Macchil murders add one more chapter to the bloody history of fake encounters in Kashmir, where greed for medals and rewards feeds on human blood. It is a larger debate whether these killings are a disorder or an unwritten method of operation. A Kashmir Life report.
For centuries Kalaroos has remained a riddle. Apart from the small copper deposits around, the mountain village is the proud owner of a tunnel that mythically connects Kupwara with Roos (Russia). People have tried to reach to the other end of the tunnel but lack of oxygen pushed them back.
But that is not Kalaroos’s only riddle. The second, in fact, the more recent, is its graveyard that has over 400 young men buried since 1990. Nobody knows who they were! They all were handed over to the locals by various police and security agencies, usually termed militants killed while infiltrating or soon after in clashes. During all these years, only four were identified – three of them the victims of the recent fake Machil encounter and another one, a year earlier. Their bodies were exhumed and interned into graves far away from Kalaroos after postmortems.
The latest exhumations that brought the graveyard into attention again were the outcome of weeks of a painful process that three families from Nadihal forced the system to initiate after their wards disappeared in the broad daylight.
They were not friends but Shahzad Ahmad Khan, Mohammad Shafi Lone and Riyaz Ahmad Lone had three things in common. They were almost of the same age group, were school drop-outs and would work as labourers to sustain their lives. Shahzad sold fruits in Baramulla after he gave up working as a labourer. He was married with one child. Shafi was a mechanic and Riyaz a labourer.
They first left home with a neighbour Bashir Ahmad Lone on April 27 and returned. Two days later they went out again with him, this time, never to return. Families waited for almost a week and finally registered a report with the Panzalla police post on May 10 (that eventually was converted into FIR 23 of 2010 under 364 RPC). The families informed the police that they had gone with Bashir. As public pressure increased, police picked up Bashir on May 21 and soon after another man Abdul Hamid Bhat, an army source, was also arrested. Initially, he feigned ignorance and after a bit of pressure, he spilled beans. His leads came within minutes after the police tracked his cell phone records.
It eventually turned out to be a gang of four apparently headed by a Territorial Army (TA) trooper Abbas Shah, a resident of Uri, working for the army. It included Shah’s confidante Hamid, an erstwhile army source who was adjusted in TA and later disengaged. Later he opened a bakery shop at Watergam but continues to be a source for the army. Besides Bashir, there was Fayaz Ikhwani, a resident of Tujar Sharief in Sopore.
The leads helped police track the killing of the three in Machil belt and their subsequent burial in Kalaroos. But the motive and the full story was provided by Shah after he was handed over by the 121-TA to the police on May 27.
It turned out to be a plain business deal – though a bloody one. Ahead of its relocation to Meerut, the 4-Rajputana Rifles wanted something to add to its records – like killing “infiltrators”. It would fetch honours and rewards. Major Opinder Singh who headed the unit asked Shah to arrange three young men who “could be sent across to track a group of infiltrators so that they are trapped”. The two knew each other since the day Major Singh was G2 at 92 Divisional Headquarters in Baramulla.
Shah was his source and eventually his confidant who would recruit sources for him. They were in contact even after Singh was sent to LoC to head a unit with his base at Kalaroos.
Shah sought Hamid’s help and he got in touch with Bashir who agreed to help by arranging a trio from his village for Rs 2000 a day. They were directed to bring the trio to Kalaroos on May 27. Hamid and Bashir arranged a Tata Sumo vehicle and drove the three young men to Kalaroos where reports suggest, they were paid Rs 2000 each but asked to go back and revisit on May 29 instead, because of the bad weather.
On April 29, Shah also accompanied them to Kupwara in a Sumo and they had a good lunch at a local hotel. They were merrymaking, laughing, and even smoking charas (cannabis), according to the interrogation reports of Hamid and Shah carried by some newspapers. Finally, they drove to Kalaroos where Major Opinder was waiting with two army trucks. Within minutes, they were asked to board these trucks – the victims in one truck, Hamid and Shah in another while Bashir drove the Sumo back home.
