As people were waiting for answers, the army’s court martial in the Pathribal encounter ended in a revelation suggesting ‘Operation Kripan’ that devoured five innocuous Kashmiris was a joint exercise with the J&K police. R S Gull revisits the eventful 2000 summer to investigate if the two forces were really working jointly
The massacre of 35 Sikhs at Chattisinghpora, during the intervening night of March 21-22, 2000 was the start of the chain of events that eventually concluded with the exhumations of five hapless civilians in Kothar valley on March 25. But the very first instance somehow exhibited a conflict between the state police and the army. Inspector Mohammad Isaq led his cops from Mattan police station, trekked an 8 Kms distance and reached the site of the carnage during the night itself. The army, located at Ranipore slightly more than 3 Kms from the hamlet, reached during early hours.
It led many tongues waging in Srinagar and Delhi. One version even says the then Home Minister L K Advani reprimanded the soldiers for the delay.
But the “lead” over the massacre was grabbed by the state police within less than 12 hours when, according to then Kashmir Police Chief Dr Ashok Bhan, the police arrested Mohammad Yaqoob Wagay, a Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAKLI) soldier’s brother, for being the main conduit for 18 militants – a mix of Lashkar and Hizb fighters, who butchered the Sikhs leaving Nanak Singh as the lone survivor. By March 24, apparently after two days of sustained interrogation, senior police officers had shared the details of the meticulous investigations with reporters suggesting Wagay’s culpability.
On March 25, army and the state police issued detailed separate statements about the “special cordon and search operation” that they had successfully concluded over a hillock, the Zonatengri at Panchalthan. Offering details, the defence spokesman said they had launched a major operation in south Kashmir to nab the culprits responsible for the Monday massacre during which they eliminated top five militants. The location, they said, was 13 kms east of Chattisinghpora. “All the slain militants were in army uniform and were foreigners,” the statement said. “They belonged to Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba from whom four AK 47 rifles were recovered.”
Newspapers got a supplementary statement from the Zonal Police Headquarters. It said the police had arrested Mohammad Yaqub Wagay on March 23. On his revelation, the police said, the army reached the Panchalthan village at around midnight. “The militants fired upon the security forces that triggered the encounter lasting four hours,” Kashmir Times reported quoting the police spokesman’s faxed statement. “The operation was jointly supervised by Brigadier Bajaj and SSP Farooq Khan, resulted in the killing of five militants.”
Both the statements mentioned the bodies were charred beyond recognition as the Gujjar hutment where they were hiding got destroyed in the encounter. Police, however, identified three of them: Abu Hanief, Abu Shaham and Rehman Bhai. Police had sent three b/w photographs of the bodies of slain militants but Kashmir Times avoided to publish them “they were completely disfigured and beyond recognition.”
March 26 was a busy day for the state administration as home minister Advani landed with lot many officials to visit the bereaved families at Chattisinghpora. In his speech to the thousands of Sikh mourners, Advani suggested that the government will constitute all-Sikh Village Defence Committees (VDC) in all the 115 hamlets that Sikhs dominate. He was interrupted by Sikh leaders who rejected the idea. They shouted in retaliation: ‘VDC seeking Sikhs are government agents’.
Advani was briefed about the operations. Kashmir Times reported that the briefing was done by Major General R K Koushal, Brigadier Deepak Bajaj and SSP Farooq Khan. Indian Express reported: “..when Advani enquired about the officers who had killed the militants, he was introduced to two company commanders of 7 Rashtriya Rifles and Deputy Superintendent of Police (Special Operations Group) Tejinder Singh.”
Amid celebrations over the successes, a storm was in the making in Kothar valley. Ruled by nocturnal knocks, the scared Godforsaken belt had reported 17 civilians missing. It included an Islamabad orphan businessman and two village cattle traders who disappeared from the town itself. The crisis got complicated after kin of some of the missing civilians traced their certain belongings to the ‘encounter’ site. Initially they would protest locally but by the end of March they started moving towards Islamabad, the district headquarters.
