‘A thousand ft deep gorge where crows are eating corpses’ and other tales from Kashmir

For the first time ever, the J-K Legislative Assembly discussed the issue of "unmarked graves'' for more than two and half hours where a ruling NC legislator gave a long and heartrending description of how his neighbors and friends disappeared after being arrested by security forces from home, another NC legislator talked about "a thousand ft deep gorge in his border constituency where crows are eating corpses of men''.

It was September 27 – second day of J-K assembly's autumn session – and the debate was extraordinary for several reasons. Two among the ruling party legislators who spoke in the house belong to Kupwara – a frontier district where the people have suffered the most – and the other is from Poonch – a district in Jammu province where the state's counter insurgency machine has been acting with a massive iron fist. These three elected legislators didn't limit their speeches to the need for an identification of the unidentified men buried in thousands of unmarked graves in the state or stress over the urgency to bring closure for the families of victims of disappeared persons, they went miles ahead. They narrated long testimonies and eyewitness accounts of how their neighbors and friends were picked up by the security forces, never to return.

Though the debate had begun with a show of competitive politics by Kashmir centric ruling National Conference and opposition Peoples Democratic Party – both interested to take the credit for raising the unmarked graves issue. The PDP had moved a motion, seeking adjournment of the question hour to focus exclusively over this issue. In the middle of shouting and blame game between the legislators, the speaker rejected the PDP motion leading to a walk out by PDP. The discussion on the issue of the unmarked graves was, however, initiated over a short notice resolution by NC legislators, Mir Saifullah (Kupwara), Nazir Gurezi (Gurez) and Ajaz Jan (Poonch).

The ruling NC's legislator from frontier Kupwara, Mir Saifullah, in fact, blamed the existence of the tragedy of unmarked graves, disappeared persons on the unresolved Kashmir issue. "Unfortunately, this all started in 1947. Everybody knows that if Kashmir issue would have been resolved as per the aspirations of the people, perhaps we would not had to talk about this issue (unmarked graves) today. Perhaps, we would not had to discuss that our youth are missing… who are buried in these unmarked graves….what is their identity, who are their heirs… these things, we would not had to talk this today,'' he said. "We should have been talking about the education of our children and we are talking about the death of our children, our Lakht-e-Jigar, about those who got them killed – we are talking about their graves, about their disappearance''. Mir said that "all those sitting here (in the house) are unfortunate people and those we represent too are unlucky''.

He said that such graveyards have come up in every direction since 1989 (when militancy erupted). "I am a villager and I know how village committees were formed to find land for graveyards and to collect donations for the burial of those who couldn't be identified. It happened everywhere,'' he said. "Go to villages and you will not find a single village where there is not a graveyard for those people who were martyred''. He said that "today when international human rights organizations show concern about the unmarked graves, it is genuine'' Then Mir began to give details of his own neighbors and friends who disappeared after they were picked up by security forces. "In my area, I remember Master Ali Mohammad. He was a brilliant teacher. He was picked up and nobody knows what happened to him. Nobody knows whether he is buried somewhere or not. Then my class-fellow, Abdul Rashid Shah. He was the most intelligent man I have ever come across. He was a Patwari. He was picked up from his home. What happened later nobody knows? Where was he killed, why was he killed. Has he been buried somewhere or his body was drowned, nobody knows? Mohammad Ashraf Malik, he was working in a forest department. He was picked up from home, killed in a blast outside. The family was given only half a kilo of his flesh,'' Mir said as the house listened in pin drop silence. "These are my own examples, there are thousands of such incidents. This happened in Poonch, in Doda, in Kishtwar, in Bandipore. It has happened everywhere''. He said that in a village in his own constituency, four children were killed after they had stepped out of a marriage party to play and the government even refused to give compensation. .Mir called for a "permanent and durable solution to this issue'' and stressed that "this is an issue of all of us and we should not play politics over it''. Mir concluded by supporting CM Abdullah's idea of setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to find answers.

Another ruling NC legislator Kafeel-ur-Rehman, who represents border constituency of Karnah, had the most shocking details to offer. In fact, his description of a deep gorge in Shamsbari range near Line of Control in his constituency looks like a scene from Mirza Waheed's acclaimed novel "The Collaborator''. But then "The Collaborator'' was a work in fiction and here an elected member of the ruling party was talking facts "In our area, there are big gorges, where there are the bones of several hundred people. Jinhain kawun ne noch khaya (who were eaten by crows),'' he said. "There is one big gorge which is almost a thousand ft deep. There are lots of (human) skeletons and bones lying there. This is a big tragedy''. He blamed "unnatural division of J&K State in 1947'' as the reason for this "tragedy''. "We must find an answer to all this. We want know whose blood has been shed and who has died,'' Rehman said and called for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would investigate everything from 1947 onwards.

Chief minister Omar Abdullah, who concluded the debate, tried to do a balancing act and asked for restrain. He told his Karnah legislator Kafeel-ur-Rehman that he was shocked to know about the gorge where skeletons lay unattended. "You should come forward and give us the information or if not us, to SHRC,'' Abdullah told his party legislator. Aware that the debate on unmarked graves has serious political ramifications, Abdullah termed the struggle for justice for the victims of enforced disappearance as a "misinformation and disinformation campaign''. "Can anybody in this house say with authority that all these persons have been killed by the hands of security forces? That none of these have been killed by the militants. It seems for everyone else it is innocent till proven guilty but for the security forces, it is guilty till proven innocent,'' he said. "We have to consider that everything here is not in black and white – there are several shades of grey and we are lost in it''.

He did not explain what are those grey areas but did caution the legislators from every mainstream parties that "we may have to answer difficult questions and we have to be ready for that''. Abdullah did promise to initiate DNA profiling of the families whose loved ones have gone missing but then hid behind his cross LoC dream project – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well. Will his government begin with digging the truth first or wait till India and Pakistan become friends and allow to set up such a commission. By the way, Kashmiris have already started to deliberately misspell the truth in Abdullah's Truth and Reconciliation as "treath'' which means a blatant lie in Kashmiri. The dark humour of Kashmir is still alive.

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