Kashmir’s Unmarked Graves; UN Mediation


By Huma Sheikh

Graves marked by numbers in the northern frontier district of Kupwara. Photo by Showkat Shafi.

In August 2011, the unmarked graves atrocity came to light in Kashmir after the Jammu & Kashmir Human Rights Commission confirmed that more than two thousand bodies were buried in those graves in several districts of the Valley. The commission said many of the dead were civilians who had disappeared over the past two decades, the time of the bloodiest violence in Kashmir. The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) —an association formed by parents and relatives of victims of enforced disappearances in Jammu and Kashmir— had in 2008 reported to the commission about the presence of unmarked graves, and about their fears that those unidentified bodies might be their missing children.

According to the commission report, 2,730 bodies were buried in thirty-eight sites in North Kashmir’s Baramulla, Bandipora, Handwara and Kupwara districts. Five hundred seventy four (574) among the 2,730 bodies were those of missing local Kashmiris.

The Jammu and Kashmir government had earlier said the bodies in unmarked graves were those of unidentified militants, most of them Pakistani insurgents who were handed over to local people for burial. After the commission report, Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said all missing persons were not buried in unmarked graves. Some of these  people had been doing small businesses—either driving cabs or something else– across the Line of Control (LOC), the de facto border dividing Indian and Pakistani Kashmir. “I can say with authority that some of the persons buried in these unmarked graves were killed by militants,” Omar had told the Hindustan Times newspaper in India.

The issue of unmarked graves has become a major problem in the eight-decade-old conflict in Kashmir. People in Kashmir feel they are unsafe in the valley because of civilian disappearances by security forces and their subsequent killings in fake encounters to label them insurgents. The government, on the other hand, maintains the situation in Kashmir has improved and the Chief Minister established a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate unmarked graves. But this problem remains unresolved but can be resolved with the help of international third party mediation, or more precisely the United Nations mediation–mainly for two reasons:

1. The Kashmir conflict is a regional conflict because its resolution must include both India and Pakistan.

2. India is primarily Hindu and Pakistan is Muslim, and Kashmir, which is predominantly Muslim, is part of Hindu India.

The UN was involved in the Kashmir conflict from 1948 to 1965 after India reported to the Security Council on January 1, 1948 under Article 35 (chapter VI) Pakistan’s involvement in aiding tribal invaders. Pakistan denied, however, having ever supported the tribal invaders.

Several resolutions were passed by the UN during its 17-year-old active involvement in the conflict. But neither India nor Pakistan agreed to them.

The recent Kashmir conflict (1989), however, is not the same. It’s one of the most dangerous conflicts of the world having now killed over 70,000 people in Kashmir. The U.N mediation to resolve the Kashmir conflict is a necessity for the best interests of people in Kashmir, India, and Pakistan. Here’s why!

Background: Kashmir Conflict

The Kashmir conflict is principally a regional conflict dating back to 1947 when two states of Hindustan—India and Pakistan– were divided into two countries.  Before 1947, Hindustan was ruled by Great Britain and Kashmir was one among 584 princely states not directly ruled by British Empire. Following Independence, the Hindu leader of the Muslim-majority Kashmir Hari Singh opted to accede to India as armed invaders from Pakistan were advancing on the Kashmir capital, Srinagar. According to the accession agreement, autonomy was promised to the people of Kashmir upon defeating the Pakistani invaders, autonomy to decide their future course of action i.e. whether to be part of India or Pakistan. This right to self-determination, has, however, always been bypassed by the Indian government. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir since 1947. The two countries negotiated a Line of Control in 1971 dividing Indian and Pakistani Kashmir, but that border has always been restive.

The recent conflict— a secessionist movement— in Kashmir began in 1989 and has now killed over 70,000 Kashmiri Muslims, mostly civilians. The main demand of people in Kashmir is sovereignty and freedom (azadi) from India. This new wave of violence turned religious when minority Kashmiri Hindus left Kashmir in 1990. Kashmiri militants claim that Kashmiri Hindus left the state because it was the conspiracy of the Indian government so that it could without a hitch kill all Kashmiri Muslims in Kashmir. Kashmiri Hindus, on the other hand, claim that Kashmiri militants killed many of them, and they threatened them to try to move them out.

Similar Conflicts

Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995) was an ethnic conflict over the partition of Bosnia. Ethnic Muslim Croats and Bosnians wanted to secede from Yugoslavia. But most of the Serbs opposed this desire for independence. The war claimed around 100,000-110,000 lives.

In 1992, the UN mediated the conflict and established the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) to facilitate peacemaking in the region. To extend its mandate, it passed many resolutions over time such as more UN military involvement and allowing NATO air strikes against insurgent Bosnian Serbs. In October 1995, all parties agreed to a ceasefire that resulted in Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) in December, 1995.

Iran-Iraq  (1980-1988) war lasted eight years over several border disputes, the most important being the Shatt al-Arab, the major waterway connecting the Persian Gulf with the Iranian ports of Khorramshahr and Abadan, and the Iraqi port of Basra. The war killed about one million people.

The eight-year old war between Iraqi Arabs and Iranian Persians came to an end in the summer of 1988 after UN resolution 598 was accepted by both the countries. According to the resolution, the UN supervised ceasefire was established and UN Iran-Iraq Observer Group (UNIMOG) created by the security General monitored the ceasefire. The resolution also included prisoner exchanges and pulling out of forces to internationally recognized boundaries.

