Barry Bearak, New York Times
When President Bill Clinton went to India in March 2000, it was the
first visit by an American president in 22 years. Among the careful
preparations for the historic occasion were a painstaking cleanup around
the Taj Mahal, a reconnoitring for wild tiger he might glimpse on a
V.I.P. safari and - the murder of 35 Sikhs villagers in a place called
This massacre, occurring on the evening of March 20,
preceded Clinton’s arrival by only a few hours. It was a monstrous way
to transmit a message, whatever that message was, and the scale of the
killing was large even amid the exceptional sorrows of the Kashmir
Valley. The slaughter was also remarkable in that the victims were
Sikhs, a religious minority never before targeted during a bloody decade
infused with grief. In the aftermath, the valley’s 60,000 Sikhs faced
the possibility that they were now someone’s strategic quarry and that a
mass migration might be a sensible reaction to the danger.
The killers came to the village at about 7:20 p.m.
They shunned the openness of the steep and twisting mountain road and
hiked instead through the nearby apple orchards and rice fields. There
were perhaps a dozen of them, perhaps twice that. They were dressed in
what appeared to be the regulation issue of the Indian Army.
Darkness had fallen across the hamlet, where 200
families, almost all Sikhs, eked out a living in a spot of rugged
Himalayan beauty. Their ancestors had been rooted in this same windswept
place – often in the very same dwellings – for generations.
Chittisinghpora (pronounced chitty – SING pora) is a palette of greens
and browns and yellows. A creek runs through it like a lifeline across
the palm of a hand. Walnut and pine trees provide canopies of shade
above deeply sloping footpaths. The houses are mostly made of mud bricks
and weathered timber, many of them with A-frame roofs and open lofts
stuffed with hay.
That evening, the electricity was out, a frequent
problem, and many villagers had lit candles and were listening to news
of the presidential visit on transistor radios. The homes are spread
out. There are no phones. Most people were unaware of the armed
strangers standing at opposite sides of the village, near its two
temples, known as gurdwaras, or God’s portals. The intruders gathered up
men who were returning from evening prayers and collected several more
from nearby stores and houses. They worked hurriedly. Some had their
faces covered with black cloth, the patka often worn by soldiers on
search operations. Two Sikhs – out of curiosity or helpfulness –
approached the commotion with lanterns and were taken off with the rest
for their trouble. In all, 37 men were rounded up.
Panic had yet to set in, for the rousting of
civilians was nothing unusual. Chittisinghpora lies in an area rife with
the militants who are fighting a ‘hit-and-run’ war against India. Some
of these guerrillas are Kashmiris whose purpose is a separatist
insurrection; the rest are Pakistanis and other foreigners waging a
jihad to wrench the largely Muslim territory from a largely Hindu
country. Occasionally, the militants impose on a village for food and
sanctuary, and house-to-house searches by the Indian soldiers in pursuit
are not uncommon. Indeed, the arriving strangers told the Sikhs they
were on the trail of three guerrillas. But while the story was
believable, Karamjeet Singh, a high-school teacher and one of the 37,
thought something was suspiciously awry. These soldiers did not seem
like the army, he recalled later. Some were taking swigs from a bottle
and staggering. They spoke in Urdu and not the Hindi more commons to
soldiers. He whispered his fears to the others. Many had become
similarly scared and were now preoccupied with the mumbling of prayers.
In an impulsive instant, the teacher darted toward a shallow ditch and
crawled away through the mud.
Of the 36 who remained, only one, a 40-year-old named
Nanak Singh, survived. And only he among the villagers was an eyewitness
to the actual carnage. The Sikhs were herded into two groups and made to
kneel, facing the gurdwaras. The weather was cold, the wind brisk. The
men were wearing heavy garb across their shoulders, and their heads were
covered with the turbans required by their faith. They were killed with
efficiency, shot first with a persistent rat-tat-tat from a volley of
machine-gun fire, then with single bursts by executioners who moved from
one fallen Sikh to another, stilling motion and silencing moans. Singh
was at first saved by the shield of a topping body. Then he was wounded
in the hip during the second round of shooting. He tried to lie
perfectly still. He remembers that some of the gunmen had faces painted
in the raucous fashion of Holi, a Hindu holiday being celebrated that
day. As the killers marched off, a few called out the parting words "Jai
mata di", a Hindi phrase of praise for a Hindu goddess. The entire
attack lasted about half an hour.
