Kashmir: Buried Evidence

Angana Chatterji is a convener of the International People’s Tribunal on Kashmir. She has taught social and cultural anthropology for many years and has been working with postcolonial social movements, local communities, institutions and citizens groups, and state institutions in India and internationally. She is the author of Violent Gods.

BARSAMIAN: In December 2009, a report titled “Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked and Mass Graves in Indian-Administered Kashmir” was issued by the International People’s Tribunal on Kashmir, of which you are a convener. What does “Buried Evidence” reveal?

CHATTERJI: In 2009, after 3 years of work that we had undertaken, we were able to uncover over 2,900 bodies across 55 villages that were buried in 2,700 unknown, unmarked mass graves in 62 sites. What we knew is that they had been placed there, often at night, drag- ged—some with torture marks, many defaced—by the military, paramilitary, and police in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Local people were forced into digging the graves and burying them, at great risk and trauma to themselves.

We were able to investigate 49 bodies. Often the police would say these graves belonged to foreign terrorists that have come across the border from Pakistan to destabilize India. Of the 49 people who were marked as terrorists, as foreign militants, when we were able to uncover who they were, we found that all of them were local people. Not one was a foreigner. Of the 49, 48 of them were civilians and one was a local militant.

These bodies had been buried under false pretenses, to initiate into the international and national imagination the notion that the struggle for freedom in Kashmir is through foreign agency, foreign memory and imagery. What our report did was to demystify who the bodies were that had been buried there.

What about graves as a metaphor for something larger?

What I have learned is that—and this was heartbreaking—sometimes when I would be walking to document those graves, one would find oneself standing on one and I didn’t know that was what it was. Sitting with local people, what they said is that, “These graves are our counter-memory. They destabilize the official narrative of the state. These graves are our history. These graves tell the story of Kashmir. These graves contain the bodies of those that have died simply because they disobeyed what the state wanted them to become.”

Atta Mohammad is a gravedigger in his 70s. He dug 203 graves between 2002 and 2006. He said to me, “You know, the bodies I have buried, they appear and reappear in my dreams in graphic and gruesome detail.” And he said that until he could actually offer his testimony, in a sense to acknowledge that he had lived through this trauma, he had stopped dreaming. There are others who have testified and said they had stopped dreaming. To be able to vocalize what had happened to them was a way of actually saying, Look, this happened. “My memory,” Atta Mohammad tells me, “is my contribution.”

In any context of intense subjugation, long, drawn-out oppression, one of the things that determines who is winning is whose memory is out there, whose memory is triumphant. What I’ve learned through the work in Kashmir is that the Indian state has tried to do through its militarization is to suppress the memory of a people. To not acknowledge it, is to render it invalid, and to displace it with the memory of the Kashmiri as an enemy, the Kashmiri as not trustworthy, as violent, as someone we need to be always suspicious of. The Kashmiri is the Muslim, India’s nemesis—the Other.

I notice in “Buried Evidence” that you have “A Preliminary Report.” This was issued two years ago. Have you followed up on the documentation?

Yes. We’ve had people come to us with lists of graves, graveyards, names, details that have been sent to us to investigate. And we’ve been accumulating and collecting that information. In July 2011, the state Human Rights Commission of the government of Jammu and Kashmir came out with its report corroborating the findings in “Buried Evidence.” This was the first time that the government had acknowledged the existence of unknown, unmarked mass graves. We’ve given them some of this information to say that they should expand their investigation to include all 20 districts in Jammu and Kashmir because it is our assumption that the number of graves would coincide with the 8,000 that are disappeared.

Your report mentions encounter killings. What are they?

An encounter killing—or fake encounter killings, what I would characterize as extrajudicial killings—is where people have, under false pretenses, been killed by state forces. Often innocent people would be taken in. They wouldn’t be killed right away, either. There are some cases where they’ve been taken into custody, been abused, and then when they’re being transferred from one point to another, they’ve been killed. It’s been posed as, “that person died when he came at us with bombs, guns, etc.” Fake encounters essentially are extrajudicial killings where state forces manufacture evidence to strengthen their story. In April 2010, there were three fake-encounter killings in Machil, which later were authenticated as killings of innocent civilians.

What were the responses from the Indian state, Indian civil society, the so-called international community, and the United Nations?

