The ghosts of Machil

by @jyotithottam March 20, 2015 5:00AM ET

In Kashmir, a rare guilty verdict for Indian army officers who killed three local men offers hope for the future

Ghulam Nabi Lone, an uncle of Mohammad Shafi Lone, at Shafi’s grave and those of his friends Shahzad Ahmad Khan and Riyaz Ahmed Lone in Nadihal, India, March 18, 2015. The three youths were killed by the Indian army in April 2010.
Kuni Takahashi for Al Jazeera America

NADIHAL, India — At 3 o’clock in the morning of April 30, 2010, a unit of the Indian army’s 4th Rajput Regiment was patrolling an area of the Line of Control, the de facto border that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. The soldiers were in a sector called Machil, near the Sonapindi Pass, where the foothills give way to mountains — a notorious route for armed groups infiltrating India. The soldiers “observed three persons moving suspiciously in own territory,” according to a report they filed the next day. “Sensing situation, the party commander alerted his troops, allowed terrorists to close in. At a closed quarter, 50-70 m, terrorists noticed our party and opened fire on them. Unmindful of the volley of bullets, our ambush party returned fire resulting killing of three terrorists.”

The army asked villagers in Sonapindi to bury the three men and added them to the tally of 40 “unidentified foreign militants” — fighters from Pakistan — killed in 468 infiltration attempts that year. The deaths were also added to another grim statistic: the thousands of anonymous graves found all over the hills along the LOC. The International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice has documented 2,943 such graves in three border districts of Kashmir. The area is the front line in the long-running conflict over territory between India and Pakistan and ground zero of an armed Kashmiri separatist insurgency.

But the bodies buried at Machil did not remain anonymous. Three Kashmiri families claimed the men as their sons, laborers, they said, who had nothing to do with Pakistan.

Their deaths have reverberated far beyond the mountains. Police and local activists say they were killed not in the heat of battle but by soldiers motivated by greed and a draconian law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, that they knew would protect them from civil prosecution. Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch, who has written extensively on the region, says, “This particular case became an example of everything that had gone wrong in Kashmir.”

But the story of Machil — told through interviews with the families of the men who were killed and extensive access to the police records documenting the incident — has also become a sign of what’s possible. It set in motion a rare prosecution by the Indian army of its own soldiers, with the last verdict being announced just last week, and a chance to finally end Kashmir’s decadeslong cycle of violence. Ganguly says, “Machil is the beginning.”

Three boys from Baramulla

After a 2003 cease-fire between India and Pakistan, Baramulla, the traditional trading center of Indian Kashmir, was briefly a symbol of everything that has gone right in the region. Though the main road there had become impassable during the height of the separatist insurgency in the early 1990s, India later rebuilt it in an effort to encourage cross-border trade.

In this fragile peace, the people of Baramulla district patch together a living. They eat rice from the paddy fields that haven’t yet been sold to developers, sell fruit in the markets whenever the roads are open and, failing all that, send their sons out to work as day laborers on construction sites all over the Kashmir Valley. It is a tenuous existence, but better than the open conflict of the previous decade, when young men could choose only between two kinds of exile: the life of a migrant laborer or a militant.

Nadihal, in Kashmir in northern India, March 18.
Kuni Takahashi for Al Jazeera America

These difficult choices about how to earn a living are made every day inside the brick houses of Nadihal, a village about seven kilometers (roughly four miles) west of Baramulla town where sheep, chickens and pony carts make up the only traffic. In a brightly painted room — green walls, yellow door, pink flowered curtains — Shahzad Ahmed Khan’s mother, Ayesha, talks about her eldest son. At 25, he was married with a 6-year-old child, and his only steady work was packing apples in the orchards of a neighbor. He would sometimes hitch rides to Srinagar or Baramulla for jobs, Ayesha says. “He would go with whoever paid him more.”

No matter where he went, Shahzad always carried two things in the pocket of his black checkered woolen tunic, or pheran: his mobile phone and a small diary in which he kept careful accounts of how much money he owed other people and what they owed him. One day in April 2010 Shahzad met a neighbor, Bashir Ahmed Lone, who promised him 500 rupees (about $8) for a day’s work as a porter for the army. Bashir arranged for an SUV and driver to take him to the army base at Kalaroos. Shahzad came back that day humiliated; his mother says he hadn’t been paid.

