The security forces in Kashmir stand charged yet again of making murderous assaults on the people; but there is also a need to give the accused a fair hearing.
THERE were no ferris wheels or candy-floss vendors around, but the atmosphere at Panchalthan was curiously similar to that of a village fair. Some two thousand people had turned up to see the bodies of five residents of the Anantnag area who were alleged to have been executed by Indian Army personnel in a fake encounter. The bodies lay buried in graves scattered around the small village. As personnel from Srinagar's Government Medical College worked behind cloth screens, the more curious ones among the crowd jostled with television crews for a chance to peer into the enclosures.
For most of the crowd, and for the television crews, the event had little significance other than as spectacle. The families of the five dead had, over two days, identified the bodies as those of their relatives. The fact of the identification appeared t o leave little doubt that the five were indeed victims of one of the more brutal atrocities perpetrated by the state during Jammu and Kashmir's decade-long insurgency. But the truth is perhaps less transparent than many critics have proclaimed. Key facts about Panchalthan, and the police firing that led to the death of eight protesters at Brakpora on April 3, have yet to be established. And, strangely enough, the State government appears to have little interest in doing so.
Zahoor Dalal drove home from his shop in Anantnag's Lal Chowk at 7 p.m. on March 24. He then went for a walk, telling his uncle Nissar Ahmed Dalal that he would soon return home. Dalal never came back. Two wholesale sheep merchants were in Anantnag that evening to collect their dues from local retailers. Mohammad Yusuf Malik and Bashir Ahmed Bhatt, both from Halan near Verinag, again, vanished the same night. Relatives and local residents searched in vain for clues about their disappearance. An hour's d rive away, at Brari Angan near Panchalthan, villagers received a visit from armed men whom they insist were Army soldiers. Jumma Khan Amirullah, 65, and Jumma Khan Faqir, 55, were led away.
A day later, troops from the 7 Rashtriya Rifles had announced that they had eliminated five terrorists involved in the massacre of 35 Sikh villagers in Chattisinghpora (Frontline, April 14, 2000). Abdul Rashid Khan, Jumma Faqir's son, concerned ab out his missing father, decided to search the ruins of the encounter site, a shepherd's shelter above Brari Angan. There he found scraps of blue cloth which he believed were fragments from his father's turban. He also discovered his father's identity car d. Police officials in Anantnag were, however, sceptical, pointing out that the card was untouched by the fire that destroyed the shelter itself, and that the colour of Jumma Faqir's turban was far from unique. Local village-residents, however, mobilised a protest, and a First Information Report was filed.
Events soon snowballed. Local residents claimed that both the supposed terrorists shot at Panchalthan, and those shot at a March 29 encounter at Halan, were innocent villagers. A list of 17 Anantnag residents who were believed to be missing was circulate d among top politicians, including Minister of State for Home Mushtaq Lone. The document, to which Frontline has access, is believed to have been quietly prepared by the State's Criminal Investigation Department (CID). CID chief Rajinder Tickoo ha s been engaged in a skirmish with Director-General of Police Gurbachan Jagat, with several National Conference leaders backing the State cadre officer Tickoo, perceived as being politically sympathetic to the party, against Jagat, a Punjab cadre officer. The Bar Association and several politicians also joined the fray.
As it turned out, the list of 17 people was rapidly whittled down. Four Gujjars were returned to their relatives by the 7 Rashtriya Rifles, who had employed them as guides in the Chattisinghpora-related search operations. The police in Anantnag establish ed that eight others on the list, one of them a Hizbul Mujahideen operative, were alive. That left five people unaccounted for, who locals insisted were those buried around Panchalthan. Protests followed, culminating in a march from the village to Anantn ag. On the way there, demonstrators made their way past a post of the Jammu and Kashmir Police's Special Operations Group (SOG). The SOG personnel, they say, opened fire without provocation. Eight people were killed.
Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah responded to the Brakpora incident with outrage. Charging the SOG with having used excessive force to disperse a legitimate protest, he transferred the Anantnag District Collector, the Deputy Inspector-General of Police and the Senior Superintendent of Police. Later, both SSP S. Farooq Khan and Gazanafar Khan, the Station House Officer of the Acchabal area, were suspended. At a meeting in Panchalthan, Abdullah assured village residents that the bodies buried there would be exhumed, and that forensic samples would be gathered in full public view in order to ensure that there was no official tampering with the evidence. Doctors from the Government Medical College in Srinagar, led by Head of the Department of Forensic Scienc es, Dr. Baljit Kaur, were asked to carry out the procedure in this somewhat unusual manner. The series of decisive orders led to a dramatic rise in the National Conference's level of credibility in the area.
REPRESENTATIVES of all five families identified their relatives with little difficulty. But a scrutiny of what happened at Panchalthan suggests that the identity of those killed there is less clear. Jumma Faqir's wife Raushan Begum, for example, insisted that a nose and the beard on a fragment of the jaw recovered from a small bag in one grave were those of her husband. She responded with outrage to questioning. "Of course I'm certain," she insisted, "how could I not recognise my own husband?" The next day, however, both she and Abdul Rashid Khan identified a body exhumed from another grave as that of Jumma Faqir. This time they based their identification on a tooth missing from the left side of the jaw.
Sources from the forensic team, however, pointed to discrepancies in these statements. Although Khan and his mother made clear that Jumma Faqir had only one missing tooth, the forensic team found four teeth missing from the lower left jaw. While the righ t side of the jaw had been blown away by bullets, the gum had healed in a gap on the lower left jaw, suggesting that the particular teeth had been lost years earlier.
Jumma Amirullah's brother Shakir Khan, similarly, identified the body in the next grave as that of his brother, going by the presence of a ring on one hand and a growth on the head. That bump, the forensic team says, appears to be a haematoma, a swelling caused by a blow, and not a cyst. The ring, too, is an inexpensive brass one with a red good-luck stone, hardly a rare one.
Ambiguities exist in the other instances of identification too. Mohammad Yusuf Bhatt's brother Ghulam Rasool Bhatt and cousin Abdul Ghani Bhatt identified his body based on the fact that the small portion of the head that remained had long hair. Mohammad Yusuf Bhatt also had, as in the case of the body, been wearing plain brown pyjamas and green socks. Both the pyjama and socks, however, were fairly common issue. Ghulam Hassan Malik's brother Mohammad Yusuf Mir similarly identified a body on the basis o f the presence of similar green-grey socks. In both cases the relatives said that the shoes found on the bodies were not their own. Both the bodies had combat fatigues over their pyjamas, but no shirts other than olive-green camouflage gear. Only Dalal's uncle clearly pointed fragments of his blue checked shirt, and scraps of a maroon sweater.
To accept such evidence at face value raises is problematic. It would suggest that the Army was determined to conceal evidence, removing the shirts of those who were subsequently shot in order to prevent identification and replacing them with fatigues of the type worn by terrorists at Chattisinghpora. But if this proposition were indeed true, the same troops would most probably also have removed their pyjamas, along with Dalal's sweater and shirt. If the Army men worked overtime to ensure that it had us ed right fitting shoes for the five villagers whom they wished to kill, they would surely have also taken the trouble also to remove their socks. And if the intention of burning three bodies was to prevent their being identified, there is no explanation why the 7 Rashtriya Rifles' officers should have left other bodies untouched by fire.
It would seem, then, that troops capable of methodically seeking to suppress evidence were also capable of making astoundingly foolish mistakes. Nor is it impossible that civilians were targeted, for the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir has, sadly, featured several crimes, some of them retaliatory in nature, against civilians. If the forensic tests and DNA analysis that are to be conducted at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad do affirm that the five bodies in Panchalthan are those which their relatives claim they are, that crime should invite punishment. If not, partly because the N.C. has sought to use the affair, no one will believe the scientific results. "Everyone has jumped to conclusions," says one doctor on the forensic tea m, "which they are in no position to make. Leaving aside everything else, it is unfair to the families, who might just discover that those they have buried are not in fact their relatives.'