They knew that on basis of their complaint, the Chief Judicial Magistrate had ordered registration of a murder case in the fake encounter and appointed DySP Headquarter Sheikh Abdul Rehman as the inquiry officer. But they were seeking exhumation of the bodies from the five graves which they were protecting round the clock in four villages. They were apprehensive the army might change the bodies to destroy the evidence.
Two days after being routinely permitted the passage at garrisons and security camps, the protest procession was significantly sized on April 3. Head of the SOG detachment ASI Ashok Kumar Sharma at Brakpora, in the outskirts of the town ordered fire on the procession. It was jointly obeyed by CRPF and SOG. Eight civilian protestors, including the son of a missing person Juma Khan, were mowed down as 14 survived injured.
Curfew was imposed across Kashmir and the killings turned things upside down. CRPF camp was removed the next day on April 4 and all the seniors in the SOG unit were placed under suspension. Same evening the district police and civil administration chiefs were shifted out. It was ground-shaking.
Wagay, that according to the statements made by the security agencies, was the only person linking the mess from the Sikh carnage to Pathribal ‘encounter’. For nearly 10 days, he was in SOG custody and was interrogated by IB, army and the SOG, separately and jointly. All recorded his culpability. Once he was shifted, in haste, to the executive police, he proved a scapegoat!
Exhumations of all the bodies took place under CJMs orders on two days April 6 and 7. After the bodies were identified by their families and the authorities agreed to their decent formal burial, samples were taken by a team of GMC doctors for DNA fingerprinting. They were sent to Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD) Hyderabad and Central Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL), Kolkotta. There were lot of exchanges between the sleuths in Kashmir and the ‘scientists’ seeking and responding to various technical queries, some of which were seemingly ridiculous.
It was lull on this front till Times of India broke it on March 6, 2002 – nearly two years after revealing how J&K government fudged the samples to sustain its earlier claims that the five civilians were militants. It first came Hyderabad and then from Kolkotta. The assembly was in session and it triggered an uproar. Chief Minister Dr Farooq apologized and announced retired high court judge G A Kuchay probing the racket that dented a government’s credibility.
Within two days on March 10, 2002 blood relations of the slain were driven to Srinagar in police escort and their blood samples were taken. This time it was IGP Jammu P L Gupta supervising the blood collection exercise. The interesting part was that the same doctor who had collected the samples earlier in Kothar was seen collecting the samples this time – Dr Balbir Kour.
Kuchay Commission report that was submitted to the government on December 15, 2002 did not offer any major insight into how the samples were fudged. It accepted the lack of direct evidence but drew certain presumptions on circumstantial reliable evidence. Army had not cooperated with the Commission.
Firstly, Kuchay Commission admitted the SOG participation in the operation at Pathribal that was mainly carried out by the RR-7. It mentions the rawangi (departure) of a police contingent led by SOG’s ASI Bashir Ahmad from Sher Bagh police post on March 24 and its return on March 25. Bashir led a contingent of 16 personnel.
Bashir has admitted to the Commission that the entry into the police records about his departure was correct. He has said the SOG post at Brakpora was nearer to the camp, the CO had rang him up so he left. He claimed reaching the Khundroo camp between 5 and 5.30 am and being driven near a nulla where he fired 20 to 25 shots. Then he, the Commission notes, along with the army went to the spot of the incident, finding some kothas burning and bodies lying there.
Moharir HC Mohammad Yaqub tells Commission that Bashir’s departure was on the directions of the SSP Farooq Khan. But Khan told the Commission that neither SOG was supposed to lead nor was asked to participate in the operation. He said Bashir’s departure was not the result of his specific directions but might have been the implementation of the standing directions that police must be around at the places of action. He, however, admitted he talked to media with the army officers at the spot of the supposed clash and the inputs were shared by army that carried out the operation.
Secondly, Kuchhay Commission mentions Muneer-ud-Din Shawl, the lawyer who was the attorney for the Kothar residents saying that when he went to collect the exhumation order from the office of DC Islamabad Dr Pawan Kotwal on April 3, he personally heard Farooq Khan not yielding to the orders of exhumations. He (Khan) “even asked him (Shawl) to play a role to get the situation defused,” the Commission has recorded. “Shri Khan, ultimately agreed on the condition that the identification of the deceased shall be made subject to the outcome of the DNA test.”