President Clinton, acting with caution, condemned the
massacre without casting blame. In that agnosticism, he was unusual in
this region of 1.1 billion people. India and Pakistan have been fighting
each other since their synchronized birth 53 years ago, usually with
Kashmir, which they both claim, as the cause. Amid all the unknowing of
what took place in the remote darkness, both Indians and Pakistanis were
decidedly sure of who was responsible for the murders. As is their
habit, they clung to nearly identical versions of reality, only with the
role of villain reversed in India, people saw the treacherous connivance
of Pakistan, up to old tricks and once again trying to focus the world’s
attention on woebegone Kashmir; in Pakistan, they saw the sinister hand
of India, trying to make the Muslim "freedom fighters" seem detestable
while American policy makers were present to watch. This was typical of
the world’s two newest nuclear powers. A half-century of enmity had done
more than lead them into three all-out wars and several smaller ones. It
had distilled the murkiness of their mutual grudges into clarified good
and evil. One thinks the other capable of almost anything – and they are
just about right.
The first articles in Indian newspapers reported with
confidence that "militants" had committed the crime. That the killers
were dressed in army fatigues was easily explained away, for guerrilla
groups often donned such clothing. The drunken behaviour and Hindu
slogans were seen as crude, preposterous impersonations of Indian
Officialdom backs these early assumptions. Within a
day, the country’s powerful national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra,
said there was absolute proof that two of the bigger militant groups in
Kashmir – Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hazbul Mujahideen – were guilty of the
bloodshed. "These outfits are supported by the government of Pakistan,"
he declared in an explanation most likely aimed at the press corps in
the Clinton entourage. In India, there is no such need to connect the
dots. Most journalists assume that the militants receive their guns and
take their orders from Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency.
Subsequent articles were enlivened by scoops. Leaks
from anonymous government sources told of intercepted communications
that contained the actual orders to kill the Sikhs. And on March 25, any
doubts about culpability were seemingly put to rest with the
announcement that a collaborator had been apprehended. After
interrogation, he had guided security forces to a mountain redoubt in
the village of Panchalthan, where five of those who had massacred the
Sikhs were hiding. In an ensuing shootout, the guerrillas were killed.
Indian authorities predicted that they would soon catch the rest.
In Pakistan, the Chittisinghpora massacre was first
reported as the work of "unidentified gunmen", but then the state
television station swiftly cobbled together the evidence and concluded
that "the Indian Army was involved in this gory incident." Follow-up
stories in newspapers and on TV made an easy tiptoe from facts alleged,
to facts presumed, to facts that could be taken as history – and the
accepted version came to be that Indian commandos were guilty of the
atrocity. Indeed, any other possibility was deemed implausible by
editorialists and commentators. After all, they said, freedom fighters
in Kashmir attack military targets, not innocent civilians. And besides,
they never move in such large numbers. If they had, they would have been
detected and eliminated beneath the bare trees of early spring.
During the week of the Clinton visit, I spent time in
both countries and was struck then – as so often before – by the
parallel and yet opposing realities. In the following months, I kept
repeated company with the Chittisinghpora massacre, pondering it as a
metaphor, which has been easy enough, and puzzling over it as a
whodunit, which has been a general bafflement.
I might have expected as much. The Kashmir conflict
has a way of boiling truth into vapour. Every fact is contested, every
confession suspect, every alliance a prelude to some sort of betrayal.
People ambushed, caught in cross-fires, snatched away, hideously
tortured, buried and forgotten in clandestine graves: all this has
become commonplace ever since the rebellion against Indian began in late
1989. Atrocities – real and concocted – are employed as necessary
skulduggery. The death toll has been tabulated at more than 34,000 by
the Indian government. Others insist the count is double that.
In both nations, my questions about blame often
provoked impatience, as if the answers ought to be obvious to anyone but
an idiot or a child. Indignation sometimes substituted for any response
at all. I would be asked in return: ‘How can you think we would be evil
enough to kill all those people? How can you think we would be so dumb?’
Decades of Discord
Stubborn animosity between nations is nothing
uncommon, of course. But for India and Pakistan, the long years of ill
will have been especially regrettable, diverting each from its most
pressing woe, the lingering catastrophe of pervasive poverty. In
Pakistan, the loser in all three wars, the discord has added the burden
of chronic political instability. Democracy has failed to take root.
In May 1998, the costs of continuing the hostility
rose appreciably. India – with a new government led by Hindu
nationalists – tested several nuclear devices. Soon after, and
predictably enough, Pakistan responded in kind. The minute hand lurched
forward on the doomsday clock, and world leaders began taking a closer
look at belligerence in the subcontinent. What they saw was alarming:
two archenemies, eyeball to eyeball, across a disputed cease-fire line.
Daily barrages of artillery fire. A guerrilla war engineered by one,
whittling away the patience of the other. Hatred, vengefulness,
Bill Clinton had apparently done some risk analysis
of his own. Not long before his India trip, he called the region "the
most dangerous place in the world".
Chittisinghpora is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from
Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir.
