The Shopian Tragedy: Triumph of Politics Over Truth
Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D.
1 September 2009
On the fateful evening of Friday, 29th May 2009, when Neelofar Jan and Asiya Jan left their home in Bongam, Shopian, to visit their family orchard across the Rambi-Ara Nallah near Nagabal village, little would anyone outside of Shopian anticipate that a defining moment in the politics of Kashmir was in the making.
But to the people of Shopian the tragedy they confronted on the morning of 30th May, when bodies of Asiya and later Neelofar were found on the Shopian side of the Rambi-Ara Nallah, and later brought to the Shopian Hospital for autopsy in the early morning hours, was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.
About a week earlier, on May 23, 2009, Shopian had been the scene of massive protests outside the same hospital that was attracting protestors once again a week later. On May 22, a pregnant lady by the name of Mrs. Shazia Akhter Dar, was admitted to the Shopian hospital with serious health issues, but in a typical “Kashmiri way” no one in the hospital paid attention to her serious condition and the hospital staff treated her casually until the next day morning when her condition deteriorated so rapidly that doctors directed her family to shift the patient to better medical facilities in Srinagar. Shazia died on way to the city on May 23, and her family felt that had the hospital and its medical staff been more attentive and caring, pregnant Shazia would have been saved. Shopian began to simmer with rage and people came out in massive numbers to protest – against the state government in general and against the hospital staff in particular. They damaged government property, including vehicles and the office of the Deputy Commissioner (DC) Mohammad Ramzan Thakur. In response, the Superintendent of Police (SP) Javed Iqbal Mattoo registered a First Information Report (FIR) against the mob that vandalized the DC Office (FIR 95/2009).
That Javed Iqbal would readily file a FIR against Shopian people seeking justice for the untimely and negligent death of Shazia, but would not do so with the same urgency in the case of Neelofar and Asiya, not only came to haunt him a month later, but also represents the crux of the Justice Muzaffar Jan Commission Report on the “Shopian Incident” that was issued on June 20, 2009. Justice Muzaffar Jan (Retd.) recommended that SP Javed Iqbal and his cohorts be charged with negligence and dereliction of their duties, which the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Government subsequently implemented by arresting the four police officials.
But that is only one side of the story. Kashmir, being unlike any other place in the world, is also the “valley of smoke and mirrors,” where what you generally see is not necessarily what it is. And therein lays the other half of the story.
Hazratbal constituency in the State Assembly represents a very symbolic seat for the National Conference (NC). During the April 2009 State Assembly valley voters surprised political parties, especially separatist organizations and their supremo, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, by turning out in large numbers at the polls. This led to a lot of soul searching among separatists, and many prominent valley journalists have questioned the credibility of the so-called resistance moment in the valley. Tattered reputations were salvaged to some degree by a poor showing of voters in the Parliamentary election held on May 7, especially in Shopian and other parts of the valley. Separatists got their opportunity for the one-two punch when the Hazratbal constituency byelection (to fill in for vacating Dr. Farooq Abdullah who became a Union Minister) was announced for May 30, after having been postponed from May 7 to allow the NC candidate, Dr. Mustafa Kamal, to file his papers properly. It does not take a rocket scientist to guess that ensuring a poor showing in the May 30 election would became the top priority for separatists, and since their true and tested weapon – boycott – had failed during April polls, it was absolutely essential that Kashmir needed to be brought to a boil – a la Amarnath uprising – to ensure the failure of the Assembly byelection on May 30 (later moved to June 3). Incidentally, Dr. Kamal was up against the People Democratic Party (PDP) candidate named Aisya Naqash.
The battle for the success of the separatist movement in the valley transmuted into a campaign seeking justice for Asiya Jan and Neelofar Jan during the morning hours of May 30. While separatists failed in derailing the election (the turnout, while low, exceeded even the previous assembly election in April) and Aisya Naqash lost, the struggle for political upmanship between the NC and separatists continues. In the post Assembly election phase, the Majlis Mashawarat took its inspiration from the Bomai Coordination Committee (BCC) that had demanded, and succeeded, in forcing relocation of an Indian Army camp of the 22 Rashtriya Rifles in Bomai, Sopore, after Army jawans killed two young civilians during a military operation on February 21. The removal of Indian Army camps from Kashmir is part of a broader politico-religious campaign waged by Syed Ali Shah Geelani and his followers who denounce such camps as dilution of Kashmir’s Islamic identity. Whatever may have been merits of relocating the Army camp out of Bomai, the facts surrounding that tragedy are as clear as these are fuzzy in the Shopian case.
