Encounters with reality

The news of Davinder Singh’s arrest brings a strange hope, of closure of wounds, for the besieged eight million people of Kashmir whose memories are alive with the past injustices of the Macchil, Chattisinghpora, Pathribal and Barakpora massacres.

Published : Jan 29, 2020 07:00 IST

Relatives of victims of the Pathribal fake encounter at a demonstration on its 14th anniversary, at Brariaangan in south Kashmir, on March 25, 2014.

Relatives of victims of the Pathribal fake encounter at a demonstration on its 14th anniversary, at Brariaangan in south Kashmir, on March 25, 2014.

The arrest of Davinder Singh hasshaken Kashmir’s complex security grid like never before. He told his interrogators that he was helping the militants he had been with when he was arrested get outside the Kashmir Valley against a payment of Rs.12 lakh. The motive and the final destination of the militants are still not known. But Davinder Singh’s initial confession instantly evoked memories of the Parliament House attack in 2001, which brought India and Pakistan to the brink of an all-out war.

According to a letter written to his lawyer by Afzal Guru, the accused in the Parliament House attack case who was hanged and then secretly buried inside Delhi’s Tihar jail, it was Davinder Singh who forced him to take a militant named Mohammad to Delhi. Mohammad was among five Pakistani militants who carried out the attack.

But despite Afzal Guru’s confession before the court, Davinder Singh’s role in the Parliament House attack was never probed. The court only believed the part that Afzal Guru brought Mohammad to Delhi, but not the part that he did so at Davinder Singh’s behest. While Afzal Guru was hanged “to satisfy the collective conscience of the nation”, Davinder Singh remained untouched.

As Davinder Singh’s name kept cropping up after the attack, he was transferred to the Traffic Police Department, apparently to let him cool his heels.

But the attempts to whitewash Davinder Singh’s crimes by the system only made Kashmiris certain that justice was far from their reach. Afzal Guru’s trial and subsequent hanging has become a benchmark of India’s justice system for ordinary Kashmiris.

People knew that men in uniform accused of heinous crimes like murder, extrajudicial killings and fake encounters would never be brought to justice as long as they kept serving the interests of their masters. Davinder Singh’s later postings at key spots as a top counter-insurgent cop proved them right.

But on January 11, 2020, Davinder Singh apparently ran out of luck when his car was stopped at a checkpoint in south Kashmir.

As the news of his arrest reached people, it brought a strange hope for the besieged eight million souls. But they knew hope in a cursed paradise is the last thing they should linger on. Their hopes have been dashed by the Indian justice system every now and then. Kashmir’s bloody lexicon is still afresh with memories of injustice. Every year, relatives of victims of Macchil, Chattisinghpora, Pathribal, and Barakpora massacres gather, to seek not justice but closure of their wounds.

Seeking Closure

On April 29, 2010, an Army source named Bashir Ahmad Lone promised three local residents, Riyaz, Shehzad and Shafi of Baramulla, high-paying jobs as Army porters. They took up the offer thinking they would be working with the Army in the border area, helping them carry supplies and ammunition to forward posts. However, they had no idea that Lone had other plans for them. Along with two other local Army sources, Lone sold the trio to Colonel Dinesh Pathania of 4 Rajputana Rifles for Rs.50,000 each. The civilian trio was handed over to the soldiers who took them to the remote Kalaroos village in Macchil sector near the Line of Control (LoC).

The same day all three men were killed in cold blood and dubbed foreign militants. The next day the Army claimed to have foiled an infiltration bid successfully by killing three heavily armed militants. They claimed recovery of five AK-47 rifles, a large cache of ammunition and some Pakistani currency from the trio.

But the sudden disappearance of three young men from Nadihal village did not go unnoticed. Their families approached the local police to help them trace the missing.

After an extensive investigation the police concluded that the trio was killed in a fake encounter by the soldiers of 4 Rajputana Rifles near the LoC.

As the details of the fake encounter emerged in the local press, Kashmir erupted in protests seeking punishment for the perpetrators in uniform. Within days, the protests turned into a mass movement with hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris hitting the streets seeking freedom and justice. To quell these protests, the state used brute force, killing 120 people, mostly young boys. The Macchil fake encounter became symbolic of all other such cases where Army men had killed locals for personal gains.

Under immense public pressure the police finally produced a charge sheet naming 11 people, including a colonel, two majors and two civilians. They were charged with murder, abduction, criminal conspiracy and common intent. The Sopore court, where the case was heard, ordered the Army to produce the accused before the police for investigation. But the Army refused to comply with the order.