JUST how investigation of the firing at Brakpora will proceed is also unclear, given the N.C.'s determination to make political capital out of the tragedy. Jumma Faqir's son Khan, who lost his brother in the firing, is clear about what exactly happened. As the crowd was some 60 metres from the SOG outpost, he says, SOG personnel blocked the way. An exchange of insults followed, after which the SOG personnel opened fire. Six people died on the spot, at the same location where a group of migrant brick kil n workers from Bilaspur, Madhya Pradesh, were executed by the Hizbul Mujahideen last year. Two more protesters died in hospital.
But Crime Branch photographs and investigation notes suggest that Khan's memory may be flawed. The six people who died at Brakpora fell in three groups, two on the Acchabal-Anantnag road on either side of the post, some 70 m from each other, and two more just inside the gate of the SOG complex. All but one of the five had bullet entry wounds on the back of their heads, and exit wounds around the eyes and forehead at approximately a five-degree angle from the point of entry. That, investigators suggest, would say that they faced fire from shoulder-held weapons from fairly close range. The fact that the bodies on the road fell parallel to the pavement, again, suggests that they did not fall to fire from inside the complex itself. Since no witnesses speak of police personnel wading into the procession, it is probable that at least some of the fire came from a gunman, or gunmen, marching with them.
None of this evidence is, of course, conclusive, but it does suggest that the police and Central Reserve Police Force personnel who were inside the SOG complex at least deserve a fair hearing. Intelligence Bureau sources in Srinagar told Frontline that they had made available the text of certain wireless intercepts to the State government, intercepts that showed that members of an Anantnag-based terrorist cell had been told to execute plans as ordered. It is unclear whether Chief Minister Abdulla h applied his mind to this piece of information, or whether he studied the evidence available, before proclaiming that excessive and unprovoked force had been used. Notably, there have been dozens of similar allegations of police and Army brutality on wh ich the State government has chosen to maintain a studied silence.
Playing to the gallery might be acceptable elsewhere, but it takes little insight to see that great care is required in the management of security in States such as Jammu and Kashmir. And Abdullah is not the only one who appears determined to confuse and demoralise security force personnel in the State. Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's proclamation that the Union Government is willing to negotiate with terrorist groups has raised more than a few eyebrows. While Advani's offer is unlikely to have any ef fect, for terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir have reacted with derision to similar initiatives in the past, its context is intriguing. The announcement was preceded by the release of top All Parties Hurriyat Conference leaders from jail in Jodhpur. Th e move is evidently driven by pressure from the United States, since Abdullah had repeatedly rejected appeals for their release.
Even more perplexing are larger policy declarations coming from the highest levels of the Union Government. On April 4, the Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, in an editorial, pointed to "mixed signals emanating in New Delhi". Advani's hawkish publi c rhetoric, it observed, was in stark contrast to proposals made by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's adviser, A.M. Khusro, during a recent visit to Islamabad. Khusro, The Nation said, had suggested giving Kashmiris in both India and Pakistan greater autonomy, then allowing free movement across the Line of Control, and then beginning talks "for the final solution of the problem". Khusro's remarks closely resemble key elements of proposals made by the Kashmir Study Group, an influential U.S.-b ased think tank which has been advocating the creation of a quasi-independent Kashmiri state.
It is unclear whether these proposals reflect a fundamental shift in the Union Government's position on Jammu and Kashmir, or whether they are part of an effort to deflect U.S. pressure to initiate a dialogue on the State's future. They and the quixotic positions of the N.C. government have, however, done little to sustain the morale and sense of purpose of the Indian security personnel in Jammu and Kashmir. The suspensions of SSP S.Farooq Khan, the officer who founded the SOG, and SHO Gazanafar Khan, w hose father was the first officer to die fighting terrorists in the State, has provoked outrage in the security establishment. No effort has been made to address growing infighting within the State Police, or to bring about a resolution of the adversaria l relationship that the N.C. has chosen to have vis-a-vis the Army. Abdullah's handling of the Panchalthan-Brakpora affair has signalled that he has washed his hands of efforts to contain violence through armed means. Just what political alternati ves he and the Union Government might have in mind should become clear in the months to come.