by Mukthar Ahmad in Srinagar, Basharat Peer and Onkar Singh in New Delhi and Syed Amin Jafri in Hyderabad
IT HAD stood out even in that killing field called Kashmir: 35 Sikhs shot dead on a March night two years ago in Chattisinghpora, a village in Anantnag district 68km from Srinagar.
The timing of the massacre coincided with then United States president Bill Clinton's visit to India, giving it the kind of international notoriety that it would perhaps never have had otherwise.
But the aftermath of the March 20, 2000, incident was even more shocking -- and Clinton wasn't around to bring it to the notice of the world. Even so, the disappearance of five young men from Pathribal village in the same district did make it to the front pages.
Their relatives and neighbours said security forces picked up Zahoor Ahmad Dalal, Bashir Ahmad, Mohammed Yousuf Malik, and two other youths, both named Juma Khan, in the days that followed the Chattisinghpora massacre.
Days later, Inspector General of Police (Kashmir range) Dr A K Bhan claimed that his personnel led by Senior Superintendent of Police Farooq Khan, in a joint operation with the army, had shot dead the five militants responsible for the Sikh massacre.
According to Dr Bhan, the government forces had surrounded a hut in Panchthalan, near Pathribal, where the terrorists were hiding. The fierce encounter that ensued ended when the shelter, with all five inside, caught fire and was destroyed.
Local residents, however, provided a different version. The slain men, they maintained, were not terrorists, but the five young men who had been picked up in Pathribal.
On April 3, 2000, some 3,000 protestors marched from Achabal village to the district headquarters of Anantnag, 3km away, demanding that the authorities release the bodies of the five 'terrorists.'
En route, the protestors pelted stones at the heavily guarded police base in Barakpora village. Kashmir police Special Operations Group and Central Reserve Police Force personnel opened fire, killing eight persons and injuring 15.
The toll, thus, reached 49: 36 Sikhs, five 'terrorists' and eight protestors.
A curfew was clamped on the area; agitations followed. Finally, the charred bodies of the 'terrorists' were exhumed. The villagers identified the five missing young men.
The state government returned the bodies to the relatives and suspended SSP Farooq Khan. Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah promised more action, if and when forensic reports proved that the slain men were indeed the five youth.
The special investigation team inquiring into the Pathribal incident approached the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad, and the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Kolkata, with medical samples of the relatives to match with those of the slain men.
That was in 2000. Two years later, the controversy had faded from public memory when The Times of India reported that the samples from the relatives had been substituted with some others, a fact that both forensic centres had conveyed to the state police more than a year ago.
'...While the DNA samples purported to have been collected from the relatives did not match those of the DNA isolated from the exhumed bodies, in three cases, the samples of women relatives were found to have come from men,' read the Times report.
And thus was born another controversy.
IN THEIR little village in the militancy-hit Anantnag district, the traumatised family of Zahoor Dalal waits for justice -- if not from Dr Abdullah, then from the Almighty.
"I do not need DNA tests to recognise my son," Dalaal's mother Raja Bano told rediff.com "We had identified his body two years ago. Since the government wanted proof, we had given them blood samples. Now we are told those have been tampered with."
Since her son's death, she has been unwell, subject to alternating fits of weeping and hysteria. The trauma has taken its toll on her daughter, Zahoor's younger sister, as well -- she talks little, eats less, and faints frequently.
"Those who killed my son will not get away," Raja Bano said. "The government may help them, but Allah will not deny me justice."
Her lack of faith in Dr Abdullah's government is founded on two facts. One, the state administration, despite knowing for a year that the samples had been fudged, did not make any effort to conduct a fresh test. It collected fresh samples from the relatives only after the controversy hit the front pages and forced an admission from Dr Abdullah in the state assembly that the earlier samples had been fudged. And two, even after the Times report, senior state government officials continued to maintain that they had not received any communication from the forensic centres.
Dr Syed E Hasnain, director of the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, contradicted the latter claim.
"Certainly the report has been sent to the investigating officer [appointed by the Jammu and Kashmir judiciary]," Dr Hasnain confirmed to rediff.com "I cannot comment on the fudging... but we stand by what we have said in the report."
