Had action been taken against Avtar Singh in the Andrabi murder, the death of other innocents could have been avoided, says Riyaz Wani
AS THE reasons for why Major (retd) Avtar Singh killed his family before putting the gun to his head continue to be probed, one thing is clear: No one will now know what the former army officer would have said to a judge had he been extradited. Singh was charged with the kidnapping and murder of human rights lawyer Jalil Andrabi in Srinagar in 1996, while he was posted in the Valley. he had fled to the United States via Canada after the Jammu & Kashmir police came looking for him.
On 8 March 1996, lawyer activist Jalil was driving home from the high court with wife Rifat when they were accosted by a waiting truck. Jalil was dragged out of his car by gunmen, who bundled him into the truck before driving away. on 27 March 1996, Jalil’s trussedup, decomposed body was recovered from the Jhelum. his eyes had been gouged out.
On 9 June 2012, 16 years after that incident, Major Singh shot dead his wife and two children and then killed himself at their residence in Selma, California.
“It is divine justice,” says Arshad Andrabi, brother of Jalil. Arshad, however, says Singh’s family would not have perished had the Indian government heeded Arshad and his family’s pleas for justice. “If the government had moved to deliver justice and extradited Singh from the US, his family would have been saved,” he adds.
Hailing from Yamuna Nagar, Haryana, Singh was posted to Kashmir in the troubled 90s, when the high profile murder of Jalil happened. In the course of the investigation, Muhammad Ashraf Khan alias Omar Bhai, who worked as an informer for the army, recorded his statement as an eyewitness of what happened to Jalil in the army’s custody. “In his statement, Khan had said he heard Jalil being tortured by Singh,” says Arshad. “he also says Jalil was shot in the head, his body taken in a car and thrown into the Jhelum.”
Adding to this incriminating statement, Khan’s wife Dilshada gave even more damning evidence of Singh’s guilt. In her statement, Dilshada talked about more murders by Singh. “Major Avtar Singh killed more people from Mahjoor Nagar, Jawahar Nagar and Batamaloo (in Srinagar). he kidnapped a respectable person, Jalil Andrabi, and tortured him. his dead body was kept in a bag and thrown into the Jhelum,” reads her statement. “Major Singh had close ties with my husband and sent him to Jammu so that his crime would not be exposed before the people.” Dilshada stayed with her husband at the army camp.
Apart from Jalil’s killing, Singh has five cases of murder and kidnapping registered against him in Srinagar, including the death of one Balbir Singh, son of Gulab Singh of Mahjoor Nagar in 1997. Singh is also accused in the 1997 murder of Imtiaz Wani of Ikhrajpora, besides being named in the murder of five people who, incidentally, were part of his team when he picked up Jalil. they have been identified as Sikander Ganai, Muhammad Ramzan, Mushtaq Ahmad Hajam, Muhammad Assad Lone and Muhammad Afzal Malik. A case of kidnapping is also registered against Singh and his cohort of counter-insurgents.
As police started looking for him, Singh was shifted out of the Valley to Karnal in Haryana where he was posted in a regiment of the Territorial Army. A J&K Police team went to arrest Singh in 2000 on the high court’s order, but had to return empty-handed. subsequently after his retirement from the army, Singh fled to canada and from there to the United states. This, when the J&K High court on 10 April 1997 had ordered the immediate impounding of his passport. “Despite court orders, the Union Home Ministry and Ministry of External Affairs issued the travel documents to singh and helped him flee the country,” says Hafizullah Mir, counsel for the Andrabis.
While in the Us, the Interpol issued a warrant against him, but it could not be executed as there was no request from the Indian government for his extradition. In February 2011, Singh briefly invited media attention after he was arrested by the police in Selma, California, following a domestic violence complaint by his wife. The Interpol promptly informed the J&K Police’s crime Department, the nodal agency for the Interpol in the state, about his arrest. But again no request was made for his extradition.
Although Singh’s taking his own life is equated with divine justice in Kashmir, there is also a sense of grief for his family. “The death of Major Avtar Singh and the brutal killing of his family members, is an indictment of the Indian state. For 16 years, Singh had been allowed to leave the country, avoid extradition proceedings and run a business,” says a statement issued by Coalition of Civil Society (CCS), a civil rights group in Kashmir. “The state has effectively allowed Major Singh to escape the rule of law, and in the process further innocent lives have been lost.”
Despite a 1997 high court order to seize his passport, Singh was allowed to leave the country
The ccs has demanded an impartial investigation into the crimes perpetrated in Jammu & Kashmir by Singh and his colleagues. “There should also be a probe into the circumstances under which he was allowed to leave the country, persons or institutions who may have supported him to escape the legal process, and persons or institutions responsible for the delay in extraditing him,” says the ccs in its statement.
The court in Srinagar has now asked the government to authenticate Avtar Singh’s death. “This murder doesn’t only involve Singh. There are others too,” says Jalil’s brother Arshad. “They should also face justice.”
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.