When they pushed open the large iron gates and brought him in, the dead man was wearing a pair of new socks, a long Kashmiri tunic, and two dirty trousers to fight the cold. He had no face.
Policemen brought the body — face ripped off by gunfire — to the graveyard in Sumbal village on the evening of December 10 and asked workers to hurry up. As the body was taken from the jeep to a grassy clearing, the workers dug swiftly, helped by the previous night’s rain that had made the soil loose. They did not stop for three hours.
The man had been branded a Pakistani militant – “Abu Talha” – and killed by members of the Special Operations Group, a crack unit of the Kashmir Police. But the search for a missing carpenter elsewhere in the state, and calls to his mobile phone, set off a series of events that led to a cruel discovery. The dead man was carpenter Abdur Rehman Paddar, 37, looking for a job in the police force.
The body was exhumed after 54 days amid widespread protests by thousands of people and allegations that the carpenter was killed in a staged gunfight and passed off as a militant. Seven policemen, including officers have been arrested and 23 detained, and are reportedly being investigated for involvement in several other such killings. DNA samples are being tested.
Kashmir’s administration is facing its worst crisis of trust in years, in a state where discontent against New Delhi’s rule runs deep and the local government is seen as a federal puppet. But the swift police work that unraveled the scandal also highlights the biggest opportunity in two decades — to come clean on the frequent disappearances of civilians in Kashmir after being picked up by security forces.
“There has been no large scale investigation. The government is not serious about this issue. They can’t even make up their mind on how many people have disappeared,” said Pervez Imroz, a leading human rights activist.
Over the years and over successive governments, official estimates of the missing have ranged from 700 to 4,000 people. The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, a voluntary group, says it has witness-backed descriptions of at least 1,000 disappearances, and projects that the total number stands at more than 8,000. The estimates also include Kashmiri militants living in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
The Sumbal graveyard, 40 kilometres northeast of Srinagar, has about 35 other bodies, mostly of men described by the police as foreign militants. The discovery there has evoked intense anger, and frequent protests in several parts of the state.
“He should be hanged, hanged in public. That is when we will get some peace. My ears are dying to hear that,” said Abdul Ahad, a resident of Sumbal village, referring to the arrested police officer who allegedly led the carpenter – his relative — to his death.
Kashmir’s police chief SM Sahai said the government’s swift investigation should be seen as proof of its transparency. “I am not aware of any incident of wanton killings of this kind by security forces,” Sahai said. Asked whether he was saying there were no such human rights violations in Kashmir, he said: “Whenever there are allegations of any kind, they are investigated.”