Police investigations suggest that the army officer drove the trio to somewhere closer to the LoC and killed them later in the night. On May 30, the three bodies were driven to the police post Kalaroos where the unit officials registered FIR 76 of 2010 claiming that the “unidentified militants” were infiltrators who were killed by 4-Rajputana Rifles at Doshat Post, Tanakpur, across Sonapindi Galli on the LoC, in Machhil sector. Police, as usual, alerted the Kalaroos village that dug up three more graves. After the bodies were handed over to them, they were unwilling to accept that the three young men were infiltrators. They were clean-shaven, well dressed, had summer clothing and even routine summer shoe-wear. All the three were killed from very close range and had bullets in their heads, something that does not happen in gun-battles. An army spokesman in Srinagar claimed recovery of five assault rifles and some ammunition from the “infiltrators”.
Well before the bodies were lowered in the graves of a cemetery where hundreds of unknown are laid to rest, Major had paid Shah and Hamid Rs 150 thousand, two bottles each of whisky and beer. The mission was accomplished! They left for home.
For Major Singh and his team (two subedar majors and a sepoy) the cash reward of Rs 600 thousand for killing three infiltrators was being processed at the level of his CO D K Pathania when the unit moved to Meerut in the last week of May. It was posted in Kalaroos since late 2007 and was replaced by 8-Dogra regiment now.
The triple murder followed two equally shocking instances in the same belt. On April 14, the army claimed the 6-Rashtriya Rifles shot dead perhaps the oldest militant in Magam forests of Handwara. They even claimed recovery of an AK rifle along with four magazines and 67 rounds from the apparently foreign fighter.
“Sunken eyes, flowing grey beard, wrinkled face and frail body can not belong to a militant,” a police official who saw the body after it was handed over to them on April 14 said. As the photograph of the “aged fighter” with a bullet on his forehead crept to the front pages, somehow it reached Lolab and the actual story got revealed. The 70-year old “militant” was identified as Habibullah Khan, a beggar of Dewar village.
Khan was destitute and at personal level managing the collateral damage of the strife. His son Ahmadullah having three children was killed in the Lolab forests where he had gone to collect firewood. It was the task of raising these orphans that initially sent Khan to do menial jobs and eventually made him a beggar. He would usually come home after one or two nights but last week he did not return after leaving his home on April 11, his youngest son Raj Mohammad said. He had lost another son Guliya during amorphous years of militancy.
A public outcry forced police to investigate and they finally zeroed in on three soldiers – Major A K Mishra, Nayak Bhupinder Singh, and Lance Nayak Rajinder Singh. The army was on back-foot, there was a promise of a high-level probe and life was back to normal.
Soon after police quickly intervened in a compliant that one Irfan Ahmad, formerly with the anti-militancy Special Operations Group (SOG) and a resident of Mondia Keran had taken two youth from Kupwara and handed them over to the army. The families feared the soldiers might kill them in fake encounter. Police swung into action and “rescued” Shariq Ahmad Mir (Harie), a twelfth standard student and Zahoor Ahmad (Halmatpora) from 5-Jat. Irfan was arrested and the rescued youth said they were offered jobs in Intelligence Bureau (IB). Irfan, in fact, had tried to strike a deal with a RR unit in Keran and sought one lakh rupees each but they refused. He handed them over to 5-Jat wherefrom they were rescued.
People coming on the roads, pelting stones on the security forces and the unionist politicians is a natural outcome. There was anger in the separatist as well as unionists camps. PDP president Ms Mehboba Mufti was the first to make her apprehensions public about the encounters on the LoC and said these need to be investigated. Mirwaiz Umer Farooq was furious and termed it genocide. “Talks and genocide does not go hand in hand,” he said in a press conference before visiting the families in Rafiabad.
