Nearly five years after Tabinda Gani was abducted, gang-raped and murdered in a sleepy Handwara village in north Kashmir, the J&K government has set up an award in her name to celebrate bravery! Sameer Yasir travels to Handwara to find out that there is nothing celebratory in Tabinda’s death when her perpetrators have not been punished so far.

On August 14, Ghulam Muhammad Shah, 65, was lost in deep thoughts at his single storied brick and mud house in a sleepy Handwara village in north Kashmir when the newscaster on Radio Kashmir announced that the Jammu and Kashmir government was setting up a bravery award in the name of his daughter, Tabinda Gani, who was brutally gang-raped and murdered in 2007 in what was one of the first incidents of crime reported from Kashmir valley involving non-locals.

Shah was not amused, for the agonizing wait to see the perpetrators of his daughter punished has only meant seeing new faces of a lethargic judiciary and an incompetent government, which had promised to set an example by dealing severe punishment to the accused. Five years after Tabinda was killed, the hype surrounding the case has fizzled out and her family has lost hope in what is being celebrated by the government as the eternalisation of the bravery of a little girl who couldn’t save her life! In fact, Tabinda had done nothing that could symbolise bravery. Had she done so, she would have been alive today.

The news of the institution of ‘Tabinda State Award of Bravery’ which will be given to three children every year, bought little cheer on Tabinda’s father’s face. He switched off the radio, went to another room and slowly opened the door of an almirah to see the belongings of his deceased daughter which he has kept in a white tin trunk. In a corner of the trunk lay a pencil, its tip broken, and some books and clothes. He took out the school copies of his daughter and broke down sullenly while looking at the notes written by Tabinda. Without letting anyone notice, he closed the trunk and left his house.

Within minutes, he reached the spot where his daughter was raped, murdered and where her body was later discovered. He fell down on his keens and started crying again, like a child. It was on June 27, 2007, when 13-year-old Tabinda, a class 7 student, was walking towards her home. She usually took a narrow, muddy, hilly track to reach her Batpora residence in Handwara. On that day, she had promised her elder sister that they would take lunch together. Their mother had passed away some years and her father and brother were away for work.

Almost 300 meters from the main crossing, someone suddenly appeared from behind and threw sawdust in her eyes. She was then dragged into a nearby orchard by four young men, two of them local Kashmiri boys, with a criminal background and two from outside the state, who tore apart her clothes. When she resisted, the accused beat her up and then took turns to rape her. Fearing detection, the assailants slit her throat and dug up a small grave where she was buried. Later, Tabinda’s uncle received a phone call from one of the family members that her school bag and shoes have been found in a village orchard. A few minutes later, another call informed them that Tabinda’s body had been found. She had been left naked with a pencil in her hand; her uniform almost 50 meters away from her body and her bag full of books.

The accused, Mohd Sadiq Mir alias Saeda Choor, Azhar Ahmad Mir alias Billa, both residents of Langate, Handwara, Mocha Jahangir Ansari from West Bengal and Suresh Kumar from Rajasthan, had laid an elaborate trap for Tabinda. Minutes before she arrived on the fateful days, two boys were about to take the same route. The assailants didn’t want their plans derailed. They intercepted the boys and handed them chocolates with advice to take another route. A bear was detected in the orchards and it was not safe to move on the road, the assailants told the boys who unwittingly left without protest. They later deposed before the court and recognized Azhar and Suresh, a cobbler.

As the news of Tabinda’s disappearance spread, it sent shockwaves across the valley and triggered spontaneous protests with people demanding immediate arrest of the culprits. No one had a clue what really happened and who was responsible. Many people blamed the Army. A mass protest was organised in Tabinda’s village where the locals put the blame on the police. Azhar, a short, lean boy was vocal in his claims that the state government was behind Tabinda’s disappearance. No one knew that Azhar, barely few days back, had participated in the rape and murder of Tabinda.

“If people had got a sniff, he would have been lynched. When we exhumed the body, it started raining in Handwara, as if the skies were weeping. The wind was so fast that the roofs of residences were blown away. But the harsh weather couldn’t deter people from coming out on the streets and participate in her funeral,” says Iqbal Ahmad, President of Justice for Tabinda Gani Forum.

For the next 21 days, Handwara remained closed with loud cries for justice reverberating in the area. When the police started investigations, they found nail marks on Suresh, the cobbler’s body who was subjected to intense questioning during which he broke down and the case was cracked. The police claimed that the accused have confessed to their involvement in the crime and that the prosecution’s case was very strong.

It has been more than seven years now since the gruesome incident happened, the first of its kind case related to the problems of migration of Indian labourers into an already fragile state like Kashmir which led to a huge public resentment against the labourers. The anger was so deep that many left the valley, sensing the growing bitterness against them in the valley. But Tabinda’s family is far from seeing justice. Her father has turned deeply pessimistic and bitter about the justice delivery system which has failed him and now sells second-hand clothes in the main town of Handwara to feed his family.

“The wait for justice has killed me from inside. I don’t expect much now from the judicial system. It has been a long time. I have been to court almost 400 times but nothing has come out. The case was heard three times a week for a year but the duration came down to once a week later. With the police officers and judges getting transferred, the wait for justice has only stretched.

“I have now told my family members not to attend the hearings,” Ghulam Muhammad Shah, Tabinda father, says. The then chief minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, had said the accused would be given “exemplary punishment” and that the case “would be heard on the everyday basis”. The family members claim they rejected the ex-gratia relief offered by the government, “The only thing we wanted was justice for Tabinda. But we haven’t got it,” Shah says.

The government had even announced a job for a member of Tabinda’s family, besides monthly assistance of Rs. 5000 but the family even turned it down. Tabinda’s brother, Masood Ahmad says the announcement was like “rubbing salt on our wounds,” “We do need anything except stern punishment for the perpetrators of this crime. We are ready to wait for 7 more years to see the perpetrators punished,” Masood says.

The case was first heard in Handwara. Then it was transferred to District and Sessions court, Kupwara following the refusal of Bar Association, Handwara to plead on behalf of the accused who are in jail. More than 86 witnesses have deposed. Even the father of one of the accused said that his son should be hanged publicly to set an example for others but the case has not met its logical conclusion.

A lawyer at Kupwara Sessions Court says the ‘lethargy consuming the judicial system’ ultimately ends up with people losing faith in the justice system. Tabinda’s father says that the state should punish the culprits of her daughter first before setting up an award in her name, “The most precious gift I could receive from the state is to punish the guilty, not to set up awards in my daughter’s name. There is no justice in giving an award in the name of Tabinda when her perpetrators have not been punished,” Shah says. The facts surrounding the case raise questions on the competence of a self-patting government, which hasn’t done much to ensure the dispensation of justice for Tabinda and her family.



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