IN JANUARY OF 1990, the Indian state suffered a breakdown in the Kashmir Valley. A month earlier, New Delhi had agreed to release five militants in exchange for Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of the then Union Home Minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. The release of the militants galvanised the separatist sentiment in the Valley and, in the next few months, thousands of youth crossed the border to receive training in handling arms.
In 1990, Farooq Ahmed Dar, who was in April this year tied to a jeep by Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi of the Indian Army, was not even born. But one of his namesakes, almost Dar’s age in 1990, was about to destroy several lives. That man, Farooq Ahmed Dar, is better known by his nickname, Bitta Karate. He is now being questioned by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for suspected involvement in collecting funds through hawala for terror funding in Kashmir.
In 1990, though, Karate had no fear of the state. The police in Kashmir had been rendered ineffective; in fact, many in the force were sympathetic to militants. Glorified amidst the popular sentiment of azadi, Karate roamed around freely, a pistol in his hands, killing people whom his organisation, Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, had put on its hit list. On the morning of February 2nd, 1990, Karate and his accomplices entered a street in Srinagar’s Karfali Mohalla.
That morning, the curfew (imposed due to the worsened situation in Kashmir) had been lifted briefly. Prithvi Nath Tickoo, who ran a medical agency, stepped out of his house while his youngest son, Satish Kumar, 22, who helped him in his business, slept inside.
At 8 am, Satish’s elder sister Dulari heard a knock on their main door. She opened it to find Karate at the doorstep. Dulari says that Karate, who wore a cap, asked for Satish. Karate was no stranger in their locality. In fact, Prithvi Nath recalls Karate hitching rides several times on Satish’s scooter.
Upon seeing Karate outside their house, Dulari felt something amiss and lied to him—she told him that Satish had gone out. A little later, Satish got up; he took a piece of the Kashmiri bread which his nephew was having and nibbled at it. “I told him to wash up so that I could serve him breakfast,” recalls Dulari. But Satish said he would go out first to check on medicine at their godown. He wore a pheran (loose Kashmiri cloak) and held a kangri (Kashmiri firepot) underneath.
On the corner of the street, oblivious to Satish, Karate and his accomplices lay in wait. Upon spotting Satish, Karate whipped out a pistol. Eyewitnesses would later tell the Tickoo family that in order to defend himself, Satish threw his kangri at Karate. But by that time Karate had fired. The first bullet, the Tickoos were told, hit Satish in his jaw. As he fell, Karate pumped several more into his body.
As she heard the commotion, Dulari came out, only to find her brother’s body on the road. Satish was rushed to the hospital where he was declared ‘brought dead’. His corpse was given a ritualistic bath by one of his friends, Ashok Qazi. The same month, Qazi was also killed by three men, one of them believed to be Karate.
In 2006, Karate was released on bail and was given a hero's welcome in Srinagar. He is currently being questioned for terror funding but there has been no investigation on his murder charges
In the next few months, as the Indian security forces began cracking down on militancy, many like Karate were killed or arrested. Karate was arrested in June that year by the Border Security Force. Shortly afterwards, a journalist from a TV news show called ‘NewsTrack’ was given access to Karate. In his interview, Karate confessed to killing around twenty people, most of them Kashmiri Pandits. He told the journalist that Satish Kumar Tickoo was his first victim. Through the interview, Karate leaned sideways, listening intently to the questions and answered them coolly. His lack of emotion was reminiscent of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, about whom a psychiatrist said after examining him that he was a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him”.
Here is an excerpt from Karate’s interview:
Journalist: Did it ever so happen that you wanted to kill someone but failed?
Journalist: So you succeeded every time you wanted to kill someone?
Dar: Yes, I always succeeded. My aim was always accurate.
Journalist: What was so special about it? How did you always succeed?
Dar: It depends on muscle power. Pistol is tough to fire. Pistol fire requires strong muscle power.
Journalist: And did you always shoot from close range?
Dar: No, from a distance.
Journalist: How far?
Dar: 30 yards… 20 yards.
Journalist: You would kill with a pistol from such distance?
Journalist: And, where would you aim? Head or the heart?
Dar: Most of the time I’d aim at the head or the heart.
In 2006, Karate was released on indefinite bail. While ordering his release, the Terrorist and Disruption Activities (Prevention Act) or TADA Judge ND Wani remarked, “The court is aware of the fact that the allegations against the accused are of serious nature and carry a punishment of death sentence or life imprisonment but the fact is that the prosecution has shown total disinterest in arguing the case.”
After he was released, Karate was accorded a hero’s welcome in Srinagar. He is now married to an officer from the Kashmir Administrative Services.
NEW DELHI RELIED on the Army to clean up the mess in Kashmir and the Army delivered, at the cost of some of its bravest men. But as it happens in counter insurgency, there were cases of human rights violations. But, by and large, the Army did a fine job, as is expected of a professional force.
