As India and Pakistan debate security in jails after the murder of Sarabjit Singh and Sanaullah Ranjay, Shams Irfan meets some of the families of five detainees who were killed by ITBP inside Kot Bhalwal jail at the peak of turmoil in 1993. The under-reported massacre is still awaiting an enquiry that the gubernatorial regime had announced.
On April 27, 1993, at the Joint Interrogation Centre (JIC), Kot Bhalwal situated some 12 kilometres away from Jammu city, the mother of a militant nicknamed Babloo had come to see her son. She had spent endless hours searching for him in jails and torture centres across Kashmir valley. Babloo too was excited to see her. Having waited for an hour or two outside the centre, she finally walked through a big iron gate and was escorted to a large, empty room.
The room was divided into two by iron bars which separated the prisoners from the visitors. At one time, around 30 prisoners were led into the room. The anxious woman recognized her son Babloo among other inmates and tried to reach for him through iron bars.
At the back of the prisoners’ room, Mohammad Amin Pampori, a detainee from Khanmoh, Srinagar, was chatting with his family friend and fellow inmate Mushtaq Ahmad Botoo. The conversation was cut short as they heard heated words being exchanged between Babloo and two Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) guards posted inside the visitor’s room.
Amin saw ITBP men pushing Babloo’s mother to one side while shouting at her all the time. The guards were apparently enraged by a pillow which Babloo’s mother had brought for her son.
“Visiting time is over. You get out of here,” shouted a guard while pointing his gun at helpless Babloo.
This enraged the prisoners who were present in the room and they began shouting anti-India and pro-freedom slogans. Within no time, the prisoners’ room was full of inmates who had rushed to the spot upon hearing cries and slogans. Amin and Mushtaq rushed in too. There was chaos all over. More guards reached the spot and took all the visitors, including Babloo’s mother, out of the JIC.
Gul Denter, a JKLF militant, who was under detention at the centre, tried to reason with the JIC authorities to allow Babloo and other inmates to see their relatives. But nobody listened to him. This raised the tempo inside the centre and abuses were exchanged between the inmates and ITBP guards. In the melee that followed, one of the ITBP men loaded a gun and started firing indiscriminately at the inmates.
It was a closed room with just one exit point. Within no time, 26 inmates were hit by the rain of bullets. “There was blood all over the room. People were running for shelter. Some tried uprooting the iron bars, others simply shouted for help,” said Tariq (name changed), an eyewitness of the massacre.
Tariq had rushed towards the meeting room when he heard the sound of gunshots, “But guards acted as if they were taken over by demons. They continued firing at the crowd.”
Tariq saw both Amin and Mushtaq lying in a pool of blood. He had known them at the prison. He tried to move them to a safer place but the guards fired towards him and he ran back to his barrack.
After a while when the firing stopped, Amin felt something hanging loose from his belly. He thought he was going to die and recited whatever he remembered from the Holy Quran. “I probably recited all six qalimas and closed my eyes,” recalls Amin.
“I was dragged by ITBP guards towards the ambulance which arrived almost half an hour after the firing. A part of my intestine was hanging loose,” he says. Amin was among 1270 Kashmiris lodged at Kot Bhalwal detention centre, Jammu, in 1993.
Negligence and Impunity
The Kashmir Times newspaper reported on April 28, 1993, that ITBP guards posted at Kot Bhalwal jail fired upon detainees who, according to then IG Police SS Wazir, attempted to flee from the jail. In the process, four inmates got killed and another 18 were injured. On April 29, the names of the slain were released to the press. They were identified as Abdul Raheed of Al Jehad group, Mohammad Ashraf of JKLF, Bashir Ahmad Wani and Farooq Ahmad Sofi of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen outfit. But there was no mention of a fifth victim.
Minister for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, Ali Mohammad Sagar, who was living in self-exile like other politicians at that time as Kashmir was under Governor’s rule, was the first person to lodge his protest against the killings.