Fate had it that Neelofar’s and Asiya’s untimely deaths would intersect with the ongoing political drama on an otherwise ordinary day, but one that was strategically placed between the two election dates of May 7 and June 3, and unfortunately so soon after the May 23 mayhem in Shopian. Therefore actions, decisions and events that took place in Shopian on that fateful Saturday (May 30) are crucial in understanding the Shopian issue today. We have a number of sources who have provided their accounts to the police, to media, to two Special Investigation Teams (SITs) constituted by police, and to the Justice Muzaffar Jan Commission. The sources are: (a) relatives of deceased, (b) neighbors and friends, (c) two sets of doctors who conducted the autopsy, (d) local police personnel from all levels of constable to the Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG), (e) District Magistrate/ DC, (f) lawyers – both independent and those speaking on behalf of the District Bar Association of Shopian, (g) Majlis Mashawarat , (h) Central Reserve Police (CRP), (i) journalists, and (j) politicians.
A lot has been said and written by the above mentioned interested parties regarding the Shopian Incident. Some of the testimony contradicts with statements made by others. Others who have gone on public record (especially on May 30) and have made statements that have since proven false, including some allegations published by popular valley newspapers. There is a universal assertion in the Kashmiri media and among the public that the two young ladies were raped and murdered by either the Indian Army or CRP, charges that may be true but are unproven as of today. Media has reached to this conclusion based mostly on two perceptions which are that large Indian army and CRP camps located nearby cast a deep shadow over Shopian citizens and their “honor”, and the husband of the deceased, Mr. Shakeel Ahmad, was warned by the SP Javed Iqbal to keep quiet during the post-mortem, which led the family (and others) to conclude that there was a conspiracy of silence. Interestingly, perceptions and reality may not coincide in this case.
But there are two glaring consistencies in the entire testimony which in fact have created a synergistic trail of suspicion and suspense, with public calls demanding speedy justice.
The first deals with the “Kashmiri way” of conducting professional duties. Kashmiri culture is known for its “take it easy” attitude – whether it involves a promise, a business commitment or work at the office. To put it bluntly, there is absolutely no discipline or professionalism exhibited by many, if not all, Kashmiris. Kashmir is part of the state that is among the most corrupt in India, and the rule of law usually takes back seat to personal convenience, emotional fervor and politics. While Kashmiris by nature tend to be idealistic people with high morals, their dealings towards others in general, and towards their personal work ethic in particular, leaves a lot to be desired. Justice Muzaffar Jan Commission has done an excellent job in highlighting the lack of professionalism exhibited by the police at all levels and by doctors and others who handled the two bodies after these were discovered in the Rambi-Ara Nallah in the early hours of May 30th. While the bodies should not have been touched by onlookers and relatives, or the police should have done a better job of checking the scene of investigation, or doctors should have performed proper autopsies, but the truth of the matter is that they all did what happens in all emotionally charged situations in Kashmir where sudden deaths are still a rarity and the immediate sense of loss is shocking to both relatives and others around them. I have read all the reports carefully and I am unconvinced that anyone deliberately tried to destroy any evidence (with perhaps one exception), though it is utterly clear that many involved were negligent in their duties and betrayed an absolute lack of professionalism which, quite frankly, should not have come as a surprise to a native like Justice Muzaffar Jan.
The second deals with the speed with which the mob outside the Shopian Hospital wanted the justice to be served. The scene reminded of the 1880’s “Wild West” mentality in America where many judges were known to holler, “Let us get on with this trial and hanging so that I can proceed to my lunch.” The mob was managed by a politically savvy group of leaders and they wanted a “simple verdict” that the two young women had been gang raped by Indian security personnel from the nearby CRP police camp. The drum beat of the mob for the desired verdict got so intense that the first group of doctors – Bilal, Nazia and Bilques – found it very difficult to work under such pressure, and witnesses have alleged that they ran away. For example, Dr. Bilques lost her nerve and literally froze. Dr. Bilal was slapped by Zeerak Shah, Neelofar’s brother and a traffic cop, when the doctor said that deaths appeared to be by drowning. Zeerak Shah made it clear that such a verdict was unacceptable and accused the SP Javed Mattoo for staging a cover-up. But when Dr. Nazia told authorities that she could not make a definitive statement about the condition of the corpses because rigor mortis had set in and additional forensic tests were needed before confirming rape, that opinion was rejected by the families and their supporters outside the hospital who were by then shouting slogans in full force, having done the same barely a week earlier when Shazia Akhter Dar had died unjustifiably.
