The Dear Disappeared

Print edition : July 24, 2015

A woman with a photograph of a missing member of her family. Photo: APDP Archives

A woman with a photograph of a missing member of her family. Photo: APDP Archives

Parveena Ahangar addressing APDP members and the press on the International Day of the Disappeared, August 8, in 2008, in Srinagar. Photo: APDP archives

An APDP poster. Photo: Iffat Fatima

Curfew being enforced with roadblocks and patrolling in Baramulla, in July 2010. Photo: Showkat Kathjoo

The body of a civilian being removed in Srinagar in June 2011. Photo: Shahid Tantray

We know what dear departed means. The idiom carries the twin certainties of attachment and death. It is sad, but it is certain. Near and dear ones missing from our midst because they are no more, because they have ceased to exist, and can be mourned. There is solace, there is closure, in that mourning. But when a son, a brother, a husband, a cousin, is missing, for years, and a mother, a father, a brother, a wife, does not know if he is alive or dead, and has to live with that gnawing unknowingness which erodes and eats into her heart and soul, which reduces him to less than despair, into a self-imposed lobotomised state of mind so that he does not have to think, to imagine, to hope against hope, day after day—that is the unthinkable ultimate in dehumanisation. Those missing thus are the dear disappeared of Jammu and Kashmir.

The manner in which the missing go missing makes all the difference because it is the last known certainty the kith and kin can cling to and try to build upon. Each of them has been either picked up by the armed forces, often facilitated by the police, for interrogation, or abducted by their shadow agents and operators, and is never heard of again.

Or, what is probably worse, there are tantalising snippets of information floating around which have to be chased, often to a dead end, sometimes in the direction of a sliver of credible hope about the one or the other’s whereabouts. Scores of them are, of course, dead, killed, often after heinous torture, as the recent discovery of mass graves and the exhumations of bodies establish. But, despite vestiges of clothing or personal belongings, or, in the rare cases where state agencies effectively intervene in response to public pressure, DNA testing, it is a desperate search as much for the dead as for the living, without any clue about who are the ones living and who the ones dead. This is what thousands of families in the State have been reduced to for over two and a half decades now.

“Disappeared” is a verb and a noun and other parts of speech in the newspeak of repression of the people here. “To be disappeared” is a phrase that can at once connote to be suddenly and forcibly taken away from home and family and not be allowed to return, to be kept away in isolation, at times in unidentified locations, for years on end, and to be physically brutalised and eliminated. The absence, the unresolved absence, of the disappeared speaks to, and through, those present and living in homily and song and couplet and slogan. A weird subculture of an impinging consciousness of the disappeared takes hold of men and women, the young and the old, in their own different ways. Those who have been disappeared do not quite disappear. They haunt their near and dear ones with their pain and love. They should, by any civilised norm, weigh heavily on the collective conscience of official and military India. To be disappeared is more than an ungrammatical neologism that has become commonplace. It is more than an atrocious enough statistic —some 10,000 persons have been disappeared since the uprising began in the Kashmir valley in 1990. It is the presence of absence in ways that range from the heartrending to the uncanny.

Iffat Fatima took nine years to complete her nothing-short-of-stupefying video chronicle Khoon Diy Baarav (Blood Leaves its Trail) about those thus disappeared and the unending mental agony their families undergo, and how this feeds into the frustration and anger and alienation and revolt against the Indian state. It is an hour and a half long, yet tautly compressed, and a compelling narrative in which personal anecdotes and case studies intersect and shuttle back and forth and, like so many coiled springs, hit out at us with their revelatory and emotive force.

Her on-screen fellow traveller in this sordid but determined journey is Parveena Ahangar, who founded the movement of parents against enforced disappearances (Association of Parents of Disappeard Persons) in Kashmir in 1994 and continues to lead it. Parveena’s young son Javaid, not yet out of high school, was taken away—or, to stick to the buzz word, was disappeared—by the National Security Guard (NSG) of the Indian Army way back in 1990, and the devastated mother has, ever since, been following any and every lead she can get to learn what happened to him. It is cruel irony that she must hope, as long as she has life, to know what happened to her boy. We see her steeling herself with hope; trying to get the lame-duck judicial system obtaining in Jammu & Kashmir under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to respond; we see the hope, at vulnerable moments, yielding to despair, and then again surmounting despair. It seems a journey without a destination. “This road,” she reflects unconsciously, “has sapped my strength. It has taken away my youth.”

