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Valley Of Death

Pankaj Mishra, Guardian Weekend, 14 October 2000

In March this year, 35 Sikhs were massacred in a remote village in the disputed territory of Kashmir. The Hindu-led Indian government blamed Muslim guerrillas backed by Pakistan. But, ask Pankaj Mishra - who visited the site the day after the killings - were the victims and their families merely pawns in India's attempt to incriminate Pakistan in the eyes of western powers?

In the evening of March 20 this year, Nanak Singh was chatting with friends and relatives near his house in Chitisinghpura, a remote, Sikh-dominated village in the Himalayan valley of Kashmir. Most of the locals were hung over, having spent the previous days celebrating Holi, the Hindu festival of colour, which the Sikhs also observe. Singh, who works for the animal-husbandry department of the Indian-backed government in Kashmir, didn't feel particularly suspicious when around 17 armed men in combat fatigues showed up and ordered the men of the village to come out of their houses and line up with their identity cards in front of the Gurdwara, the Sikh prayer site.

Singh, like many, assumed that the men were from the army - people in the villages all across the valley were accustomed to being searched and interrogated by Indian security forces - and so saw no cause for worry. The four million Muslims of Kashmir live precariously between the eternally warring countries of India and Pakistan. But Nanak Singh is, along with most other residents of Chitisinghpura, a Sikh; and the tiny minority of Sikhs in Kashmir, just over 2% of the population, have, over 10 years of violence, enjoyed a kind of immunity that neither the local Hindus, most of whom have migrated to India, nor the Muslims, always suspect in the eyes of Indian security forces, have had. If you were a Sikh and worked for the government, as many of the Sikhs in Chitisinghpura did, such checks were only a formality.

Nevertheless, a few Sikhs that evening had premonitions about the armed men's intentions, and hid in their houses. It was dark outside, and Singh couldn't really see the faces of the intruders, who spoke both Punjabi and Urdu, the languages of north India and Pakistan, as they checked with flashlights the identity cards of the 19 Sikhs standing and squatting before the walls of the Gurdwara. The check complete, the men stepped back a pace or two from the men lined up before them. A moment passed; there was a single shot, and suddenly all of the men raised their guns, AK-56s or AK-47s, and began firing blindly.

Singh felt the entire row of his fellow villagers suddenly collapse with brief cries of pain. He himself fell immediately to the muddy ground, dragged down by the weight of the dying man who had been lined up next to him. He assumed that he had been hit, but found it strange that he felt no pain; in fact, by falling so early to the ground, the bullets had missed him. Half-covered by a bloodied corpse, Singh heard their attackers move away with quick steps to the other side of the village. Minutes later, he heard more gunfire.

Soon after, they returned; this time, they seemed in a hurry. Singh heard their leader instruct his men to put a bullet into each of the 19 Sikhs lying there, all of whom except one, Singh believed, were already dead. Not daring to breathe, Singh dimly perceived a tall figure loom over him in the dark and raise his gun. He thought that his luck was about to run out. He heard the shot; he felt the bullet penetrate his left thigh, and the first warm sensation of pain, then the man moved away. As it turned out, Nanak Singh's luck lasted: he is the only survivor of a massacre in which 35 Sikhs died.

Since 1989, thousands of Muslim guerrillas have been waging a war against the Indian presence in Kashmir: a war in which more than 30,000 people - civilians, guerrillas, Indian army and policemen - have died, and which came after four decades of Kashmiri resentment of Indian rule. The guerrillas are supported by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan, who want Kashmir incorporated into Pakistan as part of a larger Islamic state. Pakistan, which was carved out of Hindu-majority India as a separate homeland for Indian Muslims during the violent and confused Partition of 1947, has never stopped claiming the Muslim-dominated valley for itself. India, meanwhile, has fought two wars with Pakistan, in 1947 and in 1965, over its own claim to Kashmir, and even came very close to making a pre-emptive nuclear strike against its neighbour in 1990. The present Indian government, which is nominally secular but is in reality dominated by Hindu nationalists, regards the Pakistani support of the Kashmiri guerrillas as a proxy declaration of war, and has sent in almost half a million soldiers to suppress the insurgency.

