On 9 June, a man in Selma, California, called the police saying he’d killed four of his family. Soon afterwards, eleven gun shots rang out in Avtar Singh’s house. The police arrived swiftly and vacated the neighbourhood. They found him dead at home along with his wife and two sons (the third, his eldest son, is critical). Singh, as the police determined, had shot his family members before shooting himself.
Thousands of kilometers away, the news of Avtar Singh’s death caught the attention of a family in Kashmir. It was the family of the late human rights activist Jaleel Andrabi, whose murder Avtar Singh had been accused of. Singh, a former major in India’s Territorial Army, had been absconding since 2001, and it was only last year that news of his presence in California reached India, after his wife complained to the police that he had tried to choke her. Andrabi had been abducted on 8 March 1996 by an Army contingent led by a ‘Sikh officer’ believed to be Singh. The activist’s body was found floating in the river Jhelum 19 days later. Seven more bodies were found a week after that. A High Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the J&K Police, which filed a report on the case in April 1997, held Avtar Singh responsible for the killings. “Avtar Singh killed an innocent and then fled to California to evade the trial he was to face here for the murder,” says Arshad Andrabi, the slain activist’s brother and a lawyer fighting for justice, “[Singh] was a killer,” he says, “but had he been arrested on time and produced in court, the situation would have been different.”
The Andrabi family believes that Avtar Singh was just small fry in a bigger conspiracy involving senior Army officers. Since Singh was merely an officer of the Territorial Army, the Indian Army could easily disown him, letting him be the fall guy for other bigwigs. The Army, in fact, had sought to exculpate itself by informing the SIT that Singh had quit service and did not commit the murder ‘in his official capacity’. No other officer has been charged with the killings of 1996, though it would be simplistic to suppose that Singh had acted alone and on his own volition. Personal animosity was an unlikely motive for the murder.
Last summer, in an interview for a story in Open that examined the Army’s murky role in Andrabi’s murder, Avtar Singh was apprehensive that he’d be killed if he returned to India. “There is no question of my being taken to India alive, they will kill me,” he said. By ‘they’, he meant “the agencies, RAW, military intelligence”, which he saw as “all the same”.
The SIT investigation had pointed to the role of one Umer; in his confession, he said Singh had told him he’d killed Andrabi because “other officers had entrusted him with the job”. Who are these ‘other officers’? The SIT report mentions a Military Intelligence (MI) operative called Major Clifton who intimidated Andrabi just a month before his death. “How come this Major Clifton from the MI suddenly appears in the SIT report and then is not mentioned again?” Avtar Singh had asked in that interview.
The Court had asked that Singh’s passport be impounded and a red corner notice be issued on him. Yet, he mysteriously managed to arrange travel documents and migrate to Canada, and then Califor- nia, where he owned a trucking service. How was he allowed to get away? Even worse, it took Indian authorities 16 years to locate him, and when they did, it was by accident—a wife battery case.
Any attempt to extradite him to India, Avtar Singh had warned (the target of his words is unknown), would result in the implication of others. “If the extradition does go through,” he said, “I will open my mouth, I will not keep quiet.” With his death, some of Kashmir’s gory secrets might forever remain under wraps.