Bijbehara (Jammu and Kashmir): On the afternoon of October 22, 1993, Ghulam Qadir Rah, 50, a wood cutter by profession, came out on the main road in south Kashmir’s Bijbehara town after his Friday prayers. He joined many others who had assembled on the highway to protest against the military siege of the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar which was going on at the time when troops from the 74th battalion of the Border security Force (BSF) suddenly opened fire. People screamed and ran for their lives. A bullet pierced his right foot. He fell on the road, unconscious.
When he woke up, he found himself in hospital. He survived, but 43 civilians died in the firing that day. Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its 2006 report puts the number of dead at ‘at least 37 people’; the BSF and the National Human Rights Commission gave a slightly lower figure, while reports in the Kashmir press over the years have put the number at between 40 and 43 people.
In addition, more than 200 people were injured in the firing that day, many of whom were left physically handicapped for life.
“Those who went to help the injured were also targeted,” recalls Rah. His elder brother, who was there that day, was hit by bullets in his legs. “He remained bed ridden for a couple of years with about 15 bullet wounds. We spent about Rs 10 lakhs on his treatment over the years.”
Rah’s brother died a couple of months ago; he had undergone 15 surgeries over the years and his family considers him a casualty of the massacre.
Mohammed Rafiq Ganie, 35, was 11 when he lost his elder brother, Mukhtar that day. Their old house was close to the road and he saw jawans opening fire on the people. “When the firing stopped, I peeped through my window,” Rafiq recalls. “I saw people lying in a pool of blood on the road.”
“I will never forget that scene… Our sisters and mothers ran out to give water to the injured people. People were rushing bodies to the nearest hospital in handcarts because no vehicle or ambulance came in time to pick up the injured.”
Rafiq was in shock for many months following the incident. Memories of that day still haunt him.
Altaf Ahmad Sheikh, a 9th standard student, was among the 43 civilians who died in the firing that day. A bullet struck him near his heart. In the Bijbehara town market, sitting in his shop, his father told me they’d filed cases against the BSF.
“We didn’t need any compensation, what we wanted was for the BSF troops to be punished as per the law,” Sheikh’s father said. “We spent around 6 to 7 lakhs till now on the case but we did not get any justice.”
He has preserved an old copy of a local Urdu daily, Alsafa, that dates back to a day after the incident. He pulled it out from a dusty cabinet in his shop. It had a full page spread of black and white photos of the injured and the dead. A photo in the middle of the page shows a deserted road – bloodied and littered with the shoes of the injured and the dead.
A public park was turned into a martyrs’ graveyard at New Colony, Bijbehara, where most of the young boys killed on that day used to play cricket. They were later buried in the same park as there was no space left to bury the dead in the local graveyard that day.
Justice delayed, justice denied
Following valley-wide protests, a magisterial enquiry was ordered into the killings. After the probe began, the unit of 74th battalion of BSF involved in the firing was shifted from the area. The enquiry report, which was submitted to the government on November 13, 1993, concluded that the firing was absolutely unprovoked.
“The claim made by the BSF that they were forced to retaliate [because of] the firing of militants for self-defence is baseless and concocted. The security personnel have committed offence out of vengeance and their barbarous act was deliberate and well planned,” the report said.
When the NHRC sent notices to the ministry of home affairs, which controls the BSF, on November 1, 1993, the ministry subsequently sent the NHRC a report on the incident based on the magisterial inquiry ordered by the state government. It also sent one based on the staff court of inquiry ordered by the BSF, which claimed disciplinary proceedings had been initiated against 14 BSF officials, but no details were provided.
Based on the government report, the NHRC, on January 17, 1994, made recommendations, including immediate interim compensation to the victims’ families. Apart from disciplinary proceedings under the Border Security Force Act, the NHRC recommended that there should be parallel criminal prosecution proceedings based on the magisterial inquiry. But the Central government did not respond positively to these recommendations.
On November 12, 1996, three years after NHRC had called for action, A. K. Tandon, the then director general of the BSF, reportedly informed the NHRC that “a GSFC (General Security Force Court) trial was conducted in respect of 12 BSF men involved in the incident” but the results of the trial were “being withheld for the time being.” The BSF had initially claimed that it had acted against the accused. As per press reports, all those charged with murder were acquitted by the GSFC.
When NHRC sought access to the relevant files of the court martial in which all accused BSF men were acquitted from the ministries of defence and home, the request was rejected. The government in power at the time was that of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The NHRC then moved the Supreme Court seeking a direction to the government to make available the relevant trial records.
As per a July 6, 2002 report in the Times of India,“in the face of the government’s stand – that the records could not be made available on grounds of national security – the NHRC quietly withdrew its petition.”
The HRW in its 2006 report, ‘Everyone Lives in Fear: Patterns of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir’ took note of the Bijbehara killings. The report quoted one of the eyewitnesses:
“The people had gathered on the National Highway which passes through Bijbehara town. It was like this even then, narrow, with shops on both sides of the road. There were thousands of people shouting slogans. But it was peaceful… The BSF just opened fire without any warning. It was terrible. There were so many people lying on the ground. Others were running in panic… This road, this very road, was full of blood.”
It said the “indiscriminate killing at Bijbehara is particularly important because it followed the September 1993 passage of the Human Rights Protection Act adopted under the pressure of persistent allegations of human rights abuse in Jammu and Kashmir as well as in other areas of armed conflict in India,” adding that the law established the NHRC, which began operations in October 1993 and promptly took up the Bijbehara massacre.
“In proceedings that followed, it became apparent that the commission would not be able to challenge the armed forces’ effective immunity from prosecution under Indian laws,” the report said.
The HRW report further stated that the BSF had initially claimed that it had taken action against the responsible officials, “but the only available information about this concerns one sub-inspector who the BSF told the NHRC had been found not guilty. According to press reports, all those charged with murder were acquitted by the GSFC.”
The report also stated that when the NHRC took up the incident:
“there was hope among many Kashmiris that those responsible would be brought to justice. But this outcome made it clear that the NHRC would have a limited role in investigating abuses by the armed forces and promoting prosecutions of military personnel,” the report concluded. “Impunity was the victor again.”
“This was one of the cases of impunity for excessive use of force that we investigated. While we have always said that Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts or AFSPA should be repealed, this case shows that paramilitary civilian forces like BSF and CRPF that operate under the Central government home ministry, also have no mechanism to ensure accountability for human rights violations,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director of HRW, told The Wire.
Since then, said Ganguly, the government has attempted to use ‘less lethal ammunition’, including the pellets that have recently been causing grievous injuries to hundreds in Kashmir. “Troops often have to operate in difficult circumstances, but it is a test of their training including in rights protections,” she said, adding, “Yet impunity remains a problem. The recent case where a soldier was rewarded for using a human shield even before an internal inquiry into his actions was completed, seems a step backward.”
Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based in Srinagar, Kashmir.