Frontline Volume 17 - Issue 07, Apr. 01 - 14, 2000
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU


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THE STATES

The massacre at Chattisinghpora

The March 20 massacre of 35 Sikhs in a Jammu and Kashmir village has the potential to widen the communal divide in the State, a fallout that could further the designs of the Far Right among all denominations.

PRAVEEN SWAMI
in Anantnag

SMALL patches of earth stained by blood mark the spot where the victims of Jammu and Kashmir's worst communal massacre lost their lives. Impromptu shrines have come up to tell visiting VIPs and ordinary people the story of the March 20 killings. Photogra phs of the 35 men shot that night have been pinned to a board inside the Singh Sabha gurdwara. A blackboard in the adjoining Shankerpora hamlet has the names of the 18 victims executed there scrawled in chalk. The shrines will stay in place until March 3 1, when thousands of Sikhs from around the country are expected to join in the last rites of the victims.

After the last of the visitors leave, Chattisinghpora's real problems will begin. The people of the village, like the rest of the Kashmir Valley's tiny Sikh community, will have to decide whether to leave for Jammu or to stay on and fight to defend their land and homes. That decision, and the political forces set in play by the killings, could be critical to the future of the State.

NISSAR AHMED
A mother follows the stretcher carrying her son's body in Chattisinghpora.

There is a shroud of fear over Chattisinghpora. Few people are willing to talk to strangers. Ranjit Singh, the Singh Sabha gurdwara's young priest, acts as the village's official spokesperson, reading out a stilted statement on the killings to visiting m ediapersons. "How could we know who committed the crime?" he asks. "They wore Army uniforms, and spoke Urdu, but we recognised none of them." Karamjit Singh, a local schoolteacher who was among the 17 men who were lined up for execution outside the gurdw ara, is even more scared. He had escaped into the darkness before the firing began, but a single question on what provoked his suspicion is enough to end all further conversation.

But others in the village are more willing to talk, at least after being promised that their identities would not be revealed. Their stories are consistent. About 20 men, clad in olive green combat fatigues, arrived in the village at 7-15 p.m. They told the people that they were soldiers, and ordered the men out to be questioned. When the men were lined up in two groups, a few hundred metres from each other, the firing began. As they started firing, the gunmen shouted 'Jai Mata Di' and 'Jai Hind'. In th eatrical fashion, one of them took swigs from a bottle of rum even as the killing went on. While leaving, one of the men called out to his associates: "Gopal, chalo hamare saath" (Come with us, Gopal).

Twentytwo-year-old Arvind Singh, who was watching television in his home, had not come out when the gunmen arrived. When the firing began, he thought an encounter had broken out. "Terrorists used to come to the village regularly," he says. "The Army used to patrol the village, but had never carried out searches or interrogations. So the terrorists often used to stay here." Just three weeks before the killing, one group of terrorists, also in combat fatigues, had spent an afternoon watching children play cricket. Most villagers in fact feel betrayed. "Our sisters and wives used to serve them food and tea at all hours of the day and night," says Babu Singh, a resident of Shankarpora. "How could they repay us like this?"

Others have not lived to ask the question. Jagir Singh, a retired Subedar-Major, had made his peace with the terrorists in order to survive, and his home was one of those most frequently used for shelter. His appeals for mercy on those grounds did not he lp. He was shot along with his sons Gurdeep Singh (who had married last year) and six-year-old Ajit Pal Singh. There are no men now in the house, and Babu Singh's wife has been sitting in their porch ever since the massacre, too stunned to talk. Families like that of Jagir Singh had bought their peace with the terrorists in the early 1990s, in order to avoid meeting the fate of the Kashmiri Pandit communities around them who were being mercilessly driven out. Now, with almost no Pandits left, it was the ir turn to face the terrorist campaign.

NISSAR AHMED
An old couple grieves over the body of their only son.