But all along, the Sikhs in the region have remained neutral. Over the past 10 years, both the guerrillas and Indian soldiers had frequently called on Chitisinghpura, where their customary aggressiveness and tension were defused by the isolation and serenity of the pastoral setting - the houses with thatched and corrugated iron roofs, the vegetable gardens, the brisk stream, the melancholy willows, the forest of chenar, walnut and almond trees, and the high mountains looming above the village - which even today make the turmoil in the rest of the valley seem far away. The guerrillas, some of whom were from Pakistan and Afghanistan, often asked for wheat and rice (Chitisinghpura is relatively prosperous, with revenues from apple and rice farms and transport businesses), and even played cricket with the village children. The Indian army, which routinely sent patrols to the village, had heard about the guerrillas' visits from concerned villagers, but remained strangely indifferent.

On the evening of the massacre, a patrol from the Rashtriya Rifles, one of the Indian army's units in Kashmir, was positioned less than a mile from the village; the soldiers heard the gunshots but, for reasons that are still unclear, did not bother going to investigate. Forty-five minutes after the gunfire had stopped, the first Sikh in Chitisinghpura ventured out of his house and found the corpses of his friends and relatives. Then, with other Sikhs from the village, he set off on a long, terrifying five-mile walk through pitch-black darkness to the nearest police station - given the circumstances, they thought it safer not to seek help from the army camp that was much closer to the village. The police arrived seven hours after the killings.

By the time I arrived in the village the following morning, the shock and fear of the preceding long night had turned into rage and despair. Some Sikhs had shattered the wind screen of the first car that tried to enter the village, broken the lens of a video camera that a correspondent of the state-run television channel had tried to take inside the village, and blocked off the road; they were shouting slogans against Pakistan and Islam. All through the long drive to the village, I had been dreading the moment when I would have to see the dead, but when I entered the courtyard of the Gurdwara, where the bodies had been laid out on the ground, my first impression - after the journey through the early-morning mistiness of the Kashmir valley, the mud-coloured villages and men draped in pherans (cloaks) - was, incongruously, of colour: the reds and yellows and purples of turbans and scarves and shawls and blankets. There was a crush of people inside the courtyard, Sikh men and women everywhere shouting, gesticulating, crying, wailing.

I had been standing for some time, unable to move or speak, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was a boy, not more than 10 years old, his hazel eyes under a crimson head cloth full of curiosity. "Are you from the media?" he asked. I nodded, and he said, "They shot a 16-year-old boy." He pointed towards one of the bodies. I hadn't wanted to look at any of the faces of the dead men, but his words jolted me into doing so. The dead boy's face had turned white, the flesh tight on the bones, and skull-like hollows had begun to deepen on his cheeks and around his eyes. The dead boy's middle-aged mother sat beside his body, a jade-green shawl draped around her head; she would have been grieving all night and, in between lifting her arms and beating her chest while tears ran down her face in an unbroken stream, she forced out a tiny yawn.

Photographers and TV cameramen were climbing the trees and walls of the courtyard for a better view. I watched as a young girl in a long, red skirt was surrounded by relatives who talked to her in loud voices, shaking her shoulders, pointing to the dead father lying in front of her, but the stony expression on her face did not break, the eyes remained glassy - she hadn't cried at all, someone standing behind me explained, and she needed to if she wasn't to go insane with grief:

When I walked over to the other side of the village, where another 17 men had been similarly lined up and shot at close range - the victims of that second burst of gunfire heard by Nanak Singh as he lay under the bodies of his friends - the corpses were still being transported to the Gurdwara on improvised stretchers. The stretcher-bearers were delayed by a young widow sitting on the muddy ground who refused to let go of her dead husband, clasping his head tightly in her lap. Finally, some relatives managed to prise away her hands and restrain her. Struggling to break free, she screamed as the men quickly carted away her husband's body. Her stringy hair was loose, and her pale wrists were streaked with blood from where the glass of her shattered bangles had bitten into her flesh; her screams rang loud on this densely forested side of the village. The sight of these big, turbaned men collecting the bodies and this overwrought widow seemed to belong more to a scene of medieval cruelty.

I spoke to a few elderly Sikhs standing near a tea shack. Some of them had been out of the village when the killers arrived; others had hidden in their homes. After the first few awful hours of confronting what had happened, their sense had been dulled. They couldn't tell me much, and didn't want to speculate about the identity of the killers. They kept saying, "It was too dark, you couldn't see anyone." I noticed a wariness; their response to the journalists seemed to say what I had heard before from other unprotected people in India: "You'll come and go, but we have to live here, with the consequences of what we say to you."

