Myth of an Enquiry Commission

A day after the 13 July bloodshed1, Maharaja Hari Singh appointed an enquiry commission under Barjor Dalal, Chief Justice of ‘His Highness’ High Court, with two judges of the court and a non-official Muslim and Hindu each as commissioner. The commission was asked to enquire and report upon “the circumstances which led to the recent disturbances at the Jail, Maharajgunj, and other localities in the city of Srinagar and the sufficiency or otherwise of the action taken to anticipate and deal with the above disturbances.” The commission was also asked “to make recommendations related to the restoring of communal peace and harmony as quickly as possible and prevention of such deplorable occurrences in future.” The Muslims did not trust the commission and within 24 hours of his nomination, Khawaja Saaduddin Shawl tendered his resignation and was quickly substituted by Ghulam Ahmad Ashai who too declined to accept his nomination. The refusal by Muslim nominees to be part of the commission forced Hari Singh to dissolve it and instead order an official enquiry to be held by Chief Justice Dalai and two judges of the High Court. The Enquiry Committee examined 112 witnesses, some in public and others in camera.

Expecting the Enquiry Committee to nail the Maharaja’s government for the massacre would be asking for the impossible. The Chief Justice and the judges of the High Court were no more independent than officials of any other department of Hari Singh’s government. They conducted the enquiry and submitted the report to the Maharaja as “Your Highness’s most obedient and most humble servants.” In the words of the committee itself, since no party to the enquiry— government, the Muslims and the Hindus—“had any case ready to present to us” and none of “these parties was represented at the bar of the trial,” the committee was “left to our own endeavours and good sense to arrive at the truth.” It appeared to be at pains to absolve the men and officers of the government responsible for the killing of unarmed people and throw the mud of culpability on the victims. The bias against the Muslims freely flowed through the lines and the paragraphs of the report. It believed everything told by the government functionaries from a constable to the governor and found fault with everything that independent Muslim witnesses told about the sequence of events leading to the massacre.

The learned judges accepted the account of soldiers Subedar Attar Singh, Nayak Onkar Singh and Sepoy Abhay Singh, who fired and killed a Muslim and wounded two others at Nawab Bazar, that they were attacked by a crowd and were compelled to fire. However, when Mrs Thakur Das, a Hindu lady, testified through a written statement, that “the sepoys fired without a cause” and “a military man opened fire on a man who had taken to his heels and was running away and also at a water-carrier who was merely going across the bridge,” her statement was dismissed as a possible outcome of “a grudge against the government,” for the lady having been reverted from a temporary post in the health department “on the ground of incapacity.” Worse, the witness was sought to be discredited on the assumption that “she may be hoping to improve her practice as a midwife in a Mohammadan neighbourhood by making a statement to bring discredit on the military as it  is desire of the general Mohammadan public to do.” Chief of the Military Staff, Brigadier Sutherland, was quoted as having questioned Mrs Thakur Das and the lady telling him that the crowd had thrown stones at the troops before they opened fire. As per the enquiry report itself, Mrs Thakur Das denied having made such a statement, but the learned judges accepted the contention of the Brigadier with the observation that “there can be no question as to whose word preference should be given.”61

The testimony of prominent Muslims like Dr Noor Din Khan that his house was attacked by Hindus with the help of cavalry men and of Maulvi Noor Din Qari that a cavalry man arrested him without cause did not merit any consideration by the Enquiry Committee. The testimony was rejected because the complainants had alleged that the cavalry men carried arms when Brigadier Sutherland, “an officer of long experience not only in the army but in similar situations of Military Troops in occupation of civil areas” ‘certified’ that “the cavalry did not carry any rifle during the occupation of the city.” Between Sutherland and the two Muslim witnesses, the committee knew whose word had to be given preference. For the Enquiry Committee, the Hindus formulated their case through their “representatives” and the Muslim witnesses that the committee examined were put up by the “so-called Muslim representatives.” The desire of some Muslim witnesses to depose in camera, for the possible reason of avoiding the wrath of the accused killer officers, was described as the men having “come prepared to tell lies.” The governor admitted that he gave orders which resulted in firing 11 times; the firing resulted in the death of 22 persons and injuries to many more, and yet the learned judges came to the conclusion that “the firing was not prolonged beyond what was necessary.” In the opinion of the learned judges, the incidents of the desecration of the holy Qur’an and stopping the imam of a mosque from delivering the Friday sermon at Jammu were “purely accidental” and the infuriated Muslims who agitated against these sacrilegious acts were “ignorant Mohammadan masses.”

