A dubious document

Published : Nov 25, 2000 00:00 IST

The General J.R. Mukherjee Committee Report indicting the CRPF and the State police for the massacre of Amarnath yatra pilgrims on August 1 is yet another attempt at demolishing the established relationship among the police, the central paramili tary forces and the Army.

VIRTUALLY everyone in Jammu and Kashmir, and much of the media, seem to agree that the General J.R. Mukherjee Committee Report on the massacre of Amarnath pilgrims on August 1 at Pahalgam has blown the lid off an official conspiracy. Former Union Ministe r Mufti Mohammad Sayeed said on November 16 that the report exposed efforts by "vested interests" to sabotage the peace process initiated by the Hizbul Mujahideen earlier this year. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, judging by his broad smile while display ing the cover page of the report to the media, also seems to take some credit for its revelations. But Mukherjee's Report, which the Jammu and Kashmir government has not made public, in fact makes no such claims. A study of the document suggests that the truth which has supposedly been exposed is less than transparent; and that the report casts not a few dark shadows which need to be dispelled.

By any standards, the General Mukherjee Committee Report is an extraordinary document. Although Mukh-erjee was appointed to inquire into the killings in his capacity as security adviser to the Jammu and Kashmir Government, the document has been published under the imprimatur of the 15 Corps Headquarters, and the cover bears the formation's logo. On the page prefacing the report, Mukherjee is described as both security adviser and 15 Corps Commander. Strangely, neither of the two bureaucrats on the commi ttee, Principal Secretary in charge of Home, C. Phunsog, and G.A. Pir, seem to have found anything exceptionable about the Army taking charge of an inquiry into a criminal offence, or examining the actions of civil organisations.

Even more strangely, the Mukherjee Committee appears to have suffered from some misunderstandings about its own powers. Section IV of the report is boldly marked "Judicial Notice". Paragraph 98, the first paragraph of this section, notes that the committ ee "has taken judicial notice" of the events in Pahalgam. Under the Constitution, neither the bureaucrats on the committee, nor the military official who led them, has any such powers. This incredible arrogation of authority by the Army has passed unnoti ced in both the media and in the Jammu and Kashmir government. When asked about this, Chief Secretary Ashok Jaitley told Frontline that the section title was perhaps the result of "an oversight". "Perhaps they meant judicious notice," he said, "no t judicial notice."

Judicious the report is not. Errors of reason abound. For example, paragraph 103 indicts the Superintendent of Police in charge of Pahalgam town and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp commander, Hari Singh, for failing to ensure that "notwithst anding the large number of yatris, the checking was foolproof". But paragraph 102A notes the "possibility that these weapons had been brought into Pahalgam much prior to the arrival of the security forces", and adds that "intelligence reports in fact ind icate that this is what happened". In that event, neither Hari Singh's nor Tilak Raj's alleged failures would have been germane to the events. Paragraph 99 records that "no security system can ever be foolproof and determined efforts can break the best o f them", leaving open the question of why anyone is then being indicted for the events at Pahalgam.

Omissions of evidence are just as glaring in the report. The role of neither Deputy-Inspector General of Police Javed Makhdoomi nor Superintendent of Police Munir Khan is discussed, though both were just a few hundred metres from the site of the killings , and, unlike Tilak Raj, were equipped with bullet-proof vehicles. Key witnesses, notably ordinary pilgrims present during the killings, were not interviewed. There are errors in reflecting witness testimony. Paragraph 98(d) asserts that "all witnesses c laim that the firing during the period between 1845 hrs (hours) to 1945/2000 was heavy and extensive". At least one of those present said nothing of the kind. Civil witness 7, Manzoor Ahmad, said during examination that the first firing only lasted "abou t five minutes". "Then," he said, "one LMG (light machine gun) opened up. Thereafter, there was intermittent fire."

What actually happened at Pahalgam, and who was responsible for it? The Mukherjee Committee accepted eyewitness accounts of the incident. Irshad Ahmed, Civil Witness 6, said that he "saw two people wearing khaki dress, (and) carrying weapons. One went to wards the footbridge. Another opened fire towards me. The customer I was attending to died. I crept under the bed and customers' blood dripped on me. After that, there was indiscriminate firing". The committee believes a priori, for not one witnes s said so, that "both terrorists were probably killed within 15-20 minutes of contact at the Irrigation Hut. Firing of the CRPF, however, continued for about 30 minutes after the terrorists had been killed". The committee concluded that 16 people died in terrorist fire in their rush towards the Irrigation Hut, that six more were killed in CRPF fire near the Lidder river, and that the cause of 12 more deaths could not be determined.

CRPF officials, however, point out that the evidence is far from conclusive. Forensic examiners Dr. Abdul Ghaffar and Dr. Karan Vir Singh told the Mukherjee Committee that they "could not identify the type of firearm weapon that caused the deaths. Althou gh it is possible to do so in case of embedded bullets, in this case there were no embedded bullets in any of the bodies". The doctors' forensic findings also ran contrary to allegations that the CRPF had shot dead innocent people at point blank range, a nd beaten others to death. Despite the experts' findings, however, the committee on its own concluded, in paragraph 98(g), that the six persons killed on the Lidder were shot by the CRPF. This it did on the basis of "the ground configuration, location of the casualties, and from the nature of the wounds".

Two other lines of inquiry led the committee to indict the CRPF and the local police. First, it felt that the CRPF's claims to have fired just 922 rounds from all calibre of weapons was incorrect, given the witness' perception that firing was heavy. Thes e 922 rounds, the committee notes in paragraph 98 (d), "would have been fired off within 10 to 15 minutes. It is the assessment of the Committee that the CRPF personnel involved have in all probability fired much more than that reported by them on the ba sis of the volume of fire reported and its duration". This argument, however, rests on subjective assumptions. What civilians may have reported as heavy fire might not, by Army standards, be so. No evidence was called to establish the CRPF's average rate of fire, or its duration.

