“By Majid Maqbool”
“Jo jahan milay goli mardo… aag lagado…” Fifty-two-year old Muhammad Abdullah Shala remembers BSF troops shouting this as they opened indiscriminate fire in the main market of Sopore town this day twenty one years ago in 1993, reportedly killing 57 people and setting ablaze around 100 houses and 300 shops, including a women’s degree college. In one of the worst massacres in Kashmir history, Shala lost five of his family members, including his 17-year-old younger brother Ghulam Rasool Shala who fell to the bullets of BSF troops that day.
“On that morning we were out in the market to unload fruits from a truck which had got stuck on the road,” recalls Shala, an eyewitness and survivor of the massacre. “At 10.30 am BSF troops appeared near the shops and started firing directly at people.” Shala saw people around him falling as he ran for his life. Some people ran into the shops to save their lives as BSF troops opened indiscriminate fire. “It was like doomsday. I don’t know how I survived that day,” he says. Shala also lost his 37-year-old cousin brother to BSF firing that day. “He was the lone son of my uncle, he left behind four little children,” he says. After his brother’s death Shala says his father didn’t step out of his home and passed away in 1999.
Forty-five-year old Tariq Ahmad Kanjwal, another survivor and eyewitness to the massacre who was then in his early 20s, says he was the first shopkeeper to open his shop in the market on that cold winter morning. “On that morning an LMG rifle of one BSF troops had been snatched and there was some tension in the air,” recalls Kanjwal. “At around 10.30 am I saw around 25 BSF troops appear in the market and they started firing at people.” People started running for their lives and some sought shelter inside the market shops. “BSF troops also fired inside a SRTC passenger bus that was coming from Bandipora that morning,” Kanjwal recalls. “I think around 14 to 15 passengers were killed inside the bus when BSF troops opened fire.”
Kanjwal was caught in his shop along with four more people who ran into his shop to protect themselves from bullets. He immediately put the shutters down. “For 15 minutes we could hear gun shots and cries of people,” he recalls. “By that time the BSF troops had set ablaze many shops.” After sometime his father ran to his shop to take his son to safety. Kanjwal remembers a BSF officer, who was known to him, open the shutters of his shop and shout to his troops: “Inko powder chedkado… inko zindo jalado…”Kanjwal says he was pleading before the BSF troops to at least leave his old father who was also caught in the shop by now. The troops started beating Kanjwal and opened fire. He received a bullet in his leg. Bleeding, he was again thrown into the shop by the troops. “Then they closed the shutters down and set our shop on fire,” he recalls. “I was trying to protect my father form flames but he breathed his last in my arms.”
Ghulam Muhammad Hajam, who was also trapped in the shop, and another civilian, Abdul Khaliq Malik, dropped dead in front of Kanjwal as the shop was set afire. “I saw them dying in front of me,” Kanjwal says. “There was smoke all over and I was choking. I thought I will be next to die.” Somehow he put his hands on a 5kg weight in his shop. Summoning all his strength, he threw it on a wall which created a small hole from where he could breathe air for some time. “Next I remember waking up in SKIMS, Soura after three days,” says Kanjwal.
Ghulam Muhammad Hajam, who couldn’t survive the fire, is buried in two graveyards in Sopore. “After eight days we found one leg of Ghulam Muhammad from the burnt remains of our shop,” says Kanjwal. Half of his burnt body had already been buried earlier. “His leg was then buried in another graveyard.”
There’s one memory that has been disturbing Kanjwal all these years. He remembers one of the shopkeepers who suddenly emerged out of his shop that was burning. He ran into the road, shouting hysterically. His head was in flames. “I remember BSF troops telling each other not to shoot him as he will be dead soon,” Kanjwal recalls. But that man survived.
He remembers another shop, Shaheen Photo, which was also set on fire that day in the market. It was owned by a photographer, Shaheen. “Their shop was on the second storey and when it was set on fire by the troops the photographer and his associate couldn’t come out of the shop,” says Kanjwal. “Their burnt dead bodies were later found in hugging position and they were buried together in one grave.”
Kanjwal says Sopore town has been consigned to flames 27 times in the past two decades. “There are around 11 graveyards in this town,” he says.
The Sopore massacre was prominently covered by the international media. TIME magazine and The Independent filed detailed reports covering the tragedy. In its report titled “Blood Tide Rising – Indian forces carry out one of the worst massacres in Kashmir’s history,” published on Jan 18, 1993, TIME magazine writes, “PERHAPS THERE IS A SPECIAL CORNER IN HELL reserved for soldiers who fire their weapons indiscriminately into a crowd of unarmed civilians. That, at least, must have been the hope of every resident who defied an army-enforced curfew in the Kashmiri town of Sopore last Thursday to protest a massacre that left 55 people dead and scores injured. It was India’s latest blow in a three-year campaign to crush the predominantly Muslim state’s bid for independence. In retaliation for the killing of one soldier, paramilitary forces rampaged through Sopore’s market setting buildings ablaze and shooting bystanders.”
The Independent in its report “Outcry in Delhi over Kashmir massacre” filed by Tim Mcgirk on January 8, 1993, writes, “senior Indian officials yesterday admitted that members of the paramilitary Border Security Force went on a ‘shameful’ rampage of killing in the mountainous north-west state of Kashmir on Wednesday.”