Other Sikhs, however, seemed convinced that Muslim guerrillas were responsible, and were becoming more aggressive and outspoken, shouting slogans against Pakistan and Muslims and vowing revenge: "Blood for blood." They surrounded the senior state bureaucrats when they began to arrive at the courtyard, and demanded arms to protect themselves against the Muslims. In one of the groups of officials under such attack, I recognised the inspector general of police, a Kashmiri Hindu. Only days earlier, I had seen him in his overheated walnut-panelled office, boasting on the telephone about the number of guerrillas his men had killed that day. Now, surrounded by shouting Sikhs, he looked anxious and lonely.

The villagers were especially rough with the commissioner of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, one of the few Kashmiri Muslim officers serving in the Indian Administrative Service in the valley; he was shouted down the moment he tried to speak. A senior Hindu army officer saved him from unceremonious expulsion from the village - indeed, the first high-level Muslim visitor had already been thrown out - by joining the Sikhs in their slogan-shouting; slogans that asserted the military traditions of the Sikh faith, from the time of the persecution of the Sikhs and Hindus at the hands of Muslim invaders and conquerors.

Retribution: that was the theme of their slogans, and the great elemental need for it would partly shape the events of the next few days. It had begun that morning, even as I stood there among the corpses and the wailing women. A minute's walk from the Gurdwara, away from the Sikh-dominated part of the village, an official from the Special Operations Group (SOG - one of the draconian Indian security agencies set up to suppress the Muslim insurgency, it is dominated by Sikhs) had arrived at the house of Sonaullah Wagay, one of the few Muslims living in Chitisinghpura. Wagay is relatively less well-off than most of the Sikhs; he is a peasant who makes some money on the side by selling milk from his cow, and he would have been bemused when the Hindu sub-inspector, arriving in a Jeep and abruptly barging in, told him that the police were looking to recruit some local young men. Wagay informed him that his youngest son is - strangely for a Kashmiri Muslim - a soldier in the Indian army, that his eldest boy is mentally ill and that the middle son, Mohammed Yaqub Wagay, has been unemployed since finishing school and now spends his time leading the prayers at the local mosque- - he was being considered as an imam - and playing cricket.

This middle son, Yaqub, had prevented his father from rushing to the Sikh side of the village after the killings. Yaqub had just returned from evening prayers and was sitting on the timber logs outside the house, chatting with four friends, including a Sikh man, when they heard the rattle of automatic guns. All five immediately ran to their homes and locked themselves in. When they mustered up the courage to emerge some time later, they were warned by Sikh neighbours returning from the scene that it might be better if they stayed inside their homes, as they might be attacked by angry Sikhs if they ventured to that part of the village. Wagay and his sons spent the long, tense night locked in their home until the police arrived the next morning.

After his rather baffling claim that he was interested in recruiting local youth into the police force, the SOG sub-inspector didn't waste time in getting down to business. He asked for Yaqub to be brought before him. When the diminutive and very frightened Yaqub arrived, the sub-inspector gently took hold of his arm and ushered him towards the waiting Jeep. "Don't make a noise," he told Yaqub's maternal uncle, a retired soldier. "We have to talk to him." And with that he drove off.

"We have to talk to him" - it's a line that has been heard in thousands of Muslim homes in Kashmir over the past decade. Young men suspected of being guerrillas have been taken away by Indian security men and returned, if not as corpses, then badly mutilated, the torture marks still visible where hot iron rods had been applied. Everyone knew that he chances of a man returning unviolated from interrogation were greater if you knew someone in either the civil administration or the many Indian military organisations, but you had to make your representations very fast.

Wagay, though relatively well-connected, was under no illusions about what could happen to his son, and ran from his house, past the minesweepers in the rice fields "sanitising" the road for ~e VIPs descending upon the Sikh village, past the car-loads of Sikhs and journalists and army officers hurtling down the broken dusty road, to the police station in the nearby town of Mattan. There, he pleaded that his son had nothing to do with the guerrillas, and that the Muslim families living in the region had a very good record: none of the young men had ever gone to Pakistan or Afghanistan for training in light weapons, none was a jihadi, and indeed several of them , such as Yaqub's maternal uncle and his own youngest, had served with the Indian army. The police, some of whom were Kashmiri Muslims and sympathetic to Wagay, registered his FIR (First Information Report), but there was little else they could do: they had no influence over the SOG, which had its own murky ways of functioning. All Wagay could do was hope for the best.

