Srinagar: Hundreds of unmarked graves in Kashmir hold more than 2,000 bullet-riddled bodies that may include innocent victims, despite police claims that they were militants fighting Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan territory, according to an Indian government report.
The report — following a three-year investigation launched amid allegations of rights abuses by the Army, paramilitary and police — is the first official acknowledgment that civilians killed in the two-decade conflict may have been buried in unmarked graves.
It stops short of confirming that suspicion, long alleged by rights groups, but says "there is every possibility that ... various unmarked graves at 38 places of north Kashmir may contain the dead bodies of locals”.
Previously, officials have insisted that all the bodies were of militant fighters, as claimed by police when they were handed over to villages for burial.
The report says 2,156 unidentified bodies were found in single and mass graves in three northern mountainous regions, while 574 other bodies found in the graves have been identified as local residents.
The findings by the Jammu-Kashmir State Human Rights Commission are likely to deepen cynicism in restive Kashmir, where anti-India sentiment runs deep and most people want independence or merger with neighbouring Pakistan.
India and Pakistan have fought two wars since 1947 for control of the territory, which is divided between them. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training rebel fighters, but Pakistan says it only offers moral and diplomatic support for their cause.
Rebel groups began fighting in 1989 against Indian rule, and more than 68,000 people have been killed in the uprising and subsequent Indian crackdowns. Most have been civilians.
Rights groups have said some 8,000 people have disappeared, and accused government forces of staging gunbattles to cover up killings. The groups also say suspected rebels have been arrested and never heard from again.
The state government has countered that most of the missing were likely Kashmiri youths who crossed into Pakistan for weapons training.
In 2008, a rights group reported unmarked graves in 55 villages across the northern regions of Baramulla, Bandipore and Handwara, after which researchers and other groups reported finding thousands of single and mass graves without markers.
Indian officials set up the commission to investigate and also began a separate police investigation, the findings of which have yet to be released.
The commission`s 17-page report also urged DNA profiling to identify the bodies, saying the matter should be "investigated thoroughly by an impartial agency."
The head of a local rights group welcomed the report as vindicating its research into the graves.
"Security agencies accused us of maligning the image of the armed forces," said Pervez Imroz of the International People`s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice. Now, "we will seek judicial intervention if the government fails to implement the report`s recommendations."