The trail will now run cold
Suhas Chakma recalls how Major Avtar Singh avoided the trial court and fled India
THE SUICIDE of Major Avtar Singh in Salema, California on 9 June has exposed the killing of defenders of human rights with impunity. Major Avtar Singh killed himself along with his wife and one child at his California home while his 15-year-old son is battling for life after being shot in the head.
The tragic killing of the family members of Major Avtar Singh is a classic case with the dogs of wars in India. At the height of the internal conflicts in 1990s, the government of India had let loose its dogs of war who eliminated many prominent human rights activists. Jaleel Andrabi of Jammu and Kashmir, Parag Kumar Das of Assam and Jaswant Singh Kalra of Punjab were amongst the prominent activists murdered during the period. Only with respect to the disappearance and murder of Jaswant Singh Kalra was accountability established. The killers of Parag Kumar Das were let off.
With the suicide of Major Avtar Singh, the truth behind the murder of Andrabi will not be unravelled. Though Avtar Singh did not act alone, it is unlikely that other culprits will be brought to justice. The question must be asked as to whether prosecution of the Kalra killers was allowed as insurgency had ended in Punjab.
I still recall meeting Andrabi in Delhi prior to his kidnapping on 8 March 1996 and subsequent murder. Andrabi came to Delhi following an abortive attempt to kidnap him allegedly by the BSF personnel. Andrabi was advised by senior human rights activists not to return to the valley, but he returned to meet his family members for Eid. His body was recovered from the Jhelum river on 27 March, 19 days after the abduction, with his eyes gouged out.
Andrabi was a prominent member of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association, and his murder could not be swept aside by the state government under the carpet like the other cases. An investigation by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was ordered, and the SIT in its report submitted to the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Budgam on 10 April 1997 held Major Avtar Singh of the Rashtriya Rifles responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Andrabi.
Once Andrabi was charged, the Army made a request to the court of Chief Judicial Magistrate, Budgam, to send the case to Army authorities for court martial trial. The court conceded but Andrabi’s brother filed criminal revision No 4/2001 before the Jammu and Kashmir High Court against the trial court order. On 9 June 2004, the High Court disposed of the review petition with the observation that the committal court had to hand over the accused only after considering the provision of section 549 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which provides for the delivery to the military authorities of persons liable to be tried by a court martial. This provision further provides that that if a person who is liable to be tried by a criminal court and also by a court martial for an offence committed by him, is brought before a magistrate, and is charged with the offence for which he is liable to be so tried, such magistrate shall, in accordance with the rules framed by the central government in that regard under Section 549 in proper cases, will deliver the accused to the military authorities referred to in that Section.
Major Avtar Singh was never produced before the trial court to complete the formalities. The defence ministry consistently maintained that his service records were not available! Though the court directed the Union government to impound his passport or prevent him from being issued one, he managed to flee to Canada and then to the United States.
In February 2011, Avtar Singh was arrested following a complaint filed by his wife that he tried to choke her to death. Avtar Singh could no longer be hidden under the carpet. On 30 May 2011, the Srinagar court directed the government of India to make every endeavour to extradite him. In his interviews to the media, he threatened to speak out the truth but there was no way to manipulate judicial proceedings for extradition in the US. Given the indictment by the courts in India, Avtar Singh effectively had no defence. His extradition to India was only a matter of time.
AFTER THE SIT found Avtar Singh guilty, the government disowned him. The Ministry of Defence claimed before the trial court that Major Avtar Singh was acting in his personal capacity. It is unlikely that a serving major in the Indian army could have fled to Canada without involvement of senior officials, with or without political sanction. Major Avtar Singh may have been helped to flee justice in India but there was no way the government of India could influence judicial process in a third country. Even in India, the Supreme Court confirmed life imprisonment of Satnam Singh, Surinder Pal Singh, Jasbir Singh and Prithipal Singh for the murder of Jaswant Singh Kalra. This should be a message for the dogs of war.
One-and-a-half decades have passed since Andrabi was killed. Insurgency is of extremely low intensity in Jammu and Kashmir. India now faces renewed left-wing extremism but there is no change in the policy of the government of India. The security forces continue to be rewarded for extrajudicial executions. India denies existence of internal armed conflicts but there is no doubt that many states are effectively in transitional situation.
It is not surprising that the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions following his visit to India on 19-30 March 2012 recommended the establishment of a credible Commission of Inquiry into extrajudicial executions in India that inspires the confidence of the people, to serve a transitional justice role, to investigate allegations concerning past violations and work out a plan of action to eradicate practices of extrajudicial executions. Sadly, in the 21st century, the largest democratic country in the world still remains complicit in the extrajudicial executions and further seeks to abort delivery of justice. India ought to make a choice and implementation of the recommendation of the Special Rapporteur to establish a credible commission of inquiry is one of the ways to move forward.
Suhas Chakma is the director of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights.