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The deaths in Datiwas forests

Friday 12 March 2004, by SWAMI*Praveen

WE know that six villagers died in Chithibanday and that their deaths almost derailed the Jammu and Kashmir peace process, but the truth about how and why they died remains elusive. It is a little like Akira Kurosawa’s Roshomon: almost everyone you talk to has a passionately told but irreconcilable version of the same event.

All that these multiple stories have in common are bare facts: five civilians were killed in the course of a massive counter-terrorist operation in the Datiwas forests above Chithibanday, a small village in Bandipora. The Army admits that the five villagers were used as porters by the 10 Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, and says that they died in an exchange of fire between terrorists and troops. Villagers, however, insist that the troops executed the five in cold blood to avenge the loss of three personnel in the first exchange of fire with terrorists.

Much of the evidence rests on testimony by Mohammad Yusuf Bani, one of the porters used by the military. Bani told reporters that he was forced into Army uniform along with the victims, forced into the terrorist bunker at gunpoint, and then shot in cold blood. Government officials investigating the case, however, insist that Bani’s version is not credible. "If the Army’s intention was to kill innocent civilians and pretend they were terrorists," one police official told Frontline, "they are hardly likely to have left people alive to tell the tale." The official described as unbelievable testimony by villagers that they stormed the bunker and thus stopped soldiers from destroying the bodies and later claiming that they were those of terrorists.

According to both the police and the Army, the five porters were asked to clear debris from a three-storey bunker from which a large group of terrorists had hidden out. The structure had been destroyed using explosives after a first round of fire contact, in which four terrorists and three soldiers had been killed. The Army says that two terrorists hiding under the debris then opened fire on the porters, who had been dressed in military fatigues and snow boots for protection from the extreme cold and sniper fire from commandos hiding out in the woods.

Even as protest broke out through northern Kashmir, more embarrassment was in store for the Army. Relatives of Mohammad Shafi Chechi, a Chithibanday resident missing for several days, demanded that the body of an alleged terrorist in the area be exhumed. A press release issued on behalf of the Army had earlier claimed that the body in the grave was of a Pakistani terrorist named Zia-ul-Haq, operating under the alias Sajjad Bhai. After the grave was exhumed, Chechi’s wife and children identified the body as that of Chechi.

Police officials charged with investigating Chechi’s alleged extra-judicial execution, however, have told the Jammu and Kashmir government that a fire-fight between troops and Chechi - or persons accompanying Chechi - did indeed take place on February 5. His body, they say, was brought to Chithibanday, where village residents were not able to identify him conclusively. Documents recovered from the body of Chechi, along with a Kalashnikov rifle and wireless set, formed the basis of the Army assertion that he was a Pakistani national.

According to police investigators, Chechi left his home in Chithibanday on February 4 to visit relatives. It was several days later, however, that his family filed a request for the body to be exhumed. No claim was earlier made by the family that he had been kidnapped by either soldiers or Armed personnel of any kind after he left home. "It is possible," the government official said, "that the family stayed silent at the time knowing Chechi was involved in terrorist activity, and now hopes to gain compensation."

Military officials complain that exaggerated or misleading charges of human rights abuses are too easily taken at face value by the media. In December 2003, the Army was blamed for shooting two sisters, Nuzhat Ahmad and Zahida Ahmad; troops of the 34 Battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles were charged with shooting them after they resisted attempts to arrest their brother. Subsequent official investigation, however, established that the shooting was carried out by Lashkar-e-Toiba commander Inayatullah Khan, who operated under the alias Bilal-e-Habshi. Both girls, officials claim, were told to lie about the incident or face reprisals.

Army chief General Nirmal Vij has now ordered an end to the use of civilian porters and guides in counter-terrorist operations. The Quarter-Master General, Lieutenant-General Vijay Patankar, is, however, struggling to work out just what could be done instead. Government regulations permit the raising of short-term salaried porter companies only in times of war mobilisation, not civilian combat - and the Defence Ministry is yet to change the rules. Villagers in Jammu and Kashmir who make a living supplying transport services and ponies to the military as well as by working as porters are also concerned: the Rs.250 crores the Army spends on these services each year is now at risk.

Government benefits for death or disability suffered while serving the Army is meagre, generally under Rs.25,000. Commanders in the Dras-Kargil area had entered into a contract with the General Insurance Corporation for providing benefits to porters working there, but the system is yet to be institutionalised. Porters hired for counter-terrorist duties were not entitled to even these meagre benefits. In order to ensure that those killed assisting counter-terrorist operations received the State government compensation that is due to all terrorism victims, deaths of porters were generally registered as those of civilians who simply happened to get caught in crossfire.

As a result, no accurate figures exist of the numbers of local porters and guides who have died assisting troops over the years: and in death, they were denied benefits, or even the gratitude of the nation they served.

See online : Frontline


in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 05, February 28 - March 12, 2004.

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