The land that burns unregarded

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NINE MONTHS after an attempted land grab on the Amarnath pilgrimage route set Kashmir ablaze, the Valley is in turmoil once again. This time, the cause is personal and heart-rending. Two young women, 17-year-old Asiya Jan and her sister-in-law, 24-year-old Neelofer Jan, left their home at 5 am on Friday May 10, crossed a nullah (drain) and entered the orchards on the other side. That was the last time their relatives saw them alive. When they had not returned home by 10 that night Neelofer’s husband, and Asiya’s brother went to the police. The police organised a search party and scoured the area fruitlessly till 2.30 am before giving up. Their bodies were found with the return of daylight at 6.00 am the next morning. Asiya was found on the rocks in the stream to one side of the bridge across the nullah, but Neelofer was found almost a kilometre away. Both had extensive bruises and injuries and Asiya had a wound on the side of her head. Asiya’s clothes were torn. Neelofer, who may have attempted to run, had been stripped. In a final gesture of love and respect, her brother covered her with his shirt. Three lives were lost that night because Neelofer had been pregnant.

The police launched inquest proceedings under section 174 of the Criminal Procedure Code, and took the bodies to the Shopian district hospital, where three doctors began a post-mortem. up to that point, the procedure it had followed was correct, and indeed, routine. But what followed was anything but routine and revealed to what extent two decades of virtual military rule in Kashmir has destroyed the trust of the people in their government.

According to relatives who were present at the hospital, shortly after the doctors began the post-mortem, a policeman came in and allegedly told the doctors that in case they concluded that the victims had been raped, they should hand their bodies back to their families as soon as possible to avoid tension building up. The doctors took little time to conclude, on the basis of their preliminary examination, that the girls had been raped, but before they concluded the post-mortem the policeman returned and, again according to the relatives, conveyed a message from a senior police official asking them to deny or equivocate on whether the women had been raped.

Hearing this, the relatives rushed out to alert the people who had gathered outside that a cover up was being attempted by the police. The ensuing turmoil disrupted the post-mortem. The police and CRPF restored order in the usual manner — with a lathi charge — but the agitated villagers demanded that another postmortem be conducted by a team of ‘neutral’ doctors from outside the district. The second post-mortem was eventually carried out by doctors from Pulwama. But when one of them confirmed to the brother of Asiya that the women had indeed been raped, the doctor was reprimanded by the superintendent of police for revealing this to the villagers and needlessly risking another riot.

From that point on, the local authorities went into stall mode. The second team detailed its findings but avoided a conclusion. Instead, the government sent its report to the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) and left it at that. In the absence of a clear finding, the official line became that the women had indeed suffered injuries and bruises but these could have been caused by their falling from the bridge onto the rocks below. Officially, the local authorities urged patience until the FSL had given its opinion but the police began to circulate the story that the women had either died because of a fall from the bridge or had drowned in the stream flowing down the nullah after losing consciousness, or both.

What was worse, on the plea of awaiting the findings of the FSL, they categorically refused to entertain a First Information Report (FIR) of rape and murder from the family members and allegedly beat them up and threw them out of the police station.

The doctor was reprimanded by the police for revealing to the villagers that the women were raped

NOT SURPRISINGLY, virtually the entire Kashmiri intelligentsia leaped to the conclusion that the police suspected that the girls had been raped and killed by a security forces patrol and were attempting to cover it up to avoid crossing swords with the powerful security establishments in Srinagar and Delhi. A newspaper reported that when the family first began to look for the girls, a neighbour had told the family that she had seen them start for home and that a paramilitary patrol had passed through (the orchard) at about that time. This confirmed everyone’s worst fears. Newspaper reports linking the two events began to appear with increasing frequency till they became routine. Thus, on June 11, Greater Kashmir was able to report without a qualm that ‘on the call of incarcerated Hurriyat (G) leader Ali Shah Geelani, thousands of school and college students… demonstrated … against the rape and murder of a teenaged student and her pregnant sister-in-law allegedly committed by the armed forces in Shopian last month’.

Ironically, the first victim of the equivocation, delaying tactics and clumsy misdirection by the local authorities was Kashmir’s young and still somewhat inexperienced chief minister Omar Abdullah. On June 1, in response to insistent demands by journalists to disclose the initial police findings, he stated that the police was working on the hypothesis that the women may have died through misadventure — accident, drowning or both. He therefore, by implication, ruled out rape and murder. This brought the simmering discontent in the urban intelligentsia to a boil and came as a godsend to both the ‘nationalist’ and the ‘separatist’ political opposition.

One after the other, between Asiya Andrabi of the Dukhtaran-e- Millat, Ali Shah Gilani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and finally Mehbooba Mufti launched a spate of protests against the police and the National Conference government. On June 2, Geelani launched what turned into an eight-day shutdown of business in the valley and PDP chairperson Mehbooba Mufti announced that she would force her way into the police station and stay there till the police filed a case. Sections of the media lost no time in pointing out that Omar Abdullah had failed his first test as a leader of the Kashmiris and revealed himself to be no different from his father and grandfather, who had always considered themselves to be Delhi’s proconsuls in Kashmir. Thereupon, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq invited the PDP to join him in his (moderate) freedom struggle.

AS THE days dragged by with no news from the FSL, the tension in the valley mounted. Demons – trations became a daily affair and turned more violent. The police resorted to teargas and managed to fatally injure one boy, adding to the long list of martyrs in Kashmir. The army grew increasingly apprehensive and began to move its convoys only at night. So nervous had its officers become that when the lead jeep in a convoy saw a shapeless bundle lying on the road as it passed through a small town, the officer turned the convoy around and went back to its camp before phoning the local police. The ‘corpse’ turned out to be a razai(quilt), but the officer had not dared even to take a closer look.

