Guest post by NAWAZ GUL QANUNGO
In the May of 2006, Praveen “Five Police Station” Swami wrote in Frontline: ““Long live Pakistan,” chanted the hundreds of young men who, armed with axes and crowbars, had gathered to demolish Sabina Hamid Bulla’s home in downtown Srinagar on May 5. “We want freedom!” … Last month, residents of Srinagar complained to the police about two 30-second pornographic video clips that had been circulating through mobile phones. A 16-year old girl was then detained, who said she had been recruited by a prostitution ring run by Bulla. In an unsigned statement to the police, the girl said Bulla, to whom she is related, supplied her with drugs and cash for having sex with two State Ministers, a Border Security Force officer, 10 policemen and several well-known businessmen. … As thing stand, though, the Central Bureau of Investigation – which was, notably, given charge of the case before the protests began – has an enormous mission before it. First, it will have to persuade the girl, who was married off in April with some financial assistance from Bulla, to make a formal statement before a magistrate. Then, corroboration will have to be found to back the charges she has made – no small task, given the influence of the men who now face charges of rape.” [Frontline, May 20 – June 2, 2006.]
People who have tooth and nail tried to connect the murders of Arifa and Akhtara of Sopore’s Muslim Peer to “promiscuity” and whipped up fears of hijacking of Kashmir’s struggle for independence by a barbaric indigenous Taliban perhaps need to be reminded that Sabina Hamid Bulla, the king pin of one of the most outrageous “morality” scandal to hit Kashmir ever, is still alive. And safe. In fact, she might as well be writing a book right now! And, as the trial has it, with witnesses turning hostile one after another, the accused are being given a neat, clean chit one by one! Just where is the hit squad of Koshur Taliban? The story of the probe and trial in the scandal that began almost five years ago is fascinating with its twists and turns.
On July 31, 2006, Press Trust of India reported: “The CBI on Monday filed chargesheets against seven persons, including two former Jammu and Kashmir ministers, arrested in connection with the sex racket case. … Former ministers G A Mir, Raman Mattoo, senior IAS officer M Iqbal Khanday, Deputy Superintendent of Police M Yousuf Mir, hotel manager Riyaz Kawa, suspected kingpin of the racket Sabeena and her husband A Hamid Bulla have been charged under various sections of the Immoral Trafficking Act. … Nine persons including Sabeena, Bulla, former Additional Advocate-General Anil Sethi, DIG BSF K C Padhi and Deputy Superintendent of Police Mohammad Ashraf Mir have already been chargesheeted by the investigating agency in the designated court under Section 376 of Ranbir Panel Code for raping a minor girl.”
Three years later, Praveen Swami recalled (The Hindu, July 29, 2009): “The former Additional Advocate-General, Anil Sethi; Border Security Force Deputy Inspector-General K.C. Padhi, Deputy Superintendent of Police Mohammad Ashraf Mir, Shabbir Ahmad Langoo, Shabbir Ahmad Laway, Mehrajuddin Malik and Masood Ahmed were prosecuted for raping the minor, as well as violations of the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act. … Iqbal Khandey, then Principal Secretary to the Government of Jammu and Kashmir, was also charged with the PITA, along with the former Deputy Superintendent of Police, Mohammad Yusuf Mir, and sitting members of the Assembly Raman Mattoo and Ghulam Nabi Mir. Srinagar resident Riyas Ahmad Kawa was also prosecuted under the provisions of the PITA. … Shabbir Ahmad Langoo, who circulated pornographic photographs of the minor taken with his mobile phone, was prosecuted under the Information Technology Act.
… Few of those tarred by the allegations of having been linked to the prostitution scandal seem to have suffered serious damage.
… Both politicians now being tried on charges of having hired prostitutes from Ms. Bulla contested last year’s Assembly elections. Mr. Mir won the Dooru seat with a comfortable margin. Peerzada Mohammad Sayeed, a senior Kokernag-based Congress leader who, others in his party claimed, without basis, was linked to the scandal, defeated PDP nominee Seher Iqbal, daughter of Mr. Khandey. … Mr. Khandey, like other officials suspended when the scandal broke out, has since been reinstated. … Late last year, in an interview to a Srinagar paper, Ms. Bulla said she was planning to write a book.” (Emphasis added.)
A few days later in the same year, Muzamil Jaleel reported (The Indian Express, Sunday edition, August 2, 2009): “When The Indian Express exposed the racket…, the police arrested Sabina. The expose led to a public outcry, forcing the government to hand over the investigation to the CBI. … The CBI probe initially went full steam. Two former ministers, a BSF DIG, a top IAS officer and senior police officers were arrested while several top J&K politicians, including ministers, legislators and officers, were named. But then there was a sudden halt. … Highly placed sources have revealed to The Sunday Express that the “CBI was requested to go slow” at the highest level because there was serious threat of a total demoralisation in the political class as well as the security establishment fighting separatists. “It was going out of control. If there was rigorous probe, it (sex abuse scandal) would have transcended out of Kashmir,” a top J&K Congress politician said.”
TODAY, NEEDLESS TO say, the Indian security enterprise would fancy basking, too, in the prospect of a “Kashmiri Taliban-abetted double-murder of two poor sisters accused of promiscuity” in Sopore’s Muslim Peer. As a piece carried on the website of Tehelka magazine criminally put it in the context of the double murder, “a demonic embryo that will grow up to be Kashmir’s Frankenstein, devouring its people in the name of Azadi”. The way it displayed the news, Tehelka in its print edition (February 9, 2011), too, did brilliant service to the “rumour” mill. So did sections of the media here and elsewhere. The audience, too, need not have necessarily been in the valley. In fact, it actually served the audience outside it.