To make the journey is to observe something akin to the military
occupation of ‘paradise’. Moghul emperors in the 17th century thought
these clear streams and lush mountains the closest thing to a heaven on
earth; and 20th century tourists once agreed. But now the highways are
booby-trapped with I.E.D.’s, improvised explosive devices. Drivers are
regularly pulled over, civilians routinely frisked. Army caravans move
slowly in a continuous serpentine, skirting roadblocks and barricades,
their passengers pointing rifles out of canvas-topped vehicles. Soldiers
in olive flak jackets stand at regular intervals, their attention
shuttling from the busy growl of the traffic to the ominous quiet of
surrounding fields of saffron and mustard seed.
My visit to the village did not come until nearly six
months after the massacre and, by then, many there had told their
stories again and again to confusing effect – to the police, to the
military, to politicians, to reporters, to human rights groups, to Sikh
leaders from India and abroad. Quoted versions varied not only from
person to person but also from day to day. Villagers themselves
quarrelled about what – and whom – they had seen and heard.
In hopes of penetrating the contradictions, I
recruited a friend, Surinder Singh Oberoi, a Sikh journalist based in
Srinagar and one of the best reporters I have met in India. He in turn
enlisted a Sikh businessman who had advised many of the families in
Chittisinghpora since the killings. We would make the drive together.
But before leaving, the businessman wanted to look me over. He was not
"So you want to know the truth?" he said in an
accusatory voice loud enough for oratory. "Don’t you know the truth can
get these people killed?"
I inquired then as to why he was assisting us. "I
think it is time for the truth to come out," he answered in lower
decibels. "Yes, I think now it’s time".
His presence certainly opened doors. In
Chittisinghpora, we were greeted warmly, taken into a brightly painted
house and seated solicitously on the floor, as is the custom, with thick
cushions for our backs. Several bearded men rushed in and out of the
room and introduced themselves. I tried to keep track of who was who by
the colour of their turbans.
"Tell this man the truth," the businessman urged.
And one of the older Sikhs seemed pleased to take
this as his cue. "We have told many stories to many people, but today we
will tell only the whole truth," he promised in preamble to a
declaration: "It is a fact that our people have been killed by a
conspiracy of the intelligence agencies of Pakistan. One month before
the massacre, there were militants who spent time in our village. They
were from Pakistan, and they made friends with us. And this is how we
were thanked, with a barbaric act."
Actually, there was nothing new in this synopsis.
Immediately after the massacre, during a time that teemed with rage, a
few villagers had blamed a handful of Pakistani militants who had
visited Chittisinghpora in the weeks before. While such stopovers were
hardly uncommon, these guerrillas were exceptional in the casualness of
their mingling. They were said to have once strung their rifles to trees
and watched a sandlot game of cricket. Now, reflecting back, it was
thought that they had actually been scouting the village with a
murderous plot in mind. A few Sikh widows said they had recognized the
voices of these men at their doors leading their husbands away to die.
They said the marauders seemed to know where people lived – and had even
called out some names. In a few retellings, Mohammad Yaqoob Wagay, a
young Muslim milkman who lived nearly, had accompanied the killers. He
was an imam who often led prayers at the mosque. He loved cricket. He
was friendly with these and other guerrillas, and the police had since
taken him into custody.
But within days of the massacre, there had been a
retreat from much of this finger pointing. Doubt was now emphasized. May
be the killers had been militants, may be the army, may be neither. This
newly avowed uncertainty was a result of counsel from some of India’s
leading Sikhs. They believed that if their people were to stay in the
Kashmir Valley, good relations had to be maintained with the surrounding
Muslim majority, which – while exhausted by the endless violence – was
largely sympathetic to the militants. To these leaders, unwavering
neutrality was clearly preferable to what New Delhi was then proposing.
The government wanted to give weapons to the Sikhs, as it had to Hindus,
to form "village defence committees."
In Chittisinghpora, I received a lesson in this
tactical ambivalence. The older Sikh who had been talking was
interrupted. A long argument began, with stunted English set aside for
gusts of Punjabi, not a word of which I understood. Oberoi was amused.
He leaned over to me and whispered, "They’re debating whether it is for
the greater good of the village to lie to you, and if so, what are the
right lies to tell."
Some of my hosts eventually grew embarrassed at their
neglect of a guest. By way of apology, they told me that villagers had
done a lot of fibbing since the massacre and that I should not be
offended. It was a matter of survival; there were fears of a second
raid. Besides, outsiders with less right to lie had also been doing it.
It upset them how often their statements – and misstatements – had been
misquoted by people with private agendas.
What followed was a very odd interview, with several
men trying to agree on – and then dictate – appropriate words for my
notebook, politely alerting me as to which ones were true and which were
not, though everything was expected to be published. In either case,
they demanded that their names be spared except when the topic turned to
money, which it often did, and then they wanted to stand personally
behind their deep umbrage. Donors, public and private, had given more
than $20,000 to each family that lost men in the massacre. But the
villagers said everyone had suffered and so everyone deserved cash. They
reminded me that if Bill Clinton hadn’t come to India, the killings
would never have occurred – and that Americans had some obligation to
mitigate their suffering.
