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Requiem for the youth who vanished in custody

Hundreds of Kashmiri youths have simply disappeared after their arrest by security forces. The life of their families constantly swings between harrowing moments of hope and despair, reports Sara Wani from Srinagar

*** In May 1987, when Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah alongwith his cabinet colleagues visited the house of Ghulam Mohammad Tantray, a veteran of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah who led resistance movement against Dogra monarchs in 1930s, at his Palhalan village residence in north Kashmir Pattan he took his grand child in his lap and announced publicly - "go on studying ... when you complete Matriculation, come to me, I will make you an officer". Mohammed Akbar, then a fifth primary student, did not stop going to school. He even completed his graduation. But after doing so, he disappeared in the custody of the army. 

*** Zeba, an octogenarian from Srinagar's Malkhah locality is a symbol of her peculiar destitute cult. Her youngest son Bilal Ahmad, then 12 was arrested by security forces in 1990 and never came back. Her other son Arouj "was shot dead by BSF just before my eyes, in 1991". Unable to find justice from any quarter, her husband Mohammed Sidiq would spend most of the day weeping on Arouj's grave. One day he collapsed there and died.

*** Bilal Ahmad, a Srinagar youth was picked up by a mixed column of 95 and 137 Bn BSF on Dec 3, 1992 accusing him of planting a landmine. He was never seen. Son of a deranged old labourer, the entire responsibility of his family had to be delivered by his mother Halima. Everyday, she would set out early in the morning to meet people, officials and visit the households to help them in the domestic chores to support the family. In the night of September 12, 1998 some gunmen barged into her residence and shot her dead alongwith another son Shakeel. Her daughter Taslima survived injured.

Consequences of the over 13-years old armed conflict have been disastrously mani-fold. And the families of youth who disappeared in custody are a new genre of victims. Swinging between hope and despair, their agonised dilemma knows no ends. They are a neglected section of a traumatised society. Their number is burgeoning gradually. Most of them would never see their wards but hopes of reunion keep them burning tacitly.

The hunt for these "faded souls" have made the families paupers. It has created a social problem as their wives decline to re-marry. Neither widows nor divorcees, they do not get matches if they wish to marry (who knows her husband reappears one day ?). Even in some cases they were given marching order by their in-laws. People know them as "half widows". One of them is Sara, a 32-something woman from Nawgam in Srinagar whose husband is missing since 1990. "I served my in-laws but when I demanded the share (in property) of my two children, I was thrown out", Sara said. 

Their endlessly waiting frustrated fathers and the melancholic mothers have added to the exorbitant toll of psychotics. Parveena Begum is one of these mothers. Her voices break, a tear trembles in her eye, then suddenly she is back from the brink and radiates a dazzling smile as she describes the last year's injunction of the High Court directing state to seek permission (from union home ministry) for prosecution of the officers involved in the case. As she opens a new file, she gets copy of a Ministry of Home Affairs order that terms the whole exercise - the judicial probe and police investigations - as inadequate and declines permission for the prosecution. 

In her case, the accused have already been identified by a prolonged judicial probe conducted by a first class magistrate. Three officers of the elite Black Cats (NAG) have been found responsible for the arrest (August 18, 1990) of her son Javed Ahmad Ahanger. He was untraceable in any of the jails or interrogation centre within and outside the state.

"He was only sixteen", she said holding the recently released missing list of Amnesty International (AI) to her chest. After the Black Cats drove him out of his Batamaloo locality in a nocturnal raid, police at the initial stage confirmed the arrest and even issued a permission slip to his mother for meeting Javed in custody. Even, once, she was told to get a taxi for taking her son home. But after the police submitted before the court saying "the state is not in a position to ascertain the whereabouts of missing person nor they can be accounted for having gone underground or stuck up in the neighboring country", Justice S M Razvi ordered a speedy probe in his case on October 31, 1991. 