Two days later, I was watching the premier Indian TV news channel at my hotel in Srinagar. I had been thinking about the killings in Chitisinghpura, and the question of why Muslim guerrillas would kill Sikhs, a group they had never previously targeted, and thereby invite international condemnation, had been troubling me. The news did not seem to offer any answers: it was full of Bill Clinton's state visit to India - the first by a US president in more than two decades - which had, coincidentally, begun just hours after the killings. Clinton's condemnation of the Chitisinghpura massacre and his well-rehearsed tributes to Indian democracy were met with great enthusiasm and gratitude among the up-and-coming middle class, which, like the middle class of many developing countries, is fiercely nationalistic, but at the same time craves approval from the west.

In my mind, the killings of the Sikhs hung over everything Clinton said about Kashmir and Pakistan - also, interestingly, the correspondents of the two major TV channels in New Delhi had arrived in Kashmir a day before the massacre, as if in expectation of a major incident. But it was the potential shifts in the US position on Kashmir that occupied the media; the mysterious circumstances of the killings were hardly mentioned. Indeed, there appeared to be little mystery at all: India's national security adviser had already blamed the massacre on Hizbul Mujahiddin and Lashkar-e-Toiba guerrillas, the two major Pakistan-based outfits; and the Indian home affairs minister, a hardline member of the Hindu nationalist government in Delhi, had spoken of a deliberate policy of "ethnic cleansing" pursued by Muslim guerrillas, and that had more or less settled the matter. No one took any notice of the strident denials from the guerrilla organisations, despite the fact that they were routinely eager to claim credit for any spectacular acts of violence in the valley.

Clinton was travelling to Pakistan after his stay in India, and Indian pundits speculated endlessly about whether he would come down hard on Pakistan's new military ruler for his country's support of the Muslim guerrillas, and whether the US state department would be repulsed enough by the killings into declaring Pakistan a "terrorist state". But the Americans themselves seemed to have some doubts: journalists from the Washington Post and the New York Times, among other major US media covering Clinton's visit, were sceptical of the Indian version of events surrounding the massacre - after all, there seemed little reason for the guerrillas to kill Sikhs, a community they had never targeted, just before Clinton's visit, and discredit their cause.

It was this contradiction that so intrigued me about Chitisinghpura, and when the Indian home secretary himself appeared on television to make a statement about the killings, I was even more surprised and curious. Clinton was still in the country at that time, and the secretary's demeanour had about it some of the breathless eagerness of the Indian reporters who were covering the state visit. The security forces, he announced in a jubilant tone, had made a "major breakthrough" - they had arrested a native of Chitisinghpura called Yaqub Wagay, who had provided valuable information about the Muslim guerrillas responsible for the killings. "Follow-up action" was expected imminently, he assured the viewing public.

It was around this same time, two days after the killing, that Muslim men started disappearing from the villages around Chitisinghpura. At least three of the disappearances happened in similar circumstances: a red Maruti van with civilian number plates would arrive in a village, and armed men would suddenly jump out and grab the nearest tall, well built Muslim and drive away. It was this van that had taken away Bashir Ahmed and his friend, Mohammed Yusuf Malik, who were sheep and cattle traders in the village of HalIan. The same red Maruti had been spotted waiting on the lonely, willow-lined stretch of road outside the walled compound of Zahoor Ahmad Dalal's house in a suburb of Anantnag, the second largest town in the valley, minutes before Dalal stepped out to go to the mosque for evening prayers on March 24.

Dalal, 29 years old, slightly plump with flushed red cheeks, had done very well out of the small cloth-retailing shop he had inherited when his father had unexpectedly died on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1984. Business had not been easy during the past 10 years of endless curfews and regular strikes, yet Dalal had not only survived but flourished. Inside his large compound, he had built several warehouses, had planted rose bushes, dug a fishpond, and had recently built a new house adjacent to the old one where his widowed mother lived. His sister's marriage - always an onerous task in subcontinental families - had been happily arranged in Anantnag. Dalal regularly made the long journey to Delhi to order fresh stock; his warm, ebullient manner had earned him many friends in the valley, including the Indian paramilitary men stationed in a bunker near his house.

