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Truth and reconciliation

Violence broke out in Jammu & Kashmir in 1989; we are still living in its shadow. Thousands have been killed and many more injured, writes Omar Abdullah.

india Updated: Feb 11, 2007 01:36 IST

Violence broke out in Jammu & Kashmir in 1989; we are still living in its shadow. Thousands have been killed and many more injured. There have been countless allegations of human rights violations at the hands of militants and security forces. Reports of young men who have allegedly disappeared have appeared from time to time. I use the word ‘allegedly’ because no one seems to agree on the correct number and it is this single fact that bothers me. How do we put aside our political differences and arrive at what really happened?

Over the years, we have had internal inquiries conducted by the police, paramilitary forces and the army. We have had judicial, magisterial and CBI inquiries as well but all of these have been focused on specific events or allegations. No effort has been made to take a holistic view of the situation. 

On the one hand, we have an active peace process that is aiming to bring India and Pakistan at a point of agreement over J&K, a point of agreement that both sides of the artificially divided state of J&K are comfortable with. On the other, we have a dialogue process that seeks to address the internal dimension of the problem. What is important is that the people are not seeing the dividend of these processes, especially the internal one, where it matters: dignity and peace in their lives.

Over the last few days, the media have reported extensively about the case of Abdul Rehman Padder of Larnoo, Kokernag. He is believed to have been killed by the Special Operations Group of J&K police, dubbed a militant and buried in Ganderbal. No sooner had this incident been brought to light that other allegations followed. A judicial enquiry has been ordered and the report is awaited. In the meantime, newspapers in Kashmir began to carry stories about other graveyards believed to contain the graves of other victims of an overzealous security force determined to collect the cash reward that comes along with a “kill”.

What happens the next time a militant is reported killed? How many will be willing to believe the official version of events? The next time a Kashmiri is arrested for militant links in Delhi, how will we convince people he’s not another Tariq Dar? The truth is we won’t be able to. Each of these events has so shaken the faith of people in the institutions tasked with their protection that trust is at a premium. A rogue police officer in Kashmir and a biased one in Delhi have done untold damage to the reputation of their respective forces.

The time has come for something bigger, something free from the shackles of “national interest”.

What is that something? A Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the lines of what South Africa set up post-apartheid. This commission was set up in 1995 by President Mandela and was based in Cape Town. Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired it. Anybody who felt he had been a victim of violence could come forward and be heard at the TRC. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution. The hearings made international news and many sessions were broadcast on national television.

The TRC was a crucial component of the transition to a full and free democracy in South Africa and, despite some flaws, is generally — though not universally — regarded as successful. I have cited the South African example as it is generally considered a model of truth commissions though truth commissions have been set up Argentina, Chile (twice in fact), El Salvador, Fiji, Ghana, Guatemala, Liberia, Morocco, Panama, Peru, Sierra Leone, East Timor and the United States of America, though the last one was an unofficial body.

The TRC worked through three committees: the Human Rights Violations Committee; the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee; and the Amnesty Committee. In order to dispel the notion that this was victor’s justice, reports of human rights violations and petitions for amnesty were heard both from the perpetrators of apartheid and the liberation forces including the ANC.

I understand that a TRC is usually set up in a post conflict environment and we are not yet at that stage but every indication is that we are heading in that direction. Perhaps the time has come for J&K to be given a TRC. This commission should be tasked with uncovering all that happened from 1989 onwards, whether at the hands of the militants or the security forces. It should hold public hearings, uncover evidence and examine all allegations that come to its attention. Pakistan and India should show that joint mechanisms can work by allowing the commission to travel to both sides of the divided state to ascertain the truth about the disappearances. It is a fact that there are Kashmiri boys settled in Pakistan and its side of Kashmir who had gone across for training and settled there. These boys are counted among the disappeared here and this anomaly needs to be corrected as well.

The commission will have to account for all those persons listed as disappeared; be tasked with hearing petitions for amnesty from the perpetrators of human rights violations; probe the forced migration of people from the Valley — Kashmiri Pandits, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs — and look into the circumstances that lead to their migration, the people responsible for it and ways of reversing the migration.

The success or failure of this commission, should it be set up, will depend upon who is asked to chair it. The person will have to be of such a stature as to instill confidence in the people who today have had their confidence shattered.

The process will not be quick and it will not be painless. Perhaps details will emerge that will make for uncomfortable reading when the report of the commission is published but it must be done because without it we will never be able to lay to rest the ghosts of the last 18 years.

(The author is president, National Conference party.)