Muzamil Jaleel Oct 04, 2009
Shopian, on the southern tip of the Kashmir valley, has always been known for its scenic beauty, apple orchards and a historic road that passes through it. In fact, Kashmir’s turbulent history began here, when the Mughals finally crossed the mighty Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas that had stood like a wall defending Kashmir from the invading armies for centuries. Shopian, however, gradually lost its importance as the gateway to the valley but constant contact with other cultures turned it into an intellectually fertile land. From Jamaat-e-Islami to communism, Shopian has been home to extreme political ideologies and orientations. Jamaat ideologue Ghulam Ahmad Ahrar, Communist thinker Abdul Sattar Ranjoor and journalist Shameem Ahmad Shameem, all came from its villages.
But this time, Shopian has been making news for a more agonising reason. The painful story of the death of its two daughters and a four-month-long struggle of its residents to find the truth have put it in the centrestage of Kashmir’s larger story of consistent botch-ups by the government, flawed investigations, political opportunism, public distrust and a yearning for justice.
Even as a doctor has confessed to “cooking up’’ the slides of the vaginal swabs of the two women, admitting that the post-mortem was never conducted and the CBI has already exhumed the bodies and collected every possible forensic evidence to ascertain the cause of death and to check if rape was committed, a final word on the case is still far away.
Death at Shopian
On the evening of May 29, Neelofar, 22, and her sister-in-law Aasiya, 17, left for their apple orchard across the Rambiyar stream at Nagabal Dehgam, which their family had bought recently. Hoping to return before sundown, Neelofar didn’t take her two-year-old son Suzaine with her. But she never returned.
Neelofar’s husband Shakeel Ahangar launched a desperate search for his wife and sister but drew blank. The wife of one of the neighbours, Ghulam Qadir, had seen the girls leave the orchard but couldn’t say where they went. As the shadows grew darker, Shakeel decided to go to the local police station. A police party accompanied him and started a search across the Rambiyar stream. They looked till 2.30 in the morning before calling off the search till morning.
The following day, when the police along with Shakeel returned to the Rambiyar stream, they found Neelofar’s body. Aasiya’s body was recovered a km downstream. According to the Justice Jan Commission report—the commission was set up by the government to probe the case and was led by a retired High Court judge—the police flouted the procedure they were required to follow, right from the time the bodies were found to when they were identified.
The local police’s initial report suggested that the two women had died by drowning. They didn’t bother to collect the evidence—both circumstantial and forensic—at the spots where the bodies were found. The spots were not scanned for evidence, the clothes of the victims were not secured and, in fact, it was villagers and not the police who brought Aasiya’s body to her home in Bonpore in Shopian.
Misreading the public mood
The district administration was slow to gauge the public mood. By the time the bodies were brought to the hospital for post-mortem, Shopian’s residents already suspected a cover-up. In fact, a large and agitated mob had already gathered outside the hospital premises and murmurs of rape and murder were spreading fast.
The manner in which the district administration had hastily concluded that the two women had died by drowning and the way Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had accepted that version, angered the people. The police’s hesitation to file an FIR added to the public anger.
Contradicting medical reports
While the local police goofed up, the doctors called to conduct the post-mortem and gynaecological examination to collect vital forensic evidence and solve the case had become part of the problem.
In a statement to the Commission, Dr Bilal Ahmed, a local doctor who was part of the first team, said he found an injury of 2-3 cm on Aasiya’s forehead, caused by a sharp-edged weapon, but there was no froth from her mouth and no marks of violence around her private parts.
His gynaecologist colleague, Dr Nazia Hassan, deposed that a vaginal examination of the body could not be conducted because rigor mortis had set in. Another team member, Dr Bilques, has deposed that as soon as she put on her gloves, she was scared of the crowd outside the hospital and could not perform any tests.