Motives may vary, but faking encounters has remained a reality in Kashmir since 1990. It is also a fact that promotions and rewards have been ingrained in the counter-insurgency set up in such a way that money becomes a huge incentive for killing people.
A K Joshi was not so unknown an officer when BSF was ruling the roost in Kashmir, especially Srinagar. He commanded 81-Bn BSF till 1994. For various acts of omission and commission, a departmental enquiry was set up that submitted its report in 2000. The revelations were shocking.
The enquiry found him “guilty of stealing furniture and other goods from the abandoned houses of Kashmiri Hindus (Pandits)” and carrying it to his residence in Cooch Behar in West Bengal. It said the BSF had received a complaint against the officer from state government accusing Joshi of burning down migrant houses “in connivance with owners of the abandoned houses, helped the latter claim insurance cover”. This allegation was overlooked by the force initially even though “adequate proof of the officer’s involvement”’ was available. Apart from accusing the officer of “looting a watch shop in Srinagar during a cordon-and-search operation”, the committee charged him for killing a militant in a fake encounter to claim the reward of Rs 20,000.
The former BSF chief Prakash Singh in his December 9, 1993 visit to the “liberated” Sopore, ridiculed some of the BSF jawans saying “Tum Kaisay Punjabi Ho. Tum Nay Kitnoon Ki Mundi Tod Di” (What type of Punjabi’s you are– how many necks you have broken). In presence of two media persons, one of the Punjabi’s stood up responding “Sir main nay tou dou ko mar diya pakad kar (Sir I caught and killed two) “. Prakash Singh patted him and told others to follow.
The system will not admit that these deaths are part of the standard operational procedure. Nowhere written, but always followed. No force that has fought militancy in Kashmir can claim to not having resorted to fake encounters and custodial deaths. This includes state police as well. Condemnations and probes follow only when some incidents get exposed.
Panchalthan is a reference. Within four days of the massacre of 35 Sikhs at Chitisinghpora on March 21, 2000, coinciding with US president Bill Clinton’s India visit, the army and the police claimed to have killed the “butchers” responsible for killings. As locals in a vast south Kashmir belt started searching the missing family members, protests broke out and one demonstration was fired upon killing eight civilians at Brakpora on April 3. Subsequent investigations vindicated local claims, that army and police had arrested and roasted alive five civilians in a Gujjar hut and claimed them to be militants.
The five bodies were exhumed and on basis of the circumstantial evidence and physical identification handed over to their families. Establishing their identity on scientific lines became another major problem as vested interests intervened and mixed the samples. New samples were taken and the identities established before the case was shifted to the CBI.
Justice S R Pandian probed the Brakpora incident and indicted seven personnel – four from CRPF and three from J&K Police’s SOG.
CBI submitted its charge sheet on May 12, 2006, against Brigadier Ajay Saxena, Lt Col Brajendra Pratap Singh, Major Surabh Sharma, Major Amit Saxena and JCO Idrees Khan – all from 7-Rashtriya Rifles accusing them of kidnapping and killing five innocents.
Army challenged the charge sheet saying CBI lacks jurisdiction to prosecute soldiers in absence of mandatory formal permission from central government. As the judge dismissed the plea and asked the army if it wants to take the case to the court-martial, the army went to the apex court and got a stay. The case is hanging fire since then.
Parihar (Hansraj, the then SSP Ganderbal) encounters are another widely reported case that the former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad probed to a limited extent. While investigating the mysterious disappearance of Larnoo (Kokernag) resident Abdul Rahman Padder, police stumbled upon a huge cupboard of skeletons. Army and SOG would kidnap civilians and kill them in far away places and dub them foreign militants – for promotions and rewards.
Gauging the public mood, Azad famously told the state legislature on February 5, 2006: “Everybody (party) has skeletons in its cupboard. Things worst than this have happened earlier (a reference to his predecessors Dr Farooq Abdullah and Mufti Sayeed). I had the guts to go for it (investigations) and it is high time (for every party) to go for self-introspection.”