Riyaz Ahmed Lone, a handsome 20-year-old motorcycle mechanic, had a similar offer, according to his father, Yusuf. (Lone is a common surname in Kashmir, and they are not related to Bashir.) The second of eight children, Riyaz liked to wear track suits and left his brown hair long enough to tumble into his eyes. He worked with Yusuf at a motorcycle workshop and earned about 3,000 rupees a month, but constantly complained, “My pay is too little.” Riyaz went to Kalaroos without telling his parents, anticipating that they would be angry. When he got back, they warned him that he would lose his job. He told his parents he had a chance to double his pay from the first day. His mother, Naseema, says, “We never saw it, but he said he got 500 rupees.”

Mohammad Yusef Lone, father of Riyaz Ahmed Lone, at his house in Nadihal.
Kuni Takahashi for Al Jazeera America
Mohammad Shafi Lone’s family members in front of their house in Nadihal.
Kuni Takahashi for Al Jazeera America

On April 29, Bashir again sent the SUV to Nadihal. Shahzad didn’t tell his mother where he was going, but at about 9:30 a.m., he left the house, saying, “I’ll be back at 4.” Riyaz left his house the same morning, saying only, “I’ll be back by 2 p.m.”

Mohammad Shafi Lone, 19, lived just down the lane from Riyaz. Shafi had a tractor for gathering apples but “would do all kinds of work” as long as it was close to home, according to his father, Abdul Rashid. Shafi had just one goal, his father said: to save enough for the weddings of his four rose-cheeked sisters. On the morning of April 29, Abdul Rashid said, his son spoke to someone while working just outside their courtyard and left.

When Shafi didn’t come home that night, Abdul Rashid went looking for him and soon realized that there were two other families keeping the same vigil. “For eight days we regularly called him,” says Shahzad’s mother. Riyaz’s mother, Naseema, was sure that their neighbor Bashir had something to do with her son’s disappearance and hounded him, demanding, “Why are you at home?” when her son was not. “He was rotten,” Naseema says. Bashir was employed as a “special police officer,” a euphemism for “informer.” SPOs, used by state police all over India, are paid a small monthly salary to feed information to the local police about the goings-on in their village. Naseema uses another word for him: “All the village will say he is an Ikhwani.”

For Kashmiris, “Ikhwani” is spoken with the special revulsion reserved for those who betray their own and refers to a breakaway faction of the armed group the Hizb ul Mujahideen, whose members became double agents for India. The Indian security forces had a small band of former militants-turned-paid informers, or “mukhbir.” It was an effective strategy but left behind a horrific legacy of fear. In “Curfewed Night,” his memoir of growing up during the militancy of the 1990s, Basharat Peer describes being summoned to appear before an informer waiting in an armored car: “Each man was asked to stop near the window and show his face to the masked mukhbir,” he writes. “If the informer raised his hand, the soldiers pounced upon the suspect and took him away for interrogation.”

Bashir denied having anything to do with the disappearance of the three young men. But a neighbor, Fayaz Ahmad Wani, said the trio had left with Bashir, and on May 10, the three families filed missing-person reports. Shahzad’s brother also lodged a complaint, accusing Bashir of kidnapping. He was arrested 10 days later and remains in custody in Kashmir as his trial proceeds. His lawyer, Abdul Wajid Watali, says Bashir is innocent. “Why didn’t they inform the local headman (about the disappearance)?” he asks. “Why they didn’t file a complaint before police for days together? Why they waited for long?”

The ambitious officer

The missing-person case fell under the jurisdiction of Altaf Khan, the superintendent of police or SP of Sopore, a district that is considered the ideological home of the pro-Pakistan separatist movement. At the time, this was one of the few places in Kashmir where armed groups seemed to be gaining strength: About 50 fighters were believed to operate in Sopore with logistical support from a population of 300,000. Khan was assigned the career-making task of flushing out terrorists and their sympathizers from the area. “Should I be honest about it?” he asks. “To me, out of every six, one is working for a terrorist or is a terrorist.”

Tall, broad-chested and voluble, Khan, who has since been promoted to another district, lives in a spacious two-story house in one of Srinagar’s new housing developments with his wife, a banker, and their children. He entered law enforcement more than 14 years ago after abandoning a career as a scientist, and he approaches his work with academic detachment, writing action plans and papers about emerging trends in terrorism. Without guidance, he says, young people in Sopore fall prey to terror networks that offer them money to buy SIM cards, procure supplies or act as “mules” for weapons. He has tried community policing, drug de-addiction camps and “moral education” to win them over, he says, but “People are very reluctant.”

