‘We will not allow them to be forgotten…’

– Report of a public meeting on the State and Disappearances

Over the last decade, thousands of people have been classified as ‘disappeared persons’ in Punjab, Kashmir, in the North East and also in Gujarat in the aftermath of the genocidal attacks on Muslims. The state and its various agencies have taken people away, murdered them and then denied that they ever existed. In this situation what are the experiences and struggles of the families of these so-called ‘disappeared persons’ and the human rights organisations they have set up to find out what has happened to their loved ones. These were the themes of the seventh annual meeting of Champa, the Amiya and BG Rao Foundation, held at the Indian Social Institute on 9th December.

Parveena Ahangar who founded the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in Srinagar, after her own son ‘disappeared’ in 1994, spoke of her anguished and never-ending searches in detention centres like Papa 1 and Papa 2 which are notorious for torture, in jails and police stations.

She said that since 1989 more than 5000 people had disappeared through the activities of the army and security forces. They were mainly in the 17 to 40 age group. This has caused the traumatisation of a very large section of the population – cardiac arrest, depression and pre-mature death, the result of grief and shock are now commonplace. In addition ‘disappearances’ have led to the impoverishment of families whose fathers, husbands and sons – their wage earners in other words -- have been taken away. This has brought the devastation of whole communities particularly in rural areas.

APDP, she said has a membership of more than 300 drawn from all over Jammu and Kashmir. It helps them to file habeas corpus petitions and to pursue their cases through various courts. However, although more than 2000 cases have been taken up, not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice. One of the main reasons for this being that the state continues to grant impunity to the security forces through the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. In addition the State Human Rights Committee has no mandate over the army and paramilitary forces. APDP is campaigning for a repeal of the laws granting impunity.

Shaheena Parveen who is the Chair of APDP spoke of the destruction of her own family. One brother ‘disappeared’, another was woken up one night and taken away from the house and killed in custodial detention, her mother could not bear it, and she became ill and died soon after. Shaheena said that the new government in J&K has given a commitment to set up a commission to investigate disappearances. If, and when, this would happen remains to be seen.

‘The justice we seek’ she said ‘lies not in forgetting the past but in remembering those who should never be forgotten’. On July 18 last year the foundation stone of a monument for the missing was laid at a symbolic place (the Eidgah) in Srinagar but it was demolished the same night by the state police. APDP remains committed to building the monument since families are left with only their memories and with no body to bury and no grave to mourn over.

The meeting also screened for the first time a film on Disappearances in Kashmir by Gopal Menon. With testimonies from parents and family members, many of them rural people, this was a powerful portrayal of the anguish faced by those who are still searching for their loved ones. In the haunting words of one woman ‘I worked so hard to pay for my son’s education. I wanted him to have a happy and comfortable life. How would I know some animal would come and take him away.’ The film was a powerful indictment of the security forces and other agencies of the state.

Speaking on the eve of the publication of a report on disappearances by the Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab (CIIP), Ram Narain Kumar described how he and a colleague Jaswant Singh Kalra had in 1994-95, investigated the records of 3 cremation grounds in the district of Amritsar. They discovered that the police had cremated over 2000 bodies at these three grounds by labelling them as unidentified/ unclaimed. The cause of death in most cases was stated to be “bullet” (or firearm) injury or, simply, “encounter”. Soon after Jaswant Singh Khalra, also ‘disappeared’ .A CBI inquiry, ordered by the Supreme Court, established that he had taken away by officers of the Punjab police acting on orders of the then Senior Superintendent of Police of Tarn Taran police district in Amritsar, Ajit Singh Sandhu. Since then the Supreme Court has referred the cases to the National Human Rights Commission for investigation and adjudication. However this has been continuously stalled by legal challenges from the Government of India and by the vacillation of the NHRC.

Shahana Bhattacharya from PUDR spoke about the situation in Gujarat where in the aftermath of the genocidal attacks on Muslims a large number of people were still missing. Their bodies were mutilated and burnt. The state police are now casting doubt as to whether they ever existed. At the same time there has been a refusal to collect evidence even when this was easily available. Eyewitnesses to rapes, and murders found that their FIRs had been changed or else were simply not recorded.

The meeting called for more attention to be focused on this major area of human rights violation and for an end to the impunity granted to the police and security forces. q