“I knew Mushtaq Ahmad Botoo and Bashir Ahamd Wani personally. They were picked on suspicion,” Sagar told Kashmir Life.
On April 29, 1993, two days after the killings, the state government ordered a magisterial enquiry by Additional District Magistrate, MC Raina. “The relatives of the deceased deserve to know who killed their loved ones and why,” said Sagar. Till this date, the inquiry commission is yet to submit its findings.
Within hours, all the injured persons and bodies of the deceased were shifted to SMGS hospital, Jammu. “We (the injured) were kept on stretchers and left to die for hours. It was at around midnight when I was finally operated,” Amin recalls.
He was hit thrice. Two bullets had pierced his abdomen and the third one hit him in the leg. But he was happy to be alive. A part of his intestines was removed and buried inside Kotbalwal jail by a fellow inmate. “I had no idea what happened to the other injured or how many had died,” said Amin. After regaining his consciousness, he enquired about Mushtaq and others. “I was told that Mushtaq is injured but out of danger,” said Amin.
He was happy that the worst is over. But for others, the worst was yet to come.
Father of Two Girls
On the morning of February 3, 1993, Army personnel from 10th Gardwal Regiment cordoned off the old Fatehkadal area in Srinagar and ordered everyone to come out of their homes. In a typical Kashmiri parlance, it was a crackdown. The announcer using loudspeaker of a local mosque asked the men living in the locality to assemble in a nearby graveyard. It was cold outside but everybody came out quickly. Within minutes, the spacious graveyard was abuzz with activity. People were chatting in whispers, knowing the repercussions of annoying the Army.
Mushtaq Ahmad Botoo, 27, a butcher, had told his wife not to disturb him till he wakes up on his own. He was among the last persons to reach the graveyard. He silently made his way through the crowd and sat near his father’s grave. His elder brother, Manzoor Ahmad Botoo, who was sitting only a few steps away, looked towards Mushtaq and he realized for the first time in the last one week since their father died that his brother looked miserable. Mushtaq’s overgrown stubble and sleepless eyes gave him the looks of a man who had grown beyond his age. Manzoor decided to join his brother.
Before Manzoor could move, a round-faced Army personnel ordered everybody to form a line. Another voice then ordered them to parade in front of an Army vehicle. Sitting inside the vehicle was a collaborator who helped the Army in detecting militants and their sympathizers in the parading crowd. During early nineties, such identification parades were common and usually lasted hours, sometimes even days.
In the first round, Mushtaq and his brother Manzoor walked in front of the vehicle without evoking the suspicion of the man sitting inside. But the officer in-charge whom Manzoor remembers as someone with ‘cruel features’ was unsatisfied. He ordered a second round immediately. Manzoor made it without any problem. But he was not relieved as Mushtaq was yet to parade before the vehicle. As Mushtaq stood still in front of the vehicle, an Army officer walked towards him and asked him in a commanding voice, “Why are you so unkempt?” Then, without waiting for an answer, he concluded, “You were in a hiding. Take him away.”
The last three words ‘Take him Away’ struck Manzoor like a lightening. He later realized how these words uttered so casually by an Army officer could make a difference between life and death for a Kashmiri. Mushtaq was whisked away immediately. Manzoor could do nothing to help his brother but stand still with a deathlike expression on his face.
For the next 17 days, Mushtaq’s family knew nothing of his whereabouts. His wife, his two daughters aged one and three, his mother and his brother Manzoor went from one Army garrison to another, hoping to hear some news about Mushtaq. Finally, they found him at Butcherhouse, a notorious torture centre inside Badamibagh cantonment in Srinagar. It was his mother, his father-in-law and his one year old daughter who went to meet him there.
“I can’t describe how I felt that day when I saw my son standing there like a corpse. He could barely talk. There were visible torture marks,” said Mushtaq’s mother Fatima, clearing her chocked throat. “We were told to come back after one month for next meeting. But that next month never came,” Fatima said between sobs.