The disappearance of three laborers normally would not merit the attention of the SP, but this case intrigued him because of the alarming possibility that these young Kashmiris might have crossed the LOC to be trained in Pakistan, as thousands did in 1989. That earlier generation of indigenous separatists has been killed or co-opted or has just grown old, but there is a growing fear among security experts of a new uprising of Kashmiris joining the armed groups operating in Pakistan. “From the case-study point of view it’s very interesting, whether the locals are lured toward terrorism or not,” Khan says. “So that is actually what captivated me toward it.”

Indian soldiers on patrol in Baramulla, about 40 miles northwest of Srinagar in Kashmir, March 18.
Kuni Takahashi for Al Jazeera America

The police began with Bashir. Under interrogation, Khan said, Bashir implicated two other men, Abbas Husain Shah and Abdul Hameed Bhat, who both worked as paid informers for the army. There are few other good sources of intelligence about terrorist activity in Kashmir, according to Maj. Gen. Dipankar Banerjee, a retired Indian army officer who served in Kashmir, including in Machil. Telephone intercepts rarely reveal detailed plans, and Indian intelligence services are believed to have few, if any, human agents on the other side of the LOC. They rely on paid informers, Banerjee says. “Without them, an operation cannot succeed.”

Before he was taken into judicial custody, Abbas described his work in an interview with The Indian Express newspaper. He said his handler was Maj. Upendra Singh, an Indian army officer stationed in Baramulla, and Abbas’ job was to feed him intelligence about suspicious people in town and the surrounding villages. In April 2010, Singh had a bigger job for him: “Major sahib [Singh] asked to arrange few young men and told me that we have to send them across to Pakistan.” The men would be asked to help fighters trying to enter Indian Kashmir, carrying weapons for them and serving as their guides through the mountains. It was a clever ruse. Local Kashmiris frequently act as paid guides to groups of foreign fighters. “The infiltrators depend upon them,” Banerjee says.

Abbas asked Hameed for help and Hameed roped in Bashir. They recruited Shahzad, Riyaz and Shafi from Nadihal, brought them to the army base at Kalaroos on April 29 and got their reward: 150,000 rupees, two bottles of whiskey and two bottles of beer. Police later found 50,000 rupees in cash in a raid of Bashir’s house. Phone records submitted as evidence show numerous calls between Singh, Abbas and Hameed in the weeks leading up to April 29. Under interrogation, Abbas said the laborers had been brought to Machil and were killed on April 30 in a staged encounter made to look like a firefight. It was the same incident described so vividly as an ambush at close quarters in which the army men described shooting three “terrorists” crossing the LOC, “unmindful of a volley of bullets.”

Naseema Begum, the mother of Riyaz Ahmed Lone, holding a picture of him, with his younger brother Ubaid.
Kuni Takahashi for Al Jazeera America

“Encounter” is the term of art used for extrajudicial killings in India, and it is a shockingly common tool used by the Indian army and state police. Human Rights Watch reported in 2006 that police and army officials in Kashmir admitted “that alleged militants taken into custody are often executed instead of being brought to trial because they believe that keeping hardcore militants in jail is a security risk.”

In Kashmir, the families of men who have disappeared often suspect that they have been killed in encounters, but their complaints are seldom investigated. “You have to match the person with a body,” says HRW’s Ganguly. “That’s the trick.”

With Machil, however, Abbas’ statement matched the three missing laborers with the bodies reported by the army near the LOC. According to procedure, the army must report any killing on the LOC to the local police station. This is meant as a check on the army’s operations and also creates an official record of who was involved in any deadly encounter, which the army takes into consideration when determining raises and promotions. Khan couldn’t believe his luck. “They had actually named the chaps who did that encounter with the terrorists,” he says. “We never needed to prove that they have killed. They were telling on their own that we have killed terrorists. The only thing we had proved was that they were not terrorists. They were civilians.”

The bodies were exhumed, and post-mortems found that all three had multiple gunshot wounds to the head and torso; one also had a fractured skull. DNA analysis of hair, skin and nails matched blood samples from the three sets of parents. The men were reburied in plots adjacent to each other near their homes in Nadihal on May 29, and Khan quickly built the rest of his case. With Abbas’ statement, the DNA reports, mobile-phone records and other circumstantial evidence, Khan says, he did not need to take any of the army men into custody. That is usually a big hurdle when investigating disappearances in Kashmir: The army rarely allows civilian authorities to take custody of active-duty military. “I never needed to arrest anybody,” Khan says. On June 24, he filed charges against the three informers and the eight soldiers named in the Machil report — Abbas’ handler, Upendra Singh; his commanding officer, Col. Dinesh Pathaniya; another major; and five junior enlisted men — charging them with criminal conspiracy, abduction and murder.