The Enquiry Officer after two years of investigations, was able to locate culprits. But before the judge could seek formal permission from the state to initiate criminal proceedings, he was posted outside the state. The case remained in limbo for a long period. A subsequent police investigation ordered by the court completed and then state was asked to initiate criminal proceedings. The secretariat took its own time and finally came the response from Delhi saying there were no enough grounds in the case to permit launching of prosecution of three officers. She is making preparations to challenge the Home Ministry communication. Chairperson of the Association of the Parents of the Disappeared (APDP), Parveena's is the single case that has reached a stage where the next step is the prosecution, though in 60-odd cases various judicial probes have established the allegations and even identified the people responsible.

During these 12 years, Parveen, wife of a mechanic, visited almost all the jails and the interrogation centres. She met almost everybody who matters from New Delhi to Srinagar. Her case was debated on the floor of the Indian Parliament and Javed stands listed in all the human rights records about Kashmir. But all in vain. The festering pain which distinguishes her from thousands of Kashmiri mothers revolves round the hope to catch glimpse of the boy, with the same unruly hair, long face, pudgy cheeks and bright sparkling eyes.

There are cases in which the rounded up youth were booked for various offenses under various Acts like Public Safety Act (PSA), Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. After booking them meetings were arranged with their families behind the bars. But, later, they disappeared. Ghulam Nabi Bhat, 20 a shop-keeper is one of them. Maryama Begum, his sister said Bhat was arrested by BSF alongwith four others from Hawal Srinagar on June 8, 1992. All except Bhat were freed. His family met him in Papa-2, a BSF run notorious interrogation centre (now the official residence of state's Chief Secretary) on June 13. Later, he was never traced, anywhere.

Affected families are not stable. Womenfolk, usually mothers suffer most. Khadeeja, the mother of Fayaz Gashroo of Baramulla spends almost everyday in the shrines praying for his safe return. A cricketer who played Ranji trophy many times, Gashroo was arrested in 1990 and is missing. Sajid Majid Kakroo is another case whose mother was confirmed insane after his disappearance. Everytime she watches his photograph she suffers from bouts. A lady teacher in Batamaloo whose son Basharat, a gold medallist from AMU's Botany department, disappeared in custody of CRPF, sails in the same boat. She is a wreck and everybody who works with her within and outside her home has to make compromises.

After failure on every front, the families have finally landed in the court. Though justice has not been denied, it has been delayed already as there is non-cooperation from respondents. The most debated case in the judicio-legal circles here is that of a senior school teacher Peer Mohammed Shafi who was arrested by 46 Bn CRPF from Khuroo (Pattan) in early 1990. A subsequent judicial probe identified Mr Ajay Panday, a CRPF officer responsible for the arrest. When court issued show cause notice, Panday was posted as a member in the security ring of the then police chief of Punjab K P S Gill. When a local police officer went to Punjab and served the notice, Panday reportedly tore it and threatened the officer of dire consequences. 

After the return of elected government in October 1996, the families were looking for a speedy trial. Instead, there was delay. The reason - the standing counsels of the union of India pleaded before the High Court that in the probes, conducted already, the respondent agencies have not been given the right to defend themselves. Though this was not a fact, according to Parvez Imroz, himself a leading lawyer, the court felt convinced and all the investigated and established cases were returned to the district courts for fresh probes. Since the officers and the units involved in the cases have either retired or are serving at other places across India, the issues are dangling between nowhere. 

As for AFAD, they have done nothing. Just three protest demonstrations within and outside the High Court premises. They once went to New Delhi where they interacted with the union ministers and a host of human rights activists. As for achievements, there is nothing. They are unable to manage keeping records of the crisis. "We suffer from finances, we are unable to represent ourselves in the international forums and we even do not have an office", said Imroz adding "it is too difficult to get a writ petition filed in the apex court".

