The Massacre of a Town

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On 22nd October 1993, during a peaceful protest against the Hazratbal siege, around 50 civilians were killed and 200 injured by the Indian paramilitary Border Security Force (BSF) in Bijbehara, district Anantnag, on the Indian side of Kashmir. The atrocity was committed by the 74 Battalion of BSF, and was initiated and directed by its second most senior officer, Deputy Commandant JK Radola, who fired the first shot in the crowd.

Thirteen years on, the government enquiry into the massacre has yielded nothing, just like hundreds of other enquiries into atrocities committed by the Indian government such as massacres, rapes, and custodial killings. The murderers belonging to the 74 BN of Border Security Force remain free and the victims of the carnage are yet to receive any justice.

Background

For many months, the paramilitary forces and the Indian army in the town had been in search for an opportunity to avenge the townspeople for suffering heavy losses in the past at the hands of militants in frequent encounters and ambushes. As a result of these casualties and failure of the Indian army to contain militant activities against them, the army and the paramilitary forces had been doing their rounds of various localities in the town threatening the inhabitants that they would soon be taught a lesson for sheltering ‘terrorists’. Many of them declaring that Bijbehara was a town full of terrorists and that some day the paramilitary forces would have to burn the whole town down to get rid of them.

Prior to the massacre, in the month of August, there was a large incident of gang rape and molestation in the town. The incident was only hushed up as the elders in the town thought it could bring shame to the families. Later in the same month, the army raped a woman in Gadhangipora on the outskirts of Bijbehara town in response to a militant attack.

On 15th October, the BSF looked very agitated and started beating up local people in various places, accusing them of being terrorists. One of my former teachers and a senior Education Officer, Bashir Ahmad Shah, was also beaten up ruthlessly as he was coming home from his work. The BSF personnel who beat him up told him that all the people of Bijbehara town were terrorists and that they would soon forget to laugh.

The event that finally led to the carnage happened only five days earlier on 17th October, when a group of militants attacked a small contingent of BSF, snatching a rifle from a soldier and killing him. Later, the BSF cordoned off parts of Bijbehara and beat up hundreds of men, women and children. In a meeting with the local elders of the town, the BSF threatened them stating that they should handover the rifle back to the BSF or be prepared to pay the price. The meeting was held in the local police station in the presence of senior Police Officers who could not face up to the threatening and abusive BSF officers.

Strategic Massacre

It had been more than a week since the Dargah Hazratbal was placed under siege by the Indian army due to the militants being inside the shrine complex. The people of Kashmir did not appreciate the militants occupying the shrine, nonetheless they were also angry and sad at the siege of the holiest Muslim shrine in the Valley. The widespread anger would often be publicized in the form of sporadic public demonstrations. As a consequence of the Hazratbal siege, the whole of the Kashmir Valley was shut down with roads, town centres and offices being deserted.

On the fateful day, after finishing their Friday prayers, around 10,000 to 15,000 people gathered in the court yard of the local Jamia Masjid to register their protest against the army siege. A procession then started marching through various streets shouting slogans for the ending of the Hazratbal siege and in support of Kashmir’s freedom.

When the procession reached the main road (Srinagar-Jammu National Highway) that divides the town, there was a large contingent of the Border Security Force. As the whole procession reached on top of the road in the Gooriwan locality, Bijbehara, the BSF personnel closed in on the protestors from three sides and started to fire indiscriminately on them, killing at least 37 people on the spot and injuring more than 200 others. The firing continued for nearly ten minutes with the troops targeting the crowd and those who lay injured on the ground, in fact any one who showed any visible movement or signs of life.

When people from outside the procession tried to rescue those who were injured, they too were targeted including medical and paramedical staff. No ambulances or medical staff was allowed access to those who were lying on the ground, even though the hospital was only yards away from the massacre site. According to the local doctors in the hospital on that day, most of the people could have been saved had the ambulances and medical aid been allowed to reach the victims. The BSF also stopped ambulances and medical aid from the nearby town Anantnag. Later, when people did manage to take some of the injured away into the hospital, the BSF personnel even fired at them inside the hospital complex, killing and injuring more people. One such example is of a young man in his early twenties, Muhammad Shafi Wagay, whose house was only a few yards away from where the massacre took place. His brother Abdur Rashid was seriously injured and somehow Muhammad Shafi managed to take him to the hospital, but as he did, the BSF fired at him killing him on the spot in the hospital grounds. Conversely, his injured brother survived the carnage, spending about a month in the hospital.

