Justice Denied: Sopore 1993

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Dubbed as militancy capital, the Sopore town was subjected to a series of carnages and arson during the 1990s. After 45 coffins of charred civilians were lowered in graves and 16 injured, the promise of justice sent the town reconstructing the decimated 27 homes and 350 business units valuing Rs 30 crore in January 1993. A quarter-century later, the CBI said the BSF punished five personnel by three months of imprisonment and three others got forfeiture of half-year of service for promotion and pension, reports Masood Hussain

Martyr’s Graveyard, Iqbal Park Sopore.Photo:Muhammad Younis

For the last more than 25 years, he has been regretting his decision to come out of his home for opening his shop on January 6, 1993, when the markets were supposed to open after a 5-day strike. It was cold and it seemed as if it would start snowing anytime. For Tariq Ahmad Kanjwal, one of the major shopkeepers on Sopore’s tehsil road, it was just a routine day.

With a Kangri and shop keys in his two hands, Kanjwal said when he moved out on the road from his five-storied home located behind the shop line he owned at around 9:45 am, he found the road deserted. There was no movement of people but the BSF personnel were ubiquitous. The paramilitary men were busy collecting bricks from a burnt down water tank to construct a bunker, he remembers. Fearful of the tensions on the street, he thought of going back home when he heard the familiar voice.

“Open your shop, I need a chair to sit down,” a BSF officer, who would routinely be deployed on the spot told Kanjwal. “It gave me confidence and I opened the shop and gave him a chair.” A few minutes later, he asked for a cup of tea. “I went home and got two cups, one for him and another for myself,” Kanjwal said. It was a relationship that had evolved over the months since the 42 battalion was deployed in Sopore in April 1992. The officer would tell Kanjwal that he visits him quite often because “you look like my son”.

Dead bodies of 1993 Sopore massacre along with their identity cards. Photo: Meraj Ud Din

As the BSF officer and Kanjwal started sipping tea, some shopkeepers felt encouraged and opened the shutters. That morning, a massive blast had taken place in New Colony and residents had been summoned out in the subsequent crackdown. “The officer told me about the blast and said that if something similar happens in this area, nothing shall survive,” Kanjwal said. “It was something that an army officer had told me earlier as well because the area we were living was a red zone where frequent militant attacks were taking place.”

As the two men were talking, there was a blast and burst of fire very close by. The officer left saying he would check out. “The BSF personnel around stopped collecting bricks and took up positions and the situation turned scary,” Kanjwal said. “My father, Abdul Ahad heard the gunshots and came out to tell me to shut the shop. He actually sat on the chair that the officer had vacated only to ensure that I quickly close the shutter.”

Within minutes, a group of people started running on the road and it seemed they were being chased. It triggered a serious tension on the road as one person who was running away was killed on the road by the BSF. Everybody started running for life. Kanjwal said he threw the merchandise inside his shop and soon the frightened people also jumped in. “I pushed my father into the shop. Then Ghulam Mohammad Hajam, a barber in my neighbouring shop, came in along with Abdul Khaliq Malik, his customer who had come for making his shave, joined us,” Kanjwal said. “Then three pedestrians – two from Shahgund and one from Botengoo, also took refuge. Minutes later, the BSF officer came with a huge posse and shouted that I must close the shutter.”

File pic of people protesting against the Sopore massacre. Photo: Meraj Ud Din

In a panic, as Kanjwal pulled the shutter down, a cane of edible oil came in between and created a space for air and enough to watch what was happening on the street. “For 90 minutes or more, I watched the hell from that gap,” Kanjwal said.

The first sight was that of a bus that was on way to Bandipore. It was stopped, just in front of my shop, Kanjwal remembers. “The BSF got in and fired inside and I thought everybody was killed. I saw the driver fleeing and saving his life. I still remember the cries and shrieks coming from that bus” he said. “The next came a Maruti car. The man who was sitting on the back seat opened the door and fled into an alley but the driver was shot dead.”

