Shadows of past

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The last time a US president visited India, 35 Sikhs were killed in a mysterious carnage in Kashmir. With another US president’s visit round the corner, people here are keeping fingers crossed. Khursheed Wani reports on the horrors of last carnage.

Bodies of victims killed in Chattisighpora massacre - Image courtesy: Sikh Siyasat

Bodies of victims killed in Chattisighpora massacre – Image courtesy: Sikh Siyasat

With US President Barack Obama’s visit to India drawing closer, the security evaluation in embattled Jammu and Kashmir attracts more attention, particularly that of minuscule minorities of Sikhs and Hindus or Pandits.

Ahead of the President’s visit, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah convened a special meeting of Unified Headquarters to assess the security situation and directed all security and intelligence agencies to be extra-vigilant. This was followed by Home Secretary GK Pillai’s expression of fear that incidents of killing of civilians like in Chittisinghpora would be repeated and “therefore we are being careful”.

When the then US president Bill Clinton was about to reach New Delhi on his maiden visit, on a drizzling evening of March 21, 2000 – a group of gunmen herded 37 villagers at Chittisinghpora in south Kashmir – all Sikhs – to two gurdwaras. They first opened machine gun fire on them and then pumped bullets into their blood-oozing bodies to ensure nobody survived from the two segregated groups to narrate the horrific tale. One of the villagers, a schoolteacher, had escaped before they had been lined up for butchery. Another, Nanak Singh, shot in pelvis survived only after creeping under corpses, feigning death. His son, brother and two first cousins were among the 35 people massacred on the fateful evening.

Ten-and-a-half years after the carnage, mystery continues to shroud it. The government squarely blamed separatist militants belonging to Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen for the killings with an aim to attract worldwide attention on Kashmir. The separatists, on their part, both political and militants, blamed the government forces – either regular army personnel or counter-insurgents – for the killings “with an aim to berate the secessionist movement as purely blood-spilling terrorism”. Every aspect of the massacre – its timing, execution, the incidents that followed, official responses and claims, separatists’ rebuttals and even irresolute eye-witness accounts of the villagers added to the mystery. The call for an impartial probe renews on every anniversary of the carnage. This time it is repeated on the arrival of Barack Obama.

The villagers said the killers were dressed in what appeared to be the regulation issue of the Indian Army. Their fatigues were coloured, probably in the backdrop of Holi, the Hindu festival of colours. Some of them staggered while taking swigs from (liquor) bottles, spoke Urdu, and left the carnage site chanting Jai Mata Di, a Hindu religious slogan. One of the killers called an accomplice as Gopal while retreating. The officials said that it was a ploy by the militants to divert attention and make it appear that Army was involved in the killings. Pillai maintains the stance even now. “That’s the type of fear we have that innocent civilians will be killed and the blame would then be put on Army. Like last time, the entire blame was put on the Indian Army having conducted that and all indications are that the propaganda machinery would be out to do almost the same, and therefore we are being careful”, he said in New Delhi.

Dr. Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference was heading the government in Jammu and Kashmir, and the party was an ally of the Bhartiya Janata Party led-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that was in power in New Delhi. Soon after the massacre, he promised to bring the culprits to book as soon as possible. This led to indiscriminate arrests. While the massacred Sikhs were being cremated, someone from the villagers doubted on a Muslim neighbour Muhammad Yaqoob Wagay alias Chatta Goor, who led prayers in local mosque, to have accompanied the killers. Police immediately swung into action and arrested him.

On March 26, when Clinton was wrapping up his visit, police claimed that five “foreign mercenaries” involved in Chittisinghpora carnage were killed by police and Army’s Rashtriya Rifles in a fierce encounter at Pathribal hamlet. The photographs of their charred bodies were released to the media. The announcement was made almost simultaneously by then Minister of State for Home Affairs Mushtaq Ahmad Lone in Srinagar and then federal home minister and Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani in New Delhi. However, in the later events, Wagay turned out to be innocent and was released while the “five foreign mercenaries” were proved to be local civilians picked up by police from neighbouring habitations and done to death in a fake encounter, their bodies mutilated beyond recognition.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act that provides impunity to armed forces in Kashmir is still shielding the officers, whose involvement in Pathribal killings has been proven by the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI), India’s premier investigating agency. A case is pending prosecution in Supreme Court of India. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh expressed ignorance on the case, when a senior Delhi based journalist Siddharth Vardarajan asked him at once-in-a-year press conference in New Delhi few months ago.

Fingers of suspicion were raised on the Pathribal encounter from day one. A gravedigger found a strand of sweater, an identity card and a bevy of other objects while burying the bodies. They matched with belongings of some of the civilians who were mysteriously missing from the neighbouring villages. The word spread.

On April 3, when Clinton was back in his country, reengaged in domestic affairs, more than a thousand villagers gathered in Panchalthan village in south Kashmir to march towards District Magistrate’s office in Islamabad to seek whereabouts of the missing civilians. They crossed several checkpoints erected by the security forces until they reached Brakpora. Here, they were intercepted and fired upon from a bunker manned by the personnel of Central Reserve Police Force. Eight protestors died and 14 others were injured in the indiscriminate firing. One of the slain youngsters was the son of Jumma Khan, a missing civilian, who was later found to be one of the slain civilians killed in Pathribal fake encounter.

