A Chilling ‘Voice’

The kidnapping and murder of Jaleel Andrabi in 1996 pushed the High Court to set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) for finding answers in the case. Sleuths started without much of a clue, but an unidentified and faceless voice started delivering the most crucial information to them every evening. The SIT discovered five more skeletons as another ten wanted in the case were killed in different ‘interesting’ incidents. This led the SIT to conclude its probe by arresting the accused, Major Avtar Singh, in a Ludhiana garrison. A Kashmir Life report.

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I laughed at my fate”, said one of the three members of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) that probed the murder of human rights lawyer and activist Jaleel Andrabi, “when the eyewitness to the kidnapping of the lawyer met me after we had concluded the case.” An engineer, the eye witness had seen the kidnapping from a very close angle and had witnessed the soldiers actually rehearsing since afternoon on the road by stopping vehicles and checking I-cards of the passengers.

Led by IPS officer I K Mishra, the SIT had SP Mubarak Ganai and DySP Malik Manzoor as two other members. It started getting clues to the kidnapping by questioning whoever they could lay their hands on, individuals who were near the scene of kidnapping on March 8, 1996.

Then the telephone – there were only landlines then – of one of the SIT members rang up and the voice from the other end suggested him to look for a pro-government gunman, an Ikhwani, Sikander Ganai who was part of the group that kidnapped the lawyer. That incident gave a clear direction to the investigations. Mrs Rifat Andrabi, who was travelling with her husband Jaleel, when he was dragged out of the Maruti car the lawyer couple was driving home in, had mentioned that a private car accompanied the army contingent as well. There were two civilians in that car, one of whom was covered in a red blanket, and the other actually assisted soldiers in taking Jaleel Andrabi away. The one with the red blanket was Ahsan Lone and the one who assisted soldiers was Sikander Ganai, a Ganderbal resident who was part of a large battery of Ikhwanis working for army’s 35 RR unit based at Rawalpora.

“The voice supported us throughout,” remembers the member who would receive the calls. “It was this voice that was offering us every single detail about what we should do and why?” The SIT never asked the voice its identity. The ‘secret sources’ that the SIT refers to in the charge sheet are largely this voice. “This voice knew a lot and sometimes we felt as if the person had actually witnessed what was happening within the SIT and the accused camp we were hunting for,” the member added.

Every time the SIT was about to hit the jackpot, it would miss. The first was Sikander Ganai himself, the person who could lead the SIT to the accused. As they surrounded him, the SIT was shocked on April 5, 1996, when it found five bodies at Chandhar on the Srinagar-Jammu Highway, 5 km from Pampore. Apart from the body of the taxi driver that Sikandar had taken along, there were bodies of three Ikhwanis including Ganai himself and a carpenter from Bihar who would accompany them for drinks. This was the first shock to the SIT and a clear message that the people behind Andrabi’s murder were clearly thwarting the investigations. The bits and pieces about the murder of Sikander and company, as put together by the SIT suggest, that the Ikhwani had not reported to his handler Major Avtar Singh for almost a week after he had helped him kidnap Jaleel. This had panicked the Major, so he sent two of his officers and his bosom friend Ashraf Khan alias Umer – who finally became the prosecution witness – to look for and summon him from Budgam wherefrom he was operating. They saw him on a workshop and Sikandar told them that he was busy with the RR in other operations and could not come.

The next day Sikander came along with three boys and a driver in an Ambassador car, Umer, who lived in the garrison premises told the court later in May 1997. Their arms were seized at the gate because they were told, the CO was visiting the camp. For two hours, they all were drinking and then they went inside the camp hall for the meals.

“In the dining hall Sukhan Singh, Doctor, Balbir Singh, Avtar Singh and other attacked Sikander and his colleagues and tied them with ropes and bolted the door from inside,” Umer told the court. “Next day, I heard their bodies were recovered from Pampore.” Umer claimed that he was frightened by the incident. The first thing he did was to shift his wife and children out of the camp. Then he was deployed for an operation in Chatabal during which he fled to Jammu. Later on, he shifted his family as well and returned home after a long time. Privy to many things, Umer succeeded in saving his skin.

One of Umer’s many wives told the SIT that Major Avtar Singh took Sikander and his colleagues to a room one by one and hanged them and then their bodies were thrown away somewhere in Pampore. This, she said, was revealed to her by Umer.

Major Avtar Singh sold the car, in which Sikander and the others travelled, to a mechanic at a workshop on the bypass road for Rs 12,000. The workshop owner was asked to dispose it off, part by part after dismantling it. The SIT recovered almost everything later, but could not convert the pieces into the vehicle for which the family that actually owned it is still waiting.

Mother of Abdul Majid Shah(inset)
Mother of Abdul Majid Shah

As the five brutal murders were turning out to be the dead end for the investigations, the ‘voice’ suggested studying the photograph the slain lawyer had clicked when a band of Ikhwanis had raided his residence. As the SIT started studying the photo, it proved to be a jackpot. They could identify a policeman’s son and as they worked on it, the SIT traced the gang to a south Kashmir garrison in Jawbara near Awantipore.

When the SIT went to Awantipore the custodians of the garrison – Colonel Bachittar Singh and Major Ashok Clifton, who was known by his alias Bulbul – were taken by surprise. The SIT sought the custody of the three Ikhawnis, Mohammad Afzal Shah (Chursoo) alias Tiger, Nazir Mir (Bahu) and Muzaffar Sheikh alias Bouba (Tregam) operating from the camp, in the Andrabi case on basis of the photograph that the slain had clicked. “I saw the colours fading away from some of the faces,” remembers a SIT member, “But the officers assured us all cooperation that we may require.” The SIT visited the camp many times but nothing much happened till the “secret sources” informed them “all the three were caught, killed and thrown away.” Another line of access was finished off.