Appropriateness of UN mediation in Kashmir conflict

The Kashmir conflict has essentially much in common with Iran-Iraq and Bosnian conflicts in regional and religious contexts, and it calls for the UN’s involvement in effectively resolving the issue. The continued UN involvement after 1965 would have prevented 1989 freedom movement in Kashmir. Now the unmarked graves issue may have repercussions for another bloodier war in Kashmir especially after the commission report confirmed the burial of 574 civilians in those graves.

Weaknesses and Strengths of UN Mediation

Weaknesses: The UN mediation is arbitrary. Decisions are based on agreement of conflicting parties. In other words, the problem of mediation is to get the conflicting parties to agree. In Kashmir, the UN resolution 47 on April 21, 1948 called for holding a UN-supervised plebiscite in the Valley among other things, but both India and Pakistan rejected it. India feared that Kashmiris might vote for Pakistan because of their same religious identity. Pakistan refused the resolution for fears that referendum might be rigged because the Prime Minister of then still autonomous Jammu & Kashmir– Sheikh Abdullah was an Indian ally.

Strengths: Arbitration insures a less formal setting to the mediation process. Unlike legal process, mediation compels the conflicting parties to change and see the common ground that can resolve the conflict. The UN is the most powerful international organization with 192 member countries from across the world. It can extend its mandate by passing several resolutions. For example in Bosnia & Herzegovina war, the UN passed several resolutions to extend its mandate that enabled UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force—to take control of Sarajevo airport in 1992 for humanitarian relief following  fighting between Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs  over Bosnia’s referendum a month before.

The UN can also seek help from its member states, if necessary, to bring an end to the conflict. For example in 1995, UK and France—the two member states of the UN—supported NATO operations after the Sarajevo Markale market massacre and arrest of UNPROFOR forces by Bosnian Serbs.

Weaknesses and Strengths of war

Weaknesses: War results in the deaths of thousands of innocent people as well as widespread destruction of material and financial resources. Iran-Iraq war claimed lives of some five-hundred thousand  to one million people and the financial cost was estimated at a minimum of $200 billion.

Strengths: War brings an end to the vexed conflict. People are willing to give in on ideological stances in order for the violence to stop because losses incurred in war are huge. In other words, war has the ability to bring about conclusion to the conflict because of casualties and costs. The winning country controls everything. There may be little negotiation. .

Weaknesses and Strengths of international law

Weaknesses: If a country is strong enough that it doesn’t care about the international law, then it doesn’t abide by the law. Example: When the US invaded Iraq the second time, it was against the UN mandate but the country could get away with it because of its superpower status.

Strengths: International law constricts countries (member states) in organizations such as the UN to abide by this law. This gives leverage to the UN because belligerents can be tried in the international criminal court. (ICC). Example: In Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict, the UN passed resolution 827 in May 1993 to create International Crimes Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to prosecute people responsible for serious violations of international Humanitarian law .

Weaknesses and Strengths of avoidance

Weaknesses: Avoidance is simply not addressing the problem as if it doesn’t exist. In some cases, the conflict may resolve itself with time or otherwise it may become a major problem. In case of Kashmir, avoidance is ignoring the reality of unmarked graves, human rights violations and thousands of people being killed.

Strengths: If conditions aren’t too violent or too extreme, time and changes in politics or world economy will resolve the problem peacefully without mediation, revolution, or military conflict. Any time a conflict is and will likely to continue to be violence-free, avoidance of violence might be one of the best solutions.

The Kashmir conflict is obviously too violent for the avoidance strategy. It is a major regional and religious conflict that has plagued not only people in Kashmir but also the two nuclear nations of India and Pakistan. India may be looking at the Kashmir conflict through the “strength of war” lens and assuming that Kashmiri people will eventually grow tired and give up violence. Pakistan, on the other hand, may be looking at the Kashmir conflict in the context of India’s weakness and hoping that its rival nation would finally leave Kashmir in favor of preserving its good reputation in the world as one of the fastest growing economies globally. But these assumptions are not valid and the continued large-scale violence in Kashmir proves it. The only resolution strategy for the Kashmir conflict is to develop an agreement that is mutually beneficial and will provide long lasting benefits to the people of Kashmir and India and Pakistan. This agreement should also help strengthen the ability of Kashmir as well as India and Pakistan to work together in the future.  UN mediation is appropriate for the Kashmir conflict because neutrality is crucial to the UN’s record in peacemaking and peacekeeping and its final decisions are future-oriented and based on objective criteria. The UN recently expanded its peacemaking operations in regional conflicts. These services include provision of mediation services, good offices, and other forms of intermediary assistance; provision of fact-finding and observation commissions and the provision of humanitarian aid and assistance. India and Pakistan have not been able to resolve the Kashmir conflict since 1989. More importantly the conflict transformation since 1989 and its effects on the people of Kashmir and India and Pakistan—the two major nuclear powers— threaten the security of the whole world. In other words, this conflict makes it a world security problem— not just Kashmir and India-Pakistan conflict— and therefore makes it a prime candidate for  UN mediation.   UN mediation will enable the conflicting parties to work toward a sustainable agreement and bring about positive change in Kashmir as well as India-Pakistan and the rest of the world.

Huma Sheikh is a journalist from Kashmir and she’s currently based in the US.

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