Kanjwal then saw the BSF men getting his neighbouring shopkeeper, Altaf out of his shop. “I remember he was smoking a cigarette when he was taken on the road and killed,” Kanjwal said. “We were terrified by the killings forgetting that gradually smoke was filling the shop. I also felt the heat from one side and from the first floor where my godown was. I was convinced that the market had been set afire. I told my father that I will break the rare wall of the shop but he did not permit.”

Then, the BSF came and pulled up the shutter. The same officer was leading the team. “I begged him for a safe passage, told him he has been seeing his son in me but he called me names,” Kanjwal said. “I begged him to let the old man go home but when he refused I lost my cool, came out of my shop to argue. At the moment, his guard opened his carbine and fired at me. All the bullets hit the barber but I got one in my leg. I fell down and they took me up and threw me in my shop and closed the shutter.”

Tariq Ahmad Kanjwal

Though the shutter depleted the oxygen supply and the fire got extinguished, the smoke and the burning of chillies brought Kanjwal back to his senses. The first thing he searched for was his father. “I felt his face and found him dead and then I started making efforts to pull him towards some space where he would not burn. I dragged him down the Tamaek Takhteh, the tobacco table,” Kanjwal said. “All the three shelter-takers were also dead. But the barber was alive. He was living for his son, the four days old infant, who was born after his three daughters and he was desperate to see him once.”

Assadullah Lone

The overwhelming situation resurrected the sportsman in Kanjwal, a six-time Kabaddi player at the national level who had won many games against BSF and army. “I somehow got the five kgs weight and started towards the rare wall which I wanted to break for oxygen. While moving towards the wall, I encountered the barber, who in desperation to get some air, had started breaking the shelves with his mouth. While attempting to take him along, he slipped down and became untraceable under the heaps of merchandise. Then I started breaking the wall. Somehow I created a hole in the 13-inch wall that was enough to fetch me fresh air and a space to put my head into it. Then I lost my senses and when I opened my eyes, I had been unconscious for three days in SKIMS.”

Though all the doctors were trying to revive Kanjwal, especially those from Sopore – Mohammad Yousuf Kanjwal, M S Khuroo and other doctors, there was no headway. Finally Yousuf, now a cardiologist living in the USA, ordered that Tariq is taken out in open and pushed into a snow bath. It worked. He started reacting to the extreme cold, and a few days later, Kanjwal was revived but his tongue and the eyes were still away from their original position.

The other serious crisis, Kanjwal said he faced was when Hajam’s family came to see him and wanted to know his whereabouts. “It pushed me to the nightmare I lived and I lost my consciousness again,” Kanjwal said. “But they waited, even against the advice of the doctors, until I was revived. Then I got a pen and paper and wrote on it about his death and the spot. A day later, I was told that they had recovered a few kilograms of roasted flesh and buried it in Arampora.”

After being discharged, Kanjwal faced another crisis when he was living at his uncle’s home. “The moment I would get a wink, the Hajam would come with only one thing – Paaneh Tchoulukh Beh Trovethus Atie (You fled and deserted me there),” Kanjwal said. “It created a situation for me that I would pull my hair and eat my fingers and I was about to get mad. Then I went against the advice of everybody and took some people and got back into my stinking shop where, in presence of thousands of people, we recovered one complete limb of Hajam. That limb was given a funeral prayer by nearly 50,000 people and was buried in the Iqbal Market Shaheed Mazaar. Hajam is the only victim of the massacre who is buried at two places.”

The Bandipore bound bus that Kanjwal watched from a distance was State Road Transport Corporation (SRTC) owned JKY-1901. As many as 11 passengers were killed in this bus and the lone bullet hit who survived was Assadullah Lone, a young farmer from Hathlangoo, a hamlet on the Sopore-Bandipore road.

A truck damaged by BSF at sopore on 6-1-1993. Photo: Meraj Ud Din

“I was accompanying my wife of 16 years, Misra Begum, to see a lady doctor, but to my misfortune, she had left her clinic,” Lone said. “We knew the situation was bad so we tried to get into the bus. We had barely started that situation turned bad and two BSFG men got into the vehicle and opened fire. They fired till they felt that we all are dead.”

Once the firing stopped, Lone said he started looking at his wife. “She was dead and I closed her eyes and tied her scarf. She had taken a number of bullets on her chest,” Lone said. “I was hit by three bullets, one in my arm, another in the leg and third in the abdomen.”

