On Friday morning, Kashmir-based newspapers carried variations of the same grim headline: “Army beats lecturer to death in Khrew” (Greater Kashmir), “One killed, several injured as forces goes berserk in Khrew” (Kashmir Monitor), “Army men beat young lecturer to death in Khrew” (Rising Kashmir). They were accompanied by pictures of a man stretched out on a hospital bed, deep, angry welts running across his back.

Reports described a night raid conducted by security forces, including the army, in Sharshali village in the Khrew area of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Hundreds of security personnel allegedly barged into homes, beat up residents, including elderly people and children, and took away at least 30 youth from the village.

Among them was Shabir Ahmed Mangoo, a 30-year-old contractual lecturer, whose body was handed over to the sub-district hospital in Pulwama the next morning. Doctors said he bore marks of torture.

An FIR has been lodged against unknown security forces personnel, with charges that include murder, attempt to murder and criminal conspiracy. But FIRs have been lodged against security forces in Kashmir before. Justice for such crimes has been fraught with complications every step of the way, from the filing of the initial complaint, to investigation and evidence gathering, to the trial of such cases in the court, if they ever do make it to civilian courts.

Kunan Poshpora incident

For many in Kashmir, the harrowing night in Khrew will bring back memories of Kunan Poshpora. On night of February 23-24, 1991, soldiers of the 4th Rajputana Rifles conducted a cordon and search operations in the village of Kunan and Poshpora, during which they allegedly raped anywhere between 23 and 100 women. The blurring of what exactly happened that night started almost immediately.

The first government official to visit the villages was deputy commissioner SM Yasin. He wrote a letter to the divisional commissioner in which he said he was “ashamed to put in black and white” the brutalities that had occurred that night. Yasin later claimed he was threatened and offered promotions in a bid make him change his report.

Yasin’s findings would soon be overshadowed by other official reports that followed. Then divisional commissioner Wajahat Habibullah visited the site a few weeks later and speculated about an “orgy” that might have taken place. A fact-finding mission from the Press Council of India, sent by the defence ministry at the behest of the army, concluded that incident was a “massive hoax orchestrated by militant groups”. Habibullah has since claimed that his report was heavily edited and the PCI document has been widely criticised as biased. But the damage was already done.

Through successive police inquiries, the facts of the case seemed to recede further into ambiguity. An initial investigation spoke to witnesses, provided medical reports to support the claims and confirmed that rapes had taken place. That investigation was abruptly closed and a fresh inquiry set up in July 1991. Four months later, the case was closed as “untraced”. It was only in June 2013, when the police filed a closure report, that the Kupwara district court ordered that the case be reopened and a fresh investigation launched.

But over two decades later, evidence has disappeared and memories have faded. The night of February 23-24 has passed into folklore while the army continues to deny any crime was committed.

The army fold

And this was a case that saw the light of day in civilian courts. In a region where the army operates under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, soldiers are protected from civilian prosecutions unless the Centre gives the go ahead. It has meant that most cases disappear into army courts, screened from public view and with opaque methods of functioning. In the past, verdicts handed out by such courts have suggested that the army would rather protect its own than hold them accountable for crimes.

The Pathribal encounter case of 2000, in which army personnel were accused of killing seven civilians and passing them off as foreign militants, wound its way through the Central Bureau of Investigation, the civilian courts and finally back into the army fold, where the five accused were given a clean chit in January 2014.

For years, the case was caught in a tug of war between the CBI, which claimed it was “cold-blooded murder” and did not need Central sanction for prosecution, and the army, which maintained that it was a genuine encounter and needed prior sanction. Eventually, the Supreme Court gave the army the discretion to choose whether the case should go through a civilian court or through its own court of inquiry. The army chose the latter.

After the Poonch encounter, it took the CBI 15 years to register a case against army and police personnel accused of killing 19 people in August 1998. In the intervening years, the state human rights commission had submitted its report to the Jammu and Kashmir government, families of victims had filed a writ petition and the state high court had directed the CBI to investigate the case. The CBI had tried to lob the matter to the National Investigation Agency. Eighteen years after the killings, there is little progress in the case.

The rare exception is the Machhil encounter case, where three youths were shot near the line of control in 2010 and buried as foreign militants. The army pulled the case out of the trial court in Sopore, invoking AFSPA, and set up its own proceedings. In November 2014, five army men were handed life sentences for the killings.

The Khrew aftermath

The army has now expressed regret over the killing at Khrew and promised to set up an inquiry. If justice for Khrew is to be left to the army, it is to be hoped the case will follow the Machil trajectory rather than Pathribal. If it is probed and tried by civilian courts, facts should be investigated before they turn cold, reports should be followed up and legal proceedings should be allowed to take their due course.

Khrew should not become another Kunan Poshpora in the folklore of the Valley.