He is accused of having abducted and killed lawyer Jaleel Andrabi in Srinagar in 1996. He has also been named for the murder of at least a dozen other men. He fled the country, and was back in the news after his wife reported him for domestic violence in California in February this year. A court has ordered the Ministry of External Affairs to ensure his extradition, but no action is being taken. Speaking to Open, the Major says if his extradition is actually initiated, he will never be allowed to return alive, he knows too much and he will not keep quiet
Hartosh Singh Bal | 23 Jun, 2011
Wanted for crimes in Kashmir, the government fears the testimony of ex Army Major Avtar Singh could be worse than his crimes
There is a photograph of Jaleel Andrabi (seen in the second photo above), surrounded by friends and family on his 36th birthday. It was taken on 29 January 1996. The camera has caught him leaning back in his armchair, laughing in a rare moment of ease. Andrabi was a prominent human rights lawyer in the Valley, allied with the JKLF. He had just come back from Geneva, where he had spoken out against the Indian government at a time when the Army and security forces were, in effect, Kashmir. Friends had told him he was on a hit list, but he had dismissed their concerns.
The same day, a vehicle had driven up to his house. Two bearded men in phirans walked up to the door and said their father had been set afire by the Army at Pulwama, that he had survived and been admitted to a hospital in Srinagar. They said their mother and sister were waiting outside, and wanted to consult him on what could be done legally. Andrabi asked them to meet him in the High Court. Just then, his brother Manzoor, who had gone to the doctor, returned. He told Andrabi that the only people waiting outside were three armed men. At this, the men left hurriedly in a taxi. The family made a note of the registration number—JKT 1988.
The next day, the same people came knocking at the door. By now, Andrabi was apprehensive. He had good reason to be. On 5 December 1992, Kashmiri Pandit and rights activist HN Wanchoo had left his house accompanied by two men who wanted him to come and reassure a mother whose son, they said, had been picked up by the security forces. A few hours later, Wanchoo was found dead, shot through the head, the upper back and the abdomen. On 22 April 1995, two unidentified men opened fire on Mian Abdul Qayoom, President of the Jammu & Kashmir Bar Association, leaving him seriously injured. They had come to him claiming to seek his help in a case.
Andrabi’s wife was the one who went to speak to the men at the door. As she was telling the men that they should come to court to meet her husband, Andrabi went up to the attic with a camera. The men saw him clicking photographs, and started gesticulating. But neighbours had gathered by now and the men had to flee. The next day, Andrabi released their pictures to the newspapers
Fifteen years later, I am sitting in the heart of Srinagar, under the shade of a chinar tree, listening to his brother Arshid talk of what happened then. He bears an uncanny resemblance to his brother, an aged version of the man in the photograph. He has related this story often in the past decade. “It was very difficult in the beginning,’’ he speaks slowly, but with a certain gravity, weighing each word. He looks up, a wan smile playing on his face, “…but I have developed my defences now.’’
In the days following the two visits, Andrabi spent much of his time at the High Court, arguing a case where he had sought to ensure that people detained in the state were not taken to jails outside J&K. The state had appealed the order and it had come up before a division bench of the High Court. Andrabi had asked Arshid to accompany him to court. At lunch, Andrabi pointed to the man sitting on an adjacent table, a notorious Ikhwani (surrendered militant working with the security forces) named Sikandar. Andrabi told Arshid the man had been shadowing him for some time. He said if he could be followed to the High Court there was no way he could be safe in the state, he needed to leave for a while.
“He stayed in Delhi for over a month. He met the press, talked to a few embassies, I think he annoyed the government further,’’ says Arshid. In March, Andrabi came back to the Valley to be with his family for Eid.
On the day of Eid, 8 March, while heading home with his wife, his Maruti car was stopped by an Army contingent led by a Sikh officer. They seem to have been waiting for Andrabi. There were three vehicles parked there, a one-tonne Army truck that had ferried the 20 or so Armymen accompanying the officer, their officer’s jeep and a private vehicle. Men wrapped in red blankets, their faces barely visible, were seated inside the private vehicle. Eyewitnesses later said they had been vetting all those stopped. Barely half an hour before Andrabi drove through, Arshid and Manzoor had taken the same route. They had been stopped. “I thought they were looking for some militant, but I was surprised at how closely they scrutinised me in particular before letting us through’’.
