By Somini Sengupta, IHT , Published: February 6, 2007
SRINAGAR, Kashmir: Amid a grove of poplar trees in a village just north of here, a grave was unearthed last week. Out came the body of a man, shot and killed nearly two months ago, whom the Indian police described at the time as an anti-Indian militant from Pakistan.
An elderly man, who had been searching for his missing son for nearly two months, was summoned for the exhumation on Thursday.
He stared at the body dug out of the ground and told the police, "He is my son." Then he sat on the ground and shook.
The dead man, Abdul Rehman Paddar, was not a Pakistani at all, nor a militant. He was a Kashmiri carpenter from a village south of here.
The Indian police are now investigating whether he was killed by some of their own men for motives that could range from personal revenge to greed. A suspected militant's corpse, after all, comes with a handsome cash reward. By Saturday, four police officers were under arrest in Paddar's killing.
S.M. Sahai, the chief of police for Kashmir, said his investigators were looking into whether at least two other bodies were victims of the same ring; set-ups like the killing of Paddar are known here as "encounter killings."
Each of the victims had been killed in operations conducted jointly by the police and either an Indian Army unit or a paramilitary force that operates under army command, he said.
By the end of the day on Saturday, as the investigation grew, five corpses had been exhumed, all in the area surrounding Sumbal, and their identities were being checked.
The exhumations have not only unearthed a deep well of resentment among the people of Indian-administered Kashmir, but have also forced the Indian government to face anew long-simmering charges of abuse by Indian soldiers and the police.
Kashmiris have long accused the Indian authorities of disappearances and extrajudicial killings. A local human rights group estimates that 10,000 people have disappeared since the anti-Indian insurgency began here in 1989. Nor have civilians been immune to the savagery of militants, among whose favorite tactics are beheadings.
India blames its rival and neighbor, Pakistan, for aiding and arming the insurgents. Pakistan denies the charge and does not recognize India's claim to Kashmir. Claimed by both countries, Kashmir has been a center of strife for nearly 60 years.
While the violence has calmed considerably since a 2004 peace deal between India and Pakistan, that accord has hardly ended the bloodshed or diminished the presence of Indian troops here. India says troop reduction can begin only when the militants lay down their arms.
Those troops have been blamed repeatedly for human rights abuses here, most recently in a 156-page report in October by Human Rights Watch, which detailed dozens of cases in which, it said, the state failed to hold its security forces accountable for suspected abductions, killings and detentions.
Among the most infamous of these cases were the March 2000 killings in the southern village of Pathirabal of five men, whom the army identified as foreign terrorists responsible for a massacre of Sikh civilians. The men, whose bodies had been burned and badly mutilated, turned out to be civilians abducted by the army, according to relatives and a subsequent federal investigation.
In a rare instance of prosecution, five Indian soldiers were charged with the killings, but the case remains stuck in the courts nearly seven years later and the soldiers remain on the job. The army insists that they be tried by internal court martial, not a civilian court.
Human Rights Watch blamed the Indian government for what it called its "lack of commitment" to accountability and for a series of Indian laws that shield soldiers in conflict zones like Kashmir. "This has led to a serious climate of impunity," the report concluded.
Indian officials have explicitly sought to use the latest cases of encounter killings to rebut accusations of impunity, pointing out that they have taken the lead in investigating army and police officials linked to what they call isolated abuses of power.
"This is an aberration," Sahai, the police chief, said in an interview in his office here. "This is not the rule. We have not tried to suppress anything. Whatever are the facts of the case have come out in the open. If we are trying to set our house in order, that should increase public confidence."
Sahai said the police were also investigating whether members of the Indian Army were complicit in Paddar's killing. [Indian newspapers reported on Monday that the army said it would conduct an internal investigation into whether its soldiers were involved.
The Kashmir state chief minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, has called for a judicial inquiry into the killings, promising a transparent investigation. Whether it will expand to include other suspected encounter killings remains a mystery; if it does expand, it could prove to be a public relations headache for New Delhi.
Last year, the prime minister promised zero tolerance of abuse by Indian forces in Kashmir, a pledge clearly intended to win the hearts-and-minds battle there.
Paddar seems to have unwittingly instigated a test of that promise. According to interviews with the police as well as his friends and relatives, Paddar appears to have been well acquainted with at least one of the policeman charged with his murder, Farooq Ahmad Paddar, a native of the same village.
In fact, the carpenter had given the policeman the rough equivalent of $1,650 for a promised government job and for months, according to a relative, the carpenter had pursued the policeman to keep his promise. The job never materialized.
One Friday in December, the policeman summoned the carpenter to a neighborhood in Srinagar, said a co-worker who accompanied him part of the way. That is when Paddar disappeared.
The carpenter's family filed a missing person report, which would have gone nowhere, like hundreds of other missing person reports in Kashmir, were it not for a police investigator who found Paddar's cellphone in the hands of a man several kilometers north of here last week.
According to investigators, the policeman gave away the carpenter's cellphone, but only after, it seems, he and an unknown number of his colleagues shot Paddar and gave his body to some villagers in Sumbal, a hamlet about an hour's drive from Srinagar, who buried him.
The police, in an operation with a paramilitary unit called the Central Reserve Police Force, meanwhile, issued a statement claiming responsibility for having killed a militant of Pakistani origin.
The discovery of the cellphone led police investigators to Paddar, the police officer, and three of his colleagues. Eventually, it also led investigators to other graves suspected of being linked to the same murder ring.
According to the police, one victim was a perfume seller who was picked up last February by the local police, the Central Reserve Police and an army unit known as the Rashtriya Rifles. Another was a local Islamic cleric, who was picked up from his home in October 2005 by the police and the Rashtriya Rifles.
Last week, as teams of police and forensic investigators dug for Paddar's remains, hundreds of angry villagers, kept away by a ring of concertina wire, shouted familiar slogans.
"Azadi," or freedom, went one chant. "Hang him," they also yelled, referring to the killer.
Then bricks were thrown at the police. Tear gas was fired back.
Paddar's body, pocked by four bullets, including one that tore apart his face, was plucked out o
f the ground, shrouded in a white cloth and put in a simple wooden coffin, all before his grieving father. From the village women came songs of mourning, a familiar chorus in Kashmir.
Yusuf Jameel contributed reporting.