The SIT was desperate as investigations were getting derailed. By then, however, the investigators had acquired a lot of knowledge about the ‘Ikhwan” camaraderie with Major Avtar Singh and many others. Sikander’s widow had offered a lot of information helping them understand the shadowy world of counter-insurgency. The SIT was looking for Umer who all of a sudden was eager to cooperate. Umer’s realisation that now it was his turn to die led him to spill the beans and help the SIT to reach the basic conclusion that Major Avtar Singh was the main culprit.

But no investigation can take somebody’s statement as gospel truth unless it authenticates the claims. By all accounts, the principal accused in the case was Major Avtar Singh. Soon after the High Court took cognizance of the case, he was shifted out and for a long time, the armed forces tactfully handled the case in the court without revealing much.

To establish the link between the ‘Ikhwanis’ and their handlers, the SIT drafted a questionnaire of more than 100 queries. Initially, they went with these queries to Jawbara camp and started seeking responses from the officers. The session had barely started and the two sides decided to sit another day, which never came. The next time the SIT visited the garrison; they were told that Bulbul was posted out to north Kashmir. The SIT reached a garrison in Kupwara. Well before they could start their work they were told that one of the barracks of the garrison was up in a fire. There was at least one casualty in the conflagration. A member of the SIT feels that it was Major Clifton who died in the incident.

The next option was to investigate Colonel Bachittar Singh who headed the 35-RR and under whom Major Avtar Singh was working. The SIT was barely considering it when the news came that Bachittar was mowed down by militants along with his security guard in Tosa Maidan. Another link in the investigation was blocked in what appeared by now an elaborate conspiracy.

After Major Avtar Singh fled India, he barely talked to media twice or thrice – always in his defence. But one thing that he continuously maintained was that he was the only surviving link to reveal the plot. He told Hartosh Singh Bal of Open Magazine that he will not be extradited to India but if it goes through he will open up. “There is no question of my being taken to India alive, they will kill me.” Who will, I ask him. “The agencies, RAW, Military Intelligence, it is all the same”, Hartosh wrote.

But the SIT had known it all along, that is perhaps why they took the decision of actually-travelling to Haryana to see the Major. Initially, the SIT members visited his home and later went to Ludhiana where he was posted. There was non-cooperation as Major Avtar Singh had managed to influence the soldiers. Once the situation eased, the SIT was face to face with the fugitive, and they started asking questions only to see the Major keep diverting them. “I was a top class hockey player but now I am unable to stand on the ground,” he told in his defence. He said he was being framed. As nothing was coming out of the questioning, it hurt even Major Avtar Singh’s senior officer who wanted him to be straightforward. But it did not help. Finally, he was arrested and transferred to the custody of his parent unit in Ludhiana. It was from the army custody that Major Avtar Singh fled to Canada in 2003.

The first time, the SIT named Major Avtar Singh in the Andrabi case was on April 10, 1997. It filed a charge sheet on December 26, 2000. The charge sheet is a vital document to understand how the system worked at that point of anarchy. It offers detailed accounts of how the soldiers and the Ikhwanis housed their lovers, wives and concubines – some of them looted during operations – in the garrisons. Some of them actually joined the counter-insurgency operations as well.

Ghulam Qadir Kanni
Ghulam Qadir Kanni

Most of the witnesses in the Jaleel Andrabi case have offered details about the scale of extortions that Major Avtar Singh and his company would manage during routine activities. But the chilling part of the investigations was the determination of many murder mysteries that took place then. It exposed that Major Avtar Singh was under dual control. Apart from executing orders of high-ups, he was accommodating his in-laws (SRTC driver Haqeeqat Singh’s family) who would come with ‘indecent proposals’.

Murder of a Batamaloo resident by the Major was carried out for extortion, witnesses told the SIT. But neither of the witnesses could tell the SIT where the body disappeared. The revelation was made by one of the wives of the key witnesses that after killing him, “they dug a pit within the premises of the camp and buried him.”

Almost all the killings that are in the know of the SIT have nothing to do with militancy. Balbir Singh was a tailor and had a shop in Jawahar Nagar. Haqeeqat Singh’s family would have their clothes tailored to him. There are theories in circulation regarding his kidnapping and murder. One, he “misbehaved” with one of the damsels while taking her body measurement. Another was that the Singhs owed a good amount of money to him and he met his end when he sought the money from the Singhs.

A key witness, Umer told the SIT that Major Avtar Singh killed three persons on the suggestion of his in-laws – Abdul Majid Pir, Imtiaz Ahmad Wani and Balbir Singh. A report suggested that one among the trio had an affair with one of the Singh girls who eventually got married to the Major. The SIT investigated it and actually traced one of the most known faces, Gursharan, from the Singh family. “She was protected by a very senior police officer and when we summoned her for questioning it was a DySP rank officer escorting her,” one SIT member said. “We barely could ask her anything even as she vainly told us that she was very powerful and knew many people.”

Even the murder of Bashir Ahmad Khan, a resident of Laridora is linked to the Singh family. Key witness Umer told the SIT that when Major Avtar arrested one Irshad Ahmad Khan and recovered some arms and ammunition from him, Bashir Khan came to request for his release. Khan was a colleague of Gursharan Singh, a small-time TV actress, the sister-in-law of Major Avtar Singh, at the Centaur Lakeview Hotel. Three days after Irshad was set free, Bashir was invited for dinner by Avtar, later taken in his car and killed. His body was recovered from Bemina. “[The] Major did not want to get exposed before his in-laws,” the key witness told the SIT. Or was it otherwise? The case may require a lot of investigation. Major Avtar Singh, after all, was just one character in the entire episode and the skeletons the SIT unearthed actually represent a fraction of what had happened then.

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