Andrabi was not allowed through. He was asked to get out of the car and taken into custody. His wife, who could not drive, was left behind. She waved down an autorickshaw and tried to give chase, but the vehicles were moving too fast. The same evening, a case of abduction was filed at a nearby police station. The J&K Bar Association moved the High Court the next morning. The Army and the BSF filed replies denying Andrabi had been picked up by their men.
On 27 March, 19 days after the abduction, a college student named Abid Hussain, a resident of Kursu Rajbagh, a locality that lies by the Jhelum, went to the banks of the river early in the morning. According to his deposition, he saw a body floating down the river. It got entangled with the lines of two boats anchored ahead and drifted towards the bank. Soon, more people gathered there and pulled the body ashore. The upper half of the torso was covered with sackcloth tied around the waist by a rope. As soon as the sackcloth was removed, most of the men there were able to identify the body—Jaleel Andrabi had lived in that neighbourhood for over a decade at one point of time. Andrabi had been shot in the head and his body bore marks of injuries that suggested he had been beaten and tortured. The post-mortem suggested he had died about two weeks before the body was found.
Arshid was among the people called to identify the body. For ten days, he tells me, they did not tell Andrabi’s children, a son and two daughters, anything, “We sent them away for ten days to an aunt’s house.’’ He falls silent. “When they came back, his son, who must have been barely six or seven, came and sat on my lap. He turned to me and asked: ‘Why was my father’s body fished out of the Jhelum?’ He had read everything that had been written about the case.’’
A passing shower has forced us to move inside. I know that after Andrabi’s death, Arshid has married his brother’s widow and raised the children. He continues to speak. I don’t see his face clearly in the dark. Only his voice, speaking of the past, carries to me: “I explained everything to him, as much as I could. Since that day, he has never asked me anything about his father, nothing at all.’’
Later in the day, I walk down to the banks of the Jhelum at Kursu Rajbagh, past the trees that line the bank. I find two dumper trucks parked beside a row of boats tethered to the bank. The boats are piled high with sand. At the bottom of each boat lies a large metal corkscrew used to scoop sand out of the riverbed. Men stagger from the boat to the truck with loads of sand.
Nasir Ahmed says he has been plying these boats for several years. Each truckload of sand brings him Rs 1,700, it sells for much more in the market. He has heard of the Andrabi case. Even fifteen years later, it is hard to find someone in Srinagar who has not heard of it.
Nasir tells me the body was found on this stretch of the river, not far from where we are standing. He seems to suggest there was nothing exceptional about what happened to Andrabi. “Ever so often, when we bring sand back to the bank, we find remains of the dead. Skulls turn up often enough, I think we found the last one in March this year. More rarely, we used to find thighbones, sometimes with flesh still attached to the bone.’’
He pauses a moment to think about what he is saying: “Mostly, they are the remains of the men who were killed between 1991 and 1996—we don’t know how many died. The Army cantonment lies just upstream and bodies used to be dumped into the river from the bridge.’’ He comes back to the present, struggling to make sense of this absurd reality: “We do not go out on the river after the evening azaan; it is the time of the djinns.”
Soon after Andrabi’s body was found, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was formed by the J&K Police; it did not take them long to connect Sikandar to the abduction. On 5 April 1996, just about a week after Andrabi’s body had been found, seven more bodies were found at Pampora. Among the dead was Sikandar Ganie, the Ikhwani. When the police spoke to Sikandar’s widow, Hameeda, she told them that Sikandar and his associates had been summoned by another Ikhwani, Mohammed Ashraf Khan alias Umer, to an Army camp in Rawalpora, headed by a man named Major Avtar Singh of 35 Rashtriya Rifles.
Six months later, the police were finally able to trace Umer. His statement was recorded before a magistrate and it implicated Avtar Singh in the murder of not just Jaleel Andrabi, but also Sikandar and his associates. According to Umer, in March 1996, Avtar Singh and Sikandar picked up a man dressed in a suit-and-tie and brought him to the camp. They were accompanied by “Suken, Balbir Singh, Waid, Doctor who was an Army Doctor and Mushtaq Haider etc.’’ The statement is chilling. Clearly a number of men at the Army camp were involved in the crimes Avtar Singh is charged with, including the doctor. It should have been relatively easy to find out who these men were, but none of the others has been named for the murders. It is quite likely that many of them continue to serve in the Army.
