullet-riddled bodies lie buried in dozens of unmarked graves across Kashmir. In a development that has brought the issue back in to the limelight, the State Human Rights Commission has recommended DNA profiling of the bodies buried in 2,080 such graves in Poonch and Rajouri.
It has asked the government to complete the task within six months.
“A petition was filed before the Commission that there are unmarked graves in Poonch and Rajouri. The response was sought from the Government and the Commissioner Secretary Home Department has filed a report dated 30.06.2012. After reading this report, I do not think this Commission (SHRC) needs to hold any further enquiry into the matter as the Home Department has accepted there are 1,486 graves in Poonch - in Rajouri it is admitted there are 594 graves. So, in all in these two districts there are 2080 graves which are unmarked,” the SHRC order reads.
“Since the Government has accepted there are 2080 unidentified graves in Poonch and Rajouri, therefore the Commission has no hesitation to issue same orders as were issued in earlier cases”.
The order, passed on 24 October, was in response to a plea filed by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. The organisation had told the human rights commission that there were 3,844 unmarked graves - 2,717 in Poonch and 1,127 in Rajouri.
Earlier in 2011, the SHRC had recommended the comprehensive forensic examination including DNA testing of 2,156 unmarked graves in North Kashmir’s Kupwara, Baramulla and Bandipora Districts.
However, since SHRC orders are only of recommendatory nature, the government declined to conduct DNA profiling of the bodies in unmarked graves arguing any such investigation would lead to law and order problems. The government also expressed its inability to undertake such a mammoth exercise citing the lack of expertise and infrastructure for such an investigation.
Later, the Home Department’s action taken report stated that the DNA testing would be done only when a kin of the disappeared could locate the graveyard and the grave in which their relatives might be buried with a fair amount of certainty.
Speaking in the Assembly, the then J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had offered similar advice to the families of the disappeared persons. He called on them “to get in touch with the government, give the possible address of the graves their relatives are buried in and the government will then help in their DNA identification”.
But the civil society groups and the kin of the disappeared have rejected the government suggestion, terming it an attempt to deny justice to victims.
“These are the graves of the disappeared people. And these people didn’t die on the border. They were arrested by the security personnel in presence of their families or some other eye-witnesses and later subjected to enforced disappearance. So the security agencies need to be hauled up and asked where did they keep these people. We are sure they will be knowing the address,” says the noted human rights defender Khurram Parvez.
“Onus is thus on the Government to reveal where the disappeared are and not on the families who would not know where they are buried in the first place. So how can they identify a grave and call for its DNA test”.
As for the lack of expertise, Khurram said that an European Union Parliament resolution on Kashmir passed in 2008 “had offered financial and technical assistance to the Indian Government for such an inquiry”.
A press statement issued by the Coalition of Civil Society (CCS), a civil liberties organisation, shortly after the SHRC judgement refers to the precedent of one such enquiry carried out by Spain.
“Since 2015, the Spanish government has begun a process of exhuming and investigating mass graves in a search for disappeared victims of the country’s civil war [1936-1939] during Franco’s regime. The government of Spain has also enacted a law titled Law of Historical Memory,” the statement said. “If the governments like Spain can take remedial measures and investigate mass graves why cannot government of India initiate a similar process?”.
The figures of the disappeared have varied in the state. While civil society groups like CCS have put the total number of missing at around 8,000, the state government’s own number has wildly varied over the years.
In 2002, then J&K home minister Khalid Najeeb Suharwardy told J&K Assembly that 3,184 people had disappeared in the state from 1989 to 2002. The figure was subsequently revised by the PDP-Congress coalition government at 3,931 disappearances from 1989 to 2003. When Ghulam Nabi Azad was CM, he pegged the number at 693 in 2006 and Omar Abdullah, while replying to a query in the J&K Assembly on 31 March 2011, put the number at around 113 people.
However talking to the media as an opposition leader in 2008, Omar Abdullah had said the number of the disappeared in Valley was around 4,000.
However, it is very unlikely that the state government will act on the SHRC judgement. For the people in the state, the importance of the recommendation lies in the official acknowledgement of the existence of the unmarked graves.
“Yes, we know government will most likely back out of any commitment to investigation,” says Khurram. “But for us, it is significant that a government institution has admitted there are unmarked and mass graves in the state."