Then, Lone decided to leave the vehicle. “I crawled out of the blood-drenched bus and somehow reached a group of women who took me in the locality wherefrom I was driven to Baramulla,” Lone remembers. “There I was treated for three days and then I came home to participate in the Rasm-e-Chahrum of my wife. Finally, I went to Barzulla Hospital where they decided against taking the bullet out of my arm. It is still there.” Lone had to put a huge battle to raise his six kids, mostly minors.

The survivors of Sopore massacre.

“When I sought compensation, they said you do not need because you can remarry. Finally, they processed the case and ultimately out of one lakh of ex-gratia, I got Rs 60,000, the balance amount was taken by officials and touts,” Lone said. “They told me there is no job under the SRO.”

The worst in a series of massacres in the town, January 6, 1993, witnessed the killing of 45 civilians as 16 survived injured. The fire that residents alleged was initiated by the paramilitary proved a deadly blow to the economy of the town that was termed Chota London because of the Apple-created prosperity. Though only 27 residential structures went up in flames, the conflagration devoured 235 shops, 61 go-downs, 54 Khokhas, two buses, one truck, a car and a scooter. Added with 15 shops that local trade alleged were looted, the costs were put around Rs 30 crore at 1993 prices.

The civilian killings took place in almost one kilometre long stretch but there were three spots where multiple killings took place. In the ill-fated bus, 11 people were killed; in Kanjwal shop-line where more than 10 civilians were killed. “From a famous photo-studio, the people recovered the owner and his employee in an embrace,” Kanjwal said. “They had suffocated to death and were roasted and people could not separate them and were buried together in one grave.”

File pic of a devastated Sopore market on Jan 06, 1993. Photo: Meraj Ud Din

Instances in which one member of a family survived and another was killed are many. But in one case, four members of a family got killed. On the eve of the massacre, a family in Shalpora had loaded a truckload of apple. As it started leaving Sopore, it was stuck in a manhole that required unloading. In absence of a crane, they decided to do it on January 6. The family came out and started unloading. They were busy and the incident took place and four of them were killed: Ghulam Rasool, Bashir Ahmad, Mohammad Ashraf and Sajad Ahmad. In fact, the conductor of the truck JKQ 6057, Pawan Kumar, a resident of Jammu was injured in the shootout but survived.

There were instances in which the people were caught, lined up and fired upon.

The tragedy was the outcome of a group of eight militants attempting to leave the town towards Tarzoo when they faced a BSF patrol. A militant lobbed a grenade and it triggered a scare. A border guard who was eating apple near the truck had his LMG unmanned that militants took. It led to a fire exchange in which a militant was injured along with two BSF personnel, Arvind Panday and Jagat Pal Singh, one of whom (Panday) later succumbed at 92-Base Hospital. After the injured were evacuated by the two sides, the BSF reinforcements rushed towards the spot and fanned in all directions. The rest is history.

Enraged, the BSF prevented the fire-fighters from any intervention and even carried out killings while a senior police officer was on spot. While entire Kashmir went into instant mourning, SKIMS sent a doctors’ delegation to the town. Local doctors at the sub-district hospital accompanied cops to a safe locality where people brought charred corpses on the hand-pushed carts and readied the basic medico-legal cases.

File pic of people carrying dead bodies from Iqbal Market, Sopore. Photo: State Police Crime Branch, which is part of CBI record.

By evening top security officials from Srinagar were in town. The next day, the top bureaucracy and various central government leaders flew to the town. Kashmir remained locked for many days. Compensation was announced but, on the call by Hurriyat, then led by Syed Ali Geelani, not many people claimed it. For many days, the residents refused to clear the debris.

The governor’s administration, then completely dominated by the security grid, did the follow up to the massacre in its own peculiar style. First, the locals went to the police and registered an FIR with the police. To counter it, the BSF commandant registered his FIR telling his side of the story.

Sopore was still smouldering – the fire was finally controlled on January 8, 1993, that the governor’s administration announced a parallel investigation by the police Crimes’ Branch. The same afternoon, the particular battalion was shifted out of town, to Pulwama.

