Exhume this investigation

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As Kashmiri anger seethes, the mystery surrounding the Shopian probe deepens, reports Parvaiz Bukhari

Battlelines Locals with placards at the empty graves of Asiya and Neelofar Jan
Battlelines  Locals with placards at the empty graves of Asiya and Neelofar Jan
Photo: Javed Dar

WHEN SHAKEEL Ahmed Ahangar consented to exhume the bodies of his wife and sister, he asked the CBI officials a simple question: “What would you do if we were not Muslims and the bodies had been cremated?” Not only does this highlight the highly technical domain the probe has entered, it also reflects the public outrage the Shopian incident has evoked in troubled Kashmir. For justice to be done, it is as important to expose the officials behind the cover-ups by the authorities, as it is to identify the culprits.

Sisters-in-law, 22-year-old Neelofar Jan and 17-year-old Asiya went missing from their family’s apple orchard on the evening of May 29. None of the questions that sprang up after their bodies were recovered from the Ranbi Ara stream a few hours later have been answered. The initial police version — easily bought into by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah — that the two women drowned, triggered a wave of angry protests across Kashmir, protests which have become a silent political storm that questions the highly militarized environment in which the crime took place.

Flashpoint Neelofar (above) and Asiya, her sister-in-law, were murdered after they went missing from their family’s orchard on May 29

Accused of the crimes by the victim’s family and the people of the south Kashmir town, the security forces have not responded. From the chief minister to top police officials in the state, everybody appears to have either been misleading — or been misled — by someone. The Shopian case is like a fattening onion: layers of mystery swathe it with each attempt to reach the core.

Disconcertingly, each time the investigation reaches a dead end, information is selectively leaked to media outlets, indicating that the source of the cover-up attempts lies somewhere deep inside the system that controls Kashmir. On Sunday — a day before the CBI had a high profile team of forensic experts from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences autopsy the exhumed bodies — the story of one Dr Nighat Shaheen confessing that samples of biological evidence were not collected from the victims’ bodies appeared in the media. “She (Dr Nighat) also confessed in our presence that slides for forensic examination were prepared from medical gloves used to examine the victims. This is either characterlessness or pressure from somewhere,” Shafi Khan, spokesman of the Majlis-e-Mashawarat (MM) told TEHELKA. The MM is a citizens’ consultative committee formed in the aftermath of the incident to spearhead a movement for justice in the case. Dr Nighat carried out the second examination on the victims’ bodies after people outside the hospital in Shopian turned hostile on May 30. This happened after the first team of doctors said that the victims drowned.

Similarly, in August, as the J&K High Court hearing the Shopian case started treating four arrested police officials as accused, a report from the CBI’s Central Forensic Science Laboratory revealed that the samples sent to it did not belong to the victims. The officials including SP Javed Mattoo and Deputy SP Rohit Basgotra were arrested on court orders for destroying evidence and dereliction of duty. All were bailed in September after a Special Investigative Team (SIT) of the state police failed to file a chargesheet against them.

Now, just a day after the forensic investigation began, the news that the CBI had found that Asiya wasn’t raped was again leaked selectively to the same media outlet – as if her abduction and murder didn’t matter. “The CBI team showed us (Asiya’s) hymen. But I told them it still doesn’t rule out sexual assault or an attempt to rape,” said GQ Khan of the MM to the media.

The CBI team headed by DIG Satish Golcha is tight-lipped, as are the J&K police. Cover-up after cover-up became evident at critical stages of investigation and Kashmiris kept asking questions, raising the pressure on the government. As the CBI investigation has entered a highly technical phase, Shopian locals, the MM and the family of the victims have started feeling helpless and sceptical. “To question the ongoing investigation, we need to be forensic experts of high calibre,” said an MM member on condition of anonymity.

Perhaps this explains the calm in Shopian on the day of the exhumations. “How do I know what the CBI will do?” asked Javed Ahmed, a local resident. “What should be investigated is the presence of such huge numbers of armed forces. They are the reason for these crimes, which later need covering up.”

The fence around the graveyard where Neelofar and Asiya were buried bore numerous black flags and banners of mourning and cries for justice. The biggest carried these lines in bold Urdu: Banay hain ahl-e-hawas mudaee bhi munsif bhi…kisay wakeel karein kisay munsifi chahein (Those crazed by power have become both prosecutors and petitioners… who do we appoint our lawyers? From whom should we seek representation?).

HUMAN RIGHTS activists do not see the investigation being extended to central forces in the area including the army and the CRPF. “Given its lack of credibility in Kashmir, the CBI may try to do a straightforward job of tracing the culprits. But what if they detect the involvement of central forces’ personnel in the crime?” asks Pervez Imroz, a widely-respected human rights lawyer. “If they solve the case, they would, to some extent, establish the credibility of Indian institutions in Kashmir; if they don’t, they would have committed a blunder with political consequences yet again.”

From the day of the crime, public suspicion has pointed at security forces but no central forces’ personnel have been questioned. If any evidence on the victims’ bodies has survived four months of burial, who will the CBI match it to? The only names attached to the case are the four (bailed) police officials and the husband of Neelofar, who is also the brother of Asiya.

Because of cover-up after cover-up, the Shopian case is like a fattening onion: layers of mystery swathe it with each attempt to reach the core

Kashmiris want to know if the CBI will question members of the central security forces in Shopian – if not as accused in the crime, then, at least as witnesses and if the exhumed evidence will matched with the thousands of army, CRPF and police personnel present in the area on the night of the crime. The victims’ bodies were found are in an area under heavy floodlit surveillance from army and CRPF camps. Locals doubt if the bodies could have been dumped there without the guards not noticing anything. They ask if the officers of the 44 Rashtriya Rifles camp stationed in the area will be questioned as well. And why was 166 Battalion of the CRPF removed from the area within a few days after the incident, even as Shopian was boiling?

A fresh CBI investigation into the incident is on. Apart from establishing the cause of death and if the victims were raped, the CBI has the task of establishing the legitimacy of the state’s authority in Kashmir. Does it have the autonomy it needs to do so? Or will it turn in a report so technical that the people cannot question it? The answers may lie in exhuming the entire process of investigation and obfuscation by the state authorities.

Public determination to fight for justice in the Shopian case was evident at the end of the exhumation: hundreds gathered around the graves as soon as the CBI team left the spot under tight security. While the victims’ female family members and womenfolk sobbed, local youth raised the slogan “Behna hum sharminda hain, tumharay qatil zinda hain” (Sisters, we are ashamed because your murderers are still alive)

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