Counterinsurgency war in Kashmir

Smoke and mirrors

Print edition : February 14, 2020

A demonstration in Srinagar on the first death anniversary of Afzal Guru, on February 9, 2014. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

A tomb stone for Afzal Guru (extreme left), next to one for Maqbool Bhat, the founder of the JKLF who was executed in 1984. The perception that both hangings were political executions is deeply entrenched in Kashmiri consciousness. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Maqbool Bhat.

A candlelight demonstration on the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar on February 17, 2013, seeking the return of the mortal remains of Afzal Guru, who was hanged in Tihar Jail a week earlier. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah addressing a press conference at his residence in Srinagar on the day Afzal Guru was hanged. He emphasised that his government had nothing to do with the decision. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

The arrest of DSP Davinder Singh, who was travelling with militants, reawakens questions on his possible link with the 2001 Parliament House attack case.

The dramatic arrest of Davinder Singh, Deputy Superintendent of Police in Kashmir, has stirred a hornets’ nest. It is a game of smoke and mirrors in which something specific becomes visible rarely. With the police officer’s arrest, something momentarily became visible. Before the smoke gathers again, what would it tell us? What is it exposing and what might be covered up?

The questions stare us in the face. Would these questions ever be answered?

Any sensational incident in Kashmir that makes it to the media in India is invariably a palimpsest for an accumulated sense of injustice that has permeated the local population for decades. That is what the arrest of Davinder Singh has rekindled.

At the time of his arrest Davinder Singh was part of an anti-hijacking team of the police serving at the Srinagar airport, one of India’s most sensitive defence installations, and one where the Indian Air Force also controls all commercial air traffic. But he has a longer history of being a dreaded counterinsurgency police officer with a fearful reputation for torture and extortion.

The shadowy police officer was nabbed and arrested on January 11 along with Naveed Babu, a wanted commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, along with one other militant and their civilian associate. He was reported to be ferrying them out from the Kashmir valley. Naveed Babu was a police officer who had deserted the force in June 2017 to join the Hizbul Mujahideen and had reportedly risen to become its second in command. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has since taken up Davinder Singh’s case, the agency’s first directly involving a police officer tangled with militants in the valley.

Davinder Singh, however, is not the first police officer found directly involved with armed militants. But, the notorious police officer’s arrest has stirred old questions of his involvement with Mohammad Afzal Guru, the former Kashmiri militant convicted in the Parliament House attack case of December 2001 and later secretly hanged and buried inside Delhi’s Tihar jail.

Such has been the feeling among Kashmiris that Afzal Guru was unfairly done to death that an open grave in the “Martyrs Graveyard” in downtown Srinagar still awaits his mortal remains. That grave lies right beside a similar one for Maqbool Bhat, a founding leader of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), who was similarly hanged and buried inside the Tihar jail nearly three decades earlier. The perception that both were political executions is deeply embedded in the Kashmiri consciousness.

Many legal experts across India share the deep-set belief that Afzal Guru did not receive a fair trial.

“Inside Kashmir, for its people, it (Guru’s trial and eventual execution) also spelled the end of any hope or possibility of finding justice within the Indian judicial system,” said a human rights lawyer who did not wish to be named.

“The evidence against Afzal Guru was at best circumstantial and there is no doubt it was a case of miscarriage of justice,” said Parvez Imroz, a prominent human rights lawyer in Srinagar, echoing a view widely held by Kashmiris.

No one in Kashmir was more aware of the far-reaching consequences of Afzal Guru’s execution on February 9, 2013, than the then Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, himself when he appeared in front of reporters wearing a mournful face.

“Last night the Home Ministry informed us that the Centre had decided Afzal Guru was to be hanged this morning and that the government should start preparing to do all that is needed to keep control over the situation,” Abdullah told reporters at his home, only hours after Kashmiris had woken up to a harsh curfew, wondering what had happened.

“This time I want to make it clear that contrary to the case of Maqbool Bhat there was no case against Afzal Guru in the State. So, the State government or Chief Minister did not have to sign on any death warrant in this case. Many a times we expressed our apprehensions to the Centre up until the last moment,” Abdullah said, explaining why the tough restrictions were imposed across the Valley and referring to the devastating effects of his father, former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, having signed on Maqbool Bhat’s execution warrant in 1984. That execution, most observers of Kashmir admit, significantly contributed to the rise of an anti-India armed insurgency in 1989.

Political leaders and police officials have often privately admitted that Afzal Guru’s “unfair trial” and his secret execution were major contributors to the violent protests that engulfed Kashmir in 2016 following the death of the militant leader Burhan Wani.

Protests in Kashmir might be triggered by a single incident, but they are never about that incident alone. Similarly, insurgency and counterinsurgency have often made a tangled web in Kashmir, with devastating effects for its residents.

It is in this climate of a dirty war that allegations against Davinder Singh of extortion, narcotics smuggling, torture of suspects, custodial killings and protecting sex rackets have been widespread in Kashmir. This has been so since the early 1990s when he joined the counterinsurgency Special Task Force (STF), later rechristened the Special Operations Group (SOG), of the local police force.

Davinder Singh figures, along with over 970 personnel of the Indian Army, paramilitary forces, police and government-supported gunmen, in “Structures of Violence”, a report published by the internationally respected rights group Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS). Testimonies of torture by his victims were featured in the exhaustive report released in September 2015, which also explored in detail, much of it gleaned from government records, organised state violence against militants and civilians alike, and the institutional support to it.