We spoke for well over an hour, stopping for a lunch
of eggplant, rice and red beans. Then I took a stroll through the
village to talk to others. Some were reticent, some not. Some made me
wonder if their recollections were merely inventions to help them make
sense of their grief. Always, I kept trying to bring them back to the
matter of blame. If they thought the militants did it, how sure were
they? The answer was Not very. Could anyone identify a single one of the
attackers? The answer was: No. If this follow Wagay had been involved,
what exactly was his role? The answer was: God only knows.
On March 25, when Indian officials announced their
reprisal against five of the guilty militants, they said that it was
Wagay whose confession had led them to the hideaway in Panchalthan,
about 11 miles from Chittisinghpora.
But speaking of lies, that one seems to have been a
In the district of Anantnag, most people I met had
long overcome any doubt about the massacre. To them, it seemed an
open-and-shut case, with the Indian authorities – and not the militants
– to blame. They were unsure of the particulars, or how high up the
conspiracy went, but they supposed that the actual killing had been done
by iqwanis, or renegades, former guerrillas who were now nothing more
than shiftless mercenaries. In the past, the authorities had used these
men for some of the nastier misdeeds of effective "counterinsurgency".
The clincher for these suspicious was the incident at
Panchalthan. The army’s Rashtriya Rifles and the state police’s elite
Special Operations Group had supposedly cornered the five guerrillas in
a herdsman’s shack. Mortar fire then carried the day. Though the bodies
were hideously burned and mutilated, the dead were all said to be
Pakistanis who took orders from a well-known commander named Abu Muhaz.
Nimble and timely sleuthing solved the crime on President Clinton’s last
full day in India.
But this was yet another truth that seemed destined
for the others. Gravediggers said they had discovered a local man’s
identity card with the charred bodies. One even thought he recognized
the remains of his cousin. Muhaz himself appeared at a village mosque
near Chittisinghpora and told people that none of his cadre had been
killed; he suggested that they find out who had. As it happened, several
men from the area were mysteriously missing. Speculation took off at a
gallop; had Indian forces kidnapped them, murdered them, burned them and
then tried to pass off their unrecognizable bodies as foreign militants?
In the moral vacuum that has become Kashmir, such things are possible.
Relatives of the missing men demanded an exhumation of the bodies. They
On April 3, 2000 - nine days after the Panchalthan
shootout and two weeks after the massacre - a raggedy procession came
down from the mountain pastures and onto the main road, toward the city
of Anantnag, the district capital. There were hundreds of people at the
start, then more all the time, chanting, "We want justice". They passed
uneventfully through several military checkpoints, but when they reached
a small traffic circle in the town of Brakpora, they were fired upon.
The spray of bullets came from behind a bunker made from bags of cement
and manned by federal and state police officers. Eight protesters –
seven of them farmers and shepherds from the village of Brari Angan –
were killed. Some were shot in the back as they fled. Police officials
claimed that their men were only returning fire, but a judicial inquiry
found otherwise. Unwarranted panic was the kindest explanation.
Three days later, the marchers received their wish.
The five bodies were dug up by a forensics team from Srinagar. Hundreds
of people, many of them unruly, turned up for the morbid two-day event,
though there was not much to see. Blankets were held up to sequester the
grave. Only doctors and public officials and family members were allowed
to examine the blackened and disfigured corpses. These relatives
occasionally burst into tears as burial shrouds were removed, professing
to recognize a ring on a finger or a cyst on a scalp or a shred from a
familiar sweater. One woman identified her husband from a fragment of
jaw attached to a fluff of beard. Then the next day she changed her
mind, settling on a different bag of remains, this time pointing to a
bend in the nose, a hole in an ear and the shape of the torso.
The five men killed at Panchalthan are now believed
to be two farmers from Brari Angan, both named Jumma Khan and one of
them a man of 60; two shepherds from the village of Halan, Bashir Ahmed
Butt and Mohammad Yusuf Malik; and one young cloth merchant from the
city of Anantnag, Zahoor Dalal. Or at least these are the people whose
families were given the bodies. Dr. Balbir Kaur, head of the forensics
team, said it was hard to disinter the dead properly in the midst of a
mob, and she hardly considered the emotional graveside identifications
to be definitive. DNA samples were taken, but nine months later the
tests have yet to be done – an inexplicable delay in so important a
case. Whatever the results, scientific chicanery will now be presumed.
I later interviewed three of the families of the
victims. Both of the Jumma Khans, their relatives said, were taken from
their homes by men in army attire and led off into the night. Zahoor
Dalal, the merchant, had simply disappeared, out for an evening walk,
due back in minutes to count the day’s receipts. His mother sat silently
on the floor for the better part of an hour while I spoke with his
uncle. Tragedy had signed its name to her pale oval face, and finally a
moaning began from deep inside her, turning slowly into a wail.
