Terrible truth of a massacre laid on for a president

The day Bill Clinton arrived in India, 35 Sikhs were murdered. India blamed militants, but the villagers tell a different story
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The world came to the village of Chatti-Singhpura yesterday, nearly two weeks after 35 men of the village were lined up against walls and shot dead.

National politicians and Sikh religious leaders dropped in by helicopter, and thousands of Sikhs from other parts of India came by road to this pretty village in the Kashmir valley, where the cherry trees are blooming and the willows putting out fresh shoots against a background of snowy mountains.

They came to offer their condolences. They broughtsolace and solidarity - but noanswers. For the Indian authorities, no further answers are required. Of all the brutal events witnessed by the valley in the past 10 years, few, by their lights, were more clear cut.

The massacre occurred at 7.50pm on Monday 20 March, just a few hours before Bill Clinton flew to Delhi to begin his state visit to India. All the killers escaped without being identified.

The following morning, India's National Security Adviser, Brajesh Mishra, told journalists that the massacre was a case of "cross-border terrorism", carried out by the two most prominent Islamic militias in the valley, Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba. Both, India claims, are heavily supported by Pakistan.

Two days later, on 24 March, the government claimed to have arrested what one newspaper called "the Butcher of Anantnag" (Anantnag is the closest town), the "Hizbul Mujahideen kingpin responsible for planning and executing the brutal massacre", one Mohammad Yaqoob Wagay. The next day, during "sustained interrogation", Mr Wagay was said to have yielded the names of his colleagues.

More astonishing success followed. On 25 March, five of those named by Mr Wagay were reportedly killed by Indian paramilitaries, 20km from the massacre site, during a fire-fight that went on for four hours. This triumph punctuated the end of Mr Clinton's Indian trip, just as the massacre had overshadowed its beginning.

When informed about the massacre, Mr Clinton had commented: "First let's see who did it." The Indians, it seemed, had done exactly that - just in time to temper the mood of his meeting over the border with Pakistan's generalissimo, Pervez Musharraf.

Yet there was something not quite right about the killings on 25 March of those blamed for the massacre. No weapons were recovered and, instead of passing the bodies to the police, the army told local villagers to bury them. Identification was impossible because the bodies were burnt beyond recognition.

It so happened - and these things happen a lot in Kashmir - that a number of apparently ordinary, harmless Kashmiri civilians had been lifted from the streets of Anantnag in the days after the massacre.

Among those who disappeared was a 24-year-old local shopkeeper named Zahoor Ahmad Dalal. According to his mother, Zahoor came home from his textile shop in Anantnag's main street on Friday 24 March at 6pm, parked his van, changed his clothes, drank two cups of tea and, leaving it rather late, set off for evening prayers at the local mosque. They have not seen him since. His family did the rounds of army, police and paramilitaries to find out if he had been taken in for questioning. All denied it.

The mystery of what happened to Zahoor may never have been solved, had not relatives of two other men who vanished on the same day visited the site where the bodies had been burnt after the 25 March "encounter" to look for evidence of who exactly had died. They found scraps of clothing, as well as the identity card of their own missing kinsman, Juma Khan.

When they brought a fragment of a pullover to the home of Zahoor Ahmad Dalal - maroon in colour, ribbed, man-made fibre - his mother, Raja, recognised it as the one her son had been wearing. From that moment the family went into mourning.

Normal life came to a halt in Anantnag this week as thousands of local men protested against "the killing of innocent civilians", passed off as the killing of militants in encounters. After two days of turmoil, the deputy commissioner agreed on Thursday to send a magistrate to supervise the exhumation of the bodies ofthe five men for proper identification.

One pillar in the solid looking structure the government had built around the Sikh massacre had crumbled. Did this put the whole building in jeopardy?

That begs the question of how solid a structure it was to begin with. The National Security Adviser's speedy explanation of who was to blame for the massacre has not been reinforced by any evidence. Both the organisations he named have denied involvement, blaming India for the massacre. The man in custody has not been charged with anything.

In Chatti-Singhpura, meanwhile, the bereaved women sit in the houses from which their menfolk were summoned for "crackdown" - valley shorthand for army search operations - then minutes later murdered, while their friends and relatives do what they can to comfort them.

"One of my sons had come back from the shop with vegetables and eggs," remembers Jeet Kaur, an elderly woman, "when a man dressed like asoldier came to the door and said it was a crackdown and ordered him to come out. He told us to turn out the lights. He said it would only take a couple of minutes."

He was right: within minutes the air was torn by machine-gun fire. Jeet Kaur lost five men: her husband, two sons and two grandsons.

Contrary to the quick, clear assertions of the National Security Adviser, nothing is straightforward about the Chatti-Singhpura massacre. As a wise old newspaper editor in Srinagar put it to me: "It is not clear who did it. It is a mystery. It will remain a mystery."

Better that way. Can a nation believe that its own guardians took the lives of Jeet Kaur's menfolk and 30 others forthe sake of jogging a President's elbow - and retain its sanity? Better, surely, to bury it in mystery.