A massacre can perpetuate trauma in memory. The scars of Chittisinghpora will never vanish, but 12 years after 35 Sikhs were brutally gunned down in this village, the identity of the perpetrators remains unknown. Saima Bhat reports on the life of the survivors of the carnage.
Families of Chattisinghpora victims – Photo: Bilal Bahadur
On the surface, Chattisinghpora is like any other of the thousands of Kashmiri villages, nestled in the Himalayan surroundings. But a few minutes into conversations with the villagers here, one is engulfed with living tragedy and grief. This village is distinguished by a Samadhi, a memorial to the 35 villagers, members of the Sikh community who were brutally gunned down by ‘unknown’ armed men 12 years ago late night on March 20. The Samadhi reminds the villagers, every day of their life, of that horrible night when they witnessed a ‘river of blood’ flowing down the village dirt tracks. The massacre grabbed global headlines as it was carried out while Bill Clinton;the then US president was on an official visit to India. Chattisinghpora has lived under constant trauma ever since. Those left behind, the families of the victims, as of course their Muslim neighbours, feel that they may never get justice as the perpetrators remain unidentified.
Neelam Kour, a mother of two has brought up her kids all by herself. The children, daughter (14) and son (12) don’t know anything about the night of March 20, 2000 in which their father and other three other family members were killed. They think their father works in Army, posted far away and he doesn’t get leave to see his family.
The husband of Neelam had his electrical business and that fateful night while coming back from his shop he was stopped by the ‘men in uniform’ who had already cordoned off the whole area. In some time he was fired upon along with his younger brother, two uncles and 12 others– all residents of Showkeen Mohalla. Neelam recalls, “We got so scared when those uniformed men with covered faces were running in our lanes. Myself, my 18-months-old daughter and my mother-in-law were all alone in the house. We were so frightened that we couldn’t even once see what was happening outside. All we could do was to hear the noise coming from outside.”
Since Neelam’s house is beside the Gurdwara in Showkeen Mohalla she was able to hear the guns being fired including that initial shot fired in the air “may be to give signal to the other murderers who were waiting in another Gurdwara, Gurdwara Singh Saba Samadari Bagh where 18 more were killed and later one injured succumbed to his injuries”.
Those men were in white Army boots and were wearing uniforms. Neelam says, “Before they started firing they were asking the lined up people, whom they were going to shoot at any time ‘do you remember Jallianwalla Bagh’, ‘do you remember Nan Kanda sahib’ and I still remember they were conversing in Hindi language”. When the uniformed gunmen fled away everyone came out of their houses and saw bodies lying in the pool of blood. Some villagers had also seen empty alcohol bottles besides the bodies.
Neelam had married just two years before the massacre in which her husband was also killed. She is 35 now and has decided to remain single. Besides receiving ex-gratia money from the government and members of the Sikh community in Punjab she was offered a class IV job in the education department under SRO 43 since she was educated only up to standard nine.
Like many other widows of Chittisinghpora Neelam has given up hope of getting to know of the killers of her husband’s. “What is going to happen by a probe? People who were killed won’t come back,” she says. She had 50 kanals of land, which she sold off because some members of the community had decided to migrate out somewhere. Like Neelam, Jeet Kour, 55, has not kept any ‘false hope’ that one day they will get to know who the killers were. Jeet’s husband, Charan Singh was a retired Army official and first among the people who were killed near Gurdwara Singh Saba Samadari Bagh.
Jeet, mother of three daughters and a son went to Jammu after the massacre but they soon came back feeling lonely and outcast among the people of Jammu who used to ‘badmouth about the people who fled to Jammu’. She used the ex-gratia relief-money to marry off all her children and recommended her daughter for a job on offer for a family member under SRO 43.
Jeet is now a lonely woman. She has nobody to talk to at home so she keeps herself busy with her domestic cattle and sometimes chats up with family members of other victims. She feels, “life would have been much better if my husband was alive. I would not have been feeling so lonely despite having a son who is living in the same house”.
Jeet feels her son, who lives in the same house with her, is alienated from her. She doesn’t know the reason behind her son’s changed attitude but she suspects it might be because she recommended her daughter for the SRO job when her son might have expected to get it.
“Most of the relief money was given by the Sikh community and they had promised us they will provide a vehicle (Punjab government) to every family which I had planned to give to my son but the ‘so called leaders’ neither gave us those vehicles nor the full amount contributed by the different communities,” says Jeet in an angry tone. The representatives of the victim families say they have all records of distributing the money among the families. But some, like Jeet, complain that instead of the promised Rs 12 lakh, she received only Rs 6 lakh.
Jeet remembers not being able to sleep for almost a year after the massacre, till asecurity camp was put up in the center of the village. Yet, she says, “The camp was put in here to make sure our community doesn’t fly out.”
“Every year we arrange a paath on the anniversary of the massacre and they (so called leaders) talk high and loud about the pressure they will put on the state government for ordering a probe but as soon as the event is over everyone gets busy with their own work till the next March 20 arrives.”
Jeet’s neighbor, Kuldeep Kour has become her companion since the March massacre. Kuldeep is a Kashmiri but finds it difficult to talk in any language other than Punjabi. Kuldeep’s husand, Naseeb Singh, who was also killed that night wasthe village headman. Memories of that night still disturb Kuldeep who also lost her two brothers in the massacre. She feels her husband was killed because they always used to host militants, who used to come for evening tea to their house. “Still I can’t say were they really militants or not, because as long as they used to be here no one from the security forces would come here but once they would leave military used to come. They used to question and abuse us for hosting the militants. We never saw those militants again after the incident,” she recalls wiping her cheeks wet with tears.