In all, 48 civilians were killed in three interlinked incidents in a matter of 13 days. This was a huge crisis for the government. On one hand, entire Sikh community across the world was seeking justice for Chittisinghpora victims. On the other, common people and relatives of missing civilians and Brakpora victims, all local Muslims, were up in arms. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah decided to douse tempers by ordering a judicial probe into the last incident of the series. Retired Supreme Court Judge Justice S R Pandian was appointed to head one-man Commission of Inquiry to probe the firing incident at Brakpora.

Justice Pandian worked for over five months to fix responsibilities. He camped in Srinagar and Islamabad and quizzed hundreds of eye-witnesses, wounded victims and security officials to prepare his 255-page report that was submitted to the government in October 2000. Three personnel from the Special Operations Group, an elite counterinsurgency wing of state police and four personnel of the CRPF were indicted. The report was accepted by the government completely along-with the recommendations.

Bodies of slain men in Pathribal exhumed

Bodies of slain men in Pathribal exhumed

“We have accepted the report in Toto,” said Farooq Abdullah on Oct. 31, 2000 while releasing the report. “This is a chain and needs to be solved. Pathribal happened because of Chittisinghpora and Brakpora was because of Pathribal so it is a chain,” he said referring to Pandian’s recommendations to probe the other two incidents also. However, Justice Pandian refused to conduct another Inquiry. The state government then referred the request of identifying a suitable judge to the union government. The Center’s response is awaited ever since.

In the meantime, the Brakpora killings forced the government to constitute a Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the police to investigate the Pathribal “encounter”. On April 6, 2000, bodies were exhumed in presence of forensic experts from Srinagar led by Dr. Balbir Kour and relatives of the missing civilians. Moreover, by that time twelve of the 17 missing persons had returned to their families. The rest were believed to have been killed in fake encounter. The exhumed charred bodies were identified by the relatives of Juma Khan and his namesake fellow villager, both belonging to tribal Gujjar community, Zahoor Ahmad Dalal, Bashir Ahmad Bhat and Mohammed Yousuf Malik. Their families identified them with different identification marks. The bodies were handed over to the relatives.

Juma Khan’s son told Kashmir Life at his residence that his father was taken away by the Army from his residence. Zahoor Dalal, was a well-to-do businessman who left for a brief evening walk after day’s work and was whisked away by gunmen who later turned out to be SOG personnel.

The emotionally charged graveside identification was not taken as final. The government forensics team collected DNA extracts to match them with the samples of their relatives, in order to be absolutely sure. Samples of the dead were taken from serum, certain specific tissues, hair as well as skull, abdomen and chest. The samples were belatedly dispatched to the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad.

For about two years, there was no trace of the DNA samples until a stunning report appeared in The Times of India on March 6, 2002. The report revealed that the DNA samples received by the Hyderabad laboratory were fudged to mislead the experts. Technically, the samples extracted from the bodies were to be matched with those of the female kin of the deceased.

In three cases, the samples labeled with female identities turned out to be those of males. In one case, the samples of two persons were mixed and sent in the name of another female. The report said that officials tampered with the samples in order to mislead the investigations. Interestingly, the report from the Hyderabad Centre had come to the state government on February 26, 2001 but had been kept under wraps.

The humiliated government had no option but to order fresh inquiry and recollection of DNA samples. The then SSP Anantnag Ghulam Hassan Bhat ensured that the samples were taken without further chances of fudging. The case was finally handed over to CBI, which established the slain “foreign mercenaries” were actually the missing civilians. The CBI’s charge-sheet filed against five army officers – a brigadier, a lieutenant colonel, two major rank officers and a subedar, who served the Army’s counter-insurgency 7 Rashtriya Rifles and claimed the success – is pending prosecution. The case has traveled from Chief Judicial Magistrate Srinagar’s court to High Court and finally the prosecution was stayed by the Supreme Court on Army’s plea that the CBI has not acquired sanction from the union home ministry. The J&K High Court and the subordinate courts had directed prosecution of the army officers.

More than a decade after the string of killings, Brakpora killers have been brought to book and perpetrators of Pathribal stand identified pending prosecution but the main incident that triggered these two incidents continues to shroud in mystery. The representatives of over 50,000 Sikhs residing in Kashmir valley consistently demand an impartial probe into the massacre. This year, in March, on completion of first decade after the massacre, the Chittisinghpora residents together with hundreds of community members reiterated their demand for impartial probe. “We deny government sponsored probes.

Let the truth come out. There should be an impartial probe to find out the killers and the conspiracy behind it,” said Jagmohan Singh Raina, chairman All-party Sikh Coordination Committee.

But, the government seems to be uninterested. Apart from Farooq Abdullah, a Sikh cabinet colleague of Manmohan Singh, former Chief Election Commissioner MS Gill has demanded probe in Chittisinghpora massacre.

“It is strange that the Sikh minority in the state was targeted for the first time when it had remained largely untouched by militancy over decades. How did the Sikhs get on the wrong side of the militants all of a sudden? Why has the role of the army and the state police not been examined in the case,” Gill has been quoted as saying. The Chattisinghpora massacre has shaken the Sikh minority’s confidence.

They preferred to stay put in the Valley unlike Pandits majority of whom fled en masse in 1989 after the introduction of armed insurgency. Their habitations scattered across Kashmir have been provided security by the government. During the recent uprising in Valley, there was another mysterious attempt to instill fear-psychosis in the community when threatening letters surfaced in some selected localities asking the Sikhs to leave. The “conspiracy” was grounded by the timely intervention of the political leadership, both unionist and separatist and the Sikh elders.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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