IT was mounting public pressure and outrage that forced the J&K government to exhume the bodies of five Anantnag locals on April 6. The exhumation has only confirmed the worst fears of the relatives of those killed, and for both the state and central governments it was nothing short of a major embarrassment.
As relatives identified two bodies of the five villagers, allegations that they were shot down in a fake encounter gained strength. The police and the army now find themselves in a tight spot. Both have been claiming that the five men they killed in a joint operation in Pathribal on March 24-25 were foreign militants involved in the massacre of 36 Sikhs at Chitsinghpura on March 20.
But the facts speak otherwise. Among the bodies exhumed was that of 65-year-old Juma Khan Sr, who, security forces say, was killed in a fierce encounter. Khan was missing from his village since March 21, a day after the Chitsinghpura massacre. His body was identified by wife, Roshan Khan, and his son. The body of Zahoor Ahmed Dalal, a trader, was identified by his maternal uncle. The other three villagers missing since March 21 are: Bashir A. Butt, Mohammad Yusuf Malik and Juma Khan Jr. All those feared killed were either labourers or petty traders.
Army officials privately admit that the fake encounter, closely followed by the Special Operations Group (SOG) and CRPF firing on a peaceful demonstration in Brakpora village on April 3 killing nine protesters and injuring 11, has deepened their embarrassment. The protesters were demanding the exhuming of the five bodies and a status report on 17 persons missing in police custody. Says an army officer: "If it were militants who were bumped off, no questions wouldve been raised. But if what is being alleged is true, then its a clear-cut violation of human rights and the guilty must be punished." The police, meanwhile, denies that any of the bodies have been identified. The DG, Gurbachan Jagat, told newsmen that as one of the bodies was charred beyond recognition, samples have been sent for a DNA test. The forensic experts from the Government Medical College hospital in Srinagar supervising the exhumation also confirmed that "only a DNA test can establish the identity of the deceased."
But the incidents have outraged the local populace and the backlash was so intense that curfew had to be imposed in Anantnag. In an obvious attempt to assuage feelings, CM Farooq Abdullah came out against the security agencies-something he hasnt done since coming to power. Farooq not only condemned the killings but went on record to say that the police firing on the protesters was unprovoked. He also accepted demands that the bodies of those killed in the Pathribal encounter be exhumed and DNA tests conducted to verify their identity. He assured the villagers that those responsible for the fake encounter would be severely dealt with: "I assure you that if the charge that the victims were ordinary civilians and not foreign militants, as claimed by the forces, is true, I will take stern action against those responsible. I will skin them."
The police seem to have no explanation for the April 3 firing. Villagers strongly refute police claims that it was armed militants in the procession who fired on the crowd. In fact, even Farooq refused to buy the official line and publicly stated that there was no evidence to support police claims.
Though many welcome the CMs frankness in admitting police excesses, observers are closely watching the follow-up on the probe Farooq has ordered. As an immediate step, top-level civil and police district officials were shifted. The state government says former Supreme Court judge Justice S. Ratnavel Pandian will head the one-man judicial probe ordered into the Brakpora firing. The probes purview is to be extended to the Chitsinghpura massacre. But it remains to be seen what concrete steps Farooq will take to pacify the people who are up in arms against excesses committed by the security forces.
Meanwhile, the 17 persons picked up by security agencies from different parts of Anantnag district soon after the Chitsinghpura incident are still missing. The police has failed to produce them or provide proof of their well-being. Neither have they been able to refute allegations that five of the 17 are dead. Indeed, public sentiment is so volatile that many believe that if Farooq hadnt ordered the exhumation and DNA tests, the situation wouldve taken a turn for the worse.