The visit to the mosque was part of Dalal's daily routine, and he always dressed casually for it: nylon slippers and tracksuit bottoms under a checked shirt and maroon wool jumper. When he didn't return home that evening in time for dinner, his mother and uncle, Nissar, thought that he must have gone to visit one of his many friends in the area. Later, after the friends and relatives they contacted said that they hadn't seen Dalal, they began to worry.

On the morning of March 25, Dalal's uncle went to the local police station, where the inspector suggested that it might be better if he waited a while before registering an FIR Anantnag is the stronghold of renegade militants, the Ikhwanis - former guerrillas who were either captured or had surrendered and who now work for the Indian army, often kidnapping and killing for money - and the inspector reasoned that it was highly likely that such a group had simply seen the afiluent and unprotected Dalal as a good source of easy money. He was being pragmatic: why register an FIR and endanger Dalal's life when a 50,000 rupee (740) ransom might well bring him back unharmed?

Nissar heeded the advice and went at once to the headquarters of the Ikhwanis, a mini-fortress in the heart of the old town, and from there to the headquarters of the special task force, an Indian anti-insurgency organisation that often hired the renegades. But no one at either said they had either seen or even heard of Dalal. At the police headquarters, the superintendent, a reputedly ruthless man named Khan, was not present. His superior told Nissar that if the Indian army had kidnapped his nephew, there was nothing he could do and sent him away. At 5pm that evening, Dalal's uncle returned to police headquarters and was told that the superintendent was busy, along with units from the special task force and the SOG, supervising an "encounter" with guerrillas in the village of Panchalthan, 30km away, but that there might be some news of Dalal's whereabouts when they returned.

On the morning of March 26 came the news of the deaths in Panchalthan of five of the 17 men allegedly responsible for the Chitisinghpura killings. I watched the news in curfew bound Jammu, where angry Sikhs had been rioting for three days; for a brief moment, Chitisinghpura returned to the front pages of the Indian newspapers. It was reported that there had been a four-hour "encounter" between the guerrillas and the police and army in Panchalthan in the early morning of March 25, just a few hours after Dalal's disappearance. An army spokesman revealed that the five dead men were all "foreign mercenaries" who belonged to Pakistan-based Islamic terrorist outfits. The most important piece of the evidence presented by the security forces were the army fatigues they said the five men had been dressed in when they were killed - it was the same uniform worn by the killers at Chitisinghpura. The police issued a separate statement, in which Yaqub Wagay was named as having provided the information that had led the security forces to the mercenaries' hideout: a hut-like shelter used by gujars (shepherds) on top of a steep hill. The hut had been shelled by mortars during the encounter, the police said. Later that evening, the police released three black-and-white photographs of three of the five dead men: the bodies were "roasted and disfigured beyond recognition", reported the Kashmir Times, but the army fatigues were unmistakable; in fact, they seemed almost as if they were brand new, so undamaged were they.

Nissar finally met with Khan and the men from the special task force when they returned from Panchalthan, only to be told that they, too, hadn't seen Dalal. By now, Nissar was beginning to panic: the day before, he had heard about the remarkably similar disappearance of Ahmed and Malik, the two traders from Hallan, a short time before Dalal had left his house for the mosque. Then, later on March 26, Nissar ran into a group of gujars from the villages around Anantnag. The gujars weren't involved with the guerrillas' activity, but nevertheless faced constant harassment from Indian security men, not least as their long beards and tall frames made them look like Afghans. Two of their friends, both called Juma Khan, had also gone missing, they told Nissar, and they were on their way to the government's local headquarters in Anantnag to lodge a complaint about the missing men, who, they thought, had been abducted by the police or SOG. Before the day was through and purely by chance again, Nissar ran into another gujar, this one from Panchalthan. And this gujar had a most disturbing story to tell about the "encounter" that had kept Khan, the notorious police officer, and his men away from their desks for so long the previous day.

