Guest Post by Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society
On 12 April 2016, armed forces personnel of Indian Army’s 21 RR and Jammu and Kashmir police killed three persons – two young boys and an old woman – in Handwara, Kupwara District, and injured around 24 civilians. Initial reports suggest that the armed forces fired at civilians protesting against sexual violence directed at a minor girl in Handwara town by army personnel.
24 hours after these killings the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, and army spokesperson have only made statements that do not address the steps that must be immediately taken. The army spokesperson while regretting the killing has assured action and stated that it would need to be ascertained if the “standard operating procedures” have been followed. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has sought assurance from the Indian Defence Minister that action would be taken in this case. Meanwhile, it appears that the Jammu and Kashmir Police have recorded and uploaded a video of the victim of sexual violence exonerating the army and both the police and army have circulated this video widely, including to news channels.
First, the army personnel of 21 RR involved in the killings, including those present on the scene of crime and in command of 21 RR, and involved police personnel, must be immediately arrested for purposes of investigations. Arms, ammunition and any other physical evidence connected to the killings must be immediately seized. Arrest of armed forces personnel in Jammu and Kashmir is not barred by any law. No “standard operating procedures” need to be consulted, particularly as it appears from RTI information sought that no such SOP’s even exist for situations such as the instant one of protests. Further, this preliminary step in investigation does not require the intervention of the army, Defence Minister or any other authority. But, the move by the Chief Minister to approach the Indian Defence Minister does explain where political power vis-à-vis even law and order in Kashmir lies. Thus far, media reports suggest that ASI Mohammad Rafiq has been suspended. His suspension is not enough as the amount of violence witnessed by people yesterday is not possible to have been carried out by one police official. Therefore, other officials responsible from army and police should be arrested immediately.
Second, the Jammu and Kashmir Police must immediately suspend the Superintendent of Police, Handwara, Ghulam Jeelani Wani, subject to investigations in this case as his role in the killings would need to be ascertained. Further, it appears that the video of the victim of sexual violence, a minor, has been circulated to distract from the investigation of 21 RR personnel responsible for the killings. Further, the actual circulation of the video, and disclosure of the identity of the victim, would invite prosecution under criminal law and/or other disciplinary action for the Superintendent of Police and other police officials involved. The army circulation of the video must also be examined as on one hand they have regretted the killings but at the same time are deeply invested in prejudicing investigations against their personnel. The circulation of this video has serious ramifications for the security of the victim.
Lastly, but most importantly, due to the role of the police, particularly the Handwara police, over the last 24 hours, the investigation of this case must be immediately, at the very least, handed over to a senior police officer of another district, with no criminal allegations against him.
Past crimes committed by the armed forces have been buried in a manner similar to what we witness today in the case of the Handwara killings. Following initial statements by the army and the State, no action is taken. The army claims to carry out an enquiry which is invariably not made public and is an essentially an attempt to take the case out of the public domain and protect the accused army personnel. It is pertinent to recall that in 2004 in Badra Payeen village, Handwara, when an army office was accused of rape of a mother and daughter, Mehbooba Mufti and then Chief Minister, Mufti Sayeed assured that the guilty officer would be punished. Mehbooba Mufti may have forgotten this case but people of Kashmir remember the case and also know that the accused officer was not tried by the civilian court but by army court-martial that did not convict him for rape and he was subsequently re-instated to the army. It appears the assurances by Mehbooba Mufti and the Indian Defence Minister in Handwara killings are no different from the standard role of the State in numerous cases, including the Badra Payeen case.