Waiting for the disappeared in Kashmir

01 October 2017
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IN AN IMAGE CAPTURED by the documentary photographer Showkat Nanda, a faded Khan dress—a type of salwar kameez commonly worn by Kashmiri men—is shown tied to a tree trunk next to a mass grave in the desolate village of Kitchama, northern Kashmir. The garment is weather-beaten and covered with moss. According to Nanda, locals in the area said that it belonged to a very young boy, whose dead body the police had handed over to them in 2004. They buried the body and left the clothes outside, hoping that someone would eventually recognise them and identify the boy. When Nanda took the photograph, 12 years after the boy’s death, no one had yet come forward to do so.

The photo appears in The Endless Wait, an ongoing documentary project that Nanda began in 2014. Much of the series consisted of portraits of Kashmiri women whose male family members went missing after being arrested by Indian armed forces. Thousands of Kashmiri men have vanished after such encounters—the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, which documents disappearances in Kashmir, estimates that there have been between 8,000 and 10,000 disappearances since the insurgency began, in 1989. The relatives of disappeared men often frequent graveyards, camps and jails, searching for snippets of information. Some wives have waited for decades for their husbands to return, and have had to raise children on their own, unable to marry again because of their uneasy limbo as half-widows.

Nanda was born, and still lives, in Baramulla: a large garrison city near the Line of Control, close to the sub-district of Uri and the district of Kupwara, both places with prominent mass graves. The streets of Baramulla teem with soldiers and informers, who keep the town under strict surveillance. In December 1989, when Nanda was a young boy, his cousin Parvaiz was among a crowd of peaceful protestors who were fired upon and killed by the police at Cement Bridge. A Baramulla landmark, this has a long history of protests, and just a day earlier, a massive gathering in the same spot had celebrated the release of five militants from prison. A few months later, Nanda’s brother Sajad died after slipping from a steep ridge while attempting to cross a mountain pass into Pakistan-controlled territory. According to Nanda, Sajad was on his way to receive arms training beyond the Line of Control, as part of a wave of young Kashmiris who did so at the time before returning to join an ongoing anti-India uprising. The family only found out what had happened to him when the people accompanying him returned to Kashmir after two years. “We didn’t know if he was dead or alive,” Nanda said. “I have seen my own mother suffering with the pain of losing a son. We didn’t even have a chance to see his grave.” While coming to terms with the death of a loved one gets easier over time, Nanda said, confronting a disappearance is perpetually nerve-racking—“The disappearance of a loved one immortalises a person’s pain.”

Showkat Nanda is a Kashmir-based documentary photographer and educator. His work focusses on the Kashmir conflict and its social and cultural ramifications. He has received a Fulbright fellowship and a Magnum Emergency Fund grant.

Keywords: photography Kashmir militancy armed forces Baramulla Disappearance