“The state governor, Girish Saxena, has ordered an inquiry into the security forces, who set fire to hundreds of shops and houses and allegedly massacred more than 55 Kashmiri civilians in revenge after separatists ambushed a military patrol,” the report says, adding “The incident is one of the worst atrocities by Indian paramilitary forces in their attempt over the past three years to crush an uprising by Muslim militants in Kashmir.”
“The Border Security Forces sprayed a public coach with machine-gun fire,” The Independent further reported, “killing the driver and more than 15 passengers, said witnesses. Three other cars were also fired on, and then the paramilitary forces set the vehicles ablaze. Next, they began herding the native Kashmiris into shops and houses, said witnesses. Then the security forces shot them, splashed paraffin over the bodies and set the buildings alight. Officially, more than 250 shops and 50 homes were destroyed, but Kashmir sources claim that more than 450 buildings were burnt down. Another 25 bodies may still be trapped in the smoking rubble, claim witnesses.”
“Initially,” the report goes on to add, “the Indian government claimed that the deaths occurred during a shoot-out between Muslim militants and the paramilitary forces, when an explosives cache belonging to the militants blew up and flames spread to nearby dwellings. But this version failed to explain why so many of the bodies were riddled with bullets.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, in its report said, “Eyewitnesses confirmed that the troops went on a rampage and killed at least forty-three persons, some of whom died of gunshot wounds, others of whom were burned alive when the troops set fire to their shops and homes. Although security officials first claimed that the victims died in cross-fire, the government was forced to order a judicial inquiry and to suspend several officers in response to widespread publicity about the incident. By November, no details of the proceedings or findings had been made public. Human rights groups complained that the investigation was being hampered by the fact that it had been held in Srinagar, some twenty-five miles away, making it impossible for many witnesses to testify.”
The victims allege that the case was closed by the government authorities without any proper investigation and without punishing the guilty troops involved in killings many innocent civilians.
As per the status report submitted in October 2013 by senior superintendent of police Javed Siraj (CBI cases RC. 4-5(S)/93/SC-II/CBI/New Delhi corresponding to fir no. 8 and 9/1993, PS, Sopore) in response to a petition filed by Ahsan Untoo, chairman, International Forum for Justice and Human Rights Forum, JK, a one man commission of inquiry headed by Justice Amarjeet Chaudhary of Punjab and Haryana High Court, Chandigarh was set up by the Government of J&K vide Notification No, SRO/14 dated 30.01.93 to look into the Sopore incident. “Efforts were made to secure a copy of report of the said Inquiry, but it was intimated by Sh. A.K. Srivasatva, Director, K.II, Depart, of J&K Affairs, Govt. of Inida, New Delhi that the term of the Commission of Inquiry into the Sopore incident by Justice Chaudary had expired on 30.04.94 and was not extended thereafter,” the status report reads. “Since, the inquiry could not be started by the Commission of Inquiry, there was no question of submission of any report by it.”
After the case was handled over to CBI for investigation on 23-01-1993, the report claims during investigation “vigorous efforts were made by CBI to contact and examine the local people/eye witnesses acquainted with the facts and circumstances of the incident, but none of them volunteered to come forward,” adding, “in order to motivate the local public to come forward, publicity was also made through electronic media from time to time, but this exercise proved to be futile.”
However, in the next paragraph, the report contradicts itself. “During investigation, the witnesses examined by the local police and CBI, including the injured witnesses, were unable to identify the BSF personnel involved in the incident and they couldn’t give the details of the firing or cross firing. As such, without proper identification of the suspects, it was not possible to ascertain the persons involved in the alleged incident…therefore, it could not be established during the investigation as to who killed 44 civilians and injured 14 persons during the said incident as alleged.”
Concluding that since a period of more than 20 years has already elapsed and “a thorough probe” by the CBI into the incident “covering all the aspects of the investigation has been made but could not yield any results”, the status report, without identifying the accused troops, further claims, “The accused BSF personnel have already been tried for the alleged offence u/s 302, 307 and 436 RPC by the competent court established by law(i.e General Security Force Court constituted under BSF Act, 1968)and have been convicted and sentenced.”
“In view of the aforesaid facts and circumstances,” the status report thus concludes, “it was decided to file closure reports in both the cases. Accordingly, two separate closure reports were filed in the court of competent jurisdiction on 17.7.2013. Thus the investigation in both the above said cases stand closed.”
“PERHAPS THERE IS A SPECIAL CORNER IN HELL reserved for soldiers who fire their weapons indiscriminately into a crowd of unarmed civilians. That, at least, must have been the hope of every resident who defied an army-enforced curfew in the Kashmiri town of Sopore last Thursday to protest a massacre that left 55 people dead and scores injured.”
– TIME Magazine
“The Border Security Forces sprayed a public coach with machine-gun fire, killing the driver and more than 15 passengers, said witnesses. Three other cars were also fired on, and then the paramilitary forces set the vehicles ablaze. Next, they began herding the native Kashmiris into shops and houses, said witnesses. Then the security forces shot them, splashed paraffin over the bodies and set the buildings alight. Officially, more than 250 shops and 50 homes were destroyed, but Kashmir sources claim that more than 450 buildings were burnt down
– The Independent