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Death in Kashmir

In the end, there was only one body left to carry; and it took some time because the young wife of the deceased held her husband’s head in her lap and wouldn’t let go. A young girl in a long red mirror-work skirt, probably her daughter, stood by her side, freshly awakened and staring uncomprehendingly first at her dead father and then at her mother, who kept calling out a name as she wept and kept caressing, with rough, calloused hands, her husband’s face.

Outside the bigger gurudwara stood the police and army men, spiffily dressed, already stiff in anticipation of high-level visits from Delhi; the bored, silent groups of local journalists; the women and children warming themselves before a tiny fire after the long night of grief; the photographers and cameramen competing for the best view of the courtyard; the eager young journalists from New Delhi looking for blood; the cries of the roosters still incongruously mingling with the wailing of the widows—somehow the occasion demanded a more appropriate response.

And so when the Sikhs, growing in numbers by the minute as the news spread across the valley, each new arrival bringing his own outrage to the village, abused and drove out the first VIP, a senior state minister, stoned his car, shattered his windscreen, his bodyguards let loose a few rounds into the air from their AK-47s and caused temporary panic because some people thought that the guerrillas had attacked. Men began sprinting across the forest outside the village; the commandos threw themselves on the damp ground and prepared to shoot. No guerrillas showed up, of course. But the little commotion assuaged the growing need for drama and suddenly there was relief all around, and the commandos appeared less dandyish and more sheepish when they got up with muddy stains on their bullet-proof overalls.

But something suspect lay in that need for drama, which, in the few hours it took to broadcast the TV images of the widows, was to be amplified all across India. There had been a small war in Kashmir the previous summer when Pakistan-backed infiltrators, many of them regular Pakistan army recruits, occupied high mountain positions past the border. Hundreds of Indian soldiers had died while trying to dislodge them; and the media, slicker but also much more coarse after ten years of economic liberalization, had brought about a general intoxication with war in millions of middle-class Indian homes. Opinion polls in English-language newspapers had shown much of the middle class demanding an all-out invasion of Pakistan; letters in the popular press had even called for a nuclear bombardment of Pakistan. The media itself had joined in the frenzy, with young, awkwardly helmeted reporters shouting into microphones over the noise of artillery fire, “You have got to be here to know what it is like!”

And that need for drama, for swift, brutal responses to brutality, wasn’t going to be appeased by Bill Clinton’s condemnation of the massacre. When I left the village and went back to Srinagar later that day, the groups of worried Muslims I had passed in the morning had been broken up. They were already in roped-off enclosures, squatting on the ground while soldiers searched their houses. Buses were being stopped and passengers lined up and interrogated by the side of the road: a multitude of little crackdowns were going on in the region.

Three days after the killing, while Clinton was still in India, a jubilant-looking senior bureaucrat in New Delhi announced a “major breakthrough” on Indian television: the Indian army and police had just arrested, he said, a man called Yaqub Wagay, one of the few Muslim residents of Chitisinghpura, who had provided valuable information about the Sikh killings. Another “major breakthrough” came two days later when five “foreign mercenaries” allegedly identified by Wagay as the killers of the Sikhs—guerrillas from Pakistan and Afghanistan—were killed in an “encounter” during a joint army- police assault on a lone hut on top of a hill in a remote village, not far from Chitisinghpura, called Panchalthan.

This was what needed to be done after the massacre to appease public outrage in India—the Sikhs had been rioting for three days in Jammu City—and the army and policemen in Kashmir, men more confident in their ability to manipulate the media after the war last year when false stories about Pakistani brutality and Indian courage had been tirelessly retailed, had known what to do.

The “encounter” with foreign mercenaries was reported on the front pages of the Indian newspapers, and the matter was seen to have ended there. But soon the government’s story ran into unexpected problems. There had been no post-mortem of the five men killed in the “encounter” at Panchalthan. The frightened local villagers were bullied into quickly burying the badly charred corpses; but soon afterward they came across clothes and personal items near the burial site that had been left burning by the soldiers. These items now became evidence contradicting the government’s story.

Within just three days after the killings, seventeen Muslims had strangely gone missing from the villages around Chitisinghpura. Three of them had been kidnapped before witnesses by armed men in a red Maruti van that was later discovered to have been one of the several vehicles seized by the district police and parked in the district police station. The son of one of the missing men heard about the discovery of half-burnt personal items in Panchalthan; he traveled to Panchalthan and found his father’s identity card and ring among the items. More items were identified, as villagers came forward to testify that the five men had been fired upon at close range, soaked with kerosene, and then set alight.

The relatives of the five murdered Muslims walked in a procession several miles to the district headquarters to appeal for a public exhuming of the bodies. After a week of protests, the demonstrations grew larger and then a crowd of five thousand Muslims was fired upon by the police. Nine more men died; among the dead was the son of one of the murdered civilians, the one who had traveled to Panchalthan and made the first connection between the missing men and the half-burnt personal items.