FEW people in the village believe stories claiming that the assailants were Indian Army soldiers. The reasons are simple. For one, the 7 Rashtriya Rifles, which is in charge of the area, is made up overwhelmingly of Sikh soldiers from the Punjab Regiment . Its troops and officers speak Punjabi, not Urdu. And the villagers, unlike Lashkar-e-Taiba cadre indoctrinated on stories of Hindu and Sikh barbarism, know that soldiers do not wander about on operations with bottles of liquor, shouting religious sloga ns as they fire. The terrorists evidently acted as they thought Indian soldiers would, a caricature that finds repeated mention in Lashkar-e-Taiba literature. The organisation's website even proclaims that Gurkha soldiers eat their dead parents' bodies.

But the people of Chattisinghpora had one crucial piece of evidence which pointed to the killers. Just before the firing began, one of the men lined up had recognised someone among the gunmen. "Chattiya, tu idhar kya kar raha hai?" (What are you d oing here, Chatt?), he asked. The person he spoke to immediately opened fire. Although police investigators are not discussing the point, it is possible that either of the survivors - Karamjit Singh, who escaped unhurt, or Nanak Singh, admitted with mult iple bullet injuries in Srinagar's Bone and Joint Hospital - heard the exchange. Agitated residents pointed the Anantnag Police to every Muslim whom they suspected of a role in the killings. Mohammad Yakub Magray, nicknamed Chatt Guri, was just one of th em.

IT took some of the best interrogators from the ruthlessly efficient Jammu and Kashmir Police Special Operations Group almost 48 hours to break Magray. He was, it turned out, a Hizbul Mujahideen operative active on the organisation's wireless network wit h the code-name Zamrood. On the night of the killings, Magray said, he had travelled with the Lashkar-e-Taiba's Anantnag area commander, a Pakistani national code-named Abu Maaz, to Chattisinghpora. Maaz, six feet tall with a large birthmark on his right cheek, was accompanied by some Lashkar members Magray knew by their code-names: Shahid, Babar, Tipu Khan and Maqsood. Five Kashmiri Hizbul Mujahideen members, led by Saifullah, possibly the code name for local operative Ghulam Rasool Wani, also came alo ng.

Abu Maaz, Magray said, had initiated the action after general instructions were received asking Lashkar-e-Taiba units to launch major attacks during President Clinton's visit to India. The first targets to be considered were military installations, but n o volunteers could be found for a suicide attack. Kashmiri Pandit hamlets were then discussed, but the idea was quickly rejected. The group attempted an assault on Kashmiri Pandits at Telwani, near Anantnag, in February. Three Pandits were killed there, but Army and police pickets in the area responded rapidly, and the Lashkar unit only just managed to escape. Sikh villages were, by contrast, unguarded. A random night patrol had been through Chattisinghpora three days earlier, so it was likely to be at least a week before troops would be there again.

Magray's continuing interrogation seems to be delivering at least some retribution. Dawn raids on March 25 by personnel of the Anantnag Police and 7 Rashtriya Rifles, led by Senior Superintendent of Police Farooq Khan and Colonel Ajay Saxena, led to the elimination of five members of Abu Maaz's unit at Panchal Thal, perched on the Pir Panjal range 9 km from Chattisinghpora. Assault rifles, grenades and two wireless sets were recovered from the killed terrorists. "We expect further success soon," said Kh an. "Magray has given us valuable information on hideouts, and we are developing separate intelligence which should lead us to those involved in the killings."

RETRIBUTION, however, will do little to secure the future of the Kashmir Valley's estimated 60,000 Sikhs, many of whom live in rural areas. Interestingly, the people of Chattisinghpora do not endorse claims made by some Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leaders that the community was not properly defended. "We never wanted protection here," says Babu Singh, "because we never thought there would be a problem... Our policy was to live, and to do that, we went out of our way to avoid confrontation with anybody." N ow the villagers must decide how they will respond to the state's proposals that they set up village defence committees to guard their future. Few appear enthusiastic about the prospect, however. "What will we do when we have to leave the village?" asks local priest Ranjit Singh.