Jobeena Shahzad, right, the wife of Shahzad Ahmed Khan, with their son Shahid, center, at their house in Nadihal.
Kuni Takahashi for Al Jazeera America
A family photo of Shahzad Ahmed Khan, 27, holding his son Shahid.
Kuni Takahashi for Al Jazeera America

The army began court-martial proceedings in 2013, and Singh, Pathaniya and three of the enlisted men were found guilty, stripped of their rank and pension and sentenced to life in prison. Abbas was exonerated. The court martial’s verdicts were announced in November 2014 and put under review for approval by the army’s northern command. In February, the army upheld the five convictions and, additionally, ordered a reinvestigation into Abbas’ case. Last week he, too, was convicted and received a life sentence. His sentence must also be approved by the northern command before it can be carried out. The convicted officers and soldiers have been in custody since 2010, and none of the court-martial proceedings were in open court, so it is impossible to determine how, or if, the soldiers were given any legal representation. All the soldiers involved have two more opportunities to appeal — to an armed-forces tribunal and to the Supreme Court.

Hameed and Bashir are in custody and awaiting trial on conspiracy and abduction charges in a civilian court for allegedly taking money to bring the three men to the border. Their lawyer, Watali, says there is no proof that the three laborers were seen in the company of his clients, other than the statements of the families; the court-martial verdicts have no bearing on the civilian case, he adds. “My contention is that statements of the accused who is now convicted by the court martial are not binding on me.”

The meaning of Machil

While the army would like to look at Machil as an aberration, the case has become an emblem of the larger struggles in Kashmir, between the Indian army and civilian authority, between transparency and the fog of war, between Kashmir’s past and its future.

The civilian charges filed against serving army officers represent, in one sense, a clear break from the past, when extrajudicial killings were common but prosecution was rare. “The Machil verdict should mark a turning point for human rights in Jammu and Kashmir,” wrote Shailesh Rai, programmes director at Amnesty International India, when the first convictions were announced in November.

The relative calm prevailing in Indian Kashmir has helped to make this possible. There is also an elected government in Srinagar and a police force that is trying to assert its authority over the army and show that it can maintain law and order on its own. “The police are much more empowered now,” Ganguly says. “A civilian government is much more accountable.” In addition, Indian officials and independent security experts say that popular support for militants has largely dried up, with the remaining terrorist activity rooted in Pakistan.

And yet these peacetime deaths shocked Kashmir even after a decadeslong conflict, in which an estimated 60,000 civilians have died. The three men from Nadihal were not caught in crossfire or in a case of mistaken identity; they were not accidentally killed during interrogation or by soldiers in the heat of battle. Nor were they hardened terrorists subject to frontier justice, a common perception in India of fake encounters. Ajai Sahni, an expert on counterterrorism and director of the Institute for Conflict Management, explains the rationale: Soldiers think, “So the guy is going to get out and again do what he was doing, so shoot him,” Sahni says. “So there is a kind of institutional sanction … This is not that kind of a case.”

Indian soldiers on patrol in Gurez, near the Line of Control, in 2012.
Farooq Khan / Getty Images

The motives in Machil, according to the charges filed by police, were more banal: greed and ambition. The 4th Rajput battalion was due to leave the LOC in early May 2010, and until the encounter on April 30, the unit at Machil had reported no successful kills or captures of militants, nor seized any weapons, hurting the officers’ chances for advancement. Khan says that the unit received a 600,000-rupee reward for its report of killing three militants and that it fabricated the seizure memo listing arms and ammunition recovered to bolster its case for promotions.

A 2005 diplomatic cable revealed by Wikileaks raised a warning about the perverse incentives for human-rights abuses in Kashmir, even during peacetime. Officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross told the then-U.S. ambassador to India, David Mulford, that after the 2003 cease-fire and extensive human-rights training, abuses still continue because “security forces need promotions.”

A spokesman for the army’s northern command declined to comment on the Machil case or its significance and referred all questions to army spokesmen in Kashmir, who did not respond to multiple calls and messages seeking comment.