The next time Fatima reached Badamibagh to see her son again she was told that Mushtaq was shifted to Kot Bhalwal in Jammu. According to his brother Manzoor, it was Ali Mohammad Sagar, who identified Mushtaq’s body at SMGS hospital, Jammu and informed the family on April 29. Interestingly, Mushtaq’s name was missing from the list of prisoners killed in the firing inside Kot Bhalwal. “My brother is declared absconding in the jail records. Only four deaths were reported,” claims Manzoor.
On April 30, 1993, Mushtaq’s body reached his home and he was buried next to his father at the same graveyard from where he was picked by the Army. Till the time Mushtaq’s body reached home, his wife Mehbooba was under the impression that her husband was injured and was returning home alive.
“But they bought his body instead,” said Mehboob, who now spends her days raising her two daughters. After her husband’s death, Mehbooba learned to stitch clothes so that she was not dependent on others. “I have two daughters. Who will take care of them if anything happens to me,” said Mehbooba.
After knocking almost all the official doors to get justice, Mehbooba finally approached the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) in 2009 to get her husband’s murderers punished. Assistant Commissioner Revenue, Charandeep Singh, was appointed as the Magistrate for conducting magisterial inquiry by the Government on the directions of SHRC.
But despite repeated notices, the persons required to depose before the designated magistrate failed to show up. Most of the accused have long retired from services. Recently, the SHRC directed the magistrate to issue fresh warrants as earlier orders were not executed twice by the police.
“All I want to see my husband’s killers punished,” said Mehbooba.
On a chilly February morning in 1992, Border Security Forces (BSF) cordoned the Ishbar area of Nishat in Srinagar city. Throughout the morning, clear announcements were made over loudspeakers, ordering the locals to assemble in a small ground near the local mosque. “Come out of your homes. It’s a crackdown. If you won’t, you will be responsible for the consequences,” a cracked voice repeatedly blared over the loudspeaker.
Ghulam Qadir Wani, a contractor, told all his four sons to rush to the ground. He still carries memories of that day as if it had happened yesterday. He remembers watching his fourteen-year-old son Bashir Ahmad Wani being bundled into a camouflaged vehicle along with three neighbours and driven away into winter mist, forever.
The first one month was a testing time for Ghulam Qadir Wani. He had to keep track of his son as he was being shifted from one torture centre to another. “Bashir was taken to Dachigham first. From there he was shifted to the notorious Papa 2 torture chamber, then to Airport and finally to Shivpora,” recalls Wani.
The family finally met Bashir at a torture centre near Srinagar Airport. Bashir’s elder brother, Ghulam Mohammad Wani, a contractor regrets accompanying his mother to the centre that day. “I should not have gone to see him. He was barely fourteen but they had tortured him like an animal,” said Bashir’s brother. The image of a shattered Bashir standing helplessly in the meeting room with his nails plucked and visible torture marks are printed in his brother’s mind.
That was the last meeting between the Wani brothers. “It was that last meeting which actually killed our mother. She used to wake up in the middle of the night and say, ‘they are torturing my Bashir. Please help him’,” Bashir’s brother recalls.
Bashir’s mother didn’t lose hope. On Shab-e-Barat, a sacred night for Muslims, she packed a lunchbox full of delicacies and went to Shivpora where Bashir was shifted from Airport camp to see him. Bashir was already shifted to Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu. She came back with the lunchbox and confined herself to a small room where she died in 2005.
Bringing Bashir Home
On April 28, 1993 when the entire valley was under strict curfew because of the standoff between Jammu and Kashmir police and the state government over a death of their colleague by Army, Bashir’s brother Ghulam Mohammad Wani received a call from Ali Mohammad Sagar that his brother was among the injured of Kot Bhalwal massacre.
