‘Where are our sons?’ is what Parveena Ahanger, chairperson of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) has been asking since 1990. Along with many other family members and friends who lost a loved one she has been fighting a long battle in order to find thousands of disappeared men who have been randomly picked up by Indian Security forces in the streets of Jammu and Kashmir, India.

An unofficial estimate counts around 8,000 to 10,000 disappeared victims between 1989 and 2006 who have never returned back home. The Indian official statements contradict these figures by claiming the number is not higher than 4,000 and that most of these people have in fact moved to the Pakistani side of Kashmir during a Kashmiri insurgence against Indian state suppression in the 90s.

Enforced disappearances are a problem all over the world and in many Asian countries. Enforced disappearances are also a problem in the part of Kashmir that is controlled by Pakistan. What is striking about Indian-controlled Kashmir, however, is the setting.  This kind of authoritarian power demonstration is not happening in the traditional military dictatorship setting as one would expect, but in a democracy. In fact, it is in the world’s biggest democracy.

Since 1947 the Kashmir region has been divided between India and Pakistan and has ever since been stuck in a state narrative between two occupying nuclear powers. What is known today as Jammu and Kashmir makes up about two-thirds of the traditional Kashmiri territory and is now part of India. Indian-controlled Kashmir is mostly populated by Muslims and regarded as an Other in the nationalistic pro-Hindu context that the Indian state promotes.

Since violent clashes between civilian combatants and Indian Armed Forces broke out in the early 90s the security situation in the region has turned into one of constant fear for Kashmiri people. Kashmir is one of the most militarised zones in the world and even though it enjoys nominal autonomous rights within the Indian constitution the reality is far from an observance of minority rights and democratic practices. Preventive arrests, detentions and arbitrary killings which can be justified by mere suspicions are not just a cruel reality but have been made legal by the Indian states in order to guarantee what the government calls ‘national stability’. Under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), for example, Indian security personnel stay entirely immune against prosecution for carrying out questionable preventive measures. Paradoxically, this immunity does not necessarily lead to stability and since the 90s respectively has led to extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and enforced disappearances.

The world’s biggest democracy is not a victim of chaotic, anarchic forces which abuse military power and leave the state apparatus paralysed. The case of Jammu and Kashmir rather shows how those who run the state have designed a systematic structure to punish people who are regarded enemies of current power relations. Enemies who seek change or independence, enemies who ask for human rights and the permission to raise their voices (which they theoretically should have in a democracy). This systematic structure reminds a lot of what history books tell us about twentieth century German politics. The sheer arrogance of the state at not feeling the need to justify oppressive punishments and the constant use of surveillance over a minority such as the Kashmiris, does not give the impression of a proper enforcement of democratic principles.

People of any age and background being abducted by Armed Forces on the street and put into gypsy vans which take them to an unknown destination, is one of the many human rights abuses that have added up to the grievances of a divided people. Kashmir’s children are growing up in a world where they are used to security guards using force by any means in order to demonstrate their superiority. And the biggest fear has remained ever since 1947: what will happen next?

Enforced disappearances used to be a common practice during the armed rebellion against Indian Forces by Kashmiris from both Pakistan and India in the 90s. It is unclear how far this practice continues to this day but it is not being applied to the same extent as 20 years ago. Yet, what remains is the question: ‘Where are our sons?’.

In recent years around 6,000 unidentified mass graves have been found in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Since the Indian state refuses to acknowledge the enforced disappearances as part of their agenda during the 90s the state is reluctant to listen to the demands of the APDP and other victims who have lost family and friends during that time. Many of the disappeared were not involved in violent protests during the 90s. Parveena Ahanger’s son, who was 17 years old at the time, was one of them. For 20 years, Kashmiri people have been searching, uncertain of whether their loved ones are still alive or not. The refusal of the Indian state to properly address the issue and make genuine efforts to identify the bodies is therefore most of all the refusal to allow Kashmiri people to reach closure.

Evidently, the discovery of 6,000 mass graves which stand in relation to forced disappearances by Indian Armed Forces in Kashmir do not necessarily contribute to the credibility of the concept of  an ‘Indian democracy’. After all, it’s always easier to deny a mass murder than to justify it. Kashmir’s so-called ‘half-widows’ do not seem to be the first thing on the minds of Indian policy makers.

In a world where economic trade and money making is on the top of people’s priority lists, the emotional burden of a Kashmiri housewife shouting her son’s name in the streets seems to become rather insignificant. Or does it?