Umer goes on to state that the man in the suit argued with these men, questioning why he had been abducted and brought to the Army camp. He was beaten up and locked in a room. Shortly after, Avtar Singh came and told Umer that the man they had picked up was a famous advocate named Jaleel Andrabi, who works against the Army. The same evening, he said, he heard cries and shouts from the room where Andrabi was confined. Then there was the sound of a gunshot.
In much of the rest of the country, the idea of an Army camp brings to mind images of cantonments and barracks. In Srinagar, during those years, a camp was nothing more than a large house or two taken over by the Army. Each camp exercised jurisdiction over a few square kilometres, but in those few square kilometres the soldiers exercised complete authority.
Today, the Army has moved out of Srinagar and Rawalpora is an affluent colony in the south of the city. When we ask our way to the camp we are misdirected a few times. Houses have come up where there were fields just a decade ago and the old paths do not lead anywhere. We stop at a grocery shop, where an old man sitting behind the counter points to a road leading to the colony.
We walk down a narrow lane, it seems narrower still because of the high boundary walls that loom on either side. The houses are large, signs of a new affluence, but the past has not completely disappeared. An old temple covered in ivy, walled in, stands at the entrance of Gali no. 3, which leads to the local mosque. Gali no. 4 is a right turn from the lane, and then takes a sharp left, parallel to the lane. As we turn, the two houses facing us are what once made up the Army camp where Andrabi was killed. One of the houses seems recently refurbished, there is work underway on the other. We decide not to trouble the new owners; there are some things they don’t need to know.
Umer, according to the police files, used to run a small shop—perhaps no different from the shop where we were given directions to the camp—supplying bread to the camp. This got him in trouble with one group of militants. He turned to another group, only to then start work for the police. Several such switches later, he became part of the very camp to which he once used to supply bread.
For the first few days after Andrabi was shot, Umer said, the Ikhwanis did not turn up at the camp. A worried Avtar Singh sent him along with Suken and Balbir Singh in search of Sikandar. They located him and told him to report to the camp. The next day, Sikandar came to the camp accompanied by three men and a driver. They were told to leave their weapons at the gate on the pretext that the commanding officer was expected on a visit. They sat down to drink with Avtar Singh, and after an hour or so, were asked to come into the dining room. Umer, who claimed to be standing on the verandah, saw Avtar Singh, the Army Doctor and the other men named earlier overpower Sikandar and his colleagues and tie them up with ropes. They then shut the dining room door. The next day Sikandar and his colleagues were found dead.
On 10 April 1997, the SIT set up by the J&K police filed its report before the court, naming Avtar Singh. A colonel representing the Army told the court that Major Avtar Singh was acting in his personal capacity. He further added that Avtar Singh had served only for a year in Kashmir and had been ‘disembodied’ from service. He said he originally belonged to the Territorial Army 103 posted at Ludhiana. The court directed the Union government to impound the Major’s passport or prevent him from being issued one. The court also asked for the service files of the Major within four weeks, so that final orders could be passed. Before the next hearing, the two judges were transferred.
A year later, in 1998, even as the J&K police was still claiming that the Major could not be traced, I easily managed what the J&K police apparently could not. I interviewed him in Ludhiana at the Territorial Army barracks while working for The Indian Express. I do not have my notes anymore and I do not remember the details. The interview was never printed. All I remember is that he was clean-shaven at the time and he told me he was being made a scapegoat.
In 2000, the SIT finally told the court what should have been verified much earlier—that Avtar Singh was still in Ludhiana. Soon after, despite the court orders, Avtar Singh was able to obtain a passport and leave the country for Canada, and then Selma, California, where he runs a transport service, driving his own truck. In February this year, his wife reported him for an incident of domestic violence. When the Selma police checked his records, they found there was an Interpol Red Corner notice against his name.
It is not difficult to locate his Selma number, and he is the one who answers the telephone. He begins by telling me what he told me 13 years ago in Ludhiana—that he was being made a scapegoat.
“Am I stupid to make sure I murder people in the presence of this man named Umer? He very conveniently seems to have witnessed everything I did. Would I trust a man like him, a surrendered militant, one who had worked for the police and everybody else at some point or the other?”