Panchalthan lies at the base of the thick, hilly forests that line the valley of Kashmir on its south- eastern side. Some miles south is the region of Doda, where some of the most vicious battles between the guerrillas and Indian army are being fought - hardly a day goes by here without one or other of the two principal combatants lapsing into massacres, rape, arson or torture. Such knowledge weighs on your mind as you travel through the heavily militarised and isolated area. The road to the village is unpaved, and its perennially dug-up appearance makes you nervous about land- mines placed by the guerrillas to ambush the military convoys that regularly make their way to the ordinance depot near Panchalthan. Just the day before I went there in late May, the ordinance depot had been attacked by rocket grenades, and you could still feel the tension. Pedestrians walked in impatient strides, avoiding all conversation, never forming groups, eyes always averted from the army men in their makeshift bunkers at every street crossing and bend in the road.

A hill, uncultivated for the most part, and rising almost vertically from the base of the valley, looms over Panchalthan. On its top are two wood-and-mud huts that are used as shelters by gujars from the village. From this vantage point, the land slopes down steeply to the valley. As a military position, it is close to invincible yet it was here, according to the army and the police, that the five "foreign mercenaries" had been trapped and killed, and where vast quantities of arms and ammunition had been discovered in an operation that lasted four hours - an operation from which soldiers and police had emerged completely unscathed.

In an earlier "encounter", not far from Panchalthan, the army had bullied the villagers into acting as human shields as they attacked a guerrilla hideout - in remote places in this valley, you did what the men with guns told you to - but the villagers of Panchalthan had not been asked, or forced, to give their help in any way. In the early hours of the morning of March 25, the villagers' sleep was abruptly ended by the sound of rapid gunfire. The firing went on for some time, and was followed by several louder bangs - mortar shelling.

By the time the firing had ceased, it was light outside, and several villagers dared to step outside their homes to see what was going on. They saw four soldiers dragging several large kerosene canisters up the hill; two of the soldiers stopped for a second, partially emptied their canisters, then trudged on. A few minutes later, the villagers saw smoke rise into the misty morning air and heard the sound of crackling wood. Not long afterwards, the army men summoned the elders of the village. Although scores of men from the army and SOG stood idly by, the commanding officer asked the villagers to remove the bodies of the "mercenaries" from the smouldering huts. There they found five charred and disfigured bodies, all dressed in army fatigues, lying on the ground. All of the dead men looked as if they had been tall and well-built, much like the guerrillas from Afghanistan and Pakistan whom the villagers had seen on many occasions before. They also noticed that one of the bodies was headless. Nearby, they saw a tree trunk and two wooden logs that were soaked in blood. Then, under the watchful gaze of the impatient soldiers, the villagers carried out the bodies and, after the briefest of religious ceremonies, buried them in separate graves around the hill. The gujar with whom Nissar had met up told him that he had helped bury the bodies.

After the gujar had finished telling his story, Nissar tentatively pulled out a photograph of his nephew that he had been carrying everywhere with him since beginning his search. He asked the gujar if any of the men he had helped bury resembled the man in the picture. The gujar stared hard at the creased photo of Dalal, and then began to weep. After the convoy of army and policemen had left Panchalthan that morning, he told Nissar, the villagers had returned to the huts on Zountengri and found a shallow pit filled with burning clothes and shoes. They had quickly put out the fire, and retrieved whatever they could. It was around this pit, three days after he had gone missing, that Dalal's relatives found the maroon jumper and checked shirt that he had been wearing when he had left home for evening prayers.

The sad news was quickly brought to Dalal's widowed mother, and that evening the family formally went into mourning. There was no point in investigating the identity of the killers, or even the circumstances of the killing: to do so would only bring more trouble upon themselves. Sympathetic Kashmiri Muslim officials at Anantnag provided the family with several pertinent facts. The red Maruti, they reported, was one of the many "seized vehicles" that were kept at Anantnag police station and had been signed out by a Sikh officer of the SOG on March 24, for "operational purposes" - but they, too, did not encourage the family to follow up these leads. The family's efforts were now aimed solely at retrieving Dalal's body from the remote grave at Panchalthan and at giving him a proper Islamic burial. This would not be accomplished for nearly two weeks. Indeed, it wouldn't have happened at all had the gujars not initiated, in their unusually bold pursuit of justice, yet another series of horrific events.

In the same pit of half-burned clothes, a gujar called Rafiq, the son of one of the two missing gujars from Hallan, found his father's identity card, ring, shreds of clothes and shoes. Rafiq had been searching for his father for several days, and it had been pure chance that he had thought of going to Panchalthan. His discovery was the first indication that the five dead men were not guerrillas at all, but civilians - and among the 17 who had disappeared following the killings in Chitisinghpura.

