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For 22 years this contested region has endured a regime of torture and disappeared civilians. Now a local laywer is discovering their unmarked graves and challenging India's abuses
A former rebel commander recounts the torture meted out by India to surrendered militants. Link to this video
One sodden evening in April 2010, an Indian army major from the 4 Rajputana Rifles arrived at a remote police post where the mountains gather in a half-hitch around Kashmir, India's northernmost state. Major Opinder Singh "seemed in a hurry", a duty policeman recalled. Up in the heights of the Pir Panjal range, down through which the major had descended, it was snowing and his boots let in water. "The officer reported that the previous night his men had killed three Pakistani terrorists who had crossed over into our Machil sector," the policeman recalled. "Where are the bodies?" the policeman had asked, filling in a First Information Report that started a criminal enquiry. "They were buried where they were shot," the major retorted, before taking off in his jeep.
"It was not unusual," the policeman later told investigators, when questioned as to why he had not insisted on viewing the corpses or checking the identities. Kashmir had been in turmoil since Partition in 1947 and on a virtual war footing for the past two decades, with some estimates placing the dead at 70,000. Strung with razor wire and anti-missile netting, the state had been transformed into one of the most militarised places on earth, with one Indian paramilitary or soldier stationed for every 17 residents. The Pakistani intelligence services and military trained and funded a legion of irregulars, who infiltrated over the mountains to kick-start a full-blown insurgency in 1989, keeping the Indian-ruled portion of the Muslim-majority state permanently alight.
Once picture-perfect, a place of pilgrimage for backpackers and mystics of all religions, Kashmir had become one of the most beautiful and dangerous frontlines in the world. Machil, the sector in which Singh had sprung his operation, was especially treacherous, consisting of a clutch of isolated villages strung along the Line of Control (LoC), a high-altitude ceasefire line that had split Kashmir in 1972. Up here in the thin air, India had created a fearsome barrier, made lethal with the help of Israeli technology, a partially electrified series of fences connected to motion detectors, surrounded by a heavily mined no-man's land.
On 30 April, 2010, an armed forces spokesman in Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital, confirmed Singh's story. "Three militants have been killed in a shootout," said Lieutenant Colonel JS Brar, detailing how three AK-47s, one Pakistani pistol, ammunition, cigarettes, chocolates, dates, two water bottles, a Kenwood radio and 1,000 Pakistani rupees had been recovered. The standard-issue infiltration kit. The corpseless triple-death inquiry was an open and shut case.
However, a few days later, at Panzalla police station, 30 miles from Machil, a simple missing case was causing everyone problems. Three Kashmiri families from nearby Nadihal village had turned up to report the disappearance of their sons: Mohammad, 19, Riyaz, 20, and Shahzad, 27, an apple farmer, a herder and a labourer. They had not seen them since 28 April and would not be calmed by detectives. Soon, their appeals drew the attention of Kashmir's most dogged human rights lawyer, Parvez Imroz, whose response to what would become known as the "Machil Encounter" was about to create a watershed in Kashmir.
Dressed in the uniform of the Kashmiri bar, a crisp white shirt and sombre morning suit, over the past two decades Imroz had become a fixture at the high court in Srinagar, filing thousands of habeas corpus actions (which literally translates as "produce the bodies") on behalf of families who claimed their relatives had vanished while in the custody of the Indian security forces.
These actions rarely succeeded, the Indian army insisting that the missing had flitted over the LoC to Pakistan, recalling historic scenes at the start of the insurgency that terrified New Delhi, when tens of thousands of young Kashmiris jumped aboard buses manned by youthful conductors shouting: "Pakistan, Pakistan here we come." But what the writs did achieve was to create a paper trail from which Imroz was able to estimate that 8,000 Kashmiri non-combatants had vanished from army custody in a state the size of Ireland – four times more than disappeared under Pinochet in Chile. "The military grip has been suffocating," he told the Guardian, "and making someone vanish sows far more fear than spilling their blood".To read the rest of this story, visit http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/09/mass-graves-of-kashmir