By January 20, the governor’s administration announced a CBI investigation and the details of the cases – with the local police station and the Crime Branch, were shifted to the federal investigator.

Ten days later, on June 30, the governor’s administration announced a one-man commission to be presided over by Justice Amerjeet Singh Choudhary, a sitting judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, who later became an acting Chief Justice and superannuated in 1998. The government set up an office for the judge and appointed his aides. Despite multiple extensions in his service, he never came to Srinagar. Finally, the government stopped extending its term beyond April 30, 1994.

After the case was shifted to the CBI, the police investigations had come to naught. The CBI took its own time – only twenty years, to submit its findings. On July 17, 2003, the CBI filed the reports before the designated court.

“It is most humbly submitted that after thorough probe as communicated vide status report dated 17.10.2013, two separate Final reports (Closure Reports) in CBI Cases RC 4-5(S)/93/SC-II/CBI/New Delhi corresponding to FIR No 8 & 9/1993, PS Sopore, J&K were filed by CBI in the court of Spl. Judge, Designated TADA Court, Srinagar on 04.12.2013,” CBI informed the State Human Rights Commission in 2017. “After several consecutive hearings, the Closure Report in CBI case RC 5 (S)/93/SC-II/CBI/New Delhi corresponding to FIR No 9 of 1993 PS Sopore, J&K was accepted by the Ld. Spl. Judge, TADA, Srinagar on 08.06.2015. However, the Closure Report in CBI case RC 4 (S)/93/SC-II/CBI/New Delhi is still pending for consideration and acceptance before the Ld. Spl. Jude, Designated TADA Court, Srinagar, J&K.”

By June 2014, Kanjwal and many other survivors of the massacre challenged the outcome of the CBI investigations by filing a protest petition before the designated court. The case is going on and it was during the series of hearings that the CBI submitted details of its findings. For the last two years, there has not been any hearing as there is no designated judge to hear the case. Activists have filed a new petition seeking a judge who could hold the charge and decide the case.

An investigation that spanned two decades can, by no means, be a simpler one. The federal investigator recorded a set of statements of the civilians and most of the BSF officers as part of its investigations. It had seized 110 weapons of the BSF along with 5865 empty fired cartridges (EFC) of which 981 were fired on January 6, 1993. The weapons were already released by the court after it accepted one closure report of the CBI.

Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS) that have managed access to the CBI investigations have done a detailed critique of the CBI closure reports.

In its publication Structure of Violence, JKCCS has quoted CBI saying in paragraph 16.15: “…the cause of firing as well as the motive behind the incident could not be established”. The report accuses local police of “not inspecting the place of occurrence to detect bullet heads, empty fired cartridges, other physical clues etc which could have linked the militants with the commission of the crime.”

In paragraph 16.16, it adds: “Investigation revealed that the alleged indiscriminate firing by the militants on the troops of 94 Bn. BSF and innocent civilians at Sopore on 06.01.93 was done with the motive to tarnish the image of the security forces in the area, as the BSF troops acted only in self-defence after their LMG pair comprising of constables Jagat Pal Singh and Arvind Panday were injured by the militants resulting in heavy cross-firing between the troops of 94 Bn., BSF and the militants.”

Then in paragraph 16.19, the CBI is quoted saying: “…it is very difficult to reach at the conclusion about the fact as to who opened fire first during the incident…”

“The CBI has chosen to record testimonies of only 15 civilians effectively erasing from legal memory the crucial eyewitness testimony of key witnesses such as Tariq Ahmad Kanjwal, Mohammad Abdullah Shalla, Mehra Begum and Shafaqat Ahmad Dar,” the JKCCS report points out. “Even when irrefutable evidence is recorded by the CBI itself as in the case of Mohammad Ramzan Beigh who was working as a labourer in the fruit shop of Mohammad Ramzan War at the time of the massacre such crucial eyewitness testimony is conveniently brushed aside. Mohammad Ramzan Beigh says the BSF lined up the men (including him) from the shop, at the JK Bank nearby and fired upon them at close range.”

