Closure? Sure

- but to the families of Tufail and the other boys, not the SIT report

DELHIBERATIONS

PADMA RAO SUNDARJI

Like many journalists, I remember a quiet living room in Srinagar in 2010 where, with sad dignity, Tufail Mattoo’s family told the story of the day their boy of the big ears and mischievous eyes never came home again.  In a way, their stoic repetition to visitors of how their only child died, again and again,  seemed like a wretched search for some catharsis through that torturous cycle of narration.   As a reporter, I scribbled matter-of-factly. As a mother, I wept and raged inside. 
Last week, desperation welled up in me again when I read that the J&K Police’s Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted to look into the 112 deaths that occurred during the stone-throwing riots of 2010, has submitted a plea to the J&K High Court to ‘close’ the case for want of evidence.  
Generally, I keep away from most NGOs and rights groups.  During my 24 years of reporting on war, death and devastation, I have found that many are shrill, stridently argumentative and scornfully dismissive of facts unconducive to their avowed purpose.  I am particularly allergic to international rights groups, whose bagel-chomping directors sit in world capitals and condemn incidents in countries wholly unfamiliar to them, with the flamboyance of judges.   
But I did turn to my friend and former colleague, Meenakshi Ganguly last week.  Ganguly has been a celebrated correspondent for Time magazine, she and I have shared many unnerving experiences: walking through a blood-splattered temple where dozens of toddler-size rubber-chappals and bodies lay after a terrorist attack,  meeting weeping, frightened Tamils on the run in northern Sri Lanka, filing from our laptops in a destroyed hotel, still rocking violently in an earthquake in Gujarat.  
Ganguly is the South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based group which I respect, possibly because she represents it.  I brought up the SIT’s report, the conflicting claims on how Tufail was killed and asked her whether HRW had any precise information.
As always, she spoke with passion, commitment and – importantly, with her activist-feet firmly on the ground. 
“If a deliberate attack, who were the perpetrators?” asks the HRW South Asia Director. “And if an accident, how did it take place? Either way, it goes without saying that the state has to take responsibility for the killing of Tufail and many other kids because they died in police action.” 
Yes, an accident can occur in riots, but surely the police know who was on duty, how many tear gas shells were fired? What are  ordinance numbers painted on weaponry for?  What are all those hundreds of Godrej cupboards housing dusty inventories for? 
“Tear gas is used against unruly mobs all over India. Hardly ever do we hear of anyone being killed by them,” she pointed. ‘If a shell has landed on someone’s head and killed him. then it defeats the purpose of tear gas. Surely the SIT should draw some conclusions on standard operating procedures which could have led to such a killing? And how can the police not know who had the authority to fire shells in a given area on a given day?”
New Delhi-based News-X TV, which has some of the best reporting out of the Valley had aired copies of Tufail’s post-mortem report two years ago. The television grab showed signatures of Assistant Surgeon, Dr Shafiqat Nazir, Medical Superintendent Dr G.H. Qadir Shah and A/S MO Dr Mr Riyaz.  All signatures indicated that the post-mortem was conducted by doctors attached to Gupkar Nursing Home. The report also mentions a ‘circular, single entrance wound’  with “burnt, blackish inverted margins measuring ½ inch in diameter”. It also mentions another ‘injury caused by an intermediate range weapon”.  And yet, the report bears no definitive conclusion as the cause of death.  It has been two years, and not a single authority has declared the report shown on News X as a forged one either. 
New Delhi-based surgeon, Dr Sameer Kaul, points to two aspects: that the Gupkar Nursing Home does not have post-mortem facilities.  All post-mortems are conducted at the JLNM Hospital.  Secondly and in the case of riot victims,  the signature of an expert from a forensic science lab is mandatory.  The post-mortem report of Tufail Mattoo bore none.  
Ganguly says that HRW had no access to the report. But she points out that Mattoo’s family repeatedly said they believed that the police and the judiciary would give them justice.
“If the HC accepts an inconclusive closure report as filed by the SIT, it will cause the Mattoos and all the other parents great grief and shatter their faith in the rule of law”, she warns. “If the J&K police could identify individual teenagers even in a mob, accuse them of violence and take them into custody, surely it is in a position to identify the perpetrators of such wrongful deaths?” 
Eyewitnesses are said to have pointed to the ‘wrong’ policeman in an identification parade.   Though the HRW Director accepts that perhaps the witnesses, in this case, were really confused, she does point out that intimidating witnesses is always easy when there is no system of protecting witnesses in place. 
“In this case, the SIT should have ensured that witnesses feel secure enough to give evidence”, she says. “But did the SIT interrogate other policemen who were on duty at the time and place where Tufail was killed? “ 
Police action apart, many others were killed by one of the plethora of uniformed security forces present in J&K. 
Given the border with Pakistan and its infiltration of militants into India, nobody, even in J&K, really expects all-empowering laws like the AFSPA to be repealed altogether. But instead of merely reiterating the same, surely India’s home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde could have last week indicated that the law will, at least, be reformed so as to prevent further abuse? 
“I, you, we are all tired of saying this,” points Ganguly. “But again: the AFSPA is a poor law which has been repeatedly misused in J&K and the Northeast. If the army is to be deployed in areas other than the border,,  it must draft better legislation that prevents human rights violations and stops this culture of impunity. Otherwise, we will never see an end to the violence that has engulfed these parts of India for decades.” 
Since not much of my conversation with Meenakshi Ganguly had lifted my gloom, I asked her if there was anything at all, that one could call an improvement in the human rights situation in J&K over these years? 
She pointed to PM Manmohan Singh’s repeated assurances that there will be ‘zero tolerance’ for human rights violations and to the army’s commitment to take action.  “And yet, there are hardly any prosecutions. It is time somebody realized that only visible justice will deliver peace.”
Through this column and on behalf of millions of Indians in other parts of this country, I appeal to the J&K police and to the state’s judiciary to deliver justice. And offer closure.  Not to a flawed report, but to the many wretched mothers in quiet rooms across Kashmir who are grieving and waiting.  As mothers are wont to do : they will forgive you.

(The author is a senior freelance foreign correspondent)

Lastupdate on : Sat, 15 Dec 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 15 Dec 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 16 Dec 2012 00:00:00 IST




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