Did the Army officers always go by the rule book? Not at all. Anyone who has dealt with insurgency in Kashmir or elsewhere will tell you that it is not possible. Desperate times call for desperate measures and, sometimes, these measures ended up badly. But most times they paid dividends, saving the lives of both soldiers and civilians. No particular example is required here— every soldier who has served in a place like Kashmir has dozens of anecdotes to offer.
Like many officers before him, Gogoi acted fast in a moment of crisis, as he is trained to. In war or war-like situations, there is no biblical black and white
In this light, does Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi’s act of tying up Farooq Ahmad Dar in Kashmir to his jeep (in order to save the lives of soldiers and civilians, as he explained in his statement on May 23rd), constitute a breach of norms? It does, though by doing what he did, Gogoi may have saved many lives. Like many young officers before him, Gogoi acted fast in a moment of crisis, as he is trained to. Just because it’s out of the rule book doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a wrong call. In war or war-like situations, there is no Biblical black and white. But what is definitely wrong is how the Army headquarters has handled this incident.
Dar claims that he was not pelting stones and had, in fact, cast his vote earlier that day. Major Gogoi says he thought Dar was the ringleader of stone pelters and instead of firing at violent protestors he chose to strap Dar to the bonnet of his jeep—an act following which the protestors ceased to attack Gogoi and his men with stones [and petrol bombs, as per Gogoi]. Whether Dar was an innocent bystander or a stone pelter is irrelevant. Tying up any man, if you go by the rule book, is not permitted.
Could Major Gogoi have fired at the violent mob? Yes, and it would have resulted in many casualties. The Army knows it; those who have criticised this act know it. Gogoi did what he had to do. By raising questions over his act, some journalists are doing their job. The onus was on the Army headquarters and the Defence Ministry to handle this situation with wisdom. A representative from the Army should have appeared on television, offering the sequence of events that forced its officer to act the way he did. And then he should have offered his regret and an unconditional apology to the victim, more so when it seems that he was tied for an extended period and paraded through several villages. The Army should have also offered assurances that such an incident won’t be repeated. That would have been the end of the matter.
Even if his superiors felt that Major Gogoi had shown great presence of mind, they could have said this to him in private to boost his morale. In some Officer’s Mess, they could have raised a toast; some bada khana could have been organised in his honour. Offering an apology for causing humiliation, if not injury, to a man during an engagement would have been seen as a gesture becoming of a professional force whose motto is ‘service before self’. But instead of doing that, the Army choose to parade their officer on TV who wore a bulletproof headgear while telling journalists what happened on that fateful day.
There are reports now that the Army has advised its officers in Kashmir not to follow Gogoi’s example. An Army spokesperson told journalists that it was an “understood thing” that this (Major Gogoi’s act) was not something which would become a habit among officers. But more than the act, the Army’s official commendation for it has caused damage to its image of countering terrorism with moral tour de force.
Contrast this with what cards have been dealt to the other Farooq Ahmed Dar. For years, the Centre even refused to comment on him. In response to several RTI applications filed by activists after his release, the Ministry of Home Affairs simply said that it did not “maintain” any information about Bitta Karate.
On May 30th, Karate was summoned by the NIA to its headquarters in Delhi for questioning on funding of terror and subversive activities in Kashmir. The NIA asked Karate and a separatist leader to present their bank and property documents before its team.
Even if Karate is charged with these activities, does it mean that his previous charges of murders will go without investigation? “To me it feels as if the Income Tax Department has asked some entrepreneur to appear in front of it to investigate some minor tax evasion. I don’t know if the Centre is even bothered about his murderous past,” says Amit Raina, an activist of Roots in Kashmir, a Pandit organisation, who has filed a PIL in the Supreme Court for criminal investigation and transfer of cases against Karate and others. One of them pertains to the killing of four personnel of the Indian Air Force in which JKLF Chief, Yasin Malik is an accused. The four—squadron leader Ravi Khanna, corporal DB Singh, corporal Uday Shankar and airman Ajad Ahmed—were shot dead on January 25th, 1990, as they waited for a bus in Srinagar. “It is not only about Pandits; it is about India’s soldiers, about so many others who became victims of terrorists and in whose cases the Government of India has shown no interest for close to three decades,” says Raina.
Satish’s father has waited all these years in the hope that someday justice will be served to the man who killed his son. “Sometimes I feel that I should just go and kill Karate myself. A jail term would be a small cost to pay for justice to my brother,” says Satish’s brother, Ramesh Tickoo.
Sources in the Home Ministry say that Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh is aware of the charges on Karate and those in other high-profile cases. But there is no indication so far that the Government will order a reopening of these cases.
As journalists accosted him after his questioning in Srinagar, a nervous Karate kept on repeating that he hadn’t killed anyone and that it was for the judiciary to decide whether he is guilty or not.
What will happen if the Government orders a reinvestigation in cases where Karate is an accused? There are enough indications of that outcome in the TADA judge ND Wani’s remarks of 2006.