For the next few days, the gujars, always close-knit as a community, walked 15 miles each day to the government's district headquarters in Anantnag to appeal for the exhumation of the bodies. At first, officials kept stonewalling them: the relevant officer isn't present, they said, he is very busy - that kind of thing. But on March 31, the gujars managed to extract an order from the chief judicial magistrate for a public exhumation of the bodies. It was a major victory: tens of thousands of Muslims had been killed by Indian security forces in Kashmir in the preceding decade, but there had rarely been a post mortem examination or exhumation. But the gujars' struggle wasn't over yet: the army still controlled the road to Panchalthan, and was refusing to let anyone through. The civilian administration in Anantnag, too scared to take on the army, was still waiting to hear if the army would let them go to carry out the magistrate's orders when several villages near Panchalthan were visited by a new kind of terror: armed SOG men beat up the gujars and threatened to kill them if they went ahead with their attempts to exhume the bodies.

The gujars, however, buoyed by their victory in obtaining the exhumation order, now decided to protest about the SOG harassment and began the long walk to Anantnag on the afternoon of April 3. Among those taking part in the procession were relatives of the two killed gujars and many other sympathetic villagers. Rafiq walked at the front. The news of the killings in Panchalthan had gone around the valley, as had the unexpected news of the gujars' success, and the crowd had swelled and swelled in numbers as it passed through each village. The by now 5,000-strong procession crossed three army checkpoints without much trouble. But at a small village called Brakpora, at a little dirt road crossing hemmed in by grocery-selling shacks, men from the SOG were waiting for them. Rafiq, who had been the first to establish a connection between the half burned personal effects at Panchalthan with the five missing men, was among the first to be shot dead. Nine men died in the firing, which was so ferocious that doctors in the local hospital removed 20 bullets from the groin of one corpse.

The SOG's unprovoked attack on the gujrs made the national news, albeit in the usual routine and vague way - "Eight people killed in police firing" - but the army still would not allow civilian officials to enter Panchalthan. Finally, on April 6 and 7, they relented; the bodies were exhumed and, though badly defaced, identified by relatives of the five men. The first grave revealed the severed nose and chin of a gujar whose body was found buried in a separate grave. Although Dalal's face had been partly gouged away, there were no bullet wounds on his body. It is possible that he may even have been burnt alive. The last of the bodies exhumed was headless - the head could not be found - but relatives identified the dead man by the trousers he still wore under the army fatigues.

Government officials at first refused to part with the bodies, and then did so only after making the relatives promise that the burials would be carried out in secret that night. But the government made few other concessions to outraged public opinion: Khan, the police officer who had jointly led the operation with an army brigadier, was suspended from active duty, but is expected to be reinstated very soon (he was recently awarded a President's medal for courage displayed in an earlier operation); other officials were merely transferred out of Anantnag. Accusations were formally lodged against the SOG men who had fired on the gujar demonstrators. On April!!, the government announced it had set up a special investigation team that would report to a specially appointed judge.

Presently, that investigation has in its possession several vital items of evidence, including the blood-soaked tree trunk and logs that were apparently used during the, beheading and dismembering of some of the murdered civilians. It also has several documents concerning the involvement of SOG and Indian army officials in the events at Panchalthan, but the army has" refused to surrender any physical evidence.

The events in Panchalthan could be the story, with minor variations, of thousands of Kashmiris; its epilogue - on the rare occasions when there is enough information to piece one together - is more or less the same, too. In ordering an investigation, the government admitted that its men had crossed the line. But that line had never been clearly drawn in the first place. The driving Indian motive - to hold Kashmir at whatever cost - has made everything here both possible and legitimate. The inflexible attitude of the government perfectly articulates the wishes of the neo-Hindu middle class that seeks its identity in an aggressive nationalism, just as much as the various Islamic fundamentalist outfits of Pakistan find an energising cause in their invocations of jihad against India.

Thousands of well-documented cases of murder and rape have gone unpunished. But then, the government has never wanted to be seen as taking severe action against its own officers, since such an approach would likely demoralise the men "in the field" - the regular soldiers and renegade militants, the SOG and the STF, and all the various covert and overt armed groups that are part of India's military solution to the long-standing Kashmir problem.