Kashmir in the last three summers has seen some extraordinary anti-India protests mostly involving young stone throwing men and teenagers coming out on streets against human rights violations, a picture that’s also in total contrast to the ugly gun culture of the 1990s. Ignoring the real import of the absence of the gun today in Kashmir’s protest, a question of “double standards in reacting to violence perpetrated by the state and that by the terrorists” is being raised. So much is the zeal among the people behind this argument that there is no thought whatsoever spared to the equation thereby created between the action of the state and terrorism. For the common people, thus, both ought to be the same though this is not actively implied but quietly, deliberately overlooked.
In New Delhi, the state chief minister, Omar Abdullah, told the media, “Under these circumstances, I doubt anybody would have guts to stand up and say they did it and why they did it.”
There was absolutely no element of responsibility, let alone guilt.
“…if there was even the slightest of indication that these deaths have been the result of high handedness of forces, the whole Valley would have erupted in flames,” he said.
Sections of the media, on the other hand, have accused the people of being “complicit by staying quite” after the murders of Arifa and Akhtara “because they were killed by militants”. The situation has been compared with that of the Shopian double rape-and-murder case of 2008.
However, this is not to ignore the near total absence of any major protest against the murders of Arifa and Akhtara. It was four days after the killings that the mood in the valley finally forced Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the most influential pro-independence leader in Kashmir, to call for a shutdown in Sopore against the murders. The call was heeded by the people. It was Friday too and some violent incidents of stone pelting against the police and security forces were witnessed in and around Sopore. An SHO and a constable were injured in the clashes in Baramulla, just outside Sopore. Women of Muslim Peer took out marches in the streets.
Apart from the fear of danger from protesting against an invisible enemy, an important factor for the lack of a major public backlash against the killings also remains that such a move would be construed as support for the government. Moreover, the government itself would turn any such eventuality to its own advantage. Sopore remains the bastion of anti-India sentiment in the valley next only, if at all, to downtown Srinagar. Being close to the line of control has also made sure that Sopore takes the brunt of the two-decade-old security onslaught be it against the militants or the peaceful protesters.
But in no way can it be ignored that Dar’s family, and thousands of such others in the valley, are paying the cost of a long, bloody conflict that has sustained itself purely on the extraordinary deceit that the establishment, both within the state and in New Delhi, has been practising for more than six decades – promising a Kashmir resolution and offering none. In Kashmir, it is this conflict that creates an environment for masked terrorists to go around and plunder innocent families and get away with it – a situation that also stops people from rising against a faceless enemy. Shirking responsibility on part of the government is just another disgrace for a three-quarter-million security enterprise which in its own estimates claims to be fighting not more than a few hundred gunmen.
Four days after Arifa and Akhtara were murdered, an innocent 21-year-old Manzoor Ahmed Magray was killed in the dead of the night by the army in Handwara. Margay had slipped out of his house at night to meet his girl friend. The army thought it was a terrorist. Fearing a public backlash, Omar Abdullah rushed to meet the family and vowed to bring the killers to book. He didn’t bother to meet Dar’s family. Apart from the huge protests at the funeral of Magray, Kashmir has seen no major backlash against the incident, either.
The deafening public outcry in the Shopian case was an exception in the valley rather than the rule. Magray’s death at the hands of the army is a stark example. In over a hundred thousand Kashmiris killed according to unofficial estimates, a Shopian-like public backlash was seldom seen. The least the government can do is bring the murderers to book, both in Sopore and Handwara. Given its history, however, there’s no reason to believe it will happen. Not surprisingly, then, while the Lashkar has “ordered a probe at its own level” in to the killing of the two sisters in Sopore, the army, too, has “ordered an enquiry on its own” into the killing of Magray in Kupwara! For the devastated Dars and Magrays, it would hardly make a difference which side the bullet had come from. Omar Abdullah, though, seems to think otherwise.
Some of the residents willing to speak believe the girls were killed for being police informers and that they had been warned by the militants before. Posters have been found pasted in the town with militants warning people, including women, against working for the government intelligence agencies. Yet people are, albeit silently, angry with the killings. Sources, apart from media reports, suggest that the sisters indeed possessed mobile phones. The family vehemently denies this. There is above all no substantial proof that the sisters were actually working for the security. The police on the other hand haven’t openly given any clue about the existence of mobile phones. But there are suggestions also that the police may soon have details of the call records of the two sisters. Whether that actually comes into the public domain remains to be seen. What is beyond doubt is that rather than messing itself up in the possibility of the sisters being security informers, the police and the government would find it far more convenient – and useful – that the killings be projected through the “promiscuity” angle. Sections of the media, local as well as from outside, have only obliged the establishment.
“More than the security establishment, or even the militants, people need to question their own conscience for why the poor young sisters of Muslim Peer met such a fate. The dreadful poverty that their family lived in is a question first not to the government or the militants but to the exceptionally rich population that pervades Sopore, even in the times of intense conflict, where such a poor family existed uncared for,” said Salim Ahmed (name changed), someone who has lived in Sopore for several years. The apple-rich town of Sopore is renowned for the wealth its crop brings every year, one season after another.
The answers to the tragic story of Arifa and Akhtara perhaps will not be found completely in the circumstances of the murders that have devastated their family. But rather in the conditions in which they had lived.
[Nawa Gul Qanungo is a journalist in Srinagar. This article first appeared in Kashmir Times and Dinamalar. A week ago, he had visited the bereaved family in Sopore and wrote this moving account.]