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Guardian Weekend – Alibi for Slaughter

The half-century-old dispute in Kashmir escalated to the brink of war in recent weeks -at a time when India, in the name of the worldwide war against terrorism, was stepping up a purge on ‘militants’. Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark talk to the families who bore the brunt.

A percussive thump sent everyone running for cover. Bullets began to rattle through the town seconds after the grenade exploded. By the time screaming voices echoed along the unmade lanes around the police station, all shops were shuttered, bolts drawn. Zeeba Dar, the social worker’s wife, recalls slamming her green front door. Fatima Shah, the butcher’s wife, remembers closing the rose-print curtains of her higgledy-piggledy house. Both women estimate that it took the whole of Tral only minutes to hunker down – a routine well practised over 13 years of militancy.

Tral is a market town, 40km from Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir. At 5pm that day, December 16, 2001, Zeeba and Fatima watched the TV news. Four militants from Afghanistan were said to have stormed the town’s fortified police station. It was a fidayeen attack – a suicide mission, according to station house officer (SHO) Bashir Malik. One of his men had been injured and his initial report, launching a criminal inquiry, concluded that four fidayeen had been killed. All were armed with automatic weapons and grenades and three of them had pictures of Osama bin Laden in their breast pockets. That night, everyone in Tral observed an unofficial curfew until the call of the muezzin, announcing dawn prayers.

As we drive down National Highway 1 from Srinagar shortly after the attack, past signs proclaiming “Kashmir the pride of India, envy of our neighbours”, soldiers patrol the roadside. Armoured convoys carrying Indian troops scatter children like skittles. Over the saffron fields, in Tral, an angry crowd that has been demonstrating for days confronts us. They jostle and push, forcing us out of the car, rushing us up a flight of wooden stairs. “Please sit,” a middle-aged man says in English, as dozens squeeze in beside us. Beside the window, a woman stares at a small photograph of a man grooming a chestnut pony. Zeeba Dar, the social worker’s -wife, waits for the room to quieten. “My husband was one of the so-called Afghans the Indian security forces shot dead. But Abdul had never been further than Srinagar. He was a Kashmiri through and through. He only agreed to go to the police station to help a neighbour’s son, held there on a small charge. I warned him to mind his own business.” Zeeba shakes with tears.

“Both of them came back to us dead,” Fatima Shah, the butcher’s wife, cries hoarsely, her teenage daughter sobbing in her shadow. “My husband, Ghulam, was Abdul’s best friend and went to the police station as a favour. For God’s sake, can you imagine it? Tell us that this isn’t retribution for what happened in New Delhi:”

Three days before the Tral incident, on December 13, 2001, the security cordon around India’s Parliament House in New Delhi had been breached by a fidayeen attack that left 14 people dead, including the five gunmen. Within 24 hours, the Indian government announced that it had proof that the terrorists were members of Islamic jihadi organisations waging a guerrilla war in India’s divided northern state of Jammu and Kashmir.

It was to this mountainous region that the criminal investigation shifted, a predominantly Muslim state fought over by India and Pakistan three times since Partition in 1947. During the bloody, insurgency that has rumbled on there for the past 55 years, more than 55,000 civilians, militants and soldiers have died – 15 times the number claimed by The Troubles in Ireland over the past 30 years.

Immediately after the attack on parliament, four people said to have masterminded it were arrested in Srinagar and New Delhi. Dozens more were rounded up in the Kashmir Valley, as the state’s 300km National Highway 1 was closed and every vehicle on it searched. Soon all phone lines out of Kashmir, even the state’s fledgling email service, were severed in a blackout that isolated more than eight million people. Tens of thousands of troops were dispatched towards the UN-brokered cease-fire line that has divided the state since 1949. India sowed its border with hundreds of thousands of land mines and test launched a ballistic missile. Two new nuclear nations tipped towards war, threatening the most serious conflagration between them since Partition.

In the face of international calls for calm, the inspector general of police in Kashmir held a press conference to announce he was analysing evidence that Pakistan had helped al-Qaida operatives infiltrate the Valley. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Indian prime minister had told the nation: “Now the battle against terrorism has reached a decisive moment. This is going to be a fight to the finish.” L.K. Advani, the hard-line home minister, had pledged: “We will liquidate the terrorists and their sponsors, whoever and wherever they are,” adding, “Bin Laden is a hero among …terrorists active in Kashmir.”

Terror has undoubtedly been exported from Pakistan into the Kashmir Valley, and there is little doubt that the attack on the Indian parliament on December 13 was an act of terrorism. Pakistani hardliners were probably responsible – intent on undermining their president, Pervez Musharraf, who had begun a crack-down on home-grown militants, and also seeking to embroil India and its Kashmiri militancy in the wider conflict being played out in Afghanistan. When the attack in Tral happened three days later, it appeared to demonstrate India’s point – that Kashmir was, like nearby Afghanistan, a crucible for terrorism where Indian security forces ran the risk of being blown up everyday.

But what the Tral suicide attack actually demonstrated was the existence of a completely different kind of terror. In the wake of the killing of the butcher and the social worker, so many people converged on the town to protest at their innocence that the Inspector General of Police was forced to drive from Srinagar to placate them. An inquiry found that only two militants had been involved in the incident, and that both of them were Kashmiri. In the gunfight that followed, they had been killed and the Indian security forces had then turned their weapons on Tral’s social worker and its butcher, who had been visiting a prisoner. A post mortem report reveals the frenzy of the killing: Abdul Dar shot 32 times, Ghulam Shah “barely recognisable”. The report concludes that the two men “had no connection with the militancy”. Officer Malik was quietly transferred.

If the murders had been an isolated event, then maybe the heightened tensions of the Afghan war and the parliament attack would have provided some mitigation. Even the planting of weapons and photos of Bin Laden, the fabrication of reports, could be put down to war panic. But high court lawyers from Srinagar are investigating more than 50 suspicious deaths at the hands of the Indian security forces stationed in the 10 bases that encircle Tral (population 50,000). Across the Indian-controlled section of Jammu and Kashmir, an unprecedented number of allegations of torture, rape and extra-judicial killing by security forces are now surfacing, suggesting that the story of Tral is anything but unique.

Talking to us in his chambers in the rickety heart of old Srinagar, Parvez Imroz, a high court lawyer specialising in human rights cases, says, ‘A considerable number of civilian deaths have been blamed on militants, when in fact the Indian security forces are responsible. The world should be clear that Kashmir is caught between two kinds of terror: one perpetrated by Pakistan-backed gunmen and the other by the Indian state.”

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