Yet the fact remains that the people of Chattisinghpora, and Sikhs elsewhere in Jammu and Kashmir, will have to do some hard thinking. Although similar massacres may not be imminent, the fact remains that the campaign of ethnic cleansing launched by the Islamic Right a decade ago has now turned on the community. While some accounts claim that terrorist groups have no anti-Sikh agenda, the truth is less simple. Several Jammu and Kashmir Police officers at the cutting edge of the anti-terrorist operations are Sikh - such as Director-General of Police Gurbachan Jagat, Inspector-General of Police (Operations) P.S Gill and Srinagar Superintendent of Police (Operations) Manohar Singh. This fact has not passed unnoticed, and at least one Srinagar-based Sikh j ournalist has found himself being subjected to hostility on this account in recent months.

"The fact of the matter," says Rashtriya Rifles sector commander Brigadier Deepak Bajaj, "is that we can't protect everyone, everywhere, all the time. People have to learn to protect themselves too." Should the people of Chattisinghpora agree in the comi ng weeks to set up a village defence committee, it would be the first instance in the Kashmir Valley of people's resistance to terrorism. That, in turn, could have enormous knock-on effects, not just among religious minorities but ordinary Muslims, the p rincipal victims of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. Sadly, there has been little political effort to bring about a genuine mass coalition against the Islamic Far Right. Few politicians sought to tap the spontaneous outrage the Chattisinghpora killings p rovoked across Jammu and Kashmir, cutting across religious lines.

INDEED, the political fallout from Chattisinghpora could be just what the Lashkar-e-Taiba wants to see happening. The disgraceful attacks on Muslim properties in New Delhi, and the ugly anti-Muslim posturing of Sikh and Hindu chauvinist groups in Jammu, have deepened communal fissures. Hindu right-wingers who spoke of an Islamic conspiracy against Hindus and Sikhs alone ignored the fact that terrorists killed 77 Muslims through Jammu and Kashmir in the first two months of this year, while just 10 of the ir victims were non-Muslim. Last year, 723 Muslims and 98 non-Muslims were killed by terrorists, making it clear that the majority community in the State is paying the price for the violence that is enormously disproportionate to its numbers. Even the me mbers of Magray's immediate family do not appear to share his convictions. One of his brothers is a soldier in the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry and a first cousin is in the Border Security Force's 4 Battalion, both deployed on counter-terrorist opera tions.

NISSAR AHMED
Two women, who lost their relatives, console each other.

Another problem has been the incorporation of the Chattisinghpora massacre in a larger narrative of Sikh communal politics. Shortly after mainstream politicians like Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and Congress(I) leader Manmohan Singh visited the village, right-wing Sikh politicians entered the fray. Former Akal Takht Jathedar Ranjit Singh and former Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee president G.S. Tohra, both sacked by Badal, claimed that the killings were part of an Indian conspiracy to defame a neighbouring country. Ranjit Singh claimed to have developed a friendship in Tihar Jail with Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader Maqbool Butt, who was executed for murder. Ranjit Singh, who himself served a life term, said that Butt and other Kashmiri terrorists would never target Sikhs.

Such unsavoury political abuse of massacres has, in the past, contributed not a little to growing communal divisions in Jammu and Kashmir. Hindu and Sikh politicians almost never visit Muslim victims of violence, while Muslim politicians rarely make a su stained effort to campaign for the rights of the minorities. Where there is little political gain to be had from killings, politicians stay away altogether. The line of dignitaries queueing up at Chattisinghpora, for example, stands in stark contrast to the disgraceful treatment of the families of the migrant workers from Bilaspur, Madhya Pradesh, who were massacred at Sandu in the midst of the Kargil war. Individual police officers had on that occasion used funds meant for anti-terrorist intelligence g athering to hire buses for the families to transport their dead home.

After the ceremonies of March 31, Chattisinghpora will most likely disappear from the public consciousness, displaced by the next round of killings elsewhere. Official India has been busy attacking Pakistan for the killings. The terrorists trained in tha t country with official sponsorship are indeed responsible for the carnage. But for the communal hatred and bitterness that the killings have left behind, politicians of the religious Right have no one to blame but themselves.


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