NEW DELHI ~ In the two-decades-old conflict in Kashmir, thousands of lives have been lost, many of them in massacres perpetrated by armed militant groups. Some of these, however, remain shrouded in a thick veil of uncertainty about who really carried them out. The most intriguing of them all is the Chittisinghpura massacre of 2000, in which a group of armed men shot dead 35 Sikh men in south Kashmir.
In 1989, after militancy reared its head in India’s northernmost state, the first victims were the minority Hindus of the Valley. Hundreds of them were killed in cold blood. But the minority Sikhs were left unharmed. But on 20 March 2000, a day before the then American President Bill Clinton was to arrive in New Delhi on a state visit, 37 Sikh men from the village of Chittisinghpura were made to stand in a line and shot by unidentified gunmen. One of the victims managed to crawl away to safety, while another was left wounded. The rest succumbed to bullet injuries.
For years afterwards, many in Kashmir and civil rights groups outside blamed Indian security agencies for the massacre. But now, the recently nabbed handler of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, Syed Zabiuiddin Ansari—alias Abu Jundal, who was extradited by Saudi Arabia—has reportedly told his Indian interrogators that the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) was behind the massacre. Ansari has reportedly named Muzammil, a senior LeT operative who was once active in Kashmir and Indian agencies now believe is the LeT’s operational head, as the mastermind of the Chittisinghpura massacre.
No doubt, this is a dramatic piece of news. But considering the past record of Indian security agencies in corroborating such confessions with sustainable evidence, it is unlikely that this case will be settled once and for all. Five days after the 2000 massacre, the Army and J&K police had claimed that five LeT men responsible for the massacre had been gunned down. It so happened that five men were reported missing from nearby villages at the same time (missing person reports are common in Kashmir, but the coincidence here was eerie). Locals alleged that the five had been killed by Indian security forces in a fake encounter. After a public outcry, including a protest march that was fired upon by the paramilitary, resulting in 10 deaths, the bodies of the alleged LeT militants were exhumed and put to DNA tests. As suspected by locals and human rights groups, they turned out to be the bodies of the five missing villagers (it is only recently that the Army has agreed to subject its men guilty of these cold-blooded murders to a court martial process).
There was no clarity, however, on those guilty of killing Chittisinghpura’s Sikhs. But in December 2000, Indian security agencies picked up two Pakistani nationals, Suhail Malik and Waseem Ahmed—from Sialkot and Gujranwala provinces—on charges of involvement in that massacre. One of the accused, Suhail Malik, then 18 years old, even confessed in police custody to a New York Times reporter that he had opened fire in Chittisinghpura because his commanders had asked him to. He also confessed that he had sneaked into India in October 1999, and before Chittisinghpura, he had carried out two attacks in Kashmir—one on an Army bunker and the other on a bus carrying soldiers. “When I was sent here from Pakistan, I was told the Indian Army kills Muslims. It treats them badly and burns their mosques and refuses to let them pray. They must be freed from these clutches,” he had told the NYT reporter. But even after years of trial, Indian security agencies could not produce any evidence of their involvement in the massacre. Eyewitnesses brought from Chittisinghpura to depose against them refused to identify them as among the gunmen responsible for the bloodshed. As a result, in August 2011, the two were acquitted of charges of their involvement in the killings by a Delhi court.
Accusatory fingers have now turned to Muzammil. Having extracted this prized nugget of information from Ansari, Indian security agencies may currently be in a mood to pat themselves on the back. But unless the custodial confession is corroborated by hard evidence under the due process of law, all it may achieve unfortunately is give a handle to those eager to cast suspicion on all the rest that Ansari has revealed.