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Death in Kashmir

1.

The village of Chitisinghpura is in the southeastern corner of the valley of Kashmir, a few miles from the highway that runs from the capital, Srinagar, across high mountains to the Indian plains. A steep, winding, dusty road takes you to a high plateau where, beyond a few miles of rice fields, the village lies in a little hollow muffled by pine, walnut, and chenar trees.

It has none of the wretchedness you associate with rural India. In fact, the brisk stream of cool, clear water that divides the village, the meadowed bank with the bathing cabin of rough timber and the leafless willows and the grazing stray cow suggest the romance of an isolated and self-sufficient pastoral community. The villagers are apple, almond, and rice farmers. Some of them own transport businesses—there is enough money around for the village to have two gurudwaras, domed prayer halls with courtyards, one for each side of the village. The houses are large in the expansive Kashmiri way, unplastered bricks stacked in timber frames, exposed lofts bulging with hay; each house has its own fenced-in compound where chickens run around vegetable patches; television antennae loom over the corrugated iron roofs.

The serenity of the place at first glance seems unreal: elsewhere in the valley of Kashmir, which is ruled by India, the Indian military has been fighting since 1990 a particularly brutal war with thousands of Muslim guerrillas. Almost all of the guerrillas have been trained in Pakistan by Islamic fundamentalists, and are fighting for integration of the Muslim-dominated valley with Pakistan, even though a majority of the four million Muslims who live precariously amid the violence caused by guerrillas and the Indian security forces in the valley prefer independence.

But the secular guerrilla outfits that were fighting for independence in the early years of the insurgency have long been overwhelmed by such Pakistan-based Islamic guerrilla groups as Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba, which also recruit jihad-inspired citizens of Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight in Kashmir. India, which has fought two wars with Pakistan over Kashmir in 1948 and 1965 and almost came close to a nuclear war in 1990, sees itself as fighting a “proxy war” with Pakistan in Kashmir, and the present Indian government in Delhi, which is dominated by Hindu nationalists, has sent close to half a million soldiers to Kashmir to suppress the insurgency.

This makes the Hindus in the valley very vulnerable, and approximately 130,000 Hindus, almost the entire Hindu population of the valley, migrated to India after a few hundred of them were killed by Muslim guerrillas in 1990. More recently, in early August, unidentified gunmen, alleged by the Indian government to be Pakistan-backed guerrillas, massacred over a hundred Hindus. But Chitisinghpura is populated mostly by Sikhs, who form just over 2 percent of the population of Kashmir, and have managed to maintain their neutrality all through the last ten years.

This explains why the community has never before been targeted at any time by either the Indian army or the Muslim guerrillas; it also explains why the Sikhs of Chitisinghpura were, before this spring, equally, if uneasily, cordial with both the guerrillas, who often visited the village looking for food, and the soldiers from nearby Indian army camps, who came on routine patrols.

Most of the Sikh families were at home on the evening of March 20, 2000, preparing for supper, watching the extended coverage of Bill Clinton’s visit to the subcontinent, and weren’t at all surprised when about seventeen men with guns and dressed in army fatigues showed up and ordered the males to come out of their houses. Most people thought it was a “crackdown”—the word had gone into the Kashmiri language after years of the Indian army’s cordon-and-search operations.

The Sikhs were made to squat before the gurudwaras—and this happened on both sides of the village—and were asked to produce their identity cards. The Sikhs complied; there was not much cause for suspicion at the time: the armed men in fatigues, who appeared to be from the Indian army, seemed to be carrying out the formality of checking the number of men in the village.

But there were some Sikhs who suspected something unusual was about to happen and hid themselves in their houses. None of the armed men came to look for them; there were enough people outside.

Identity cards checked, the armed men stepped back; there was a single shot, and suddenly the men raised their guns and started firing at the Sikhs. In the end, thirty-five men were shot dead on both sides of the village; all, except one, on the spot, on the muddy, hay-littered ground in front of the gurudwaras. It was the largest such killing by execution in Kashmir since the beginning of the anti-India insurgency in 1990.

I heard the news from Abbas early next morning. He is a Muslim, the Srinagar correspondent of an Indian newspaper. The dignity and solidity of his bearing—his tall, well-built frame, the elegantly cut Kashmiri jackets he wore—made him reassuring to be with in the city where everyone—the tense crowds in the streets, the jumpy soldiers in their bunkers, and the passionate Muslims speaking of the atrocities of Indian rule in bare, dark rooms—seemed to be on edge. A mutual acquaintance had asked him to help me out during my stay in Srinagar; and he had done so dutifully, but not without a certain wariness, which I put down to some slight resentment: I wasn’t the first or last of the inexperienced, and possibly biased, journalists from India he had been asked to assist.