The families decided to shift the bodies from the Hospital to the DC’s Office and in fact carried the corpses to the main chowk, wherefrom the bodies were brought back once the word spread that authorities had arranged for a second team of senior doctors from the District Hospital Pulwama to conduct another autopsy. Doctors Nighat, Qadir and Maqbool arrived at the Shopian Hospital at about 2 P.M. The public demanded “Islamic justice” as the doctors entered the hospital. What the DC thought was going to be a full autopsy, and what Dr. Nighat (gynecologist) thought was just a gynecological examination, lasted a mere 20 to 25 minutes. Dr. Nighat came out of the post mortem room and told Syed Abdul Hi Shah, Neelofar’s father, that “the condition of the bodies is so bad that it was good that they had died” (eye witness accounts), which the father took to mean that the two ladies had been raped. In a meeting with authorities, Dr. Nighat expressed the opinion that Asiya had been “molested” before her death but she could not give any opinion on Neelofar. After taking some vaginal swabs, this Pulwama medical team also left in a hurry and without completing a full autopsy.
By this time the mob outside the hospital was pelting stones and the additional police were called in to disburse the crowd. Having heard from Dr. Nighat (or interpreting her statement as affirmation of rape) to their satisfaction, the relatives took the dead bodies for burial and both Neelofar and Asiya were laid to rest that evening. A new chapter in this saga was about to begin.
There are many open issues regarding the Shopian tragedy, not the least of which is whether foul play was involved and, if so, who committed the crime. Majlis Mashawarat has spearheaded the agitation on behalf of the families involved. It is very clear that the people of Shopian, led by such a politically charged group, seek justice from authorities and in their minds the crime has happened and all that remains to be done is to charge its perpetrators. Their finger points to the CRP, SP Javed Iqbal, other local police officials and possibly other state actors (in that order). The two Special Investigation Teams (SITs) constituted by the State Police on May 30 and June 8, have examined a myriad of scenarios ranging from accidental drowning to foul play by family members to possibility of CRP or police involved in these murders, but no scenario appears to tie all loose ends.
However, three things stick out that need further follow-up, and at least one is a God sent opportunity to break open this case.
The first deals with demonization of SP Javed Iqbal Mattoo. The Justice Jan Commission report says had Javed Iqbal or his staff filed a FIR under the Ranbir Penal Code (RPC) Sections 302 (murder), or 307 (attempted murder) or 375 (mass rape), or even under 323/324 (inflicted damage with or without dangerous weapons) since Asiya’s head had visible injuries, the SP could have prevented mob scenes outside of the hospital that led to loss of life, street violence, loss of property and civic disruption. But in initiating the inquest proceedings under Section 174 (death under suspicious circumstances), the Shopian police department had not departed radically from the nature of the incident, though it did not have the in-built presumption of murder and/or rape that Justice Muzaffar Jan (and more specifically the Shopian community) wanted. The investigation that was launched would not have been much different under other sections of the RPC, except the presumption of rape and murder would have been taken for granted. Of course, Section 174 RPC requires consultation with the nearest Executive Magistrate which was not done. In fact, Javed Iqbal and his police staff made a number of gross errors, but in the words of a Justice of the J&K High Court to the former Additional Advocate General (AAG) Syed Riyaz Hussain, “mere incompetence does not constitute criminal intent.”
There is no question that the former SP and his police team were negligent and derelict in executing their responsibilities (not unusual given the Kashmiri laissez faire attitude towards the work ethic), but Justice Muzaffar Jan overplays the need to be “politically correct” in filing the FIR for rape and/or murder, implying inherently that the most important thing to do after the two bodies were discovered was to be politically expedient, even though there was superficially no substantial evidence pointing to either foul play or rape. Of course, the Majlis Mashawarat and families have rejected eye witness reports from the Sub Inspector (SI) Gazi Abdul Kareem, the Station House Officer (SHO) Shafeeq Ahmad, and doctors who conducted the first autopsy and were among the few people who saw the physical condition of the two fully clothed bodies, claiming all state officials are part of the grandiose plot to hide the truth. It is possible that the two ladies were murdered and at least one of them was raped, but the condition of the bodies when these were found could not automatically lead to such a conclusion. Even the head wound of Asiya can be explained (not very logical but not impossible) since the body was found among big rocks in the Rambi-Ara Nallah and was dragged to the shore. The Nallah while shallow had received considerable rain over 10 to 12 hours in the night preceding May 29.