I think, predictably, to ignore it. We had a lot of people—from parliamentarians to human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International—who raised this with the Indian government, saying, “Look, this has come out. What do you think?” And the response was nothing. Just nothing. However, from what I have been given to understand, agencies of the state were quite perturbed by it and I think that eventually led to the state Human Rights Commission and its investigations. I also know that there have been groups that have worked quite hard to discredit what we have done and they haven’t been able to, which is excellent.

Any official response from Washington or the UN?

One of the problematic things in the United States is that diasporic Hindu nationalist groups have quite a stronghold on Capitol Hill. Their rationale always is that to criticize India is anti-national and racist. As well, they have funded the coffers of congresspeople and senators. The right-wing Indian lobby, or Hindutwa—even the Hindu nationalist lobby on Capitol Hill—is quite strong. That’s posed a problem in terms of getting attention to this.

The other problem is U.S. priorities. When President Obama went to India in November 2010, I actually went there, because friends in Kashmir thought that coalitions of civil society should ask  him to pay attention to this. But we were told not to being up the “K” word—like the “N” word in the United States. The same with David Cameron, the British prime minister, when he went there

Washington sees India as a new market, with its burgeoning middle class and as a destination for weapons sales.

Not just weapons sales, but also software collaborations related to militarization. Between 2002 and 2008, India procured $5 billion worth of arms from the Israeli state, supposedly to combat Islamic insurgents in India. This is in relation to Kashmir. This is in a country where 38 percent of the world’s poor reside. There are over 1 billion people in India and 760 million live in poverty. Basic rights are denied. Incalculable gendered and sexualized violence is rampant. Forty-four million Adivasis, tribal peoples, have been displaced since 1947. In central India, Maoists, who are designated as the latest national threat, have been struggling for land rights since 1955. All of that is forgotten or jettisoned as we talk about collaboration between the elite of the U.S., who, ironically, through these collaborations, take jobs away from the U.S. And we saw, for example, the Bhopal tragedy, where no standards were being applied and no accountability. So it’s furthering that level of irresponsible corporatization.

There are rebellions in various parts of India. What is unique about the Kashmiri revolt?

The Kashmiri struggle began in 1931. What is unique about Kashmir is that the resistance refuses to die—both historically and in the present, Kashmiris are understood as a seditious people for not conforming to India’s demands that they assimilate. And if they don’t assimilate, the other option is one of annihilation. Over 70,000 people have died in Kashmir since 1990. From 1990 to between 2004 and 2007, there was an armed struggle there. While various people as well as the Indian state saw it as a terrorist insurgent campaign against the Indian state, others understood it to be part of a freedom struggle. But violence is always problematic—when used and how used and what it produces in continued cycles of violence. As well, I think the Indian state needs to bear responsibility for what ensued in Kashmir.

Then the armed struggle abated between 2004 and 2007 and we saw a phase of nonviolent dissent. You had over and over again, people taking to the streets, hundreds of thousands of people, with the rallying cry of “Azadi,” “freedom.” What is unique is people’s refusal to be incorporated into something where they have to forget what their dreams are. I’ve talked to so many of these people who identify as stone pelters, for example. I’ve asked them, “You’re pelting stones. It’s hurting things. It’s clearly not the way to go. What are you doing? ”

They have said, “When the state leaves us with no other forms of dissent, when we speak and no one hears us, in fact, they cut out our tongues, figuratively, it leads to a context where we feel suffocated. And, yes, we’ve taken up stones. Yes, it’s not right to be pelting stones. We would like not to be pelting stones. But for us to stop pelting stones, the guns have to not be pointed at our faces. We will stop pelting stones. Take the guns away.”

This resistance has been quite intense, led by youth spontaneously across Kashmir, who have grown up witnessing militarization. They’ve told me that sometimes they’ve gone to places in India, or even to Jammu, and they’ve said, “Oh, my God, why does it look so different? I don’t recognize it. Where is the army? How am I supposed to feel?” So it’s a generation of youth that have only grown up knowing the military—barbed wire, bullet holes, the incessant sort of paraphernalia of militarization that organizes their lives. I asked them, “So what would it mean, freedom?” They said, “We don’t know, but we know it’s not this.”

In Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, you wrote about a boy named Bebaak. What did you learn from him?

That was an incredible encounter. Bebaak means outspoken in Urdu. He calls himself that because he says, “I need to speak, I need to not be silenced.” And I want to tell you what he said to me. “The police said I would be arrested unless I stopped going to rallies. Then the police filed a First Information Report against me because I protest. What are the charges? That I refuse subjugation?” And then he was beaten in custody violently and denied medical treatment. Others around him were waterboarded, some were threatened with sodomy, their clothes were taken off. They were also verbally abused. They were told, “Your race is deranged, you are criminals, your mother is a whore, your sister will be raped by your people, who are crazed. You will never see azadi.”

