Chittisinghpura massacre

The first woman US Secretary of State has passed away at the age of 84.

Madeleine Albright lost her battle with cancer on March 23, three days after the anniversary of Chittisinghpura massacre on March 20, 2000, 22 years ago, when then-US President Bill Clinton was visiting India, 36 Sikhs were gunned down in Kashmir. Those deaths still remain a mystery. The assailants wore Indian army uniforms, lined up the Sikhs from the Chittisinghpura village, and shot them to death.

Kashmir is a disputed territory, where an armed insurgency has continued for years. One faction of insurgents wants complete independence, while the other wants Kashmir to merge 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 Pakistan-sponsored militants wanted to send a message to the visiting US President.

But several survivours 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 killed maintained that they were locals 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 demonstrators in Brakpora. Among the dead were those related to the victims of Pathribal episode.

Finally, the investigation revealed that those killed in Pathribal were local Kashmiris were indeed murdered, after bodies exhumed from the graves were identified by their families. Yet, the Indian army tried to exonerate the soldiers involved. The intention of a cover up was proved when there was an attempt to tamper with the DNA of those killed in Pathribal, and a delay in release of the forensic report.

Albright had written in her book, “The Mighty and the Almighty” that Clinton suspected the hand of Hindu extremists in the Chittisinghpura incident. She quoted him saying that if he hadn’t made the trip, the victims would have still been alive. 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 put 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, which was probably 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 reach 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 the circumstances pointing to the complicity of the army. 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. The victims’ families therefore want an independent international inquiry conducted by the UN to settle this issue.

India owes an answer to the world for at least 50 deaths (36 Sikhs + 5 Kashmiris + 9 protestors) that resulted from the conspiracy behind the Chittisinghpura massacre.

Barely three days before the death of Albright, Richpal Singh, who lost his father in the tragedy, told this writer that the BJP which is back in power now cannot be relied upon for justice. Their only hope remains a more transparent investigation by an international agency.

Gurpreet Singh is a journalist


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