The report quotes Shawl saying further: “When Raja Aijaz Ali DIG asked him to why he wanted the identification to be subject to outcome of DNA test, Shri Farooq Khan in his (Shawl’s) presence replied that let the identification be made subject to DNA test as the bodies were burnt beyond recognition and he will take care of other things,” the report recorded. “He could not understand as to what he meant by the words “other things” at that time being happy for order to exhume the bodies.” The word “DNA test” has been inserted in the order by Dr Kotwal, according to Commission findings.
Hence goes the conclusions of the Commission.
“It is proved beyond doubt from the police record itself that the then SSP Islamabad had given directions to ASI Bashir Ahmad to go on secret duty…”
“Thus, District Police Chief, then had every reason to be anxious that DNA test should result in negative than positive to remain the fact of alleged killing of foreign militants intact.”
“The circumstances which led to this presumption or attempts by Sh Farooq Khan, then SSP, to thwart an order by Dr Pawan Kotwal, District Magistrate for exhumation of dead bodies drawing his attention that matter being subjudice due to order of enquiry by CJM, further suggesting DM that exhumation should be subject to DNA test which he will take care, coupled with participation of Sh Farooq Khan in the vediography by media on spot. As per official cassette called and played before the Commission, the killing of five foreign militants is made public by him side by side the army. All these factors leave little doubt that Sh Farooq Khan then SSP, might have managed behind the scene that blood samples so collected turned fake by indirect methods.”
The Commission seemingly skipped seeking answers to the manipulations in the collection and fudging. The key character in the sample collection was very close to Khan and had many of her kins working in the army. It chose to ignore – obviously for want of evidence, the efforts that were made to subvert the investigation as some people suggested the families of the slain must get a fat blood money.
Khan is not an ordinary officer. He has founded SOG in Kashmir at the peak of militancy. But his south Kashmir stint proved quite costly for him. Four days after his unceremonious shift from Islamabad, his services were placed under suspension along with that of Gazanfar Ali, the then SHO Achabal. The Brakpora case was probed by Justice S R Pandian and its report was submitted to the government on October 27, 2000. On December 2, 2001 Khan, cleared by Pandian Commission, was reinstated.
Kucchay Commission that looked into the fudging submitted its report on December 15, 2002. A cabinet sub committee terminated the services of ASI Bashir and placed the services of Khan under suspension on July 23, 2003. Before that on February 14, 2003, the Pathribal investigations had been entrusted to CBI, a job that it completed in May 2006.
Khan had gone to the court against the Kucchay Commission and later fought a battle at CAT in Chandigarh. He won all his battles. While Justice Promodh Kohli quashed Kuchay Commission’s strictures against Khan on February 18, 2005, Home Ministry on July 27, 2005 asked the state to reinstate him after being cleared by CBI and CAT. Khan retired from services as head of the Sher-e-Kashmir Police Academy Udhampur as IGP in October 2013.
CBI investigated the brutal murder of five civilians. Its charge sheet quoted the ASI Bashir Ahmad saying there was excessive and unwarranted force. The charge sheet mentions the entry in police records suggesting Bashir left with five of his subordinates to PCR on the directions of the SSP on a secret duty. But Bashir told CBI that it was incorrect because he carried only four persons and drove directly to the Army camp Khundroo on the request of Commanding Officer Saxena. The team slept in the camp for the night and left early morning for the spot of the encounter in an army vehicle and reached when it was nearing its end.
Though the entry offers the details of ammunition the team consumed in the “encounter”, Bashir claims neither of his team members even fired a single bullet. He even claimed the entries in records were wrong and attributed it to the manipulations after his transfer. In another session with the CBI, a year later, he had made an entry and that he had requested army to include him in the operation so that “we may get out of turn promotions and medals.” Khan, however, maintained that he had not deputed Bashir on secret duty.
Regardless of the involvement of the state police, the situation at ground zero lacked any clear clue that would help make Pathribal a joint exercise. Residents offered detailed accounts about the arrest of the civilians – soldiers came in the evening, knocked door, got in and sought help in finding the way out of the villages. And then took the guides hostage.