Bebaak asked to talk to me. We sat in a little room and Bebaak actually starts by reading me a poem that he’s written. This is heartbreaking. He starts by saying, “Thank you for your solidarity.” I’m taken aback. I ask, “Why?” He said, “I think that the graves that you have documented are the cement, the foundation of not forgetting on which I’m laying my story.” I thought that was really beautiful.

I asked him various questions about what it means to grow up in Kashmir as a 19-year-old. He said that if he didn’t participate in principled civil disobedience, he would take up arms. He said he needs an outlet, youth needs an outlet. They feel this rage and injustice that they are living with. Where you walk through the streets and see windows of homes broken. They put up bars. They stopped putting in glass because it just gets broken over and over again. Sometimes half the school year is lost because the schools are closed. When students enter their schools or colleges, they are frisked. When they go to India they can be picked up on any charges simply because they happen to be Kashmiri.

Just this notion of being the Other, being disobedient, being something that it’s not all right to be. I cannot imagine it. Can you? So I asked Bebaak, “How do you live with this?” He said, “This is it, sister. To live with it, we have to find ways of articulating our pain. And the articulation of our pain is our resistance. That’s why we take to the streets. We don’t take to the streets to make trouble for the army, we don’t take to the streets to break things, we don’t take to the streets so businesses have to shut down. We take to the streets because we need to give voice to our pain. Just that. Because if we didn’t, we would be crazier than we already are.”

What happened to the Kashmiri resistance when it morphed from armed resistance to nonviolence? You have this incredible demonstration right outside the capital of almost a million people. There was a Tahrir Square before Tahrir Square and nobody heard about it here.

The transition from armed struggle to civil disobedience had, at its root, this new civil society youth leadership, of people wanting to be principled in relation to their dissent, of people being frayed and fatigued by what had gone on, of people looking to make atonement within their own communities, between their own communities and themselves.

And you saw a different commitment emerge, saying armed resistance was necessary for us to be taken seriously, but now we are in a different phase where we want nonviolence to be at the center of it. You saw mosques, for example, be used historically to store grains and then in modern times, as you said, in the Eidgah, for spaces of dissent, for spaces of people coming together to think. But at the same time, there are class and ideological divisions in society and the capitulation of privileged classes to the government of India. The Indian state is concerned with creating a collaborator class, a coterie that will act in its interest, that the movement has to contend with. When I say “the movement,” there isn’t a coherent singular movement; it’s various fragments struggling to think together.

Why was there no international media attention paid to that huge nonviolent demonstration at the Eidgah?

I think a crisis in the international press is sort of the soup of the day: Are you in, are you out? And maybe you’re not in today. But I also think part of the reason that it was not taken seriously is because the Kashmir issue is still considered to be between India and Pakistan. It’s not something where the Kashmiri people really figure. The Kashmiri people figure when something sensational happens. And when something sensational happens that, ironically, conforms to the stereotype in the international imagery. Thanks to Islamophobia, the stereotype post-9/11 is of Muslims being violent.

Given the level of opposition to Indian rule in Kashmir, what keeps the Indian state there? Obviously, there’s a huge price to pay in this occupation force. Is it water resources, hydro-electric power, or just the idea, as you suggest in your essay, that “Kashmir represents India’s coming of age as a power?”

I think all of those things. India’s coming of age as a power is also its ability to prove itself militaristically. That’s how colonial powers functioned, right? And the post-colony, sadly, has been too quick to emulate the colonizer. I think that it’s certainly geostrategic. There’s China, there’s Pakistan, there’s Kashmir. Kashmir is the buffer between New Delhi and China and Pakistan and Afghanistan. So geostrategically it is a very important location. Ecologically, and in terms of economic resources and water resources, we are well aware that one of the crises, or wars, if you will, of the 21st century will be around water. Controlling the Siachen Glacier is extremely important to India’s national interest. Then there is sort of revisionist history and the nationalism of Kashmir being central as the figurehead or the headspring of India, that it needs to control it. So I think it’s geostrategic—and therefore political—it’s militaristic, it’s economic, and it’s nationalistic.

Is the resistance in Kashmir an independence movement?

