Search for the Disappeared in Kashmir: Spectacles of Human Rights, Mourning and Memorialization

Added by AtherZia on February 1, 2013. · 2 Comments · Share this Post

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February 2013
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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 the early 1990's 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.  In 1989 as the armed insurgency began, enforced disappearances became part of the Indian policy. The region of Kashmir was saturated with a half million troops, and has since 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 allow Indian troops to arrest citizens without a warrant and to use force against any person. The officers are granted legal immunity against any action. The Indian army and other state forces have carried out large numbers of summary executions, custodial killings, torture, disappearances, and arbitrary detentions. Around 70,000 or more Kashmiris (depending on the source) have been killed. An independent survey revealed there are over 32,000 widows and more than 97000 orphans in Kashmir. 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. The ‘disappeared’ person is often tortured and in constant fear for his or her life, removed from the protection of the law, deprived of all their rights, and at the mercy of their captors. 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. It is a continuing violation which persists often for many years after the initial abduction.

The disappeared in Kashmir simply vanished – as they did in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, the Philippines, and elsewhere – without a trace.  The state or its agents after taking the person into custody do not follow any checks imposed on the power to do so. Reasons for the arrest are not disclosed, no production before the Magistrate takes place. The counter-insurgency laws make the quest for justice not only hard but almost impossible. The armed forces are granted immunity against being held accountable.  There is systemic disregard for even accepting the initial complaint that must be lodged with the police called First Information Report (FIR). The police are under instructions to refuse registering complaints without first obtaining permission from higher authorities.

In this backdrop, Kashmiri women had to break all the decorous barriers to find their missing sons. They entered spaces that were beyond the abhorrence they had previously reserved for the butcher’s shop. The women began scouring interrogation centers, prisons, police stations, military camps, courts, and morgues for information about the disappeared. These places in all probability are the epitome of masculine hegemony and violence, and previously not familiar grounds for common Kashmiri women.

The recourse to law and rights in this situation became a moot question. Even the crucial writ of habeas corpus ceased to be a guarantor of freedom as assumed by liberal-democratic politics.   Habeas corpus, which is at the heart of human rights law and any democracy worth its salt, ends up as a marker of the extent of state’s hegemony. According to official reports, the courts in Kashmir have a huge backlog of habeas cases. As a matter of law, it is the obligation of the courts to uphold the rights of the individual, even against an approved policy of the state, but that happens only in theory.  The legal process for preserving human rights admittedly falls short of international standards.


Justice never comes; it is always arriving

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 invoked the values of universal human rights.  They connected in an informal network of parents, relatives, and other concerned people who would visit the courts and police stations together.  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 group pursued court cases, staged demonstrations and conducted workshops to increase awareness about the issue of enforced disappearances.

While these women exist on the forefront of human rights activism, their engagement is also site of power imbalance, sexual and human rights abuse. They have often come under radar as being anti-national and 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).

To date, on the 10th and 28th of every month, the women activists of the APDP gather to protest against enforced disappearances. Their protest at prominent spots in the capital city of Srinagar often resembles a family funeral, albeit the presence of signs and photographs of the disappeared. The women weep and lament displaying their grief in full public glare. The women sing dirges and eulogize their lost sons. In sheer exhaustion some faint while others sob uncontrollably. This is in direct opposition to the value of privacy, which is held in high esteem in the Kashmiri culture, especially when it pertains to womenfolk.

These sit-ins are often cut short. If the sounds emanating from the wailing group become loud enough to attract attention, or the allegations against the perpetrators become too specific, the police will charge with batons and disperse them. If the women resist, they are beaten, or shoved into waiting police jeeps and thrown into jail only to be released when the administration deems fit. This cycle is repeated too often; an unchanging choreography of contention between the state and resistant women struggling to get some information about their disappeared loved ones.

The spectacle of the disappeared has become a social and a political relation among the suffering kin. During winter when the snow and ice prevents the women from staging protests, a litany of engagements at the court or prisons etc. crams their lives. 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 a person’s body becomes an exemplary receptacle for the disciplinary techniques of the state apparatus. 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. The Kashmiri society, like in Argentina during the Dirty War has become terror stricken. For Kashmiris disappearance has 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 social imagination, constructing the spectacle of the ‘disappeared’ body 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 has not yielded much information about the disappeared nor any alternative juridical recourse.

The women and their movement for human rights have existed on the margins.  Their long and tedious history does show a pattern of going from strength to strength. However, the definition of strength here has nothing to do with end-goal of their mission but is indicative of their unflagging pursuit and networks they are creating with the international and regional human rights organizations. They have become the subject of debate and have been featured in news reports, documentaries, photo-essays, books, and journals, both regional and international. As a measure of their efforts, it might be said that today amidst the cacophony of soundbytes required by the media concerning Kashmir issue, there is a placeholder for these activist women. It is a small but a significant victory. These activists have become a meaningful part of the social realm even if the political clout eludes them.  They have travelled within and outside Kashmir protesting and raising awareness about the situation. In 2008, they also presented their case before UN Committee for Enforced Disappearances in Geneva.

On the ground not much progress has been made especially towards gaining information about the disappeared. 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 including disappearances. Till date as mentioned earlier, not a single case of disappearance has been resolved.  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.

However, the pursuit of justice is a necessity. The Kashmiri women activists are focused and determined to overcome all constraints in in order to find 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
    • 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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About AtherZia

Ather Zia is a political anthropologist working on militarization, gender and Kashmir. Currently she is a faculty at the Anthropology and Gender studies program at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. She is also a poet, writes short fiction and is the founder-editor of Kashmir Lit at

2 Responses to Search for the Disappeared in Kashmir: Spectacles of Human Rights, Mourning and Memorialization

  1. Anon January 19, 2013 at 5:37 PM

    Unimaginable. Thanks for writing. Under what flag or authority are these disappearances carried out?

  2. isabel marant sneaker January 22, 2013 at 6:51 AM

    Learning makes a good man better and ill man worse.


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