Five slain were not the only people who were missing. There were at least 17 civilians who went missing after the Sikh massacre. The ‘encounter’ actually helped many people to survive. Sheikh Abdul Rehman, who investigated the case, revealed that at least five persons who were taken by the soldiers in the same fashion and kept in the Khundroo camp were later released and all of them recorded their statements about their arrests which is part of the overall records of the case.
On the same night the two Juma Khans were taken, another posse of soldiers had collected four other civilians – Qasim, Sadiq, Javed and Mushkula Khan. The chilling details that Qasim offered suggests that soldiers took them to Hallen and “wanted to get rid of us all”. But then they got a message and these people were set free. Those rescued or set free later told the reporters and police that cops were keen to have tall, stout, bearded young men!
Locals talked about the peculiarity of the ‘operation Kripan’. From the belt, the army might have killed more than 200 militants in a series of operations but it was the first one in which soldiers were least tense and did not bother the civilian population living around the hillock. Once the operation was over, locals were asked to bury the bodies as a result of which two each were buried at Saglan and Chogam and the one was taken to Wuzkhah.
On the hilltop, only four of the hutments were involved in the “encounter” – three bodies were traced in the kotha belonging to Ama Khan and another was in Farooq Khan Gujar’s kotha, not far away. It was this one that lacked head, neck and an arm, according to CBI. The fifth body was in the open, far away from the herdsmen huts. Two bodies had army uniform over their civil dress. While the civil dress was performed with bullets, there was nothing on the combat uniform! Post encounter the Kothar Valley has decided to preserve this hillock as a collective memorial. No constructions are taking place there.
While army initiated the operation, was it possible that the inputs might have gone from the SOG? CBI that investigated the case has not come with any convincing answers. The only thing on record is a secret communication that went to Victor Force headquartered at Awantipore at 0800 hours from Captain Puneet Dutta suggested that a CASO (cordon and search operation) was in progress on basis of the input that SOG provided. It says that two columns of SOG are part of the operation. But there is no convincing evidence suggesting the SOG had any such input. Pursuing official communications, CBI has established that while army claims SSP Khan shared information with them at 11 PM on March 24 on basis of the revelations that Wagay made but it has rejected the claim for two reasons. Firstly, the five militants that Wagay had claimed were not the five slain civilians. Secondly, the civilians were arrested well before this so called in-put came to army. By the way, Wagay eventually proved a scapegoat.
Pandian Commission Undone
Recommendations made by the Justice S R Pandian Commission that investigated the Brakpora massacre in which a mixed contingent of SOG and CRPF killed eight civilians including the son of then missing Juma Khan have been undone, reports said. While MHA has refused acting against the four CRPF personnel, an internal enquiry has recommended reinstating the three SOG men indicted by the Commission.
SOG had opened firing on a 2000-strong procession on April 3, 2000 near Bulbul Nowgam (Brakpora) in the outskirts of Islamabad. Eight civilians were killed and 14 survived injured. The subsequent situation forced the then Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah to appoint Justice S R Pandian as head of a Commission that submitted his 255 page report in October 2000.
After examining 69 affidavits and 31 witnesses on behalf of the complainants besides 21 official witnesses, the Commission indicted seven security men – three from SOG and four from CRPF, and asked prosecution and severe punishment of them all.
While the MHA has refused to act against the CRPF personnel by rejecting permission to prosecute, the state government acted against the state police men. A 2001 departmental enquiry led by K Rajindra Kumar found them completely involved for the murders. But the three cops ASI Ashok Kumar, Krishan Kumar and Chaman Lal went to the court with the argument that a departmental enquiry against them cold not be held under the civil service rules against them. They won the case.
On basis of the high court verdict, the police continued another departmental inquiry by DIG N D Wani on July 15, 2013. The officer submitted his report on September 12, 2013 confirming their involvement in unprovoked and unwarranted firing on the civilian procession. However, Wani sought their reinstatement without any increment with the argument that “their suspension since the past 13 years has kept them away from policing (and) as such (a) lenient view is hereby taken.”