No. It’s complicated. There’s the belief that Kashmir either has to stay with Pakistan or India. That’s only in the self-interest of Pakistan and India; that’s not what a majority of Kashmiris believe. There’s a vast number of Kashmiris who believe that self-determination will mean independence from both to be a third alternative. There are various others who are equally skeptical of any notion of a state. They say, “If we have a state, we’re going to be like every other state and we’re going to be abusive and horrible. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a state. But we have to be aware of it as we think about the future.” There are those that think that heightened autonomy is the most people can achieve. They are quite disgusted that that have never been any conflict resolution or peace talks with New Delhi. But largely on the streets “Azadi!” is freedom. It is not to be subjugated by the Indian military, by the Indian state. And it is freedom from that to determine a future, the space to determine a future. Is everyone reconciled on that matter? Absolutely not. How could they be?

Then there is the issue of the graves. How are they protected? We’re extremely concerned that if they are not protected, all the evidence that lies within them still buried will go. So what does it mean to have these graves in Kashmir? What does that justice look like? Then there is the economic disenfranchisement of people whose lands have been occupied. So much of the land is occupied by the Indian military and paramilitary there. What does it mean for people? Not the owners of the apple orchards, who sometimes have been able to work out some compromise with the army so that they can actually get some money. But what about the people who are working there? What about the small farmers who had little plots of land that have been taken away, or even if they haven’t been taken away, they are no longer free to actually work them? What about people who have to give up their water resources because the army has demanded that? What does that reparation look like? What about a decade of people who haven’t been able to go to the school every day, with the freedom to learn?

In most militarized zones, women are targets and gender violence is particularly acute. Is Kashmir different?

There are 671 security camps located on 1,054,721 Kanals of land (a Kanal equals one-eighth an acre). The placement of the camps is right next to villages. In the village, if you want to go shopping, you have to go through them. This creates regularized, forced encounters between women and the military and the paramilitary, which leads to a context, obviously, of increased risk for gendered and sexualized violences.

In Kashmir there is this sad category of people, half-widows, whose husbands are missing. They are maltreated. You have a society where so many aspects of it, as in all over South Asia, are patriarchal. And you have men—largely it is men that have died—absent from these households. So you have women in vulnerable positions, who have to head their households under circumstances that both socially, but particularly militaristically, are extremely problematic.

The other thing that has been extremely intense is the psychological health of these communities. Children going to school, young women going to colleges who have told me they stopped going. I asked them why and they said every day they are frisked by the army. And it borders from being sexually violent to being extremely unpleasant at its mildest. So the condition in which women are forced to live and what it does to them, the incalculable sexualized and gendered violence and the use of violence against women to control a culture.

For example, after a grenade was thrown in Parvez Imroz’s home, we wanted to file a First Information Report with the police. We consider ourselves to be fairly well-known, we consider ourselves to be taken seriously. So we showed up at the police station and we could not get that to be filed. We are people with resources, with connections, with abilities, with far less fear than a Kashmiri woman struggling in Kashmir and we have not been successful.

So imagine being alone. There is this woman who texts me from time to time. She will say, “Remember, I am” this. She doesn’t introduce herself by name, but rather by the name of the case of her family members that are missing. She says, “That’s who I’ve become. I’ve gone everywhere, to every place, to everyone who will listen to me and not listen to me. Then when I take my children with me, they are at risk because now they will not get jobs, they will not get scholarships, something will be done to them. If my family is seen with me, supporting me, something might happen to them.” So it’s not simply that they need to have the courage to go and pursue their particular case. Every time they do, they are actually rendering themselves more and more vulnerable.

A mother whose son was disappeared, said to me: “The rivers of Kashmir and across its lands are the graveyards of our dead.” She said her role as a mother, as a woman, as a Kashmiri woman, has been to look through the graveyards to find the bodies and not forget and not give up on them.

If people want to learn more, what would you suggest?

Read newspaper accounts, read Kashmiri papers, read Kashmiri journalists and writers, look at human rights organizations. And also, to start with, “Buried Evidence” would be good to read. We have a website of the tribunal (kashmirprocess.org). Even in the United States, to lend solidarity, to write to senators and congresspersons as citizens to say, “This is going on. The U.S. is implicated. What are we doing about it?” That’s a start.

Part of what is most palpable to Kashmiris is how isolated they are. How their issue is not an issue. Where are they in the imagination of the world?


David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio, the independent weekly audio series based in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author of numerous books. His latest are Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism with Richard Wolff, How the World Works with Noam Chomsky, and Targeting Iran.