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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2521

Kashmir in turmoil over suspected rape and murder

From S Murari

Chennai, 22 June( The Kashmir Valley has been in ferment for over three weeks since two young women were found dead in Shopian town, 60 km from Srinagar,and local people took to the streets, suspecting it was yet another case of rape and murder by security forces detailed to fight separatists.

There have been continous street protests, shutdowns and clashes with the police. As recently as last Saturday, a call for a shutdown by the separratist All Party Hurriyat Conference in protest against the visit of Vice-President Ahmed Ansari met with near-total response.

The people are outraged because it was not just another case of rape and murder as both the victims were young and one was pregnant.

Nilofar Jan( 22) and her sister-in-law Asiya Jan (17) set out on the morning of May 30 for their family orchard. When they failed to return by evening, Nilofar's husband complained to police.

After an all-night search, the two were found dead in a shallow mountain stream the next morning. The bodies were found a kilometre apart. Both had extensive injuries and their clothes were torn, according to eye-witnesses. Nilofar was pregnant.

The incident would not have erupted into violence if the police had done their job instead of attempting a cover-up. Doctors, while doing the autopsy, got word from the police that if the two women were found to have been raped, the bodies should be quietly handed over to the relatives so as not to risk a riot. Soon word spread of a cover-up and outraged townsmen took to the streets.

The police initially tried to pass it off as a case of drowning though the stream was shallow. To explain away the injuries, the police floated the theory that the two might have fallen off a bridge into the stream and hit the rocks. They refused to register a case of rape and murder until they got a report from the forensic science laboratory as the post-mortem examination could not be completed because of public agitation outside the hospital. Subsequently a second post-mortem was done which reportedly confirmed that the two women were raped and murdered.

What infuriated the agitators was the initial statement of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, supporting the police theory of death by drowning. Ironically, his National Conference and alliance partner Congress were voted to power in the State only last December and the two parties got renewed support in the just concluded elections to the lower house of Parliament. Given the popular support, there was, therefore, no need for such a knee-jerk reaction from him.

Even moderates felt that the young and inexperienced Omar Abdullah had failed his first test as Chief Minister by bowing to pressure from New Delhi. This despite the fact that he is the scion of a ruling family with both his father Farooq Abdullah and grandfather Sheikh Abdullah, hailed as Sheikh Abdullah, having served as Chief Ministers of Jammmu and Kashmir.

In a damage control exercise, he later ordered a judicial enquiry. But by then, separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference fighting for an independent Kashmir or merger with Pakistan and the opposition People's Democratic Party joined the agitation, giving it a further fillip.

Hurriyar leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani's call for a eight-day shutdown in Shopian met with spontaneous response. Not to be outdone, PDP leader and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti threatened to stage a sit-in at the police station until a case of rape and murder was registered.

The police registered a case of rape and murder only after receiving the report of the forensic science laboratory on June 6 and the medical board's report on June 9. The agitation slowed down after 17 days after Justice Muzaffar Jan, a highly respected judge, began his enquiry in right earnest by appointing a man of equal repute as investigator.

Simultaneously, the Jammu and Kashmir police also set up a special task force. But the fact remains that no arrests have been made so far. And the public anger is still simmering. On June 18, the SIt produced in a court in Shopian two eye-witnesses who deposed they heard the cries of women from a blue police van on the evening of May 30 and they were chased away by five uniformed personnel standing outside the van when they tried to intervene. This is a crucial piece of evidence and the onus is on the police to identify the culprits.

To cool tempers, Home Minister P Chidambaram visited the valley early this month and assured the people that the role of the central para-military forces would be restricted and the Chief Minister's demand for the withdrawal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, that gives immunity to security forces operating in insurgency-affected areas, would be considered.

Expressing New Delhi's concern, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself described the Shopian incident as unfortunate and affirmed there would be zero tolerance of human rights violation. In another attempt to defuse the situation, he said he was willing to talk to the separatist group, the Hurriyat Conference.

Reflecting the public mood, Kashmir Times has in an editorial said:" There is a long list of flawed decisions since the agitation against the killings began in the valley. On the day the

Chief Minister decided to both deny the Shopian murders and also announce a commission of inquiry, the district commissioner of Shopian was shifted, though it was never made public what his crime was. In a similar way, though a different vein, the Superintendent of Police Javid Iqbal Mattoo, against whom there is serious suspicion of having shielded the culprits and tampered with the evidence, ... has been rewarded with a plum post. Such actions have only raised serious apprehensions about the government's sincerity in fairly probing Shopian rapes and murders."

The paper has accused the security forces of having ruthlessly put down public protests and the government of having invoked the tough public safety act to jail separatist leaders. Such vengeful acts, the paper argued, will not help allay public fears over the Shopian incident.

That there should be such a feeling of alienation so soon after 52 per cent of the people defied the separatists' call for a boycott and voted in the Parliament elections last December shows how ineptly the Omar Abdullah Government has handled the situation.

Veteran analyst Prem Shankar Jha has summed up the catch-22 situation thus: "So long as Kashmir remains volatile, the security forces will oppose any demilitarisation of the State. But so long as more than 3,00,000 armed forces and paramilitary personnel remain in the State, human rights crises will continue to erupt."

- Asian Tribune -

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