Azad deserves credit for pushing the case. He set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) that solved five murders. As the cases started increasing (involving the same gang of cops and soldiers) and allegedly some political faces started surfacing, the investigations were limited to the five cases. (SIT had received complaints involving eight murders against Parihar.)
After the investigations were over, a number of cases were filed against seven J&K police personnel including SSP Hansraj Parihar, a DySP and an ASI. The SIT found three RR battalions falling under the territorial jurisdiction of 3-sector being part of four of the five cold-blooded murders. They were also included as the accused. While the entire accused lot from police is behind bars, the army men are yet to respond to the summons of the court. They have taken refuge under the same petition that is pending before the apex court.
At the peak of this crisis, Azad was advised to set up a commission on April 2, 2007, to look into the cases of custodial deaths and fake encounters with justice (retired) Makhan Lal Koul presiding over it. It had a couple of sittings but could not elicit any response barring a few complaints. Its term expired in October 2007 and the government considered an extension of its term for two months in April 2008. So far, there is nothing on record to suggest that the commission ever worked. That is the feeling that Azad had, so he stopped relying on the commission.
It was a smart move, but Azad understood that the bureaucracy was playing with him. He emphasised on police investigations without relying on a non-performing commission. In fact, Justice (retd) Koul is considered to be an inseparable part of the system. He has been heading the state advisory board constituted under Public Safety Act (PSA) for a number of years now but has never ever raised a finger over how the law is being misused for political reasons, at times, being used to keep minors in jail.
Kashmir is the main hunting ground, but the phenomenon is not restricted to the valley. Rajouri witnessed an exhumation that was debated for a long time. Three men – Abdul Aziz, Mohammad Yousuf and Mohammad Aziz were picked up from their residences in Kotdhara hamlet in a raid by Kreeri based 18-Dogra regiment on October 19, 2007. They never returned home. The family came to know about a fake encounter in which the three were killed and buried very close to the LoC.
Farooq, younger brother of Aziz, says police initially, refused to register an FIR. Three months of police investigation led to an exhumation on June 20, 2007. The body was identified as of Yousuf’s and later confirmed by DNA fingerprinting as well. Though the two other graves are yet to be reopened (despite orders of the DC) and Yousuf’s widow is yet to get the remains of her husband, the mystery has already been solved.
The trio were actually working with one Mann Singh, a colonel rank commanding officer of the regiment. Apart from being his sources, he ran a trans-LoC drug cartel using the trio, according to Yousuf’s brother Farooq. When the regiment was to be shifted in October 1997 the CO did not want to leave behind any traces or witnesses of his activities.
Individuals getting used for doing some dirty businesses in conflict belts for security agencies rarely survive.
All the five Ikhwani’s who were used and abused by the security agencies for various actions including kidnapping and killing of lawyer Jalil Andrabi were mysteriously butchered in Pulwama.
There is at least one case of fake encounters involving Hindu labourers. On April 12, 2004 four army personnel and an officer approach four labourers Bhushan Lal, Ram Lal, Satpal and Ashok Kumar (residents of Meeran Sahib, R S Pora) at Gole Market, Gandhi Nagar Jammu offering them porter jobs for Rs 6000 a month. They agree and leave with them.
For a long time, their families have no clue about their whereabouts. After almost a year, they start receiving anonymous letters from someone who described himself as “Aap ka sainik, insaniyat ka pujari (your soldier, a worshipper of humanity)” informing the families that the men have been killed in a fake encounter on April 20, 2004. After a lot of effort, the labourers’ families somehow manage to make the system work. Police in October 2005 register an FIR and book 10 soldiers of RR-18 including Colonel Rahul Pandey and Major Vijay Chehar for kidnapping and murder. In the meantime, a board of enquiry is set up under a brigadier. A young officer Captain Sumit Kohli talks something about letters and within days on May 2, 2006, he is dead. Decorated by a Shaurya Chakra only in March, the army said he committed suicide.
