Pathribal: The Judge, Jury and Executioner

Like that age-old maxim, the army was acting as the ‘judge, jury and executioner’ in the infamous Pathribal case, so people in Kashmir already knew the verdict, says Maria Syed

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On the eve of India’s 65th Republic Day, President Pranab Mukherjee asserted that ‘India did not win freedom from the British in order to deny freedom to Indians’. While the line might have struck an emotional chord with people living in metros like Delhi and Mumbai, people in Kashmir Valley – which India by the by calls its ‘integral part’- had enough reasons not to buy it.

Barely two days before Mr Mukherjee, who is the supreme commander of Indian armed forces, commended jawans for ‘their sacrifices’, five army troopers – accused by the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) of killing five innocents in a staged encounter – were exonerated by a military court in Kashmir’s winter capital, Jammu, leading to outrage in the Valley.

The Jawans, including a Brigadier, a Lieutenant Colonel, two Majors, and a Subedar of 7 Rashtriya Rifles – a counter insurgency force – were indicted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for staging the gun battle, picking up civilians from the Islamabad area of south Kashmir and killing them in cold blood.

In its report, the CBI concluded that the officers lied to the police that the five men were foreign militants who had carried out the massacre of Sikhs in Chattisinghpora village a few days earlier in 2000 when the then US president Bill Clinton was touring India.

Closing the Pathribal case, the army said Thursday that the evidence recorded during the court martial proceedings – ordered after the Supreme Court asked the Army to proceed or face the trial in a civil court – couldn’t establish ‘a prima facie case” against any of the accused.

“It was, however, clearly established that it was a joint operation by the police and the army based on specific intelligence,” said an army spokesman.

Human rights activists and the survivors of the five slain men – two farmers from Brari Angan, both named Jumma Khan, shepherds Bashir Ahmed Butt and Mohammad Yusuf Malik from Halan, and Zahoor Dalal, a cloth merchant from Islamabad town in Kashmir – had all the way feared that the Army would not act against its own officers, as they believe killings were not just an aberration, but also a systemic policy the armed forces were following in the mountainous state to crush the two-decade-old anti-India rebellion.

Raising doubts over the directive of the Supreme Court to army to conduct a court martial, human rights activist Khurram Pervez had told a magazine in 2012 that it was “unfortunate” because, he said, “ethically and according to international laws, the army isn’t supposed to probe and pronounce judgment against itself”.

“Its one branch (15 Corps) defended the culprits, while the other in Jammu (16 Corps) is claiming to offer a fair trial. Look at the ranks of the accused. They won’t hurt their own men,” Mr Prevez had told the magazine.

On Sunday, when India proclaimed itself to be a Republic – for the 65th time since its got independence from colonial rule – Kashmir was closed down, phone lines were snapped by the authorities, traffic was off the roads and all the government and semi-government establishments were locked.

In Pathribal’s Brari Angan area, the survivors have been mourning since the military court announced the judgement. They told reporters that they never expected the army to dispense justice, but they had seen a ray of hope when the CBI charged the troopers with ‘cold-blooded murder’.

There are talks in Indian newspapers that such acts by the army will add to the alienation in the valley, which though true, is not the complete picture. Like that age-old maxim, the army was acting as the ‘judge, jury and the hangman’, so people knew what was to come out. So this ruling wouldn’t alienate people, but give them another reason that when India calls itself a republic – where people’s opinion is held supreme – it is not necessarily talking of Kashmir.

The Army has tried every option to deny justice to the victims in this case. Starting with invoking of draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act or the AFSPA, changing the trial venue from Srinagar to Jammu. Left with no other option but to choose court martial, it has brazenly and egregiously closed the case.

The survivors had got a clue of the justice that was being dispensed by the defence factory when the Army sent summons to Fakirullah Khan – a dead man of 30 years – to depose before the military court.

The closure of Pathribal case can’t be seen in isolation as punishing the accused could have brought the skeletons tumbling out of the closet. The incident is believed to be closely related to the killing of 35 Sikhs at Chattisinghpora and the subsequent death of nine protesters – including son of one of the victims of Pathribal – in police firing at Barakpora while they were protesting against the fake encounter.

Maria Syed is a journalism graduate in Kashmir.

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