But Umer’s confession is corroborated by other evidence. He mentions the death of Ghulam Qadir, a resident of Batamaloo in Srinagar. When we drive there, the local butcher directs us to Ghulam Qadir’s house. Only Qadir’s daughter is at home. She sends a young boy along to show us the way to the shop, Benison Estate and Construction, where her brothers handle the business they have inherited from their father.
On the night of 18 February 1996, they say three armed men came to the house and asked Ghulam Qadir to accompany them. One of them was Major Avtar Singh, the other Umer. They are sure of the identities of the men because they were later able to identify them. They never saw their father again.
They say the motive was extortion. Their father owned three shops at Lalbagh, everyone in the locality knew he was well off. Someone else in the neighbourhood had also been picked up and released after Rs 2 lakh was paid. They paid money as well, but their father never returned. Years of searching have not led them anywhere, their father’s body was never found, they don’t know what happened to him. But Umer’s testimony is clear: “Major Avtar Singh, Sukan, Balbir Singh, Waid and Doctor’’ eliminated him “…and I do not know where his body was dumped’’.
Perhaps most damaging to Avtar Singh’s claim is an old photograph lying with the family. It is also part of the police records. It shows a group of Armymen in uniform sitting in the snow, posing with their SLRs. At the centre of the picture are Major Avtar Singh and Umer.
Avtar Singh is on much stronger ground, though, when he claims, “I am being made a scapegoat. Since I was originally from the Territorial Army, it is easy to disown me and deny the culpability of other organisations.’’ Clearly, he did not act alone, but no other Army personnel has been charged with the murder. Neither is there a motive that ties Avtar Singh to Andrabi; none of the cases Andrabi had taken up related directly to Avtar Singh. In his confessional statement, Umer has added that Avtar Singh told him that he had killed Andrabi because “other officers had entrusted him with the job’’.
The police’s own investigation connects the taxi (registration no. JKT 1988) and the photographs taken by Andrabi to another group of surrendered militants, who operated under the name of the Tiger group of the Jawabrara camp. They took directions from a Major in military intelligence (MI), who went by the name of Ashok Clifton, alias Bulbul, who has often been confused with Avtar Singh due to the complicated nature of the case. Clearly, then, there was a senior MI operative involved in the intimidation of Andrabi just a month before his death.
Avtar Singh asks, “How come this Major Clifton from the MI suddenly appears in the SIT report and then is not mentioned again?’’
In March this year, Justice Bilal Nazki, one of the judges who ensured an SIT was set up to investigate Andrabi’s murder, finally spoke about the case to the media. Nazki, who retired as Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court, said: “In 1997, when I was hearing the case, we had set up a Special Investigation Team of the J&K Police to probe the murder.
Major Avtar Singh should have faced trial. Soon after I passed orders in the case, I was transferred to Hyderabad. The High Court did not take any interest afterwards.”
On 30 May this year, a Srinagar court directed the authorities, including the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), “Since a lot of time has already got wasted without any fruitful results… it is impressed upon the authorities concerned to expedite the matter and make every endeavour to extradite the accused at the earliest, so that [the] majesty of [the] rule of law is not dented. This order should be forwarded to [the] foreign secretary, Government of India, Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi…” According to a status report filed by IGP Crime, Kashmir, relevant documents have already been submitted to the foreign secretary, Ministry of External Affairs (vide number Pros-07/2011, 4 April 2011) but there has been no response so far. When Open contacted the MEA, we were promised a reply within the day, but four days later, at the time of going to press, we had not received a response.
If Major Avtar Singh was just a renegade acting on his own, the need to shift a High Court judge seems strange, as does this doggedness to ensure that he does not return to India. Even his escape from India seems to have been made possible with the complicity of the authorities. How otherwise was he issued a passport despite court orders?
One possibility is that a trial of the Major will seriously undermine arguments favouring sweeping powers for the Army in Kashmir and other insurgency areas. But even that does not quite explain the extent of the cover-up. In California, Avtar Singh remains sure he will not be extradited to India. “The law here is on my side. The case against me will not stand in court here.’’ But, I ask him, what if the extradition does go through. He does not hesitate: “There is no question of my being taken to India alive, they will kill me.’’ Who will, I ask him. “The agencies, RAW, military intelligence, it is all the same.’’ He has also just told me about constant threats from the Al Qaida and I’m inclined to not take him seriously, but he goes on: “If the extradition does go through, I will open my mouth, I will not keep quiet.’’
There can be no better reason to ensure he does return to India and stands trial in court.