The committee selectively enquired the allegations of loot following the bloody incident at the Srinagar Jail. It heard and reported on, in fact, devoted a full chapter to, the allegations of  loot  of Hindu properties by Muslims but declined to hear complaints of Muslims about loot of their houses and shops by the Hindus assisted by the army. They were advised to “prove their cases in Court of Law.” Observing that the complaints of loot made by the Muslims were “outside the  scope  of  our enquiry,” the learned judges, however, were very quick to absolve the army of the alleged crime.Without giving any clue as to how it reached to this conclusion, the committee gave a clean chit to the army and made the following observation on the allegations that the troops had joined the Hindus in looting the Muslim houses and shops:

We are satisfied that this allegation is fabricated merely to bring discredit to the military, who saved the situation and prevented the Mohammadans from committing further depredations. In our opinion, these allegations are made with a view to escape the employment of the military if there should be any subsequent similar occasion.

The chapter on loot starts with the conclusion: “There can be no doubt as to loot having taken place at Maharajgunj Bazar, in Vicharnag and in other quarters of Hindu shops and houses by the Mohammadans.” The ‘independent and reliable evidence’ leading the committee to this conclusion was given by Col. Nawab Khusru Jang, G. E. C. Wakefield, Brigadier Sutherland and Eric Biscoe. It may be in place to recall that barring Biscoe, all other gentlemen were high ranking officials of the government in the dock. However, according to the statements made by these gentlemen before the Enquiry Committee, when Jang arrived at Maharajgunj “after the loot” with contingent of palace guards, he was “satisfied from the appearance of locality at the time that Hindu shops had been looted a short time before he reached the place.” Wakefield and Sutherland were also reported to have drawn “the same conclusion from what they saw on arrival between 4 and 5 P.M.” That is all these witnesses had to say about the alleged loot of Hindu shops at Maharajgunj.

Sutherland told the Enquiry Committee that the ‘looting’ at Maharajgunj was not pre-planned and that the same crowd that attacked the Central Jail was involved at Maharajgunj after the firing incident at the Jail. None of these ‘independent and reliable’ men had actually witnessed looting of Hindu shops. Eric Biscoe, Principal of the Christian Missionary C. M. H. School, was the only one among the ‘independent and reliable’ witnesses who, we are told, “actually saw looting going on beyond Maharajgunj in a small alley leading towards Alikadal.” He was reported to have “noticed the whole street filled with debris and actually Mohammadans looting shops which he believed to be Hindu shops.” The boys accompanying Biscoe reportedly cleared the road of the debris which was blocking the way and “consisted of broken glass, bags of grain and various sorts of goods mostly groceries.” From the account of Biscoe, two things come out clearly. One, that the spot where he saw looting going on was not some distant place from Maharajgunj where non-local Hindu traders were allegedly looted but, in fact, was the same place or a few yards away from the market of Hindu traders. Alikadal is a locality close to Maharajgunj, and Biscoe was actually talking about an alley leading to Alikadal, not Alikadal itself. Second, by the description of the scene in the alley it appeared that the ‘loot’ actually was ransacking of shops and throwing the goods on the road as ‘bags of grain and various sorts of goods mostly groceries’ lay scattered in the alley and obviously the ‘looters’ had not decamped with the loot.

Except from Kashmir Exposing the myth behind the narratives, by Khalid Bashir Ahmed