"I will only meet him again now in the other world!"
Once more, I was confounded. I couldn’t be sure that
any of these people had really lost their loved ones at Panchalthan, but
I was nearly sure that they were sure. In any case, the story was
drifting elsewhere. By then, many of the authorities – in the
government, in the intelligence services, in the police – had quietly
abandoned the merchandising of their once airtight case. In a revised
analysis, Wagay, the milkman, was now thought to be innocent. Poor soul,
he had been gruesomely tortured during questioning, a police official
told me. He now remained locked up on the minor charge of breaching the
peace. This was for his own safety. Someday, he would be a crucial
witness in that urgly, regrettable business, the Panchalthan incident.
That shootout was now considered a murderous fiction contrived by
ambitious men in the Indian security forces. Pending further
investigation, there were promises to punish those responsible.
I had developed some sources in high places. A few
were familiar with the accumulating evidence and willing to share it,
though their trustworthiness was also nothing I took for granted. One
source told me: "After Chittisinghpora, there was tremendous pressure to
catch the militants. Name, fame, money, career: those were the reasons
to fake an encounter. They couldn’t catch the militants, so they picked
up locals. Unfortunately, locals have families that ask questions. It
Important people were chagrined. To their relief,
however, another militant had recently been captured, someone, they
said, who truly had partaken in the massacre – someone who had even
fired shots. His name was Mohammad Suhail Malik.
"Would you like to talk to him?" I was asked
Oddly enough, I had already interviewed the new
prisoner. This had happened unexpectedly. On the return drive from
Chittisinghpora, the Sikh businessman spotted a friend, another
prominent Sikh, in a car going the other way. The vehicles stopped, and
the two men went off for a private chat. This friend, using his
influence, had just met Suhail Malik, who, so far as he could tell, was
rendering an authentic confession. He agreed to help us get into the
small compound that served as the Indian interrogation center.
Malik is an 18 year – old with an upstart beard and
hair that falls down into his eyes. He appeared somber and tired a
suitable look for someone in his predicament. I twice offered him a
chair, but he refused, preferring the floor. A heavy chain sagged
between the tight manacles on his wrists. He barely moved.
Conditions for the interview were far from ideal.
There were six of us in a small, dark room, including a nervous guard
who felt the liaison lacked adequate approval. A display on one wall
carried horrid snapshots of dead militants. Malik responded to every
question, but his answers were spare, repeating details I had already
read in a police dossier in Srinagar: he was from the city of Sialkot,
in Pakistan. He belonged to the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which
had tutored him in marksmanship and mountain climbing. He sneaked into
India in October 1999, carrying the rupee equivalent of $200 in expense
money. He took part in only two missions before Chittisinghpora, one an
attack on an army outpost, the other an assault on a bus carrying
soldiers. He knew nothing about the plot to kill the Sikhs until
immediately beforehand, as he stood in an orchard. He used his weapon
when commanded. "I fired, but I don’t know if I killed anyone," he said
laconically. "I suppose I did. I don’t know."
The conversation was mostly in Urdu, once again a
language I did not speak. I could study his eyes but not his phrasing or
inflections, the little clues as to what was being held back in the
privacy of his head. When we left, I asked Surinder Oberoi, my
journalist friend, if he thought Malik was telling the truth.
"Yes, I think so," he answered after a pause. Then he
added a cautionary shrug and a sentence that stopped after the words
"But you know…."
Malik showed no signs of physical abuse, but, as with
Wagay, the torture of someone in his situation would not be unusual.
Once, over a casual lunch, an Indian intelligence official told me that
Malik had been "intensively interrogated". I asked him what that usually
meant. "You start with beatings, and from there it can go almost
anywhere," he said. Certainly, I knew what most Pakistanis would say of
the confession – that the teenager would admit to anything after
persistent electrical prodding by the Indians. And it left me to surmise
that if his interrogators had made productive use of pain, was it to get
him to reveal the truth or to repeat their lies?
My second talk with Malik came the next day, courtesy
of the more formal invitation. This session was less hurried but still
unsatisfactory. Three of us were asking questions, including someone
from the authorities. The prisoner, chains in tow, still refused a
chair. I told him again that I was an American journalist trying to get
at the facts. I could only imagine how far-fetched that sounded to an 18
year old Pakistani in an Indian jail.
I asked about his family. His mother was dead, and
his father ran a small general store. Malik had attended a government
school through the fifth grade, but like many boys in Pakistan, he had
switched over to a madrassah, a religious academy, where the books and
courses were free. He knew parts of the Koran by heart. "If I could, I
would spend my entire life learning about the holy prophet," he said.
