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India: Action must follow the report discovering mass graves in North Kashmir
Asian Human Rights Commission Statement - August 25, 2011
On August 15 this year, the Union Defence Minister, Mr A K Anthony, urged the country's defence units to protect and respect human rights. Given the track record of the defence units stationed in states like Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur, the Defence Minister's speech can only be viewed as an acknowledgment of the fact that human rights violations by the army units is a matter of concern for the government. To translate this concern into practice, complaints of human rights abuses by victims and those living in the shadow of the armed forces must be investigated and furthermore, prosecuted.
In October 2010, the Union Home Minister Mr P Chidambaram urged the people of Jammu and Kashmir to consider peace and reconciliation as a means to end violence in the state. Similarly, and resonating the opinion expressed by the Prime Minister in early 2009, Chidambaram also called upon the people of Manipur to give up violence and join the national mainstream. While these calls might sound encouraging to those living outside the two states, they make a mockery of the reality of daily life for those living in the shadow of the states' armed security agencies for at least the past two generations. To the knowledge of the AHRC and its partners, not a single case involving army officers accused of grave human rights violations in the past five decades has been independently investigated or prosecuted in Manipur. The resultant culture of impunity is supported by the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 in both states. The three ministers who have started using human rights language to address the people of Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir have not uttered a word regarding any plan to withdraw this law from operation in the two states.
The investigation and prosecution of persons committing human rights violations cannot happen without the filing of complaints. In the absence of any form of witness protection in the country however, together with additional threats to human rights defenders, lawyers and victims, there are no enabling circumstances in the two states to encourage anyone to complain about atrocities committed against them.
For the past five decades the government of India has viewed any foreign entities willing to support victims' groups in the two states as Pakistan-sponsored groups. Any mention of the Indian side of Kashmir outside India is by default viewed by India's global diplomatic missions as a voice from Pakistan. This visible paranoia is based on the principle of 'deny it all'. While neighbouring countries may openly and clandestinely support violence in Jammu and Kashmir and in Manipur both in cash and kind, and while anti-Indian interests elsewhere directly or indirectly support most armed and violent groups operating in the two states, this does not absolve the Indian government's duty to protect its citizens, and nor does it excuse the government's arbitrary use of force against Indians.
It is in this context that the report of the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission carries added weight. The AHRC appreciates the fact that the Government of India has cooperated reasonably with the enquiry and views the report as a change in mindsets in New Delhi. However, for the process to render result, there are some important steps that the state and the union government must now take, subsequent to the report being filed. Firstly, the government must ensure that the discovered bodies are identified and handed over to the relatives. The government has the necessary scientific facilities for this. It is also expected that not all the bodies need be that of Indians; this cannot be an excuse to not identify them.
Simultaneously, transparent efforts must be undertaken to locate similar graves within and beyond the districts where the investigation was currently undertaken. Parallel attempts must be made to trace why such persons ended up in unmarked graves. The potential of such an inquiry to expose atrocities committed by the state's armed forces cannot be a reason to not investigate. It is in fact the responsibility of the government to hold such inquires and to further guarantee protection to those willing to testify in such a process. Such an exercise would only improve the morale of the armed forces and promote public trust towards the government, which in both states is very low for the past several years. Those officers finally identified must be prosecuted and punished according to the law. A similar process must be initiated in Manipur as well. The draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 must also be repealed.
It is in visible acts of honesty that a government's legitimate writ and its presence as a guardian of the life and property of the people is noted. If the deceased have spoken from their graves, it remains to be seen how the Indian government will respond.