Beigh survived even after taking a full burst on his leg, which was later amputated.

Interestingly, CBI records carry a list of only 33 civilians while as 45 are well documented. Barring three of them, all others had been shot in the head, chest and abdominal regions: 21 in the chest, 11 in the abdomen and six in the head. All the bullets hit them from the front side. In its report, CBI pointed out certain lacunas forgetting that in the prevailing situation literally no autopsy was carried out.

CBI investigations attribute the killings to the crossfire, neglecting the statements by civilians and some of the BSF men. In its reports, the CBI has insisted that “injured witnesses, were unable to identify the BSF personnel involved in the incident”, therefore, “it could not be established during the investigation as to who killed 44 civilians and injured 14 persons”. On the mass destruction of property, it attributes to “explosion of gas cylinders during an exchange of fire between the BSF troopers and the militants”. Though the CFSL investigations did not trace any combustible material in the burnt out samples, one sample carried human blood. The investigator reported to the court that it could not do the verification of the civilians who died or were injured because of the “non-cooperation of the local residents”. The fire that CBI believes emanated from a crockery shop in Bhuggo Chowk – almost a kilometre away from the spot of carnage and destruction was selling lighting cylinders and lacked LPG!

Since the federal investigator does not hold the paramilitary responsible for anything, it does not recommend any punishment to anybody. In response to a direction by the SHRC in a petition that human rights activist Mohammad Ahsan Untoo had filed as early as 2012, the CBI has referred to the BSF communication that suggested the paramilitary tried 19 personnel in the General Security Force Court under the Border Security Force Act, 1968 for commission of offences under sections 304, 307, and 436 RPC read with Section 34 of RPC and were punished and sentenced accordingly.

The personnel who were tried included Prakash Singh, B B Joshi, Ajain Singh, Charan Singh, Sudama Rai, Sanjay Kumar, Raj Kumar, S N Singh, Baljeet Singh, Mohan Singh, Tej Raj Sharma, Ranvir Singh, Chur Chand Sharma, Vachaspati Sharma, Mohan Lal, Rajender Kumar, Virender Singh, and Purshotam Singh.

Head Constable Sanjay Kumar had died before the Records of evidence (RoE) were conducted, leaving only 18 personnel for the court-martial.

“On completion of the RoE, the charges were dismissed in respect lance naik Baljeet Singh, Constables Umesh Pal Singh, Virender Singh and Purshotam Singh for want/lack of evidence against them,” the CBI communication quoting the BSF reads. This left 14 personnel with some charges.

They were “punished”. Sub-inspector Sudama Rai had forfeiture of three years of service for the purpose of promotion and got ‘severe reprimand’. Lance Naik Raj Kumar was given a punishment of forfeiture of one year of service for the purpose of promotion, pension and ‘service reprimand’. Five constables Chur Chand Sharma, Tej Raj Sharma, Rajinder Kumar, Mohan Singh and Vachaspati Sharma were awarded three months rigorous imprisonment in BSF custody. Mohan Singh was later dismissed from the service by his unit on December 26, 1996 (albeit for different reasons) and his name was deleted from the charge sheet. Head constable S N Singh also expired during the pendency of disciplinary cases.

Prakash Sigh, an Assistant Commandant faced a separate GSFC and was awarded a punishment of forfeiture of six months of service for the purpose of pension and was ‘severely reprimanded’. His counterpart, BB Joshi was punished by way of “issuance of IG’s displeasure”.

People conducting prayers for the victims of the Sopore massacre. Photo: Muhammad Younis

“The charges against Sub Ajaiab Singh and SI Charan Singh were dismissed after completion of the trail of SI Sudama Rai and six others as no cogent evidence case against them,” the CBI communicated to the SHRC. “Thus, all the accused personnel who were found guilty during the Court of Inquiry and Record of Evidence proceedings were tried by the General Security Force under BSF Act and Rules and based on the findings, the Court awarded sentence to the accused persons. As per law, no one can be tried and punished twice for the same offences as the same will amount to double jeopardy.”

The “justice” was made public only after the JKCCS and Untoo chased the case and made the CBI findings public, more than 25 years later. The show is still on.

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