The final memory that Nanak Singh has of his teenage son is a bloodied hand fondling his face, while both of them lay bullet-ridden near the village Gurudwara.
On a cloudy evening of March 20, 2000, Chattisingpora, a hilltop hamlet in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, became the site of a massacre that claimed the lives of 36 men and children of the region’s minority Sikh community.
“We were ordered to come out of our houses and line up near the village’s two Gurudwaras by gunmen wearing camouflage,” Nanak Singh told The Wire. He is a retired government employee, now in his 50s. Soon, he said, the gunmen began to empty their rifles at the terrified and clueless civilians.“The firing continued for ten minutes and after the first round, they reloaded their guns and shot at the bodies on the ground so as to leave no survivors. It is a miracle that only one bullet hit me in the hip.”
Nanak was the only survivor of the carnage. His son, Gurmeet Singh, and his brother were among those killed.
For over half an hour after the gunmen left, no one dared to come out of their houses.
While Nanak howled in pain and thirst, his cousin Sartaj Singh, himself shot in the chest, helped carry him home. “Sartaj’s life could have been saved if there was any first aid,” Nanak says. “He was one of the bravest men in the village.”
Nanak was later taken to a district hospital in Anantnag town, and thereafter shifted to Srinagar’s Army Base hospital.
“I have had three surgeries in my hip and it has now been completely replaced,” Nanak said. “Most certainly, the motive behind this attack was to scare the Kashmiri Sikhs into migrating, like the Kashmiri Pandits had. But I was born in Chattisingpora and I will die here.”
While the identity of the perpetrators remains unknown two decades later, Nanak suspects the state’s hand behind it. “The nature of the official investigation seems entirely fishy to me,” Nanak told The Wire. “The US president Bill Clinton was visiting India during that time, and it could have been a part of an attempt to portray Kashmir’s militancy as deeply communal.”
At least five children, aged between 15 and 16, were killed that night. One of them was Ajit Pal Singh, a 16-year-old student.
“In a few years after my brother’s killing, unable to come in terms with his death, my mother also passed away,” Harpreet Kaur, Ajit’s sister, told The Wire. “My elder brother Gurdeep Singh was also killed during the same night. He left behind an eight-month old daughter and a pregnant wife.”
The gunmen left behind a trail of broken families. Thirty women were widowed that night. One of them is Narinder Kaur, whose husband, Gurbakh Singh, and brother- in-law, Uttam Singh, were killed. “The entire street near the Gurudwara had turned into a river of crimson,” Narinder recalls. She is fatigued by endlessly recounting her story. “Nothing ever happens afterwards. Nobody has been brought to justice.”
Gurbakh also left behind two daughters. “I raised them through utmost hardship and tried to give them the best education possible,” Narinder said. One is now a dentist.
The village had preserved the two memorial sites where the massacre took place. The walls are pockmarked with bullet holes, each hole circled with yellow paint. The sites evoke the immense grief of the past twenty years; touching them, one is transported back to a moment of gunfire, shrieks and blood.
Until recently, one of the Gurudwaras also held a framed display of pictures of all the shaheeds, the martyrs, as they are known in the village. The Gurudwara recently burnt down in an accidental fire, and the photographs seem to have melted away.
The legacy of the massacre extends beyond the village. On March 25, days after the massacre, the Indian army claimed to have eliminated five “foreign militants” responsible for Chattisingpora. It was later revealed that all five men were locals and civilians who had been abducted from their homes. Their bodies, charred beyond recognition, were later exhumed from the forests of Pathribal in Anantnag district.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ordered the army to court-martial the personnel accused of the fake encounter, but the proceedings were halted in their early stages, on the pretext of a lack of evidence.
The CBI, after a three-year investigation, charge-sheeted five army personnel in connection with the Pathribal fake encounter, but the case was later dismissed by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. In 2016, the families of the Pathribal victims approached the Supreme Court with a joint petition. Two decades, justice eludes them still.
On April 3, 2000, the ripples of Chattisingpora were also felt in the nearby Brakpora village. Eight civilians protesting the Pathribal killings were killed by a joint patrol of J&K police’s dreaded Special Operations Group and the CRPF.
A commission headed by the former high-court judge S.R. Pandian conducted an inquiry, concluding that the incident was “nothing short of an unwarranted brutal attack amounting to murder, attempt to murder and causing grievous and simple hurt, without any justification and authority.”
Despite this final, damning indictment, like in Chattisingpora and Pathribal, no criminal prosecutions were carried out – and the train of tragedies slips further into the past.
Umar Lateef Misgar reports and writes a regular column for The New Arab on politics and human rights issues in Kashmir. His work has previously appeared in the South China Morning Post, Dawn, The Independent, Ozy.com, ABC Australia amongst others.