We again went over the details of the massacre. I
tried to test him, asking for descriptions of the village. But he said
he had not seen much in the darkness. He had been ordered to shoot – and
so he shot. He did not have much more to add. "We were told what to do
and not why," he said. "Afterward, we were told not to talk about it."
He allowed that he was likely to spend the rest of
his life in an Indian prison – and yes, he said, this was a dreary
prospect. He would have preferred the glory of martyrdom.
His eyes, usually downcast, had occasionally drifted
about, and with this talk of a purposeful death, all of us in the room
grew aware of a loaded Kalashnikov leaning against a wall in the corner.
With a flicker of a smile, the gun’s careless owner slowly rolled the
wheels of his chair to the right, blocking the manacled prisoner’s path
to the weapon. Malik never looked that way again.
I was curious to know how he had linked up with
Lashkar-e-Taiba. It was one of the largest – and perhaps the most
unflinching – of the dozen or so militant groups. Malik said he had
heard their speeches while he studied in the city of Lahore. He trusted
their vision of the world – and said he trusted it still. Penance did
not accompany his confession. As for the 35 dead Sikhs, he said they may
have been civilians, but they could not have been innocents. "The Koran
teachers us not to kill innocents," he said. "If Lashkar told us to kill
those people, then it was right to do it. I have no regrets."
This one time, he seemed to think his answer too
abbreviated. His lips pursed, his eyebrows narrowed. He said: "When I
was sent here from Pakistan, I was told the Indian Army kills Muslims.
It treats them badly and burns their mosques and refuses to let them
pray. They must be freed from these clutches."
Then he looked at me curiously, seeming to ask, Isn’t
Civics lessons about Kashmir are necessarily
complicated. The term itself is confusing. In common coinage, it refers
to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, home to an estimated 9.5
million people. But the state has several distinct regions, of which the
fabled Vale of Kashmir – with about half the population – is but one.
Only there do people speak Kashmiri – and only there do they have a
strong sense of being a distinct nationality Roughly two-thirds of the
Jammu region is Hindu, a population far more comfortable under Indian
aegis. Buddhists make up about half of sparsely populated Ladakh. They
speak Tibetan and worry more about domination by Srinagar than by New
Delhi. The happiest solutions for one chunk of the state are unlikely to
be very pleasing to another. Jammu and Kashmir was once an even larger
domain, an unnatural amalgam of fiefs brought together for expedience by
the subcontinent’s British colonial masters. In 1947, when India and
Pakistan were being born, it nominally belonged to the Hindu maharajah,
Hari Singh. Before departing, the British asked the region’s 562 landed
potentates to choose one nation or the other. These decisions, by and
large, followed a certain logic of geography or religion. But Singh,
preferring independence, dawdled past the deadline. This unrealistic
conceit ended when tribesmen from Pakistan’s northern frontier came to
the aid of a local rebellion. The maharajah then anxiously reconsidered,
casting the lot of his predominantly Muslim realm with predominantly
Hindu India. To many Muslims, it seemed that Kashmir had fallen under
the thumb of the infidel. War broke out between the two infant nations,
and an ensuing cease-fire left about one-third of the most populous part
of Kashmir with Pakistan and two-thirds with India. The United Nations,
itself a newborn, pushed for a long-term solution. Agreements reached in
1948 and 1949 called for the Pakistanis to withdraw all their troops and
for the Indians to pull back the bulk of theirs. This was to be followed
by a plebiscite, allowing the people to pick the nation they wanted to
join. But none of these actions ever took place, with both sides blaming
the other for reneging. The Wisdom of Solomon did not prevail; the baby
Indian-controlled Kashmir, while never happily a part
of the nation, was a relatively peaceful place until the rebellion’s
start in 1989. This uprising gathered fuel from various combustibles,
among them Kashmiri nationalism and rigged elections that favoured New
Delhi’s preferences. Pakistan eagerly supplied the tinder of combat
training and guns.
At first, the foot soldiers were entirely home grown.
Kashmiri youth lit with the fever of azadi or freedom, thought they
could unbind the ties to India with some well-placed explosives and high
profile kidnappings. They misjudged New Delhi, which considered the
insurrection a threat to the very idea of nationhood – and was willing
to fight back without pernickety regard for gentlemanly tactics or human
rights. They also misjudged Islamabad, which came to favour only those
rebels it could bend to its will. Many militants themselves strayed from
unselfish purposes. They became no more than criminal gangs, and
Kashmiris began to dread both sides. Some 250,000 Kashmiri Hindus, known
as Pandits, fled the valley, fearing for their lives.
The character of the rebellion has since changed.