But the Kohli family is not ready to believe the official version. They allege he was killed for exposing the four murders by 18-RR. His father died of brain haemorrhage within 24 hours of getting the news of his son’s “suicide”. The case of the poor labourers who were killed to get out of turn promotions and rewards is still unresolved.
There are many cases on record in which an official’s promotion and gallantry award required Kashmiri blood. The erstwhile CO of 42 Bn BSF Narender Singh emerged such a powerful villain that his bosses initiated a court of inquiry against him, though for different reasons.
Police in Bandipore found Bashir Ahmad, a BSF recruit seeking customers for three packets of brown sugar. He was arrested and the revelation came that the consignment was handed over to him by his CO Singh. He had sent him on leave just to sell the drugs and pay him in Mizoram where he had been shifted.
However, prior to this incident, recruit Subhash Rathore had written to his DG (on July 6, 2004) that Singh arrested a civilian on September 8, 2003 and killed him in cold blood in a fake encounter to claim a gallantry medal. The slain was a resident of Rajouri who was arrested from TRC, Srinagar, interrogated for the whole night and finally driven to Nagabal near Chadoora where he was mowed down by Singh. Then, Singh was posted at Radar station near Chrar-e-Sharief. The slain was given the name of “Ismail Bhai alias Babar, s/o Golla Seeq Bhai, r/o Kodipak, district Lodurin-K K Khas, Chawalbir, Karachi”. Rathore’s letter was in response to a tiff between the two. Singh had reprimanded Rathore for taking a second wife without divorcing the first one. After Singh was shunted out of Kashmir, a court of inquiry was initiated. The terms of reference included bringing women from Punjab for “entertainment shows” to Radar Station and sending his sepoys to purchase guns from the market to show up his performance.
The script remains the same but characters change. In the fourth week of June 2008, police detained Fayaz Chichi, an Ikhwani along with a girl he had kidnapped from Bandipore. Interrogation led to his confessions that how he along with a JAKLI soldier Tahir of Pattan led to the kidnapping of Muhammad Ashraf Sheikh from his Dalgate residence, (he was actually from Larnoo Kokernag) and his killing in the outskirts of Brar (Bandipore) on June 3. He was killed by Major Devinder Telhan of 3-JAKLI, he told police. Tahir told the police that Colonel Balaji of his battalion had given him one lakh rupees “to get at least one militant as the performance of the unit had been remarkably dull for last few weeks”. There was no militant but a labourer could be made available and consumed. The investigation led to the exhumation, enquiries were announced, but nothing changed.
Sanam Aijaz, a TV journalist hailing from Lolab says he has witnessed one such encounter. “I have witnessed a staged encounter myself along with my mother and other family members when we were in the woods in 2001. Two army trucks came and they lined up four persons and killed them,” he said. After a few minutes, they took them in the same vehicles and handed them over to the police. “All the four were from Gunder Machar village and they were militants who had recently been released after completing their jail terms,” he still remembers. “In almost every village there are graveyards in which unidentified persons are buried,” he added.
Honours, rewards and performance records make the fake encounters a large reality in Kashmir. It is a larger debate, however, whether these killings are a disorder or an unwritten method of operation.
The anger of the separatists over such instances is understandable. This time even the unionists say the fake encounters are used to project that militancy is still a major challenge. Former Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed and his daughter Ms Mehbooba Mufti say that these killings seem to be aimed at blunting the demands for thinning of troops, withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and play spoilsport for the peace process. There are serious apprehensions in the ruling National Conference as well but for the compulsions of the throne, they may not be as outspoken as the opposition. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has taken up the issues with everybody who matters in New Delhi and is, reportedly, hoping it would not be repeated. He has also announced a high-level enquiry of the recent fake encounter.
The security agencies have the law with them and the authority too. But the recent incidents have unfolded at a time when Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is slated to be in town.
There is hardly any possibility of a political initiative, at least for want of takers, but will the visit pave way for making an end to these instances remains to be seen.