A state-run human rights commission has broadened its investigation into unmarked graves in the Indian portion of Kashmir to include thousands more in two additional districts, officials said Friday.
The Jammu-Kashmir State Human Rights Commission is looking into residents' claims of 3,844 unmarked graves at 208 locations in the remote districts of Rajouri and Poonch. The commission asked the state government on Friday to provide any information it has on those graves within the next month, commission secretary Tariq Banday said.
In August, the commission concluded an investigation into unmarked graves in three other districts in Kashmir, issuing a report saying they held more than 2,700 bullet-riddled bodies, about 80 percent them unidentified and the rest local residents.
It was the first official acknowledgment that some civilians killed in the region's more than two-decade insurgency may have been buried in unmarked graves, although the commission stopped short of confirming that position, which has been long held by local residents and rights groups.
Previously, Indian authorities had maintained that the bodies were of militants of foreign origin who sneaked into the Indian portion of Kashmir from Pakistani territory to fight government forces.
Local rights groups long alleged that the graves might contain bodies of Kashmiri civilians who disappeared and possibly were killed by government forces over suspicions of collaborating with rebels.
Rebel groups began fighting in 1989 against Indian rule, and more than 68,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the uprising and subsequent Indian crackdowns.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training rebel fighters, but Pakistan says it only offers moral and diplomatic support for their cause. India and Pakistan have fought two wars since 1947 over Kashmir.
Local rights groups say that some 8,000 people have disappeared in the disputed region since 1989 and they accuse Indian forces of staging gunbattles to cover up the killings. They also say government forces have arrested hundreds of suspected rebels and that nobody has heard from them.
The state government has denied those charges, and has said that the missing could be Kashmiri youths who crossed over to Pakistan for weapons training.
The International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice, a Srinagar-based group, said some graves could have the bodies of "illegal immigrant workers from different parts of India and Bangladesh" who use the region to cross over to Pakistan on their way to oil-rich Gulf countries in search of jobs.
"According to the allegations made by local people, many of these illegal immigrant workers after being caught by the Indian army were being imprisoned; many were killed in fake encounters and branded as foreign militants," the rights group said.