Though hundreds of Kashmiris are still making war in the mountains, most
have laid down their guns, if not their dreams of azadi. More and more,
the guerrillas, like Malik, come from elsewhere. They know little about
Kashmir and its people. Their interest in liberating the land is not so
much for the benefit of the Kashmiris as for the ideal of a pan-Islamic
The differing passions of the different militant
groups make diplomacy particularly hard. When the prospect of peace
raises its head, it usually results in a rap on the knuckles. Last
summer, one militant group declared a brief cease-fire, but the others
considered the move traitorous and stepped up attacks. Now India has
announced a temporary pause in its initiation of military operations,
and Pakistan has responded with a partial withdrawal of troops from its
side of the cease-fire line. There is talk about the possibility of
talks, though in the past, talking has yielded only the repetition of
entrenched views. After half a century of fighting, compromise seems a
betrayal of past sacrifices.
For its part, Pakistan finds the militancy a cut-rate
way to torment India, which has 350,000 troops tied down in Kashmir. But
however much a bargain, the guerrilla campaign has also become part and
parcel of Pakistan’s own precariousness. In the late spring of 1999, a
more ambitious incursion into Indian-controlled Kashmir nearly provoked
an all-out war and ended in humiliating retreat. Months afterward, amid
the recriminations, Pakistan’s army – as has been its habit – overthrew
the elected government, and Gen. Pervez Musharraf named himself Chief
Executive. At first, he was welcomed as a potential savoir by the
downcast nation. Pakistan stands at the brink of bankruptcy, spared from
default only by an IV-drip from international lenders who have grown
exasperated. The possibility of a collapse into anarchy is the great
reiterating topic of the educated elite. Though it was hoped that the
general could stamp out corruption and balance the books, he has instead
found himself betwixt and between, coveting approval – and money – from
the West while bowing to powerful fundamentalists at home. For him, the
struggle for Kashmir may well have become a necessity for survival as
well as a crusade of the heart. Pakistan has thousands of armed - if
impoverished - zealots who are long on righteousness and short on
respect for the government. Pursuing the holy war against India may be
all that diverts them from fomenting jihad at home.
Suhail Malik is such a zealot. He intrigued me. And
as my interest in him grew. I was puzzled by why I seemed alone in my
curiosity. News of his capture had gotten little attention in the
usually aggressive Indian press. A T.V. station had run a short spot; a
wire service had put out a few paragraphs. This seemed oddly neglectful,
but an Indian friend explained to me that Kashmir was redundant with
outrages, and people suffered from "massacre fatigue". Chittisinghpora
had been papered over by fresher death.
In fact, it was one of these other massacres that led
the police to Malik. Thirty Hindu pilgrims on retreat in Kashmir were
gunned down on Aug. 1. Two militants were killed at the scene. As
investigators tell the story, an address found on one of these men led
them to Aligarh in the state of Uttar Pradesh. There, a month later,
they happened upon Malik, taking an authorized break from the hard work
I wanted to interview the teenager once more, this
time without the authorities present. Somehow, I thought I could win his
trust, offer him an out, and persuade him that he did not have to
confess to the massacre unless it was true. I was grasping. I wanted to
study his eyes again. But I never secured the necessary permissions.
The closest I got was his family, Had Malik and I
talked, I could have told him about my recent trips to Pakistan. I had
seen his father and his favorite uncle and a man he reveres, Prof. Hafiz
Muhammad Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba (the ‘Army of the Pure’)
and its parent organization, Markaz Addaawah-Wal-Irshad (the Center for
Preaching). Of the three, the professor was the easiest to locate. His
organizations are a prominent force in Pakistan. The jihad in Kashmir is
not their only occupation. They run more than 130 madrassahs as well as
a modern-looking university that rises out of the wheat fields near
Lahore. Saeed, a retired professor of Islamic studies at an engineering
college, preferred to see me in that city itself. We met in Lashkar’s
"media center", a small room filled with young men writing at computer
The professor, a big, doughty man, is quite gracious
for someone so often regarded as a terrorist. Cookies were served on a
silver plate. We talked for a time before I took out Malik’s photo and
told him of the young man’s confession. Saeed shook his head. "We do not
believe in killing innocents", he said, stroking his henna-tinted beard.
"I have condemned this very massacre". He glanced at the picture a
second time and said he doubted that Malik had ever belonged to Lashkar.
And, as a professor would, he offered me some guidance: "It is very easy
to extract statements with torture. Look, you can see he is handcuffed
and not free to talk." The photo was then passed around the room A dozen
or so acolytes had come to observe the interview. One of Saeed’s aides
harrumphed with derision. "This man’s beard is not anywhere long
enough," he said, as if I were trying to pawn off some charlatan as a
legitimate Lashkar militant.
In Lahore, I also tried to visit Malik’s uncle, an
herbal doctor (Hakim) named Zafar Iqbal. He, too, is a religious
scholar. I went to his home several times, but I was always told that
the doctor had gone out and that he might not return for hours, or days,
or even longer. I inferred from this that Iqbal was disinclined to talk
about his nephew’s possible involvement in a massacre. He may have been
warned by Pakistani intelligence agents, for I was being followed
everywhere. The men were very obvious about it. They questioned my
driver and translator. They tailgated our car.