The only thing AFAD could do was to plan a monument - a blend of modern and traditional architecture - to commemorate over 4,000 people who vanished in custody since 1988. On July 18, 2001, just adjacent to the "martyrs' cemetery" in Srinagar's sprawling Eidgah, foundation stone to this over-two-million project was laid by three city-minors- Adil Badyarai (9), Rumi Khan (6) and Ashiq Hussain (7), whose fathers were untraceable when they were born. 

Unlike those whose wards were arrested and killed, the families of the disappeared face a different problem. Even the wives of the disappeared are unsure about their identity - widows or half-widows. Following the Latin American and Sri Lankan examples (custodial disappearances are reported from 62 countries) where memorials have been raised to provides emotional sanctum for their relatives, AFAD decided to raise the memorial.

"We have many purposes to erect the memorial and we want it to be an institution for the cause", said Parvez Imroz, the AFAD patron. The idea of having a multi-purpose non-figurative, environment friendly structure was discussed by APDP in January 2001 and the idea was translated into the sketch by an architect Tawhid Hussain. After the foundation laying was over and the participants returned home, police destroyed the foundation stone and a case was registered against AFAD. Even the foundation stone in memory of the disappeared went missing within 10 days.

Usually in Kashmir, if an innocent is killed by militants or security forces, next of the kins get a sum of Rs. one lakh as ex-gratia relief, besides any of the educated relatives of the deceased is entitled for a job in the government on compassionate grounds under SRO 43. For both the benefits, a death certificate is important. When there is no trace of corpse, who will issue the death certificate.

Apex court, it may be recalled here, has laid guidelines in a number of such cases (Smt Alias Lalita v/s State of Orrisa, Radul Shah v/s State of Bihar, and other cases), by ordering compensation in favour of the families between Rs. 30,000 to Rs. five lakhs. However in only one case Mr Justice T S Doabla of the High Court has ordered a compensation of Rs. 50,000 in favour of Habibullah Bhat whose son Mohammed Maqbool was lifted by CRPF on July 21, 1990. Subsequent judicial probe established his arrest and even identified the cops. However after persistent demands the J&K government issued a circular saying that if the Deputy Commissioner is convinced that the person is missing and could be presumed dead, compensation can be released in favour of the bereaved family. Even if this is not being strictly adhered to. 

Though International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is here, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), it has singed with New Delhi, limits its functions to its visits to jails. 

It is difficult to trace any pattern in arrests of the youth who vanished, said Imroz, "because these included all types of arrests". Most of the 242 persons listed by AI, a dominant number was picked up from their residences during raids followed by random arrests during crackdowns (cordon-and-search operations). Some of them were carrying a good amount at the time of arrest.

On floor of the state legislature (October 8, 1997), however, the government admitted that Home Department has received "470 complaints of missing persons, 428 complaints were found to be false, the remaining cases are under different stages of investigation". There are various categories of people who are being claimed missing in custody. Mushtaq Ahmad Lone Law Minister of State said "those who crossed to Pakistan, those who were killed on the border and those who were killed in custody by various agencies including security forces and militants". He admitted that it is a crisis and this was why the government ordered the release of ex-gratia relief in favour of the kins.

Usually the officials deny the arrest. The routine dictum is that these youth have crossed to the other side of the cease-fire line. "Many of these youth, who did not even heed the advice of their parents, have fled to Pakistan and Nepal under the pressure of the security forces", said Anil Ban, the standing counsel for the union of India in the high court who argues cases of disappearances on behalf of various security agencies. The same theory is available with various security agencies, but the problem is that they have not been able to prove it even in a single case, so far.

Relief or no relief, but the question is - where have all these people gone ? Since no mortal remains were traced, the families are living on hoaxes. APDP is fighting for multi-pronged relief - compensation under the law of the land and a high power commission that would investigate the disappearances cases exclusively. And the preparations are on to submit a petition before the apex court, early next year, to seek appointment of a judicial commission on a CBI enquiry as was done in case of mass cremations of Punjab. At the moment, this seems the last option for an honourable requiem for this vanished lot.
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