The second deals with the lack of proper facilities and training related to forensic medicine in Kashmir. To quote Dr. Rashid Para, spokesperson for the Anesthesiologists Association of Kashmir (AAK), “Our district and sub-district hospitals have filthy sheds available for conducting autopsies which are even worse than cowsheds, lacking even basic facilities of water and electricity.” Highlighting the cultural chasm that distinguishes Kashmiri society, Dr. Para is of the opinion that while postmortems are routine investigation in America and Europe, in Kashmir there is a lot of stigma attached to it. According to him, “Till now I have never seen a postmortem conducted in an ambience free from public anger and outrage. Due to the lack of trust, people always carry a feeling that the truth will be stashed away.” When the Pulwama medical team arrived a the Shopian Hospital they found insufficient laboratory supplies like gloves, masks, cotton balls, etc. There was no microscope, nor any glass slides to deposit vaginal swabs from the deceased. Two such slides were purchased from the market (one of which dropped accidentally from Dr. Nighat’s hands and broke) and there was no means to seal the evidence collected in a temper-proof package. The reality is that there is no forensic specialization available to post-graduate medical students in J&K, nor do hospitals carry sufficient medical equipment and supplies to conduct thorough autopsies. So putting the blame entirely on doctors is neither fair nor factual.
The third deals with forensic testing, perhaps the most significant subject for future investigation by the SIT or the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI). Some time between 3:00 PM on May 30 and July 22, when the slides were sent to the Central Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL) in New Delhi, the evidence was tampered with. While the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Srinagar, announced on June 6 that they had found traces of semen on the vaginal swabs (indicative of rape and vindication of public disgust), it was left to the CFSL to announce on August 10 that the vaginal swabs did not match with the viscera and blood samples of the two victims. Neither do semen traces match with the DNA of arrested police officials. Now we know for certain: (a) the collected swabs do not connect with victims, and (b) they do not point fingers to police officers either. But most importantly, they indicate a conspiracy to fudge the investigation towards a certain conclusion. One could be precise and state that given the fact that neither of the two dead ladies had any surface lacerations near their genital parts and since the bodies were fully clothed in their normal daily wear there is still no evidence that either of the two ladies was actually raped. Of course, if one says that doctors from Pulwama and Shopian are in cahoots with police officers from Shopian, one can brush away these facts as a “grand conspiracy” but we all know that Kashmir’s officials may be smart, they are not that smart. And if there was no rape, the rest of the alleged crime begins to look shaky. Besides, even hair samples taken from the Police Van that some say was or was not (depending upon the witness) on the Bridge from which female voices were heard, do not match with the hair of jailed police officers. But switching of the vaginal swabs is a fact, and the cast of characters involved in that nefarious activity is limited to a few doctors, medical officials and laboratory technicians, and therefore should be relatively easy to probe.
For the young Chief Minister (CM) of the State, the Shopian tragedy turned into a baptism by fire. He made a mistake initially by making public what Shopian police officials told him soon after the bodies were recovered (forgetting that he is a politician and politicians are judged for their judgment and not necessarily for their knowledge), but now he is trying his best to bring peace and normalcy in Shopian. He even took the opportunity to admit his mistakes in dealing with this incident during the August 15 speech at the Bakshi Stadium in Srinagar. But the discontent in Shopian is by no means gone, and it will not be gone until he agrees with the verdict that people in Shopian believe, irrespective of what the truth is. By replacing the AAG and directing the head of the SIT (Inspector General of Police Farooq Ahmad) to prepare a forceful High Court case against the four locked up former police officials, he is literally throwing former SP Javed Iqbal and his colleagues to the mercy of Syed Ali Shah Geelani and the Majlis Mashawarat to appease his political opponents.
The people of Shopian want justice, but do they care for the truth? The death of Neelofar Jan and Asiya Jan, while unfortunate, will be eclipsed by the injustice meted to the living. Maybe Javed Iqbal and his three colleagues are guilty as charged, but until there is proof of deliberate criminal intent by these officers, they deserve a bail. The effort now should be on finding out who switched the vaginal swabs, and why. There is an intersection between opportunistic politics and mob violence in Kashmir, and it was unfortunate that Neelofar Jan and Asiya Jan became symbols of such mayhem and continue to be so until today. They deserve peace and dignity in their untimely deaths as much as their families deserve justice. For the rest of us, we need to know the truth even when the evidence has been mostly destroyed, some by official actions and the rest by family members. That is why it becomes extremely important to get to the bottom of Kashmir’s own “forensicgate.” Perhaps then, our young CM can fully redeem his leadership.
The most fitting remembrance for the two innocent victims would be an overhaul of forensic medical facilities, training and education in Kashmir. Neelofar Jan and Asiya Jan are gone for good but if they become catalysts for modernizing the forensic medicine in the State, it will be a legacy that will live for ever.
This article appeared in the September 2009 issue of the “Reality Bites” magazine that used to be published in Srinagar.
Press Reports on the Case Report by the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) on the Shopian Tragedy, 14 December 2009
Dr. Vijay Sazawal is a policy analyst and a commentator who specializes in local governance and intra-community issues affecting political dynamics within the Kashmir valley. He has written extensively on the current political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir (commonly referred to as Kashmir), arguing for new and innovative approaches in understanding and resolving the simmering discontent in all communities and regions of the State.