Kashmir opens inquiry into massacre of Sikhs

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The Independent Online

When President Clinton arrived in Delhi in March after a lightning visit to Bangladesh, he learnt that 36 unarmed Sikhs had been massacred in the village of Chittisinghpora in Kashmir. It was the worst such killing in Kashmir's 10-year insurgency.

When President Clinton arrived in Delhi in March after a lightning visit to Bangladesh, he learnt that 36 unarmed Sikhs had been massacred in the village of Chittisinghpora in Kashmir. It was the worst such killing in Kashmir's 10-year insurgency.

The timing of the incident and the targeting of Sikhs, a community previously untouched by Kashmir's long unrest, led some commentators to suspect that it was the work of Indian intelligence. But within hours India's national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, was claiming unequivocally that the massacre was a clear case of "cross-border terrorism". He went so far as to name the organisations believed responsible, two Pakistan-based militias, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen. Later the central government ruled out holding an inquiry into the atrocity, saying there was no doubt about the identity of the culprits.

But in an important reversal, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir state, Dr Farooq Abdullah, has announced that he is launching a judicial inquiry into the massacre, more than seven months after the event. The inquiry will also investigate the killing of five alleged militants a few days after the massacre. At the time the central government claimed that the five killed were militants responsible for the massacre of Sikhs but local people insisted they were innocent civilians who had been picked up from the streets and killed in cold blood as scapegoats.

"We have decided to initiate a probe into both these incidents," Dr Abdullah told a press conference in Srinagar. "There is an immediate need to wash off the doubts from [the people's] hearts and assuage their hurt feelings." Both incidents would be investigated, he added, because they were connected. When asked whether the central government was aware of his decision, Dr Abdullah retorted angrily: "Why should the centre know about our inquiry...? It is my state."

The announcement was the latest of several gusts of fresh air to blow through Kashmir's cobwebs of suspicion and paranoia this week. Two inquiries organised by Dr Abdullah reached damning conclusions about the behaviour of security forces in two other incidents, one of which will result in seven paramilitaries and police officers facing murder charges.

Kashmir's second massacre of this year occurred on 1 August, when 32 people, most of them Hindu pilgrims, were cut down by gunfire at Pahalgam, a famous beauty spot in the Kashmir Valley which is the base camp for a famous annual pilgrimage to the shrine of Amarnath, high in the Himalayas. Again the Indian authorities blamed Islamic militants for the massacre but Dr Abdullah's three-man inquiry concluded most of the deaths were caused by excessive retaliatory firing by members of the Central Reserve Police Force, a paramilitary corps.

In a separate inquiry, a former supreme court judge, Justice Pandian, blamed paramilitaries and police for firing on a protest march on 3 April in the town of Brakpora, where nine people died. He recommended seven officers involved be put on trial for murder.

In the Kashmir Valley, cynical voices point out that Dr Abdullah, a seasoned political operator, is mustering his forces for local elections, and this week's cluster of announcements can only improve the position of candidates of his party, the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference. It was also mentioned that the chief minister is engaged in a trial of nerves with the central government coalition: his party is the most improbable member of the National Democratic Alliance coalition headed by Hindu nationalists but has been increasingly estranged from it since Dr Abdullah's demand for autonomy for Kashmir was turned down in the summer.

By threatening to embarrass the government with inquiries and murder trials, Dr Abdullah is seen by some to be putting it under pressure to adopt a friendlier line and cough up more grant money.

But the mass of people in the valley are quietly grateful this week that at last some of the most terrible crimes in Kashmir's recent history will at last be subjected to proper scrutiny.

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