'Fake encounter business'

Greater Kashmir

Armed Forces Special Powers Act encourages crime in security agencies

Anti- militancy operations by army in Kashmir, particularly in far flung areas, has once again put credibility of the men in combat dress on stake. This time it is in Sonapindi, Machil where three innocent youth hailing from Nadihal were allegedly gunned down by the army in a fake encounter. As suggested by media reports, some government gunmen, popularly known as Ikhwanis had lured the victims to Machil promising some job. But, as reported by one of the news agencies, instead of getting jobs, these three innocent were gunned down by the 4 personnel to Rajputana unit to earn a cash reward of Rs.6 lakh and then labeling victims as militants for cash rewards. Notably, the government is learnt to have been rewarding the forces’ personnel with Rs 2 lakh for each militant killed in an encounter. So far, this is the first major fake encounter case which has surfaced during the 17 months of the Omar Abdullah led coalition government.
Writing on fake encounters, custodial killings or mysterious disappearance of youth is always painful. The security agencies in the name of fighting a war against insurgents have also been engaged in fake encounter business for over two decades now and in most cases innocents have been the victims. We have witnessed nabbing of militants during a crackdown operation and then killed in cold blood through ‘fake encounters’. This business has led the ‘criminals’ in the security agencies to wave around human trophies to get promotions and pats on their back. The fact is that all this has been happening under the nose of state government machinery that has always turned a blind eye to this blatant and gruesome crime.
Fake encounter strategy is not new in India. It’s extensive use to curb militancy in Punjab, north east and then in Jammu and Kashmir is not something which is unknown. Here I am reminded of a horror tale narrated to me by one of the top officials of the Border Security Force. The top official heading a BSF battalion was in Srinagar in 1995 to curb militant activities. For him Kashmir was not an alien place, as he had served here in sixties. For him fighting insurgents was a passion and during one of the meeting, he narrated a fake encounter tale in which his men killed more than dozen militants in Punjab near Pakistan border.
During peak militancy period in Punjab, he was posted at the border. He took a group of militants into confidence and posed their sympathiser by facilitating their cross-over to other side of the border. He, as told by him, advised the group to use same track for comeback to home. The group after some time reached the same spot along with arms and ammunition. He welcomed the group and offered them a comfortable stay for the night before safe passage to home along with arms. The militant group had no reason to doubt the border guard and decided to spend the night with the men in uniform. But, it was a death trap laid by the border guards. As the militants went to sleep, the border guards pumped bullets into them and killed all of them. Later, as told by the top border guards, the news was flashed by that a group of armed militants was gunned down by the border security force personnel while they were trying to sneak into Indian side along with arms and ammunition. During the encounter whole group was eliminated and arms and ammunition seized.
So this story suggests that fake encounters constitute part and parcel of the counter insurgency strategy of the security agencies. Here arises a big question – Is it humane to kill militants in fake encounters?  No civilised nation can endorse killing of even armed anti-nationals in fake encounters. But extension of this horrifying ‘fake encounter strategy’ to eliminate innocent civilians is a heinous crime and a matter of grave concern.
Nobody can deny this fact that day by day, the swiftly mounting number of fake encounters in Kashmir is shaping up as a burning issue. If reports from various sources are to be believed then more than one thousand people have been killed in these set up of encounters and hundreds of others are missing, believed to be killed by the men in uniform after labeling them as foreign militants. The list of people killed in fake encounters includes students, shop keepers, vendors & hawkers and even old people.
The inhumane law called Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has played an important role behind the business of fake encounters. The criminals in security agencies are widely using this law to cover up their illegal actions against  innocent people. According to International people’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice more than eight thousand people are missing during last two decades of separatist movement in Kashmir. The people killed in fake encounters and in police custody are usually buried in mass graves near Army and Police camps. A few years back, 2,700 unmarked graves were found in the villages containing three thousand bodies.
Even as the chief minister has expressed his anger against Nadihal killings, it is a fact that there are some factors which prevent the state government to put a break on such incidents. Rules suggest that it is compulsory for the state government to obtain permission from the central government to initiate criminal proceedings against army or any other central security force personnel involved in fake encounter cases. Such permission is seldom given. Then there is issue of the Special Operations Group (SOG). It was in 1996 when National Conference government raised this force to fight out militancy. However, after the PDP-led coalition government came to power, the announcement of disbanding SOG was made. But the situation today suggests that SOG still continues to exist. Various questions about the group’s operations and accountability remain unanswered as on date. The internal security scenario has become more complex with sections of the forces’ personnel involved in rights violations and fake encounters, for rewards and benefits.
However, killing of three youth in Nadihal adds to a long list of extrajudicial custodial killings which have been taking place during the last two decades. Very recently army announced killing of a ‘foreign militant’ in Magam village and later on, the victim turned out a civilian hailing from north Kashmir. In February 2007, a fake encounter case was brought to light when body of a carpenter was exhumed. The carpenter was killed killed by the Special Operations Group (SOG) in December 2006 and the police had claimed that he was Abu Hafiz, a Pakistani militant killed during joint operations with the Central Reserve Police Force. Notably, two more bodies of civilians were exhumed, who were dubbed as foreign militants, and killed in February and March 2006.
The Nadihal families or carpenter’s family may be fortunate to have an investigation process initiated. What about thousands of persons who are still missing and innumerable applications that are pending with the State Human Rights Commission? Mere anger against fake encounter business is useless unless the government initiates concrete steps to stem the rot in the ranks of security agencies who are perpetrators of this heinous crime.

(The views are of the author and not that of the institution he works for. Feedback at sajjadbazaz@greaterkashmir.com)