Most important, however, the Mukherjee Committee rejected the CRPF's contention that its men were firing at terrorists on the wooded hills above the footbridge. Had terrorists indeed been firing from above the footbridge, that could well have accounted f or the victims now blamed on the CRPF. The basis of the committee's rejection of the CRPF claim is the statements of troops in the area, under Mukherjee's own command. Paragraph 114(b) records that "the very area that the CRPF claim that part of the terr orist firing had come from was being dominated by patrols from the Army, and who state categorically that there was no terrorist presence on the hillside, nor have they been fired on by anyone". Thus, statements by soldiers are seen as definite proof tha t the CRPF is not telling the truth.

It is here that Mukherjee Committee Report traverses the most troubling ground. When Chief Minister Abdullah displayed the report to the press, he made no mention of three volumes of appendices. The report does not discuss crucial documents in the first of these appendices, which Frontline has obtained. This suggested that Mukherjee was, in essence, judging his own case. The most important of these is a July 13, 2000, letter by the then Assistant Director of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) in Sri nagar, disputing the "considerable optimism (which) was voiced at the recent review meeting convened by the Special Secretary (J&K Affairs) held on July 09 that the deployment of S(ecurity) F(orces) and the goodwill of the local people involved in the Ya tra would combine to make it an incident-free one".

Rasgotra's letter, forwarded to the General Officer Commanding in charge of Pahalgam through Lieutenant Vandana Gupta at Mukherjee's headquarters, laid out the reasons for the I.B.'s disquiet. Pointing to the movement of large groups of terrorists throug h areas above Pahalgam the Army was responsible for, it noted on page 2 the existence of wireless intercepts on the Lashkar-e-Taiba frequencies 147.440 MHz and 146.440 MHz that an Iqbal should "collect small arms and ammunitions" for a "pre-fixed task". Two earlier intercepts noted in the letter made clear that that task was an attack on the Amarnath Yatra. Truly disturbing, however, was the observation in the letter that the "deployment of SFs along the ridge line separating Lidder and Wadwan Valleys w as deficient at least two places until July 09, 2000".

If the Army was not where it should have been on July 9, its presence on the hills above Pahalgam should at least have been investigated by the Mukherjee Committee. Nothing of the kind was done. Nor was the action taken on the basis of the Army's own int elligence inputs tested by the committee. On July 12, 2000, the 15 Corps's Lieutenant Colonel Gurvinder Singh passed on inputs from the Research and Analysis Wing describing the prospect of attacks similar to those Rasgotra had described. Another of Gurv inder Singh's communications placed threats to the Yatra in the context of the fact that "militant tanzeems (terrorist groups) dominated by F(oreign) M(ilitant)s continue to sabotage peace initiatives". Rasgotra's letter, however, makes it clear t hat neither Mukherjee nor anyone else in the security establishment took these warnings seriously as late as during the Special Secretary's meeting.

As security adviser to the Jammu and Kashmir Government and 15 Corps Commander, Mukherjee then should have had at least a few questions to answer in any impartial investigation of Pahalgam. Instead, he led the inquiry, which has now brazenly put forward its findings with the 15 Corps' imprimatur on its cover. Highly placed sources told Frontline that Mukherjee appeared to have decided on his course of action early on. At an August 2 meeting at the Raj Bhavan in Srinagar, called by Union Home Mini ster L.K. Advani during his visit the day after the massacre, Mukherjee made clear his conviction that the CRPF was responsible for over-reaction at Pahalgam. How he had already arrived at the conclusion is not clear, but his insistence on placing the bl ame on the heads of lower-level officials is only too easy to understand in the light of documents Frontline has obtained.

Managament of Internal Conflict, a 37 page document presented by Lieutenan-General Vijay Uberoi to Union Defence Minister George Fernandes on November 24, 1998, contains the alarming ideological subtexts to Mukherjee's report. The paper had argued that i n situations of full-blown insurgencies, all other security organisations and the civil apparatus must be placed under its exclusive operational command. "A co-ordination apparatus must exist in States down to district and even tehsil levels", the concep t paper asserts its eighth recommendation on page 36-37. "The structure should provide for joint planning, decision making, directions, co-ordination and control. For the committee to function effectively, there is a need for co-location of headquarters, the establishment of joint control rooms, direct communication and liaison, and ensuring that the administrative boundaries of the civil administration, the police and the military merge as a last resort."

In July 1999, the year after Management of Internal Conflict was presented to Fernandes, Rashtriya Rifles Director-General Avtar Singh Gill had provoked a furore by demanding control of the CRPF and the Border Security Force. Vigorous intervention by bot h organisations led the Army to back off. But this January the idea gained impetus when Advani dramatically announced that 49 operational sectors were being carved out to improve efficiency. These new battalion level sectors were again designed to give t he Army overall control over civilian authorities in their areas. The Mukherjee Committee Report is thus the latest in the series of enterprises aimed to demolish the established relationship among the police, the central paramilitary forces and the Army , set up to ensure that democratic institutions survive difficult circumstances.

Just why Chief Minister Abdullah and his top bureaucrats chose to go ahead with this adventure is far from clear. With rumours of early Assembly elections rife, and panchayat elections scheduled to take place in January, it is possible that the State's p olitical establishment saw attacks on the State police and the CRPF as being tactically expedient. It is still unclear if Abdullah's effort to distance himself from counter-terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir will have any effect, but the Mukherjee Report could have disturbing consequences that will outlive even the most bitter memories of the August 1 massacre.

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