Eventually, someone at Iqbal’s home slipped up and
mentioned that the doctor had gone to the annual convention of the
Jamaat-I-Islami political party. I found him in a huge field outside
Islamabad amid a crowd of 350,000 people. This was not so hard to do.
Pakistan’s leading fundamentalist party is well organized. Every city
had its own cluster of tents off to the side, and every tent had a
roster of names. Malik’s uncle had apparently withered under the sun and
left the open air, where powerful speeches were firing the masses with
talk of the Kashmir jihad Repeatedly. America and India were condemned.
Pakistan’s government – regarded as insufficiently pious – was also
taking a grandiloquent beating.
When I approached the doctor, he was resting on a
blanket, talking with friends and wearing a name tag. He is a
white-haired man with piercing eyes. He did not want to say much. In
fact, he denied that he knew any Suhail Malik. This of course was a lie,
and he did not care that I was aware of it. He told my translator: "You,
being a Pakistani, should not help these foreign agents. They come in
the guise of journalists when they are really agents of the Christians
and the Jews."
I had gotten a more hospitable reception from Anwar
Malik, Suhail’s father. He owns a tiny general store in Sialkot, a city
not far from the border with Kashmir. The elder Malik had been hard to
find with the grudging information I was given by his son. Sialkot had
the air of newfound prosperity. Sporting-goods companies have made it a
manufacturing center for soccer balls, which are exported the world
over. Modern office buildings have been constructed with ornate windows
and facades. Drivers in new four-wheel-drive vehicles blast their horns
to get past sluggish donkey carts that block their way.
The family’s house is across a lane from the store,
beside a stagnant pond laden with blooms of garbage. The home is large
as such places go, and much of the furniture is made of polished wood
and looks relatively new. Anwar Malik led the way into a room with a
double bed, an armoire and a chest of drawers. Drapes covered the
windows. One wall had a bright painting done on a felt background.
Another held the glossy decals of Lashkar-e-Taiba.
I didn’t know if the father was aware of the fate of
his son, so I tried to approach the subject gently. A short, stout man
of 53, he replied quietly that, yes, he had heard something about it.
Pakistan and India are neighbours. Urdu is similar to Hindi. People in
one country sometimes watch the TV shows of the other. A friend had seen
Suhail’s face on a news show. Anwar was unsure what it was all about. He
wanted to know more. "This is painful for me," he said, "Nothing like
this has ever happened in our family."
Anwar has two sons. The older has gone to work in
Saudi Arabia and is earning good money. Suhail, on the other hand, had
been adrift for a while, sometimes living in Lahore, sometimes Sialkot.
The father was vague about his son’s decision to go fight in Kashmir.
Despite the decals, he insisted that he did not know which, if any,
group Suhail had joined. He began to wring his hands and his words
meandered. "If you look at things from an Islamic perspective, going to
Kashmir was the right thing to do," he said. "But we are poor people. If
you look at things from the family perspective, considering our
circumstances, you would have to think otherwise."
I took out the photo. Anwar studied it. His lips
quivered slightly. By then, one of Suhail’s boyhood friends had entered
the room. He seemed tickled with the snapshot. To him, the manacles were
like jewellery. "It’s a great picture!" he declared.
Anwar left the room and returned with a bottle of
mineral water. He waited to open the seal, so as to assure me that the
contents were untainted. He said the obvious, that he had never had an
American in his home before. I told him that I travel quite a bit. I had
even been to this sorrowful place Chittisinghpora and had been living
with a great mystery. I had yet to solve it to my satisfaction, but it
had become my wise tutor in Kashmir’s’’ misshapen history.
"An awful thing happened in that village," I said,
pushing the conversation into the discomforting place it had to go. I
told him about the grief of the Sikh families and described what had
gone on that night: the lining up of the men before the gurudwaras, the
bursts of the machine guns, the bloody heap. And I told him Suhail had
confessed to this terrible thing in front of me.
Until then, I had merely been someone with news of
his son. But now I was also a man with an accusation that required some
sort of response. I was asking him to consider the opposing reality from
across the border – and I wanted him to imagine it with his son in the
role of villain. He considered all this for a time. And finally, with a
father’s sincerity, he said: "I don’t think so. It can’t be. My son is
confessing, you can say, because the Indians have beaten him. My son is
just like me, and I would not do anything like this."
As we talked a bit longer, a memory suddenly fell
into place. It brightened him with relief, and he sat up straight.
Chittisinghpora: the name had not meant much before, but he recalled it
now. This was the massacre committed the night President Clinton
The relief then converted into actual cheer and a
delicate smile. He spoke to me with the kindness of someone assisting a
stranger in an unfamiliar town. "Everyone knows about this crime," he
said patiently. "The Indian Army did it."