Ghulam Mohammad Wani hired a taxi and along with his two neighbours who had the same blood group as Bashir left for Jammu. In order to avoid any trouble during curfew, Wani took a note signed by a station house officer permitting him to visit Jammu. By 7:45 pm, they reached Jawahar Tunnel. “The tunnel was closed. We enquired about the officer on duty from a Border Security Force (BSF) personnel,” Wani recalls.
To their surprise, the officer came with a group of drunken BSF men and, without exchanging a word, dragged them out of the vehicle and started beating them. “They used whatever they had to beat us. I was hit with an iron rod on my head. Our driver lost two teeth. The other two men were lying on road in a pool of blood,” said Wani. As he spoke, tears kept welling in his eyes as if he was living the pain of the blows.
The men were lined up with their faces pressed to the iron gates of the tunnel. “There was not a single soul to help us,” said Wani.
“The officer ordered his men to shoot us,” said Wani, trying hard to control his emotions. “I closed my eyes when the officer shouted ‘shoot the bastards’. My thoughts took me to the place I loved most – my home.”
As if by a miracle, a moving truck on its way to Jammu cast its light on the officer and his men with their guns pointed at Wani and his three companions. The men felt stripped. The Sikh driver of the truck asked the men why the tunnel was closed.
“Tunnel kyun bandh hai.”
“Get the hell out of here, you bastards,” the BSF officer, who was alerted by the presence of the truck driver, shouted at Wani and his friends. They ran for their life. “We had no time to nurse our injuries. We jumped into the car and sped in the dark back to Kashmir,” said Wani.
The car stopped at Qazigund, a small village near Jawahar Tunnel in south Kashmir, and the men stayed there for the night. “I was feeling week in my legs as I had lost lot of blood. They had hit me in the head,” said Wani.
Next day, with open bruises and cuts, Wani left for Jammu early in the morning, hoping that the BSF party which has almost killed him in the previous night were not on duty this time. His friends were with him.
Wani got information about his brother’s death when he reached SMGS hospital, Jammu. “We were detained by the police deployed at the hospital as soon as we reached. They were in no mood to allow us to take my brothers body home,” said Wani.
J&K Police officials who were deployed at the hospital tried to convince Wani to let his brother be buried at a graveyard in Jammu. Wani refused. “They feared that allowing the bodies of victims to be taken to Kashmir would create law and order problem,” said Wani.
Next day on April 30, 1993, Wani contacted Ali Mohammad Sagar who was living in Jammu. “It was after Sagar’s intervention that we were allowed to take home the bodies of our relatives,” said Wani.
Wani had brought a shroud for his brother in Jammu. He wrapped it around Bashir’s body, put the body in the car and left for Kashmir. “But we were stopped at Batote by CRPF. They turned us back to Jammu,” Wani recalls. They had to camp in Jammu for the night.
April is humid and hot in Jammu. In the previous three days since Bashir and other four inmates were killed at Kot Bhalwal, their bodies had started to decompose, emitting a foul smell. Bashir’s body was decaying fast due to multiple gunshot wounds.
The next day, Sagar again intervened and the bodies were brought to Kashmir.
As the day was drawing to a close on May 1, Wani reached home. “My grandmother loved Bashir more than others. In the morning, when she heard about his death, she died instantly. We buried both Bashir and my grandmother in the same graveyard,” Wani said.
Nearly two months after Bashir was killed, the other three youth picked up by the Army from Ishbar, Nishat, on that chilly February morning were released from Kot Bhalwal detention centre. In a statement, Jammu and Kashmir police had mentioned Bashir as one of the released persons. “Our aunt had seen the list and she came to our house with sweets,” Bashir’s father said.
When Bashir’s mother saw her carrying sweets, she collapsed. “Our relatives tried to convince us that we had buried someone else,” said Bashir’s father.
Bashir’s brother had to undergo multiple surgeries to get back to his feet. “I have a pipe inserted in my head. The BSF men at Jawahar Tunnel hit me real hard in the head,” he said.
“I had lost my son but there is nobody who has told me why he was killed,” said Bashir’s father.
The families are waiting for answers!