Massacres and mysteries

Published : Nov 25, 2000 00:00 IST

The political concerns of the ruling parties in the State and at the Centre ensure that Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's promise to order a judicial inquiry into the Chattisinghpora massacre and the Panchalthan killings is give n a quiet burial.

EVEN the united endeavours of a collective of conspiracy theorists' would have been inadequate to invent the dense layers of intrigue that now shroud the massacre of 35 Sikh village residents at Chattisinghpora on the night of March 20, 2000, in Kashmir' s worst communal massacre to date (Frontline, April 14).

On October 31, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah made perhaps the most dramatic pronouncement of his four years in power. Retired Supreme Court Judge S. Ratnavel Pandian, he said, would be asked to investigate the massacre. Justice Pandian , Abdullah said, would also inquire into the killing of five alleged terrorists at Panchalthan five days later. The Chief Minister said that the constitution of a formal Commission of Inquiry had become imperative after Justice Pandian's report on the sh ooting of protesters at Brakpora, after the police opened fire on protesters claiming that those killed at Panchalthan were innocent villagers. Asked if he had sought New Delhi's consent, to institute such an inquiry, the Chief Minister defiantly asserte d that he needed no one's permission to do so.

Then, suddenly, it all changed again. One fortnight and a single meeting with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee later, the promised investigation of the Chattisinghpora and Panchalthan incidents was terminated.

Highly placed sources told Frontline that it is unlikely that Justice Pandian will now investigate both the killings. State officials said, off the record, that charge-sheets filed in an Anantnag court on November 13 against Pakistan nationals Moh ammad Suhail Malik of Sialkot, and Naseem Ahmed Chugtai of Gujranwala, rendered a Commission of Inquiry redundant. Both persons were arrested by the Special Operations Group of the Jammu and Kashmir Police in September. Twelve other Lashkar-e-Taiba cadre , identified only by their code-names, are mentioned in the charge-sheet. The charge-sheet also lists six Lashkar cadre killed by the Rashtriya Rifles at Halan on March 28. A supplementary charge-sheet is likely to be filed against Mohammad Yakub Wagay, locally known by his nickname Chatt Guri. Wagay is accused of having led the group of Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists to Chattisinghpora. The argument that criminal investigations in the Panchalthan killings is nearing conclusion is being used to suggest that no Commission of Inquiry is needed to probe these killings either.

Chief Minister Abdullah did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed by Frontline on these issues. Senior government officials also refused to go on record. Justice Pandian, for his part, speaking to Frontline in Chennai, made cle ar that since he had not yet received a formal request from the Jammu and Kashmir government, the question of whether he would agree to head a new inquiry was premature.

SO just what is going on? It is, for one, clear that Abdullah had not studied the Pandian Commission Report before making his pronouncements. The report was submitted to the State government on October 27. Chief Secretary Ashok Jaitley was given two days to prepare notes for a Cabinet meeting that was to discuss the report. He worked from a single copy of the report, and no photocopies were made available to the State government's legal department, as is customary. The State Cabinet accepted the report without the Ministers having read it. It does not appear to have been told that charge-sheets were being prepared against Malik and Chugtai. Abdullah had been so poorly briefed on the matter that he announced that Justice Pandian had recommended the rein statement of two suspended officials - Senior Superintendent of Police Farooq Khan and Station House Officer Ghaznafar Khan. The report makes no such recommendation.

Politics seems to have been central to the Cabinet's concerns on October 31. Under siege from New Delhi, which has made no secret of its desire to propel the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and the Hizbul Mujahideen into mainstream politics, the N ational Conference needed to secure its flanks. An investigation of Chattisinghpora would, it was thought, help the N.C. signal that despite its political alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, it remained an adversary of New Delhi. At once the invest igation would help undermine the APHC, which has been claiming that the Chattisinghpora killings were carried out by the Indian state. Investigation into the Panchalthan killings, for their part, would help Chief Minister Abdullah signal his concern for human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, and distance himself from the activities of the security establishment.

It is still not entirely clear just what transpired between the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister, but officials in New Delhi say that the Union government was furious at the decision to inquire into Chattisinghpora. Vajpayee is believed to have told the Chief Minister that his action had embarrassed the Union government. Interestingly, Abdullah had himself ruled out the prospect of a judicial investigation into Chattisinghpora earlier, and had blamed the Lashkar-e-Taiba for the atrocity. It is unli kely that had he read the Pandian Report that would have changed his mind. No witnesses from the village deposed before the Commission, and it arrived at no findings on the killings for the reason that they were not part of its terms of reference.

Jammu and Kashmir government officials insist that they will make the Pandian Report available for public scrutiny, but it has so far shown no signs of emerging from the government-run Ranbir Press. Authoritative sources, however, provided Frontline with an outline of the findings. Apart from indicting police officers at Brakpora for the use of excessive force, it has blamed District Magistrate Pawan Kotwal and Senior Superintendent of Police Khan for failing to respond to the demonstration with adequate seriousness. The Commission also discussed the Panchalthan killings, but in the context of public allegations that those who were eliminated there were innocent local residents. No allegation has been made, however, that the Brakpora killings we re part of a larger official conspiracy.

If Justice Pandian does investigate the Panchalthan killings, received wisdom on what happened there might just receive a beating. Frontline has obtained copies of the post-mortem reports on the five alleged terrorists killed by the Army at Pancha lthan, submitted by the Department of Forensic Medicine at the Government Medical College in Srinagar. Allegations that the five persons were innocent local residents appeared confirmed when the bodies were exhumed on April 5 and 6, and identified by the ir relatives. The forensic analysis, however, suggests that the identification process may have been less than reliable. There are, in particular, disturbing signs that some key pieces of evidence in the identification process were planted after the buri al of the five victims.