It is a problem that has its roots in the Indian failure to incorporate Kashmir in its political and economic growth since 1947. Even before the current insurgency began in 1989 and then intensified with assistance from jihad inspired Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan, you could trace its roots back to the rigged elections and corrupt politicians imposed on the state by India for more than four decades. But the involvement of a consistently hostile Muslim neighbour, Pakistan, to Kashmir helps to hide India's own considerable failings.

With Chitisinghpura and Panchalthan, however, the government's need to blame outsiders for the mess in Kashmir became all the greater: the killings of the Sikhs that coincided with Clinton's visit and the subsequent "encounter" with "foreign mercenaries" together were used to make out a convincing case for .India as a victim of Islamic terrorists. But the real truth about the Chitisinghpura killings has yet to be uncovered - there has still been no official inquiry, despite requests from human-rights organisations and political parties; and, despite the clumsy and brutal attempt to blame it all on "foreign mercenaries", the facts cast a considerable shadow on the .Indian version of events.

More than six months after the killings, not a single person or group has been plausibly held responsible for them. Pakistan-based guerrilla outfits continue to deny any involvement. Within a few days of the massacre, most of the Sikhs whom I had seen so vehemently blaming, and without much plausible evidence, Muslim guerrillas - and who had gone on to do much the same on national and international TV - had left Kashmir with their families; those who remained in Chitisinghpura are these days even more reluctant to talk to journalists. Some complain privately about the special favours bestowed by the government on a few chosen men, citing large sums of money that have been doled out as "compensation", jobs given to the unemployed, and special recruitment into the police. Such appeasements have not prevented many Sikhs outside the village from developing their own doubts: the killings in Chitisinghpura, many now believe, were organised by Indian intelligence agencies to influence Clinton, and the western journalists covering his visit, into taking a tougher line towards Pakistan.

All of these suspicions make Yaqub Wagay, the man arrested soon after the Sikh killings, one of the most important men in the valley. He is still in custody, where he was interrogated by the SOG and made to sign false confessions. A senior government official admitted to me that Yaqub was innocent, and said that he had, in fact, been released on bail in the Chitisinghpura case only to be rearrested, farcically, in connection with the Panchalthan case and on the basis of evidence that he had allegedly supplied about the "foreign mercenaries". The judge in charge of the investigations has urged his family to apply for bail, but his father fears that his son will be killed as soon as he's out of sight of the sympathetic Kashmiri Muslim police officials currently holding him. In the circumstances, he is not being paranoid.

Yaqub holds the means to expose every weak link in the Indian government's narrative of innocence and victim hood in this serene Himalayan valley that, it claims, has been destroyed by a fanatical Islamic neighbour: it begins with Clinton's arrival in India and degenerates - after the still mysterious killings of the Sikhs, the murders in Panchalthan and the firing on demonstrators at Brakpora - into a story of brutality and falsehoods. That tale of violated innocence is part of the great Indian struggle to hold on to Kashmir; the struggle to save the Kashmiris for Indian secularism and democracy that has reduced most of them to impotent grief and despair. India's desperate attempt to acquire plausibility has consumed another 49 human lives in Chitisinghpura, Panchalthan and Brakpora. Every new thing you learn about the moral void of Kashmir - the easy, cheap availability of death and destruction - makes you realise just how easy one more "necessary" murder would be to carry out. For those who live in that void, the expectations of justice - which are rarely met in the Indian subcontinent at the best of times - are more than optimistic; they belong to complete fantasy. This makes it all the more difficult for the victims to bear their losses.

At Zahoor Ahmad Dalal's compound, the once carefully tended plants are running wild and the fish in the pond are mostly dead. A few men sit slumped on the floor in a bare hall, above them the Islamic calendar of mourning. His mother, who has been persuaded by male relatives to emerge from her dark room where she spends all her time now, breaks down as soon as she sees the photographs of her son that I had been studying. They show a young man in dark glasses and trendy clothes, a happy, contented man, someone who has managed to find, amid the relentless violence of the insurgency in his homeland, a new style and identity for himself. When she asks me what is the point of talking to the press, of telling me about her son - he's gone, he won't be coming back, she says, and the people who killed him are too powerful - it is hard not to be pierced by the truth of what she is saying; hard not to be moved by her grief, or by the pain, even amid all the human waste of Kashmir, of her helplessness.

   
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