Indian Media: the free alibis

Whilst the victims of the BSF massacre lay dying crying for help, the local Indian television, Doordarshan, was screaming that ‘the situation in Kashmir was peaceful’. Later, when the news of the massacre spread, the official version of the massacre stated that ‘the government announces with regret the Bijbehara killings which was as a consequence of the fire opened by the militants on a road-opening party’. This theory of militant attack was duly supported by two premier Indian news agencies –” UNI and PTI. These agencies, in collusion with the local BSF authorities, also falsely spread news reports that many of the dead were militants who were involved in various previous militant activities, including killings and attacks on the paramilitary forces. These false reports were carried, and given prominent space, by all the Indian newspapers and other media outlets.

Soon after the first news of the carnage went out, the authorities promptly barred independent local and international media persons from entering into the town, some were even beaten up and their cameras seized. The next day, on the 23rd of October, when a large number of local and foreign media people converged on the town, the army used violence and shot in the air to stop them from visiting the old side of the town and the newly dug ‘martyrs graveyard’. The army even attacked mourners in the graveyard that were burying their dead from the carnage.

Only two days after the carnage, the Commandant of the trigger happy 74 BN of the BSF, SC Kokereti, ‘claimed’ that 17 of the killed were found to be militants. Again this claimed was carried out and presented as authentic by the Indian media groups. According to these ‘claims’ one of the deceased, 17 year old Abdur Rashid Vaid, son of Abdul Hamid Vaid was a JKLF militant who was responsible for an earlier militant action in which an army Major, RS George, was killed. However, the killing of the Major was carried out by Hizbul Mujahideen, exposing the faults in the BSF story. Abdur Rashid was a class nine student and brother of the slain JKLF militant Mushtaq Ahmad Vaid, who was earlier killed in custody by the army.

The BSF also blamed another dead, 11 year old student of 7th class Mohammad Iqbal Ganaie, as one of the ‘leading figures of JKLF who was involved in many acts of terrorism and extortion’.

In yet another example, BSF blamed that one of the deceased, 16 year old Kamal Ji, was also a terrorist. However, when they came to know that the deceased was a Hindu, the accusation was silently dropped. Kamal Ji Tikoo was a young member of the only Hindu Pandit family that was living in Bijbehara. I remember the townspeople of Bijbehara, despite being immersed in grief, gathered in the local temple in support of Kamal Ji and his body was taken by a crowd of more than a thousand to the immolation ground where the locals had gathered the wood and prepared the funeral pyre. Kamal Ji became the third Hindu martyr of Bijbehara, one of the previous two also being killed by the army, and the other by the militants.

These accusations by the BSF, further amplified by the Indian media, were sickening and showed utter disregard for the feelings of the families of the victims.

Enquiry Commission or Eye Wash Commission

When all its efforts to ‘justify’ the murders failed, the government ordered a magisterial inquiry into the killings and the BSF unit posted at Bijbehara was withdrawn. Moreover, it was the then BSF Director, General Prakash Singh, who instituted a Commissioner to inquire into the massacre. The inquiry was termed as an ‘eye wash’ by the local people as well as the local media as there had been umpteen such enquiries into previous murders, rapes, massacres, but they had not produced any results.

The enquiry report, vide number EN/BFC/93/23-24, prepared by the Enquiry Magistrate Bijbehara and submitted to the government on 13th November 1993, concluded that ‘firing upon the procession was absolutely unprovoked and the claim made by the security forces that they were forced to retaliate the firing of militants for self-defence is baseless and concocted’. The Enquiry Magistrate’s report further stated that ‘The security personnel have committed offence out of vengeance and their barbarous act was deliberate and well planned’. The report indicts Deputy Commandant of the BSF, JK Radola, for ‘tacit approval given by him to the indiscriminate and un-provoked firing’.