The first victim of the cover-up by the local authorities was Kashmir’s young chief minister, Omar abdullah

However, it was a fact-finding report of the High Court Bar Association that revealed how far the chronically disaffected were prepared to go to link the Indian State with the crime. The Bar Association report, released on June 9, asserted that ‘During the investigation, we found that the perpetrators belonged to a particular community and they had even vandalised the bodies of their victims’. No one asked the authors of the report how lawyers unversed in forensic pathology were able to determine the religion and ethnicity of the rapists from the pattern of bruises and lacerations on bodies that they could not have seen because the girls had already been buried. Had Kashmir been any other Indian state, this sentence in the report would have made the office bearers and authors share the fate of Varun Gandhi in Philibhit. But two decades of unceasing violence and the creeping advance of communal sectarianism have cost the Kashmiri intelligentsia its syncretic humanist culture. Kashmir has thus been doubly despoiled.

Objectivity has been the first casualty of this rising agitation. Nowhere in the thousands of words that have been written and the tens of thousands spoken on the issue, has anyone entertained the possibility that the cover-up may have been attempted only by the local police and administration and that their aim might just have been nothing more sinister than to get advance notice of the rape and delay the outburst of unrest that would follow, in order to make arrangements for crowd control first. No one paused to note that in the spate of interviews to journalists in the first few days after the tragedy, the families of Asiya and Neelofer had not accused the security forces. All they had done was to report what a neighbour had told them.

No newspaper followed this up by asking the army and CRPF if any of their patrols had been in the vicinity: they simply assumed that any answer they received, if they got one, would be false. And none noted glaring inconsistencies in some of the initial statements of the villagers. For instance, the villagers told the police that a group of shepherds had been camping in the vicinity of the nullah, but when the police went to find them the next morning, they had disappeared. Since sheep graze as they travel, the shepherds could not have gone very far. So the police’s failure to locate them was less than convincing. When one villager reported that the shepherds had fled because they had heard the women screaming during the night, no one asked him how he had come to know what the shepherds had heard when they had vanished in the early hours.

Omar announced a judicial inquiry because he was not convinced by the initial ‘findings’ of the police

Omar Abdullah’s attempts to set the record straight have also been brushed aside by the Kashmiri intelligentsia. The fact is that the local police did send out a search party and did call for an inquest. The fact is that Omar Abdullah did announce a judicial inquiry because he was not convinced by the initial ‘findings’ of the police. The Shopian district authorities’ decision to refer the post-mortem report to the FSL prevented the police from filing a case of rape till it had received its finding, but Omar did not wait for its report to set up the commission. Omar also rejected the first nominee when he found out that judge had asked for a National Conference (NC) ticket to stand for parliament from Baramulla and appointed Justice Muzaffar Jan, a highly respected judge, in his place. But for days after that, Kashmiris knowingly pointed to his choice of an aspirant for an NC ticket and invited listeners to draw their own conclusions.

Muzaffar Jan, in turn, appointed Haseeb Moghul, an officer who had earned fame and the respect of the Kashmiris for his fearless investigation of the Handwara rape case two years ago to head the investigation team. The Kashmir police has also set up its own Special Investigation Team to bolster the investigation. Finally, when the FSL confirmed rape on June 6 and the Medical board confirmed murder on June 9, the police lodged FIRs registering cases of rape and murder.

This does not necessarily mean that that the initial cover-up was not motivated by the fear that the security forces were involved. Nor does it rule out the possibility that the culprits belonged to the security forces. But there is equally little to sustain the theory that the culprits belonged to the Indian security forces. All one can say at this stage is that the due process of the law has been re-established, the local officials who temporarily derailed it have been punished and that the presiding judge and the investigators chosen inspire confidence that there will be a fair and painstaking investigation.

Only an acknowledgement of the sacrifices of Kashmiri insurgents will dissolve the accumulated bitterness

BUT IT IS also true that no matter how scrupulously the investigation is carried out, a large section of the Kashmiri intelligentsia will prefer to believe the allegations of the High Court Bar Association. The reason will not lie in anything that Omar Abdullah has or has not done, but with the unresolved conflict in Kashmir over its association with the Indian state.

The 52 percent turnout in the valley in the assembly elections in December 2008 showed that most people had finally grown tired of the negative politics of boycotts and hartals and realised that by disempowering them these were only taking them further and further away from self rule. This had reduced the overall level of abstentions (judged against the 70-72 percent voter turnout in 1977, 1983 and in the bye-elections of 2006) from 44 percent in 2002 to just under 20 percent in 2008. Delhi has trumpeted this as the end of the insurgency but to do so it has ignored the fact that a fifth of the people who would normally have voted still chose deliberately to abstain.

Only a settlement that reflects an acknowledgement by Delhi of the sacrifices made by Kashmiri insurgents will dissolve the accumulated bitterness of the last two decades.

Till Delhi accepts this, Kashmir will remain a simmering cauldron that will boil over whenever a new crisis erupts. The drowning of more than a score of schoolchildren in the Wullar lake in 2006 was one such crisis. The Amarnath land grab was another. Asiya and Neelofer Jan’s cruel murder is a third. So long as Kashmir remains volatile, the security forces will oppose any demilitarisation of the state. But so long as more than 3,00,000 armed forces and paramilitary personnel remain in the state, human rights crises will continue to erupt. Omar Abdullah has asked for the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to be repealed. New Delhi would do well to give him a sympathetic hearing.

Jha is a senior journalist

WRITER’S EMAIL
premjha@airtelmail.in

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