His voice on the phone was calm. In the days I had been in Srinagar, relatively and unsettlingly quiet days, the news of sporadic custodial killings and gun battles between Indian security forces and guerrillas and land-mine blasts coming in only from other places in the valley, I had often heard him say, “If you live here, you have to be prepared for anything. Anything can happen anytime in Kashmir.” His words with their tinge of melodrama had made me wonder if he saw a certain glamour in his job, in the dangerous nature of the world he worked and lived in, like the reticent taxi driver who had been quick to point me toward the vegetable market where seventeen Muslim civilians had been blown to bits a few days before by a bomb.1

Something even bigger had now happened; and Abbas was as serene as always. He had no details yet, but he thought we should leave immediately for the village. When he arrived half an hour later at my hotel with two other Kashmiri journalists, his mood was light. The atmosphere inside the battered Ambassador was already one of good-humored banter; and the jokes and repartee in Kashmiri, which I couldn’t follow, got louder after each encounter with the frankly contemptuous Indian soldiers at roadblocks, who poked AK-56 muzzles through hastily rolled-down windows, demanded identity cards, and wanted to know where we were going and for what.

In little villages alongside the road men in blue and black cloak-like pherans stood in worried little circles and glanced nervously, out of the corner of their eyes, at the cars racing past them. In the rice and saffron fields, stubbly and glittering with frost, soldiers stood with their backs to the road, light machine guns slung over their shoulders. Outlined against the blue misty mountains in the distance, they were like hunters from a nineteenth-century sketch.

At the village itself, where there was nothing they could do, they looked more casual, the elite commandos almost dandyish in their black headdress and bullet-proof overalls, sheepishly standing where some angry Sikhs had barred their way to the village. There were tiny shards of glass on the ground: some car windows had already been smashed by the Sikhs and a photographer roughed up, his camera lens broken. The soldiers had watched it all and done nothing; they now quietly watched the Sikhs rage at the senior officers from the army and police who had begun to arrive, their cars disgorging more and more men in fatigues.

The Sikhs were mostly survivors from the night before; mostly middle-aged men, who had stayed in their homes when the armed men came. Others were from nearby villages and had been in Chitisinghpura since dawn. No one had stirred out of his house for close to an hour after the massacre; then some men had come out and seen the corpses and trudged several miles in the dark to the nearest police station. The police arrived seven hours after the massacre, but could find no clues to the identity of the killers. But the Sikhs standing before the policemen now had already assumed that the killers were Muslim guerrillas. They were shouting at once, beating their chests, feeding upon each other’s energy. The army and police officers heard them expressionlessly. “Give us guns and then we’ll deal with these Muslims,” a man with a long gray beard kept shouting. “They know what we did with them in 1947. We are not cowards like the Kashmiri Hindus! Do they think they can throw us out of Kashmir?! We’ll show them!” And then, spittle growing at the corner of his mouth, he added, “This is a country we have ruled.” The historical reference—to the early nineteenth century, when Sikh governors sent out by the king of Punjab had ravaged the valley and tormented the Muslims—made, just for a brief moment, the Kashmiri Muslim policeman before him flinch.

More journalists and government people arrived. The Sikhs wouldn’t let anyone pass, and continued to curse and lament. Behind them, a frightful clamor, as of a thousand crows, arose from the top of the hill where the bigger gurudwara was. It was the sound of weeping and wailing women, and it seemed to bewilder the roosters in the village, who were to go on dementedly for several hours after dawn, their exultant cries hanging discordantly in the air with the grief and despair of the women.

All through the long drive to the village, I had wondered about this moment. It was strange, after all the dread-filled anticipation, to come up against what appeared, for reasons then unclear, a familiar sight: the corpses lined up on the ground against the walled fence of the courtyard, grieving women around them, a hectic gaggle of photographers who were soon to send images of this remote Himalayan village into the world.

I walked to the other side of the village, where, in front of the smaller gurudwara, the armed men had shot seventeen of the thirty-five dead men. More bodies were being brought from here to the gurudwara where the widows and journalists had gathered: men trudging up and down the steep, muddy slopes littered with chicken feathers and straw, balancing on their shoulders improvised wooden stretchers that appeared to have been hammered together overnight. The bodies slithered around on the stretchers, and the blood leaking from them left bright large stains on the freshly planed wood: it was as if the rough way the bodies were handled came out of the manner, and scale, of death, more than a dozen men shot while they squatted before the gurudwara‘s scraggly fence of corrugated iron and barbed wire.

  1. 1

    This was one of the many random unclaimed incidents of violence in the valley where no one could say who might have been responsible.

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