The report recommended ‘the immediate dismissal of the accused persons who committed this dastardly act’. It further recommended that ‘this should be further followed up with the initiation of criminal proceedings against them and every effort should be made to ensure that justice is done and maximum possible punishment under the law of the land is awarded to such malignant and sick minded individuals’.

The Bijbehara massacre is particularly important because it followed the September 1993 passage of the Human Rights Protection Act by the Indian Parliament, adopted under the pressure of persistent allegations of human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as in other areas of armed conflict in India. The law established the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which began operations in October 1993 and promptly took up the Bijbehara massacre. However, it soon became apparent that the Commission would not be able to challenge the armed forces’ effective immunity from prosecution under Indian laws.

After strong strictures passed by the NHRC, 13 BSF men were charged with murder, but the subsequent General Security Force Court (GSFC) trial led to their acquittal. When the Commission sought to examine the transcripts of the trials, in order to satisfy itself that the BSF had made a genuine attempt to secure convictions, the BJP government, headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, refused.

On November 1st 1993, the National Human Rights Commission sent notices to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls the Border Security Force. The Ministry subsequently sent to the NHRC a report on the incident based on the magisterial inquiry ordered by the state government as well as one based on the Staff Court of Inquiry ordered by the BSF, which claimed that disciplinary proceedings had been initiated against fourteen BSF officials, but no details were provided.

On January 17th 1994, the Commission, based on the government report, made some strong recommendations that included immediate interim compensation to the victims’ families and that, apart from disciplinary proceedings under the Border Security Force Act, there should be parallel criminal prosecution proceedings based on the magisterial inquiry.

However, the Indian government did not respond positively to these recommendations. Nearly three years after the NHRC had called for action, on November 12th 1996, A.K. Tandon, then Director General of the BSF, informed the NHRC that “a General Security Force Court trial was conducted in respect of the twelve BSF personnel involved in the said incident,” but that results of the trial were “being withheld for the time being.” The Border Security Force had initially claimed that it had taken action against the responsible officials, but the only available information available about this concerns one sub-inspector who the BSF told the NHRC had been found not guilty. According to press reports, all those charged with murder were acquitted by the General Security Force Court.

The recommendations of the NHRC or the Enquiry Magistrate were not implemented as the Indian central government jeopardized every effort and move that would lead to the dispensation of justice. The Indian ministries of Home and Defence refused access to the case files of the Court Martial to India’s National Human Rights Commission. As a result the BSF men that committed the massacre could not be punished. In September 2000 the NHRC finally dismissed the case without dispensing justice to the victims and their families.

Another Victim

Twenty three year old Farooq Ahmad Bhat, son of Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, was a local chemist running a small shop in front of the hospital. On the day of the carnage, he was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the brutality and the subsequent sufferings of the victims and their families. On the very day, we went together to most of the families of the victims to offer our condolences and help with the burial in the local park which was turned into a ‘martyrs’ graveyard’. I was also undertaking reporting for the local newspapers.

Farooq was also a representative of the Institute of Kashmir Studies (IKS), a Kashmir-based human rights monitoring group. Farooq became active to collect the details of the massacre for IKS, recording statements of those killed and injured. His human rights work made him an enemy of the army and paramilitary forces and only a few days later in November he was threatened by the military intelligence. They also started coming to his shop and asking him questions about his involvement with the militants.

On 1st December 2003, at around midday, Farooq Ahmad Bhat was busy serving his customers when a vehicle of an army unit from 1st Rashtriya Rifles stopped on the road near his shop. Two of the troops asked him to come with them for some ‘investigation’ and thus he was taken in the full view of the public. The next day, when his family tried to contact the army, they claimed that on the same day Farooq had escaped from their custody near Pazalpora village, on the outskirts of Bijbehara. Since then his family are trying to trace the whereabouts of Farooq without any success. It is generally believed that Farooq was tortured to death by the army and then his dead body dumped somewhere in the forest or buried in a mountainous region. Farooq is just one of the 7,000 missing persons in Kashmir who have been ceased mostly by the Indian army and the paramilitary forces; persons whose fate are still unknown today.

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