The ways in which intense personal loss is abstracted, or redeemed by a sense of political purpose, or cast into a stoic mask of endurance, the ways summoned up to cope with their pining for their loved ones who have been snatched from them, are each ingenious and touching. Shamina Bano picks up shards of romance from her shattered life and makes do with them. Her husband, who was disappeared, comes and keeps her company in her dreams. Halima Begum caps her torment with a cynical cheer, talks openly about her man crossing the Line of Control to be trained as a militant on the other side. These men, who would then request for songs for their loves on Azad Kashmir Radio and be marked by Indian military intelligence, would be ripe candidates to be disappeared when they returned to their homes, like Halima’s husband, who was whisked away when she was just 26 years old. She can, she says, still sense him in the room sometimes. He has made her promise that she will not remarry; if she does, he will rise and return from the grave. Jana Begum, whose one son was disappeared 17 years back and another martyred, tells her youngest son, who has no memory of his father, that he was a bad man just so that he does not feel too bad about the loss.

Hajra Begum recalls, almost in a matter–of-fact tone, how her son was taken away when they were out working in their fields 12 years back. When she approached the police, they would mock her, asking whether she knew if he was dead or alive. Then someone told her that he had been killed and his body thrown away. She wanted to see the grave; she was willing to offer the money and land she had for the certainty of the information, one way or the other. Her other son, too, was taken away for 11 days during which, as he describes it, they stripped him naked, subjected him to electric shocks, poured water on him and repeated the shock treatment. His entire body, says Hajra Begum, was singed. The third degree left him almost blind and he still cannot see properly and has to use expensive special lens. “I am a bitch,” she laments bitterly. “I survived. What for?”

Everyday horrors

Subhan Tantrey is from a Batta (Hindu) locality. The Battas were, he says, good neighbours but things got bad when they left after the armed uprising in 1990. His son was picked up, and when he approached the authorities, they kept promising to release him but would not, nor would they let him see his son. A hair-raising account of digging, on a tip-off and a hunch, what appeared to be a soft patch of earth near a campsite of the disappeared, and discovering a body buried in an unmarked grave, is rendered as a routine banal incident. This one was identifiable as that of Ama Dar, his neighbour. But the State Human Rights Commission provides a figure of 2,156 unidentified bodies dug up from mass graves.

Some parents are able to redeem some of these bodies from anonymity. A father recognises his son by his birthmarks—because the face or other features are no longer intact. And decides to keep his cloak, but not the shoes—they can go to someone who needs them. It is all astoundingly simple and practical. This, imaginably, is what the fatigue of long exposure to having your loved ones plucked from you, of death and the threat of death day in and out around you, does to a normal human being.

During the Emergency, an engineering student in Kerala, Rajan, was abducted by the police, tortured and killed. His father, Eachara Warrier, set out on a dogged quest to find out the truth of what happened to Rajan. In the process, he also wrote about his experience and his thoughts about his son in a wrenching account titled Memories of a Father. Shaji Karun’s national award-winning film of 1989, Piravi, was broadly based on the Rajan case and the father’s quest for information about his missing son. It is from the very next year, from 1990, that the sordid saga of disappearances in Kashmir begins. Art imitating life imitating art had come full circle, from southernmost Kerala to Kashmir at the northern extremity of the country.

In the subsequent years and decades, there have been thousands of cases like Rajan’s in Kashmir, each of them as traumatic and as devastating. But they have not evoked anything like the same moral outrage, the same aesthetic or creative resonance. Perhaps because Kashmir was under a special dispensation, a special zone where morality and humaneness, along with law and justice, operate at a special discount.

After Iffat’s eye-opening expose, we cannot pretend we do not know what is behind and beyond the statistics of the missing in Jammu & Kashmir. We cannot pretend we do not know what “to be disappeared” really means. We cannot pretend that the missing is a numbers game. We cannot but ponder with her whether what was flesh and blood with passions and thoughts and feelings can be turned into ether. Just like that. We cannot but be shaken by the intensity and the immensity of the crimes perpetrated on a people, on families, on individuals, in the name of national security.

We cannot but see the telltale trail the blood spilt on the streets, and invisibly in torture chambers, leaves. And where that bloody trail leads. We cannot but feel a twinge in our hearts as we hear a forlorn voice softly sing as the end credits appear, “I am calling out, My Yusuf, come back.”