Remembering “unworthy victims”

Chittisinghpura Massacre of 36 Sikhs e1413865997149

Friday, March 20 marks the twentieth anniversary of the killings of 36 Sikhs in Indian-occupied Kashmir under mysterious circumstances.

It happened close to then US President Bill Clinton’s visit to India.

The massacre took place in the Chittisinghpura village of Kashmir. The assailants wore Indian army uniforms, lined up the Sikhs from the village, and shot them to death.

Kashmir is a disputed territory where an armed insurgency has been going on for years. One faction of insurgents wants complete independence, while the other wants Kashmir to be merged with Muslim-dominated Pakistan. The Indian army continues to use military power to suppress the voice of dissent in Kashmir. Even those seeking the right to self-determination through peaceful means are not spared.

This was the first time that the Sikh minority was targeted in Kashmir in such a violent manner. The Indian government, under the then-ruling right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), blamed Pakistan-based Islamic extremists for the crime. Their argument was that the Pakistan-sponsored militants wanted to send a message to the visiting US President.

But several survivors noticed something unusual. The attackers did not appear to be Kashmiris. They looked more like people from southern India. While leaving they chanted pro-India slogans.

Under immense pressure to solve the case, the army later apprehended five Kashmiris and eliminated them in a staged shooting in Pathribal area. The army claimed that the dead men were foreign (read Pakistani) militants who died in an exchange of fire, though none of the soldiers were injured in the incident.

The army also claimed they were able to identify the men with the help of another militant, who was arrested and aided them in locating their whereabouts. This militant was later freed after the authorities failed to present any corroborative evidence before the courts.

Following the Pathribal episode there was a huge outcry in Kashmir. The families of those who were killed maintained that they were locals and were picked up by the army before the alleged shootout. People protested for an investigation into the incident, but the trigger-happy security forces killed nine more people in firing on the demonstrators in Brakpora. Among the dead were those related to the victims of the Pathribal episode.

Finally, the investigation revealed that those killed in Pathribal were local Kashmiris who were indeed murdered, after their bodies were exhumed from the graves and identified by their families.

Yet, the Indian army tried to exonerate the soldiers involved. There has always been the intention of a cover up, as proved when there was an attempt to temper with the DNA of those killed in Pathribal, and a delay in release of the forensic report.

In the meantime, former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright wrote in her memoir that Clinton suspected the hand of Hindu extremists in the Chittisinghpura incident. This angered the Indian government, and the publishers relented and agreed to make changes.

However, this only raises more questions.

Notably, a former officer of India’s secret agency RAW, B. Raman, acknowledged in his memoir that during a minority government before the BJP came to power, an idea was floated to recruit Hindu nationalists for counter-terrorism operations in Kashmir. The government was supported by the BJP. However, the proposal was shot down, and the government fell after a short while. There are reasons to believe that this idea might have been brought into practice once the BJP came to power.

If we connect all these dots together we can safely conclude that there is something fishy about the tragedy and the way its investigation has been handled. We need to ask: why there was no investigation into the possibility of Hindu extremists being involved in the crime that was blamed on Pakistan during Clinton’s visit, to strengthen the claims of the Indian state which has frequently accused Pakistan of aiding and abetting terrorism in India? Why wasn’t the role of the army thoroughly investigated to get to the bottom of the truth?

Unfortunately, those killed in Chittisinghpura and subsequently in Pathribal and Brakpora are being treated by the world as “unworthy victims”. It is sad that even the US did not stand up for the families of those killed in a series of incidents linked with Clinton’s visit. If Clinton and Albright knew something more, they should have been candid about it, instead of pushing everything under the carpet to maintain cozy relations with India. This reflects very badly on a country that claims to be the champion of democracy and human rights.

India understandably will never be honest about it, considering the circumstances that point to the complicity of the army. Even otherwise India has a poor human rights record, considering its patronage to the Hindu extremists and lack of political will to punish them, as against minority extremist groups who are often dealt with violently.

With the BJP being in power and US being governed by a right wing President who is a staunch ally of the current Indian regime, the chances of any transparent effort to uncover the truth are bleak.

Only an independent international inquiry by the UN can settle this issue. India owes an answer to the global community for at least 50 deaths (36 Sikhs + 5 Kashmiris + 9 protestors) that resulted from the conspiracy behind the Chittisinghpura massacre.

The Coronavirus scare which has gripped the globe must not make us forget those who died for no reason.

Gurpreet Singh is a journalist




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