SOMEWHERE IN south Kashmir, the unknown grave of an alleged Pakistani militant killed in an encounter in 2001 is still the subject of a high-stakes legal battle between the army, the police and a 60-year-old Kashmiri woman named Zaitoona. The woman, who is from Kalaroos village in north Kashmir, claims that the deceased was actually her husband, a beggar seeking alms to feed his family back home. At stake is the reputation of the army chief-designate, Lt Gen Bikram Singh, who was then a brigadier heading the 1 Sector Rashtriya Rifles, headquartered in Anantnag.
In March 2001, a 60-year-old man was killed in an encounter by the army at Janglat Mandi on the outskirts of Anantnag district. A colonel and another jawan, and two civilians were killed in the firing between the two sides. Singh and Lieutenant BS Bajwa sustained injuries in the encounter. Singh was later given a gallantry medal.
The army said that the old man was killed after he opened fire on the army convoy travelling through the area. Police investigations later established the identity of the dead militant from an identity card recovered from his body as Ghulam Mohi-u-Din alias Abdul Mateen Chacha of Hizbul Mujahideen and a resident of Malakand Sirhind, Pakistan. What is more, Hizbul Mujahideen accepted the responsibility for the attack and claimed Chacha as its own.
CUT TO October 2011. A recently formed NGO, Youth Empowerment Services (YES) of Kashmir, with no history of any social work, filed a petition in the J&K High Court on behalf of Zaitoona and her sister-in-law Jani seeking re-investigation into the incident. The NGO contends that the encounter was staged and the deceased was an innocent old beggar named Abdullah Bhat from Kalaroos.
The NGO has sought several orders from the court to establish the truth. First, the government should constitute a special investigation team to probe into the encounter. Second, the police should produce the record file of the case, including Bhat’s photograph for identification. Also, the police should identify where he was buried for DNA testing.
Curiously, the petition was filed only at a time when Lt Gen Singh was all set to become the new army chief. Also, YES Kashmir, the NGO, has no prior experience of fighting a court case. “The NGO has absolutely no record of any human rights work,” says human rights activist Khurram Parvez, who runs the Coalition of Civil Society, which had earlier revealed the existence of unmarked mass graves in Kashmir before the state’s own human rights commission did so in 2011. Khurram says the family of the victim has never before brought the case to the notice of other human rights organisations.
‘YES Kashmir has no record of any human rights work,’ says human rights activist Khurram Parvez
The NGO is run by Khursheed Ahmad Mir, a surrendered JKLF militant with a bank robbery case against him. It has five trustees namely Tanveer Ahmad Wani, Sheikh Manzoor Ahmad, Ashiq Hussain Najar, Iftikhar Ahmad Dar and Fayaz Ahmad Mir. Mir says the NGO is registered with the government but sources in the army say the registration process was unduly hurried and granted in one month while Deputy Commissioner Kifayat Rizvi says he has no knowledge about the NGO.
According to the police, the NGO established its office near the Achabal bus stand in Anantnag in 2010, and then shut down for sometime before reopening in 2011. After reopening, the first thing the NGO did was to file the petition in the J&K High Court in October 2011.
Following this petition, a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court by a group of retired officers and bureaucrats headed by Retd Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas, challenging the appointment of Lt Gen Singh as the Chief of Army Staff. The petition has been dismissed by the apex court on 23 April.
When asked, Khursheed Mir, founder of YES Kashmir, said they were persuaded to take up the case by the people of Anantnag. However, according to sources, the family lives 320 km north of Anantnag in a village close to the LOC and had no prior contact with the NGO before the petition was filed.
Mir, who claims to have held a protest at Jantar Mantar, insists there was no convoy or army personnel around Janglat Mandi when the encounter took place. “Everyone will tell you that only a single bullet was fired that killed the beggar.”
But sources in the army say the encounter was for real. “How can the army kill and injure its own men in a fake encounter,” says an army officer on the condition of anonymity. “This begs belief.”
Petitioners contend that a DNA test on the body will settle the issue. According to the army’s counsel, Karnail Singh, the alleged militant being foreign born was buried with other militants and hence no record is available. “A maulvi, a constable and a havaldar were sent to bury the body. It is an unknown grave,” says Karnail Singh. He further argues against the possibility of a DNA test. After 11 years, the army feels the body must have decomposed beyond recognition, though DNA tests have been known to stand as evidence in cases much older than this. In any case, a test can only be done, when and “if” the grave where Bhat has been buried is identified.
Nonetheless, the army’s denial of any knowledge of the location of the grave as well as the absence of a photograph remain a weak spot for the defence. Without proper records, the encounter has become suspect. In such a situation, the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the petition against Bikram Singh comes as a huge sigh of relief for the future chief.
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.