A Kashmiri mother's search for her 'disappeared' son
On the tenth day of every month, dozens of people gather together in Partab Park, in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.
They are families whose relatives are the victims of enforced disappearance.
They hold placards in their hands, their long-held demand written clear: "Where are our dear ones?" So far, their questions have not been acknowledged by the Indian state.
But they continue to protest.
They have been holding the sit-in protests for the past 24 years, when they came together to form the Association of Parents of Disappeared Parents (APDP) in 1994.
The leader of the organisation, assembling the family gatherings each week is Parveena Ahanger, a 50-year-old woman, whose son was abducted by the Indian Army in 1990.
"They took my son away from me," she laments. "I just ask them where they have kept him."
Parveena Ahanger is now a well-known human rights activist in Kashmir. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 and has been bestowed with many other awards over the years. Recently she was awarded Norway's Rafto Prize 2017 for her extensive human rights campaigning.
Despite the accolades, her struggle has been fraught with many dangers, she says.
|The APDP have held sit-in protests for the past 24 years [Omar Asif]|
A mother's pain
Javid Ahmed Ahanger was a class 11 student when he was abducted by the Indian Army.
He was taken from his home, Batamallo, in uptown Srinagar.
"After I learned about his abduction, I thought 'he will be released soon and come back home'," said his mother, Parveena. "But since then I have been waiting. Now my wait has entered its 27th year."
She filed a missing person's complaint at the local police station shortly after his disappearance, and officers assured her they would soon get him released. But after nine days, the police told her they were powerless to do anything.
Then, says Ahanger, she began to protest in front of the police station, which forced the then-Senior Superintendent to take note. He finally told her that they had traced her son.
"He told me that my son was in the BB Cantonment Hospital, a hospital run by the Indian Army in Srinagar. He asked me to go there and see him. He gave me an entry pass to the hospital."
On arriving at the hospital, army officials showed her to a stranger; someone who was definitely not her son.
Tired of the "lies" of the police, Ahanger filed a case against the army in the Jammu Kashmir High Court in 1991 and demanded to be told the whereabouts of her son.
The court set up an investigating commission, which found that the army had taken her son - but now did not know where he was.
|This was the time I lost faith in the justice system of India... They were all lying|
Shocked but not defeated, she filed another petition with the court. This time, the court took five years to look into the complaint - and finally sent the case to the government's Home Ministry in New Delhi for sanction. Ever since, the case has been lying with the ministry, and nothing has come of it.
"This was the time I lost faith in the justice system of India," says Ahanger. "They were all lying."
In addition to fighting a legal battle, she simultaneously started a search for her son on her own. She visited Indian army camps, met local government representatives and members of the Indian parliament - asking for their help to trace her son.
"But nothing came out of that either. They assured me that they would find my son. But they didn't help."
A shared struggle
It was during these visits to the army camps, alleged torture centres and offices of government officials that she encountered others who had met the same fate as her. She heard endless tales of sons, husbands and fathers who had been abducted and "involuntarily disappeared".
"It occurred to me during these visits that if we fought together, something might come out of it. So I began a new search to find the families whose dear ones had been taken by the state forces," she says.
And her search began. Ahanger began to visit the far-off districts of the Kashmir valley, where hundreds of people had been reported "disappeared". She met family members and started to note down their names, and the names of the victims. She began to collect witness accounts. She also started to compile newspaper cuttings of reports of involuntary disappearances.
"I would note down the addresses of the victims and visit their families," she says.
After a tiring year-long journey across Kashmir, Ahanger assembled around fifty people whose family members had "disappeared".
"We would meet in my kitchen and discuss and then take a procession to the gates of the High Court or sit on the roadside holding photographs of our sons, and demand to know where they are."
In 1994, they formed the APDP and began to hold sit-in protests in front of the gates of the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir.
However, once the state began to notice the protests, officers cracked down heavily on them with brute force. Ahanger says local police would come and beat them. They would drag them from the court gate and put them in jail.
"But we did not deter. We kept assembling and protesting."
They occupied the roads in Srinagar, but were again chased away.
More and more families were now joining the APDP, seeking the whereabouts of their sons, husbands and fathers. As the number of the families increased, Ahanger decided to hold a protest in a local public park to get media attention.
They would assemble in SMC Park on the 25th of every month. Later, due to brutal attacks by state security officers, they changed the venue to Partab Park, in the heart of the city.
In her struggle for justice for her son and other victims in Kashmir, Ahanger was, at first, on her own. Her family refused to support her.
"My relatives used to tell me to stop it; they feared I might get killed," she says. Her three young children were becoming affected by her frequent absence from home, her family claimed to her.
Her husband told her many times to stop her activism and focus on cooking, cleaning and domestic life. But Ahangar says the loss of her son did not allow her to sit at home.
|The fellow victim families became my family. The support I could not get from my family, I got from them|
"I told my husband to run the home - and I would search for my son and fight."
Meeting the families of other victims of enforced disappearance gave her an opportunity to share her grief. She heard other mothers' stories and trauma, and that had a "consoling effect".
"The fellow victim families became my family. The support I could not get from my family, I got from them," she says.
Enforced disappearances are only one in a long list of human rights abuses for which the Indian state and military establishment in Kashmir stand accused. After the popular indigenous armed movement for the right to self determination broke out in Indian-held Kashmir in 1987, the Indian state was accused of a campaign of torture, mass rapes, and enforced disappearances of the civilian population.
According to various independent sources and human rights groups including the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, APDP, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, at least 8,000-10,000 Kashmiris are feared to have been subjected to enforced disappearances by the Indian state.
Buried Evidence, a 2009 report published by the International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir (IPTK), also reported the number to be "8,000-plus".
Successive pro-India governments in Kashmir have acknowledged enforced disappearances. However, they appear to be wilfully under-reporting the numbers of those affected.
Abdul Rehman Veeri, a former minister of state for the Home Office, said in 2003 that some of the disappeared had crossed over to Pakistan to receive arms training.
Also in 2003, former law minister Muzaffar Hussain Baigh informed the state assembly of Jammu and Kashmir that 3,744 persons had been reported missing since December 1992.
|Parveena Ahanager holds a picture of Manzoor Ahmed Khan of Devar, Lolab Kupwara, at a sit-in protest [Omar Asif]|
However, there has never been any attempt to allow the law to take its course and conduct independent inquiries into the cases. From 1993, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has been denied entry into the Kashmir valley.
In April this year, the state of India in its Universal Periodic Review was recommended by at least 34 UN-member countries to look into the issue of the Enforced Disappearance and ratify the relevant treaties.
However, the Indian government, in its response in September, only "noted" the recommendations and did not "accept" them.
APDP, of which Mrs Ahanger remains the chairperson, has been demanding the ratification of the International Convention for Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. Such ratification, APDP believes, will help to expose the circumstances in which such crimes are perpetrated and will make more evident the multiple rights that are being violated.
Laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA) give a degree of impunity to armed Indian personnel in Kashmir in the name of combating insurgents. There has not been a single case - from custodial torture to murder, disappearances or rape - in which the accused has been tried by civilian courts.
Parveena Ahanger she sees no hope of getting justice anytime soon - but she will continue to fight. And she will keep waiting for her son.
"I will wait for him till I am dead," she says, taking a pause to gather her thoughts. "My fight will end only when I die."
Nayeem Rather is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-Administered Kashmir. He has previously reported on human rights, politics, the environment, and art and culture.