Finally, on the High Court’s directions the Army initiated an internal inquiry into the fake encounter. Three years later, in 2013, the Army’s inquiry led to the court martial of the accused. A year later they were sentenced to life in prison.

The sentencing of the Army men was seen as a landmark. No Kashmiri believed that the Army would punish its own men. The then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s tweet is a testimony to the mistrust that Kashmiris have in Indian institutions. He tweeted: “No one in Kashmir ever believed that justice would be done in such cases. Faith in institutions had disappeared. I hope that we never ever see such Macchil fake encounter type of incidents again & let this serve as a warning to those tempted to try.”

But just a few years later, Omar Abdullah was proven wrong. In July 2017, the Armed Forces Tribunal suspended the jail term and granted bail to the accused in the Macchil fake encounter case. Their release has not only let down the relatives of the victims, but put their lives in danger.

In November 2014, a few months after Narendra Modi took oath as Prime Minister, three boys travelling in a car were gestured to pull over at a checkpoint in Chattargam on the outskirts of Srinagar. In the darkness they could not see the Army person waving at them and crossed the barrier. Knowing the impunity they enjoy in Kashmir, without giving a second thought, the soldiers fired indiscriminately at the vehicle, killing two of them on the spot. The third one, a teenager, saved his life by jumping out of the vehicle and fleeing into the darkness.

As a new normal, the boys were instantly branded as militants who jumped a security checkpoint and escaped before alert soldiers gunned them down.

But after widespread condemnation and protests the Army went into damage control mode and apologised for the killings and ordered an inquiry. The apology by the Army, a rare one in Kashmir’s context, was quickly hailed by the mainstream media as the beginning of a new dawn in the Valley under Modi’s rule. As promised, within two weeks the Army’s inquiry indicted nine soldiers, including a junior commissioned officer (JCO), and the case was sent to the Northern Command for the final call on the fate of the soldiers.

Two weeks later, Modi told a carefully chosen gathering of party workers and officials in Srinagar that for the first time in 30 years a government had acted against the Army. He called it “Modi government’s wonder” that the Army had accepted publicly that the killing of two youths in Chattargam was a mistake.

But five years later, the fate of the case is not known as families of the victims still demand punishment for the guilty.

Chattisinghpora massacre

For a brief moment, Modi’s reference to “government’s wonder” gave hope to the relatives of victims of the massacre of Chattisinghpora, a remote south Kashmir village. All they wanted to know was who killed their loved ones and why.

But in the past two decades, people in Chattisinghpora have only faced more questions than getting an answer.

On March 20, 2000, unidentified gunmen entered the sleepy Chattisinghpora, a Sikh-dominated village, and ordered all male members to come out with their identity cards. The gunmen told them it was routine checking. They were lined against each other and then shot one by one. Within minutes, 35 people fell to the ground, dead. In the past two decades of Kashmir’s militancy, this was the first instance when members of the minority Sikh community were harmed.

Within no time, the pro-government press began passing sweeping judgments on the entire Muslim-dominated Kashmiri society. The massacre of Sikhs that took place on the eve of United States President Bill Clinton’s visit to India was reported as the handiwork of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-backed militant outfit active in Kashmir.

Immediately, the government ordered an inquiry and a massive operation to hunt down the people behind the killings. On March 25, in a joint operation with the Jammu and Kashmir Police, the Army claimed to have killed five foreign militants responsible for the Chattisinghpora massacre in Pathribal village of south Kashmir’s Anantnag district.

Interestingly, the police party that was part of the operation was led by then Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Farooq Ahmad Khan, who later joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and is currently one of the key advisers to Lieutenant Governor G.C. Murmu.

The next morning, the then Union Home Minister, L.K. Advani, landed in Srinagar and went straight to Chattisinghpora to mourn the killings of Sikhs. In his speech, Advani suggested the creation of all-Sikh village defence committees in the 115 Sikh-dominated villages of Kashmir Valley. Sikhs rejected the idea then and there in one voice.

While Advani hailed the heroes who led the operation against the militants responsible for the Chattisinghpora massacre, the small hilly hamlet of Kothar was seeking the whereabouts of 17 of their people missing since that encounter took place. In search of their loved ones, a few villagers came across certain belongings of their missing relatives near the “encounter” site in Pathribal. This discovery triggered a series of small protests, mostly in the remote hamlet. But when these protests failed to have any impact, the villagers decided to move towards Anantnag. The idea proved fruitful as the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Anantnag, ordered registration of a murder case and an inquiry into the allegations of fake encounter.