Kuldeep’s youngest daughter-in-law, Sonu Kour married recently. She is actually from Nowgam Ashmuqam area. She remembers how after the massacre they were ready to leave Kashmir by the 31st of that month, fixed as deadline to leave the valley. “But then the victims decided to stay back, we also changed our decision.”
Sonu is an educated lady and believes the government was involved. “Till now we haven’t got any concrete outcome of that probe because I feel the government was involved in the massacre. Had it (the government of the day) not been involved then they would have probed the issue long back,” she says.And her mother-in-law trying not to miss anything added, “I also remember when a victim, Nanak Singh was injured, his cousin came out to save him, he knocked at our window and asked for water but those uniformed men came from nowhere to shoot him too. They started shouting ‘see if any one among them is still alive then burn them alive’.”
Kuldeep’s house is close to the Gurdwara. She remembers how the blood of the victims was flowing down their lane and she suddenly burst into tears saying, “Somewhere in that flowing blood there was the blood of my husband and of my brothers.”
Chattisinghpora comprises of nine Mohallas including six of Sikhs and three of Muslims. Around 300 Sikh families live in the village. Initially out of fear, the Sikh community elders had decided to flee the valley many families had started the process of selling of their land, orchards, paddy fields and domestic animals to their Muslim neighbours. But then calmer sense prevailed and the community leaders changed their mind because it had created problems for those Sikh families who were fortunate for not having lost any members to the gruesome massacre. But some 10 families actually migrated to Jammu after selling their land off.
Krishan Singh, 65, a shopkeeper is one of them. “We were killed like dogs and nobody came to support us emotionally.” Krishan has three sons who are living separately. He runs a petty shop. His elder son works as a driver and another is a technician, while his third son is jobless.He says that the people who were killed got everything –Rs15 to 20 lakh ex-gratia relief and a job under SRO 43 to each victim but people like him suffered differently. Out of fear they had sold everything at “lower costs” to be able to migrate out. Their leaders and elders of the village had told them that their community has decided collectively to move out, to live outside. But then they changed their decision within a few days and asked their people not to move because ‘Government will give us home migration certificates and job if we stayed back’. But till now neither have they received any home migration certificate nor any job as promised by then government.
Krishan believes that the people who forced them to stay back were “paid agents”, the “black sheep of our community”. “It was the responsibility of state government to stop us before selling our land and it was their and Centre’s responsibility to start the probe. After some days they told us they have killed in Barakpora the militants who killed our 35 Sikhs. But unfortunately, those people killed in Barakpora were innocent civilians and we were misguided,” he said.
The government had undertaken a police recruitment drive in the area for 100 people but the Sikh families living in the area say that only 30 Sikhs were adjusted in it and rest were adjusted from other villages “who had given money to our black sheep,” alleges Krishan. He had gone to the DIG office during that recruitment drive for looking for a job for his son but no avail. Krishan says it would have been better if “he too had been killed that night”. The village headman, Mehshoor Singh says that the government should have stopped them from selling off their property.
Mehshoor claims, “Our leaders adjusted their own children in jobs and then they collaborated with different governments also to take the benefit out of the miseries of people like us”. He feels the Punjab government also changed their strategy. “Initially they told us they had the capacity, space to keep us all but then they changed their stand and said they don’t have anything to give us.”
There are three or four such families also who cannot even afford their one-time meal. Mehshoor feels all the responsibility of worsening their condition lies with the people who are presenting themselves as the leaders of the community.
People of this area are busy building Samadies of the people who were killed that day so that their children will remember what had happened to their community.
Hardeep Kour is in standard 12 now. She too lost her father in the massacre along with four other members of the family. “Initially I faced a lot of problems, I used to get flashbacks of my father, how he was lying in the pool of blood. I used to get afraid of things but now I don’t know how I am living without my father.” Hardeep’s grandmother is living in the same house but she cooks for herself and is prefers to live all alone. Her behaviour has changed since that night.
“We can’t even imagine her situation now because that day she lost her husband, two sons and two grandchildren. We let her do what she feels is good,” said Hardeep.
Now, 12 years after the massacre, the community is still trying to get that massacre probed fully. Giani Rajinder Singh, a Granthi of the local Gurdwara is following all cases related to the massacre. “We met CM on this 8th Feb and he has promised us he’ll start a judicial probe of that massacre and he said the file is ready in the civil secretariat.”
Of that night Giani Rajinder says, “Whosoever did that was against all religions. There was a lot of anger in the community but our leaders and seniors made our community understand not to harm the people from other community as our neighbours were all Muslims.”
The Giani recalls, besides the people from all over the valley, people from Punjab and other Sikh places came to visit the village. All the separatist leaders of Kashmir had also visited them. Muslim populations living within 12 miles of this area were not in their houses for almost a month after the massacre. One Mohammad Yakub Wagey was arrested with the police accusing him of being an overground worker for those who carried out the massacre in Chittisinghpora. “Sikhs came to attack us but the local police who were already handling the situation requested us to leave our village for some time to save our lives and we did it. We returned after a month and were still living in fear that they might come again to attack us,” said Mohammad Shabaan a local resident. Fortunately, the relations between the Sikhs and the Muslims of the area have been almost completely repaired and amity has returned.