Consider, for example, the case of the body believed to be that of Jumma Khan Amirullah, identified by his son, Shakoor Khan, and wife, Mirza Noor. Amirullah's face had been blown apart by a bullet, and his body had suffered 95 per cent burns during the encounter. A cheap black plastic shoe on his foot, however, amazingly remained intact. So did a brass ring, with an embedded red stone, on one finger. The ring ought to have left a distinctive burn mark, but the forensic examiners found none. Then, Shako or Khan also said he recognised his father by a gap in the dentition, caused by the extraction of a tooth years earlier. This gap was indeed visible in Amirullah's jaw. But Shakoor Khan did not appear to know of several other such gaps, normally hidden f rom sight, which the forensic experts found had been caused by past dental procedures.

Similar mysteries riddled other identifications. The alleged body of Anantnag businessman Zahoor Dalal was identified on the basis of a shirt and sweater in a plastic bag lying next to the corpse. Malik did not, however, recognise the remnants of the str iped shirt the corpse had on. Had soldiers forced Dalal to change his shirt before his death, it is unlikely that they would have obligingly left his clothes behind so neatly packed. The bag also contained pieces of a jaw and a nose which were identified by Shakoor Khan and Mirza Noor as those of Amirullah. But the corpse they eventually identified had its nose intact. In another case, the alleged corpse of Jammu Khan Faqirullah, which had suffered 97 per cent burns and was covered in a "white fungal gr owth", was identified on the basis of a "partial grey beard present over the left side of (the) lower jaw".

These are not the only ill-fitting parts of the puzzle. After the Brakpora firing, Chief Minister Abdullah announced the removal of key district officials, and announced on April 3 that the Panchalthan bodies would be exhumed. Frontline has, howev er, obtained a letter issued by District Magistrate Kotwal on April 1, ordering that the Panchalthan bodies be exhumed. Kotwal's letter orders N.A. Parrey, the Anantnag Assistant Commissioner, to complete the process by April 3. Thus, clearly the distric t administration felt it had nothing to hide. The Chief Minister ended up taking credit for the decision to exhume the bodies, which, Kotwal's letter makes evident, was not in fact the case. It would appear that the N.C. sensed a political opportunity af ter Brakpora, and chose to make the local administration the scapegoat for its larger objectives. Interestingly, the N.C. had done poorly in the Shangus area in the previous Lok Sabha elections, and local politicians benefited not a little from Abdullah' s supposed drive to expose the truth.

WHO, then, were the five persons killed at Panchalthan? DNA test results have not yet come in, but it is clear that the kin-identification of corpses was, to say the least, decidedly peculiar. Processes preceding the exhumation were no less strange. Both Jumma Khan Faqirullah and Jumma Khan Amirullah were reported missing by the chowkidar (watchman) of Brari Angan village on March 26, a day after the Panchalthan encounter. The first information report (FIR) filed by the chowkidar noted that the two had been kidnapped by unknown masked gunmen with the intention of killing them. Given this apprehension, it is not clear why the chowkidar waited for two days before filing the FIR. Then, deposing before the Pandian Commission, the chowkidar claimed that he and Faqirullah's son, Rashid Khan, had gone by themselves to an army camp to inquire about his fate. Two other witnesses, however, claimed to have accompanied them.

Relatives of two of the other alleged Panchalthan victims, Bashir Ahmed Bhat and Mohammad Yusuf Malik, did not file FIRs. Missing person reports (MPR) were registered on March 27, three days after their disappearance. The MPR stated that the family did n ot suspect foul play, and no FIR was filed. Dalal's relatives took the same course of action. On March 28, one day after filing their MPR, Dalal's relatives marched in procession to the District Court in Anantnag, insisting that he had been murdered by t he Army at Panchalthan. Perhaps the family members had got some information during the day that led them to this conclusion, but what it was has remained unclear. Families of terrorists shot dead in encounters have often filed MPRs shortly after the deat h of their relatives, hoping to secure compensation. Even if this is not the case in Panchalthan, the certitude with which it has been claimed that the victims were innocent people appears misplaced.

Despite the ambiguous nature of the evidence, many people have asserted that the Panchalthan killings represented a botched attempt to pin the blame for Chattisinghpora on the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The controversy over Panchalthan has fuelled allegations that Chattisinghpora was executed by the security establishment in order to defame terrorists. This allegation is bizarre, resting as it does not on evidence but conjecture. The killers at Chattisinghpora wore combat fatigues, waved a bottle of liquor around , told their victims that they had come to celebrate the Holi festival, and left shouting pro-India slogans. It is unlikely that even the most stupid covert group would have worked so hard to compromise its operation, if that is what Chattisinghpora inde ed was. Several commentators have asked what the Lashkar's motive for the killing might be, but this question evades the fact of the organisation's well-documented involvement in other, ideologically motivated communal massacres.

An impartial judicial investigation of the affair would have helped resolve some of these mysteries: as, indeed, the criminal investigation now under way ought to do. Now, however, that is not going to happen. The Union government, acutely conscious of t he international repercussions of continued debate on Chattisinghpora, sees no reason to support any judicial investigation. The State government, for its part, has gained the political mileage it sought, and would be only too delighted to put the blame for the termination of such an investigation on New Delhi. Political intrigue has ensured the construction of a conspiracy narrative where the evidence available does not suggest any existed. With the apparent end of efforts to set up a second Ratnavel P andian Commission, it seems certain that these conspiracy theories will flourish, and gain further legitimacy. The Jammu and Kashmir and Union governments will have no one to blame but themselves for the consequences.

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