As the first team did not complete the post-mortem, the government sent a second team from neighbouring Pulwama district. Its findings were startling. According to her statement before the Jan Commission, Dr Nighat Shaheen said that she found a wound of 2-3 inches on the frontal region of the skull of the body of Aasiya. Dr Nighat ruled out that the injury could have been caused by a fall in the stream and said that Aasiya’s hymen was torn. “There was no fresh bleeding. Vaginal secretions were taken as swab. On examination it was clear that a sexual assault had been committed,’’ Nighat concluded. Gynaecologist Nighat’s other team members were senior Health Department officials, District Health Officer Dr M Maqbool and Deputy Chief Medical Officer Ghulam Qadir Sofi. In fact, Dr Maqbool told the Jan Commission that he noted down the findings when the post-mortem examination was conducted by Dr Nighat and Dr Ghulam Qadir Sofi.
For months, the conclusions arrived at by Nighat and her colleagues in the second medical team during the gynaecological examination and the subsequent forensic tests on the slides of the vaginal swabs by the forensic science lab in Srinagar, establishing the presence of spermatozoa, had become the central themes of the investigation conducted by the Special Investigation Team of J&K Police. But once the slides were sent for DNA profiling to the Central Forensic Science Laboratory on July 22, the results shocked everybody.
The fabricated swabs
CFSL experts concluded that the swabs didn’t belong to the two women. On September 9, the case—which was being handled by the SIT led by Superintendent of Police Shahdeen Malik—was handed over to the CBI, which is investigating it at present.
Even before the CFSL report established tampering, the flaws in the story narrated by the second team of doctors were already evident. The Indian Express in its report, ‘Under the Microscope’ (August 25, 2009), raised these questions: “If Director, Health (Kashmir) issued orders for a second team of doctors from Pulwama to conduct the post-mortem, why did they leave without basic equipment (cotton, gloves, slides, microscope, etc.)? Gynaecologist Nighat Shaheen told the SIT that a civilian identified as Ashraf volunteered to get slides and managed only two, one of them broken. The SIT has not been able to trace Ashraf to cross-check Nighat’s statement. The cotton used to take the vaginal swabs is missing.” Why didn’t the government question its Health Ministry bureaucracy about this?
The SIT found that the doctors folded a piece of paper to make an envelope for the slides. Chief Medical Officer Ghulam Mohammad Paul told the SIT that as his office was shut, he put this envelope in the locker at Deputy CMO Ghulam Qadir’s room, but took the keys along. The envelope stayed in the locker for the night. As per compulsory standard procedure in a medico-legal case, the slides must either be sealed in the presence of a magistrate or dispatched to the FSL. Why didn’t the government pursue the probe into this, especially as top Health Department officials were involved?
Shockingly, the second team of doctors had neither conducted a post-mortem nor had they collected a vaginal swab or made the slides. The story was all fiction, cooked up carefully by the doctors who had failed to perform their professional duty. Qadir, who is now officiating as Chief Medical Officer, Pulwama, had told The Indian Express earlier that they did take vaginal swabs. “We didn’t have slides so we got a few from the market,” he had said. “The situation was explosive. There was no help available so I helped Dr Nighat. She hid the swabs and the gloves. There was a lot of panic and Dr Nighat dropped the slides on the floor, breaking one.” But once the fabrication of slides was exposed, Sofi changed his statement. “It is true we did not get samples (vaginal swabs) but we thought that we will get them from the gloves that she (Nighat) was wearing at the time of the examination,” Sofi told The Indian Express.
The criminal mishandling of the case by the doctors lies exposed but the question remains why the investigators didn’t suspect their role earlier. The reason is not hidden too. The priority for the government was to calm public anger as the Shopian fire swept across Kashmir, threatening the survival of the state government. The opposition PDP used the crisis to put pressure on the nervous government while the case helped the separatists return to centrestage.
To avoid public pressure, the government decided on the easiest route: the four local police officers who had committed negligence in the initial stage were singled out, arrayed as accused in the case and put behind the bars. The government created a perception that the four officers were the only culprits and that action was being taken against them.
It is a fact that the government’s ad hoc policy did help calm the street, but now, as the CBI investigates, the aim of the probe must be to find the absolute truth. The need is to solve the case beyond doubt with total transparency—not to arrive at yet another patch-work solution aimed at calming the public anger to avoid a crisis.
Courtesy Indian Express