Cold case returns to haunt Avtar Singh
The details of rights activist Andrabi’s murder include a remorseful confession too
Last month, when an Indian transport company owner was arrested in Fresno in California for beating his wife, a few old pages of loss and injustice ruffled in Jammu and Kashmir. The accused, Avtar Singh, was charged with domestic violence in the US after his wife testified against him.
But, in Kashmir, several families have been waiting many years for him to face trial in the murders of their sons, husbands and brothers.
Singh was an officer of the Indian Army and is on the Interpol’s wanted list, accused of murder in Kashmir but like several times in the past, the Indian government did not make a serious attempt to extradite Singh.
With a Special Investigation Team (SIT) report indicting him for the murder of a Kashmiri human rights activist and a High court appearance order waiting against him in Srinagar, Singh managed to escape by fleeing to Canada and then the US with, what people in Kashmir believe, the support of the Army and the union home ministry.
Singh is also accused of destroying the evidence in the rights activists’ murder.
Avtar Singh was a Major in Unit 35 of the Rashtriya Rifles and was posted in Srinagar in the 1990s where he was then known as ‘Bulbul’. Journalists from that time thought he was a ‘tyrant’ and ‘a man drunk with power’.
Singh was involved in counterinsurgency operations and posted in Rawalpora. But, in the spring of 1996, Singh is believed to have tortured and murdered Jaleel Andrabi, a rights activist.
Andrabi, a lawyer, headed a group called the Kashmir Jurists Group. In 1995, Andrabi had spoken at the UN Human rights Commission and was going to speak out again.
It was 1996 and the term ‘human rights’ was not liked much by the Army, who either came down on irksome things themselves or asked the Ikhwanis, former militants who later switched sides and worked under the aegis of Indian Army.
Together, they ruled Kashmir then and Andrabi, with his human rights talk, had made powerful enemies.
One evening in March 1996, when Andrabi, 42, and his wife, Riffat, were returning home, some armymen and Ikhwanis intercepted their white Maruti car. In February that year, Andrabi had been suspicious that his life was in danger and even took photographs of gunmen in civvies watching over his house.
That evening on 8 March, Andrabi was dragged out of the car. Riffat, who was left behind, followed them in an auto-rickshaw only to see them speed away.
Riffat and Andrabi’s brother Arshid contacted the police who assured them that they would find him soon. A case of disappearance was registered six days later on 14 March under the directions of the High Court.
On 18 March, a Special Investigation Team, headed by an IPS officer, IK Misra, the then Srinagar police chief, was formed under the order of the High Court.
On 27 March, Jaleel Andrabi’s body was recovered from River Jhelum near Rajbagh. Andrabi’s body was in a burlap bag. His hands were tied behind him with a tent-pitching rope and a stone was tied to his body.
He was shot in the head and his eyes gouged out. There were visible marks of torture on his body and he had been dead for a week at least.
After the body was found, there were massive demonstrations in the Valley and the SIT worked faster. They recovered the pictures Andrabi had taken of the gunmen roaming around his home. But, they could not locate the gunmen.
They then looked for Sikandar Ganai, another counterinsurgent who, Arshid said, was following his brother.
On 5 April, the police found five bodies on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway, 5 km from Pampore town. Four of them were surrendered militants and one of the bodies was identified as that of Ganai, a surrendered militant who operated with 35 RR located in Budgam.
Ganai was the one the SIT was looking for and his murder took out a link from the Andrabi case. It then emerged that the other dead counterinsurgents too lived in the campus of 35 RR Budgam.
People who saw the bodies said the hands of the dead were tied with pieces of rope.
Ganai’s wife told the police that she suspected Major Avtar Singh and an Ikhwani, Mohammad Ashraf Khan, of killing her husband. After great effort, the SIT managed to find Khan.
According to the SIT report, during interrogation, Khan revealed that Avtar Singh and Ganai brought a person wearing a coat, trousers and a tie into the camp. “Six persons, namely Sultan, Balbir Singh, Dr Vaid, Mushtaq and Hyder were also present. Heated exchange of words (arguments) took place between Avtar Singh and apprehended person, which irritated Avtar Singh and others. He was beaten and confined in a room,” the SIT report said.
Khan said after that, Singh came out in the lawn and asked him if he knew the person confined in the room. When he said no, Singh told him he is a leading advocate Jaleel Andrabi who propagates against the army and assists militants. That is why he was apprehended, Singh added.
“A person who maligns the army and helps the militants will not be forgiven. We will eliminate him,” Khan recounted Singh’s words. “On the same day during evening hours, he heard hue and cry from the same room where Jaleel Andrabi was kept. Thereafter, he saw army personnel loading a gunny bag in an army truck and left the camp. He found Singh in a demoralised state who told him that he had committed a mistake by killing Andrabi,” the report says.
Colonel BS Pundir, CO of 103 Battalion under whom Singh was serving, told the SIT that in 1996, Singh was posted as Coy Commander D-Coy at Rawalpora, Srinagar, carrying out antiterrorist operations
When Singh was questioned regarding Andrabi’s abduction and killing, he said he had nothing to do with it and accused the police of not investigating the case judiciously.
Singh then left Kashmir first for Punjab, and then fled India in 2005.
He was traced to Canada and later migrated to the US where he ran a truck business in Selma, Fresno County, in California.
In 2006, the Jammu and Kashmir government sought Singh’s extradition but the process never reached anywhere.
Andrabi’s widow and brother have been waiting for 15 years for Singh to stand trial and Ganai’s widow had to be put in a sanatorium in Rohtak, Haryana, when she couldn’t understand why her husband was killed by the people he was working with.
Four other counterinsurgents whose pictures Andrabi took disappeared.
Police officials who dealt with the case believed that Singh had exterminated the people who could expose his role in the Andrabi murder. Only Khan survived and he has been in hiding for many years, expecting death for giving the statement incriminating Singh.
Andrabi’s family and other rights activists believe that the Indian Army and the Union Ministry of Home Affairs helped Singh flee India with a fake passport and then didn’t pursue his extradition.
Now, with Amnesty International’s new statement urging India not to block the way for Singh’s trial, it remains to be seen whether Singh will stand trial all he stands accused of.
Singh can refuse trial by a civil court and opt instead for trail by military court as he is protected by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). But, it seems like a case of impunity beyond the AFSPA where a serving officer of the Indian Army doesn’t even face trial.
Maybe, once Singh comes within the domain of law, several more cases like that of Abdul Majid Shah might resurface. Shah’s body was found in the Jhelum with a stone tied to him.
Shah’s family believes that Singh hanged him to death for having a relationship with the younger sister of Singh’s then lover, who also became his wife for a while before he married another woman against whom he is charged of domestic abuse in the US.
Zahid Rafiq is a Correspondent with Tehelka.