When the bodies were finally exhumed, almost two weeks after the murders, they were discovered to have been badly defaced. The chopped-off nose and chin of one man—a local shepherd—turned up in another grave. The body of a local sheep and buffalo trader was headless—the head couldn’t be found—but was identified by the trousers that were intact underneath the army fatigues it had been dressed in. Another charred corpse—that of an affluent cloth-retailer from the city of Anantnag, presumably kidnapped and killed because he was, like the other four men, tall and well-built and could be made to resemble, once dead, a “foreign mercenary”—had no bullet marks at all. Remarkably, for bodies so completely burnt, the army fatigues that they were dressed in were almost brand new.2

2.

I had left Srinagar by then. I followed the events from Delhi, where they merged into the general atrociousness of the news emanating from Kashmir, news that was reported fitfully and sparingly, often in single columns, in the Indian press, which was concerned from the very beginning of the anti-India insurgency not to report anything damaging to the “national interest.” The news of the massacre had lasted for barely half a day when it was overtaken by Clinton’s reaction to it, his harder line against Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, which emerged as the most important aspect of the affair. The circumstances of the massacre, the identity of the killers, were left unexplored.

In Chitisinghpura, I had spoken to some elderly Sikhs standing around a small tea shack. They were wary of me and couldn’t tell me much: they had heard the orders for them to come out, they had stayed put in their homes, and then they had heard the gunfire and cries of pain. They couldn’t imagine who the killers might have been. This was Kashmir: no one really knew what was going on. The armed men could have been sent by the Indian army; it could have been the Muslim guerrillas. They did remember that the men spoke Urdu and Punjabi (a meaningless clue since many Indians and Pakistanis and Kashmiris speak the two languages), and that some of them were drunk.3

The wariness of these elderly men had much to do with their new sense of vulnerability to both the guerrillas and the Indian soldiers in their isolated setting—a vulnerability that remains. Just a few days after the killings, almost all of the Sikhs in the village whom I had seen so stridently blaming the Muslim guerrillas on the morning after the massacre had migrated to India. More recently, the Sikh association formed to protect Sikhs after the killings have begun to talk about the possible involvement of Indian security forces.4 All the Pakistan-based guerrilla outfits have continued to deny their involvement in the Chitisinghpura killings, and to blame Indian security forces for them. There have been no further attacks on the Sikhs in the valley—and the questions about why Muslim guerrillas should attack civilian members of a community they have not bothered for over a decade, why they should do so hours before Clinton’s arrival in India and thereby invite international opprobrium and discredit their cause, haven’t been satisfactorily answered.

There are other intriguing facts. Of the twelve other Muslim civilians that went missing around the same time as the murdered five, four were spotted at, and eventually rescued by local villagers from, an army camp near Panchalthan. It is quite likely they had been kidnapped for the same reason the five murdered men were: to be presented, once dead, as “foreign mercenaries” responsible for the killings of the Sikhs. The fate of the rest is still unknown, and as with many missing Muslims in Kashmir they are likely to show up in one of the daily police lists of “killed militants.” Meanwhile, the family of Yaqub Wagay, the Muslim man arrested in Chitisinghpura for allegedly assisting the “foreign mercenaries” in the killings of the Sikhs, has refused to put up bail for him out of fear that he’ll be murdered as soon as he’s out of prison. A senior Kashmiri official connected with the inquiry told me that Wagay was innocent, and had been with four other men, including a Sikh, when the massacre took place. Wagay is the Indian government’s glaringly weak link between the killings in Chitisinghpura and the “encounter” at Panchalthan, which makes him just as likely to be killed in prison as outside it.

The Indian failure to identify or arrest even a single person connected to the killings or the killers, and the hastiness and brutality of the Indian attempt to stick the blame on “foreign mercenaries” while Clinton was still in India, only lends weight to the new and growing suspicion among Sikhs that the massacre in Chitisinghpura was organized by Indian intelligence agencies in order to influence Clinton, and the large contingent of influential American journalists accompanying him, into taking a much more sympathetic view of India as a helpless victim of Islamic terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan: a view of India that some very hectic Indian diplomacy in the West had previously failed to achieve.

  1. 2

    In April this year, almost three weeks after the killings, the BJP-backed local government in Kashmir reluctantly announced an investigation and DNA identification tests for the bodies, but no one in Kashmir expects anything to come out of it. Even the DNA test results, which have yet to be announced, cannot be trusted. Last year, a disinterred corpse was identified by Indian DNA testers as that of a British tourist kidnapped and killed in 1995, along with three other Western tourists, allegedly by a Pakistan-based guerrilla outfit, while DNA tests in England contradicted this.

  2. 3

    This clue appeared, but could also have been invented by the Sikhs, to rule out the involvement of Muslims. The Kashmir Times, which is edited and owned by non-Kashmiri Hindus, and is possibly the most reliable source of information about the valley, reported on March 26 that some of the villagers initially claimed that the killers were clean-shaven, diminutive, and dark-complexioned, which makes them seem very unlike the guerrillas.

  3. 4

    See The Kashmir Times, June 28, 2000.

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