“This calculated violence cannot be understood as a consequence of individual actions independent and disconnected from the larger structure of violence,” the report observed after having meticulously followed many cases of blatant rights violations through the Indian criminal justice system right from first information reports to the Supreme Court.

“The violence, obfuscation and impunity at every step illuminates the system at work,” the report observed while elucidating why justice for Kashmiri victims of organised violence from the same system was not possible.

Perhaps this also explains why, except for a narcotics-related case, Davinder Singh was never fully investigated for his numerous deadly actions, indicating that he had some sort of official cover from within the structure that rules Kashmir.

“Davinder Singh’s arrest for his involvement in the dirty war in Kashmir should naturally lead to reinvestigating the Parliament House attack case and comprehensive investigations into all cases of custodial killings, fake encounters and large-scale torture in Kashmir,” said Khurram Parvez of the JKCCS.

So, Davinder Singh’s suspected involvement with those who were involved in the attack on Parliament House and Afzal Guru’s time at the Humhama STF camp near the Srinagar airport ought to now be at the core of the ongoing NIA probe into the shadowy workings of the police officer. But that appears unlikely.

“The state is unlikely to investigate Davinder Singh in the Parliament House attack case because of a certain idea of national security. It’s like a black hole in which real facts get sucked into oblivion,” Imroz said.

“This investigation will only go as far as the incumbent government wants it to go,” a security official serving in Kashmir said on condition of anonymity.

This view also points to an interesting coincidence that the same political party was in power in New Delhi when Parliament House was attacked and also now, when Davinder Singh has been exposed.

Before he was hanged on the morning of February 9, 2013, Afzal Guru had accused Davinder Singh of torturing him under illegal detention at the Humhama STF camp and having asked him (in the presence of another detainee, Tariq) to undertake a “small job” of taking one Mohammad to Delhi. Mohammad, believed to be a Pakistani, was one of the five gunmen killed during the attack on Parliament House on December 13, 2001.

In a letter to Sushil Kumar, a senior advocate who represented him in the Supreme Court, Afzal Guru acknowledged that he helped Mohammad purchase a car (it was used in the Parliament House attack) but also claimed that apart from himself, Mohammad used to regularly receive phone calls from Davinder Singh as he went about meeting different people in Delhi.

During an interview with this correspondent in October 2006, Davinder Singh was clearly fearful of being implicated in the Parliament House attack case but boastfully acknowledged the torture he had meted out to Afzal Guru at the Humhama STF camp.

“I did interrogate and torture him at my camp for several days. And we never recorded his arrest in the books anywhere. His [Afzal’s] description of torture at my camp is true. That was the procedure those days and we did pour petrol in his arse and gave him electric shocks. But I could not break him. He did not reveal anything to me despite our hardest possible interrogation. We tortured him enough for Gazi Baba but he did not break. He looked like a ‘bhondu’ those days, what you call a ‘chootya’ type. And I had a reputation for torture, interrogation and breaking suspects. If anybody came out of my interrogation clean, nobody would ever touch him again. He would be considered clean for good by the whole department,” Davinder Singh said.

But the police officer declined having known Mohammad or asking Afzal Guru to help him or having made phone calls to him while both were in Delhi ahead of the attack on Parliament House. “I have had no contact whatsoever with Afzal after I sent him back to the Pattan camp. Not on phone, no meeting, nothing at all. I have seen his brother Aijaz only once when he was sent to my camp by my S.P. [Ashiq Bukhari]. And I have never had any contact with any of his family members either,” Davinder Singh said to me and added that Afzal Guru was lying about being asked by him to help Mohammad.

“I don’t know Tariq or Mohammad, but I know of them. Since I was working in counter militancy, I know Tariq and Mohammad were ‘A’ category wanted militants with five lakh rupees reward on their head. If I knew them or had captured them, do you think I would have released them? This is a concocted story. They come here from Pakistan for terrorism. Had I met them, do you think I would have spared them? Afzal wants clemency and he wants to gain sympathy of the Kashmiri public and the Government of India by giving this story,” Davinder Singh retorted during the interview.

The allegations made by Afzal Guru in his letter (story on page 10) were serious enough in nature to warrant a serious investigation. But none was ever undertaken officially. And, Davinder Singh’s acceptance of having tortured not just Afzal Guru but many others too was also never officially taken note of or investigated. Logically speaking, that makes torture official policy in Kashmir, and Davinder Singh was perhaps just a cog in a large machine.

But then, which crack did he fall through earlier this month? Was he a part of some dirty war, or a false flag operation that the top echelons of the police establishment in Kashmir did not know of? Or, did a disenchanted section within the force give him up? Sections of the police in Kashmir have felt disempowered and unhinged from the power structure that rules Jammu and Kashmir following its loss of Statehood and semi-autonomy in August last year.

We may never know the answers to these questions, but they are as important as the nature of Davinder Singh’s involvement with Afzal Guru and possibly the attack on Parliament House.

During a press conference on January 12, while announcing Davinder Singh’s arrest, Inspector General of Police in Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, said that the department had “no record” of any allegations of the disgraced officer’s involvement in the Parliament House attack case. “But we’ll ask him [Davinder Singh] about this too during our interrogation,” Kumar said, adding that the arrested officer was being questioned by sleuths of the police as well as those of the Intelligence Bureau and India’s external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing..

We do not know how wide the ambit of investigation by the NIA in the case would be, but inside Kashmir Davinder Singh’s arrest has already served as a sort of vindication or even yet another floodlight shone on the nature of the long-running counterinsurgency war.

Parvaiz Bukhari is a senior journalist based in Srinagar.

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