Central Forensic Science Laboratory Director V K Kashyap told the Times: 'We had dashed off a letter to the J&K government immediately after we found the samples had certain serious discrepancies. Till date we have not received a single reply from either the state authorities or the investigative agency... We finished our investigations way back in December 2000, but how can we submit a report that is meaningless?'
'The samples,' he added, 'were obviously tampered with.'
After the Times report was published, the state government admitted that the centres had written to it, and promised that it would undertake fresh tests.
Meanwhile, the cover-up attempt has strengthened the Kashmiris' belief that the five men were not terrorists -- a belief that some leaders of the local Sikh community also share.
"The five the government killed were innocent," Niranjan Singh, president of the Anantnag District Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, told rediff.com on telephone. "They had nothing to do with the murders."
Ranjit Singh, former president of the Anantnag Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, seconded this opinion. "Nobody believes the claims of the government," he said in a telephone interview. "It is utter nonsense."
DR ABDULLAH, after an initial attempt to sidestep the controversy, responded with another inquiry. The chief minister told the state assembly that he was deeply 'ashamed there are agencies that can behave in such a manner.' He apologised to the assembly and promised that all those involved in collecting and sending 'fake' samples would be immediately suspended. And if found guilty by the one-member commission of inquiry he had just appointed, they would be 'dismissed and prosecuted', a Times report quoted him as saying.
Blood samples were once again collected from relatives of the five youth and sent to Kolkata and Hyderabad.
Jammu & Kashmir Chief Secretary Ashok Jaitley clarified the matter further. "We were naturally taken aback when we read that the samples had been fudged," he told rediff.com in a telephone interview. "The state government will get to the bottom of this issue, that is why we have appointed Justice G A Kuchay, former judge of the Jammu & Kashmir high court, to inquire."
Jaitley said any action against those involved would follow only after the commission submits its report, which would be within two months.
Kashmiris react with cynicism. This, they point out, is how the script read even earlier -- suspension, court of inquiry, tests...
What compounds their cynicism is the fact that even as the state government sat on the communications from Hyderabad and Kolkata, it reinstated SSP Farooq Khan.
Dr Abdullah's political opponents condemned the incident. Such actions, they said, erode the people's trust in justice and fair play.
"It clearly shows the designs of the Farooq government," said former Union home minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, People's Democratic Party leader and main rival of Dr Abdullah's National Conference. "It wants to cover up the killing of those five innocents."
True, agreed Mehbooba Mufti, Sayeed's daughter and PDP leader. "The Pathribal killing," she said, "is just one in a huge spate of grave human rights violations since the National Conference government was elected."
Another example she cites was the killing of 19 civilians, including a pregnant woman, in Poonch in 1997. "The state Human Rights Commission presented its report," she said. "But the government has taken no action till now against the surrendered militants and security force personnel involved."
"What happens after an inquiry? Do they act on the recommendations?" she asked. "No, they don't," she said, answering her own question. "They just let it be."
Dr Abdullah's position on human rights, his critics allege, is visible in the incident that started it all -- namely, the Chattisinghpora massacre.
There were allegations and counter-allegations -- India said the massacre was the handiwork of Pakistan-sponsored terrorists; Pakistan-based terrorists alleged that Indian security forces were responsible. But there was no independent inquiry into the matter.
The chief minister asked Justice S R Pandian of the Supreme Court, who had inquired into the Barakpora firing and found the security force personnel guilty, to study the Sikh killings, but the judge refused to do so.
"Since he [Farooq Abdullah] was not interested in arriving at the truth, he let it be after that cosmetic exercise," his critics point out.
"In any case," said Communist Party of India-Marxist legislator Yusuf Tarigami, "the basis of the protest at Barakpora was the killing of the five men at Pathribal. But the government kept that out of the Pandian Commission's purview, showing how bent it was on hiding the truth.
"Now Farooq Abdullah is talking of another inquiry, fresh samples," he continued. "But that will not achieve anything... People have lost trust in these inquiry commissions."
Nothing expresses it better than Raja Bano's words: "I will give more blood, a thousand times if needed. But I don't think I will get justice from the government. Because they are the judges, they are the investigators, and they are the guilty."
Published in Rediff.com