21 August 2000
The Times of India
A mother appeals to Mother India for justice
By Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Service
ANANTNAG: Officially, Zahoor Dalal - a cloth merchant in this southern Valley town - is missing, one of an estimated 2,200 Kashmiris who have ``disappeared'' since 1989 after being arrested by some official agency or the other.
He vanished from outside his house around 7 pm on March 24 this year. Neighbours saw him being bundled into a red Maruti van. His uncle, Yusuf, ran desperately from one police station to another but no information was forthcoming.
According to district officials, the van had earlier been seized by the police. An officer surreptitiously commandeered it for the abduction but unknown to him, a vigilant constable noted his action in the station roznamcha.
Four other men disappeared from around Anantnag the same evening. Bashir Butt and Mohammed Malik from Halan village were in town collecting payments for sheepskins they had sold, when they vanished without a trace. In Brariangan, some 25 km away, uniformed men dragged away two villagers. They, too, could never be seen again.
The next morning, the Anantnag police' Special Operations Group and the Army's 7 Rashtriya Rifles made a sensational announcement. In a fierce encounter, they said, five foreign militants from Lashkar-e-Taiba were shot dead near Pathribal in the south of the district. The bodies of the five were burnt beyond recognition. The police claimed the slain men were wearing Army uniform and were the same militants responsible for the massacre of Sikhs at Chitisinghpora on March 20.
It took a few days for local people to link the encounter with the five missing men. They held daily protests demanding the militants' bodies be exhumed, something people in the Valley had never demanded before. One procession was fired upon at Brakpora, resulting in eight deaths. When the charred and decomposed bodies were finally disinterred, each family identified its missing man. Pathribal stood exposed as a monstrous fraud.
Though officially Pathribal was a joint police-Army operation, sources say the operation was essentially a Kashmir police one. Some officers from different elements of the security forces in the field like the Army, BSF and police said such incidents could affect relations between them. However, others contest this and insist the relationship among the security forces is very good at the functional level.
What seems to have happened is that the security forces, eager to ``solve'' Chitisinghpora, randomly abducted five men and killed them. Though the government handed back the bodies to the concerned families, it said murder charges would only be filed if DNA testing confirmed the victims' identity. The DNA results have been ready for the past three months but are not being released because, according to local officials, the government delayed the sanction of Rs 60,000 for lab fees.
However, Zahoor's mother, Raja Begum, doesn't need a lab report; she is convinced her son was shot, burnt and dumped by the police into a makeshift grave at Pathribal. Her brother, Yusuf, who brought up Zahoor after his father died in 1983, said if anyone could prove the young man had any connection with militancy, ``they can burn down my house and family''. Pointing to Raja Begum, he said: ``It is the duty of every Indian to ensure that she gets justice. The persons who did this to our boy did not even bother to hide their identity. They came on TV and said proudly, `We have killed five foreign militants'.''
According to the local administration, the Pathribal killings have done more to alienate the average Kashmiri than anything else the government has done in the past decade or so. They are confident that the Justice Pandian Commission - probing the Brakpora firings - will also expose the truth of Pathribal. ``If the guilty are punished, we will win the confidence of the people; if not, militancy will benefit,'' said one.
Just before leaving Zahoor's house, this correspondent asked Raja Begum, who had silently wept throughout the meeting, whether there was anything she wanted to tell the people of India. ``Zahoor can't come back but those who did this should be punished before my eyes,'' she replied. ``Why did they pick up an innocent man and murder him? If there is a government, if there is justice, the people who did this must be punished.''
(Fourth in a series)