One step close, the villagers sought exhumation of the five bodies of “militants” killed in the Pathribal “encounter” jointly by the Army and the police. Fearing that the Army and the police would change the bodies in the grave, villagers kept round-the-clock vigil at four adjacent villages where the alleged “militants” were buried.

On April 3, the protesters came across a heavy contingent of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Special Operations Group (SOG) personnel. Before they could have made sense of such deployment of the forces, they were fired at near Barakpora village. The firing left eight civilians dead, including the son of Juma Khan, who was among the missing villagers.

The killing of eight protesters did not go unnoticed in other parts of the Valley and protests erupted across Kashmir. When the bodies were finally exhumed and the villagers identified them as those of their missing relatives, it put a big question mark over the entire foreign militant theory of the Army and the police. The DNA fingerprint samples were taken from the badly charred bodies and sent for examination to the Central Forensic Sciences Laboratories (CFSL) in Kolkata and Hyderabad.

Almost two years later, the reports sent from Hyderabad and Kolkata upheld the government’s earlier version of the killings. It was revealed that certain officers had fudged the samples sent to Hyderabad and Kolkata.

In a face-saving exercise, the then Chief Minister, Dr Farooq Abdullah, appointed retired High Court Judge G.A. Kuchay to probe the people behind the fudging of evidence.

While the inquiry into the fudging of the samples was on, the government handed over the Pathribal fake encounter case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in February 2003.

Despite lack of cooperation from the Army unit involved, after 39 months of marathon investigation, the CBI held the Army completely responsible for the five murders in Pathribal. But the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) shielded the accused officers despite the CBI proving their involvement. A case is pending prosecution in the Supreme Court following this.

The subsequent Barakpora massacre met with the same fate. Following pan-Kashmir protests, the State government constituted a commission of inquiry headed by Justice S.R. Pandian to investigate the killing of eight civilians at Barakpora. In its 200-page report, the Pandian Commission, after hearing eyewitnesses and officials, indicted seven security men—three SOG men and four CRPF men—and sought severe punishment for the accused.

But the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) turned down the Pandian Commission’s recommendations and refused to grant permission to prosecute the CRPF men. In contrast, the State police acted against its men after conducting an internal departmental inquiry, which found that they were involved in the murder.

All three accused went to court with the argument that the departmental inquiry could not be held against them as per civil service rules. They won the case.

In 2013, all three were reinstated on the grounds that their suspension had kept them away from policing for 13 years and “as such a lenient view is hereby taken”.

This brought about a painful closure to the killing of eight civilians in Barakpora, including that of Juma Khan’s son. Multiple inquiries in the killing of Juma Khan and four other villagers in the fake encounter at Pathribal met with the same end.

What about Davinder Singh?

Given the fate of Macchil, Chattisinghpora, Pathribal, Barakpora and many other such massacres of civilians which were carried out either to help peddle a certain narrative or simply to achieve personal monetary gains, promotions and rewards by men in uniform, little is expected to come out of Deputy Superintendent of Police Davinder Singh’s arrest.

Davinder Singh’s arrest would mean nothing to Kashmiris until his role in the Parliament House attack, extrajudicial killing of 20-year-old Aijaz Ahmad Bazaz in a camp under his custody in 2000, torture of civilians including Afzal Guru, and extortion and harassment is not probed and his real masters unmasked. If Afzal Guru’s accusations against Davinder Singh are true, it is unlikely that Davinder Singh would have acted on his own without the approval of the powerful.

But instead of probing him, in early 2018, Davinder Singh was given the Sher-e-Kashmir Police Medal for gallantry along with 75 other officers. He was rewarded for countering a fidayeen (suicide) attack on district police lines in Pulwama in August 2017. At the time of the attack, Davinder Singh was posted as DySP there. Before his arrest on January 11, he was posted in the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s anti-hijacking wing at the sensitive Srinagar airport.

Davinder Singh’s entire stint as a policeman is dotted with black marks. In the 1990s, he joined the Jammu and Kashmir Police as Sub-Inspector. Within a short time, Davinder Singh and one of his colleagues recovered some drugs from a truck driver, which they sold in the market. While he was facing an internal inquiry, he showed his willingness to join the newly formed SOG. His entry into the SOG (previously the Special Task Force) washed off all his past sins.

There is a very fine line between right and wrong in a conflict zone like Kashmir. And each day the line gets blurred further.

The sad part of the story is that the powers that be expect policemen to be exactly like Davinder Singh.

Shams Irfa n is an associate editor with the Srinaga r-based English weekly Kashmir Life.

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