Undisciplined soldiers may commit excesses in any situation, says Sahni, but at the height of the insurgency, “maybe the opportunities for legitimate rewards were higher.” Today maybe some of the commanding officers find themselves kicking their heels in Kashmir and think, “‘It’s an insurgency-affected area,’” he says, ““but I am not getting any opportunity to go out and do anything.’”

The 50,000 rupees paid to each of the three informers seemed to confirm these fears. “They were literally sold,” says Sajjad Lone, a former separatist who is now a state legislator in Kashmir. “Even in the context of a lot of human rights violations in Kashmir, this will attract more outrage.”

The final reckoning

Shahzad Ahmed Khan’s brother Showkat Ahmed Khan, left, and father, Ghulam Mohammad Khan.
Kuni Takahashi for Al Jazeera America

It began with a small protest organized by the families in Nadihal after their sons disappeared. The anger grew, moving along the Baramulla road to Srinagar in the summer of 2010. During one of those demonstrations, a 17-year-old boy was killed, allegedly by a tear-gas canister fired by security forces. His death sparked wider protests demanding not only justice for the three killed at Machil but also an end to what many Kashmiris consider a 20-year occupation by the Indian armed forces. During the protests, more than 100 Kashmiris were killed by police, fueling the outrage and, according to some security analysts, renewed radicalization among young people who were not even born when the original Kashmiri separatist movement began. Recent clashes in the border areas — by Pakistan-trained fighters as well as local Kashmiris — have added to those fears.

India has a chance to break this cycle of violence. The army insists that military courts like the one that handed down the convictions in the Machil case will hold soldiers accountable for abuses. After two young men were shot and killed in November 2014 at an army checkpoint in Kashmir, the military quickly claimed responsibility and said it would prosecute. But under intense popular pressure, the fragile coalition government in Kashmir has made a repeal or, at least, a scaling back, of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act a centerpiece of its legislative agenda. That will be difficult with a strongman, Narendra Modi, as prime minister, and few in the government willing to challenge the army. Until AFSPA is repealed, many Kashmiris will always view India as an unaccountable, occupying force and the desire for “azaadi,” or independence, will persist.

The army is one of the few institutions in India that is widely respected as meritocratic and disciplined, and the Indian government is unlikely to challenge it, but this is a rare opportunity to raise questions. The armed forces are already on the defensive after a series of corruption scandals over the past few years that have muddied their image. Machil has prompted some further soul-searching. Ajai Shukla, a retired colonel in the Indian army and the strategic affairs editor for the Business Standard newspaper, said the case is the “inevitable outcome” of prolonged counterinsurgency deployment in Kashmir over the last 20 years. “It has deeply corrupted the culture of the Indian army,” he said. “I am almost convinced that there are more Machils that take place which never come to justice.”

Twenty years of counterinsurgency operations have also badly eroded Kashmiris’ faith in India’s institutions. What would restore it? Shukla and many other observers say that only a political settlement in Kashmir and an end to militarization in the region can change the culture of the army. Human-rights groups have called for a comprehensive investigation into all the unsolved disappearances and anonymous graves that pockmark Kashmir’s hills. But there is little political will in New Delhi to subject the armed forces to general scrutiny for past actions. “A lot of unspeakable things have happened,” says M.K. Bhadrakumar, a political analyst and retired diplomat. “What do you gain on the balance sheet when you go to the bottom of the pit?”

Talks between India and Pakistan, meanwhile, have been at an impasse for months, stalled by the recent escalation of cross-border violence and a decision by Pakistan to meet with Kashmiri separatists. 

Naseema Begum in the family’s kitchen.
Kuni Takahashi for Al Jazeera America

Meanwhile, both countries continue to ignore the unspoken truth about azaadi in Kashmir: that for all their anger, very few Kashmiris on the Indian side of the LOC truly want to leave. The pull of India is strong, and the appeals of Pakistan are few. Yet “azaadi” persists as a hope and a dream. As long as the violence of the past remains unaccounted for, it will mean not just “We want to be free from India” but also “We will never be free to join you.” One day, there may be a reckoning. “The gaps that remain in people’s lives — that has to be accounted for,” says Ganguly. “How hard is it to tell these families that their loved ones are dead? That … truth-telling shows the character of a nation.”

Riyaz’s mother, Naseema, refers to all this, the trouble and fear and doubt, as “the bad halat,” the situation: “This is why people think of India as the enemy.” She has a more immediate fear: reprisal from Bashir and his allies. Still, the families in Nadihal have the peace of mind that comes from knowing what happened to their sons, enough to feel sorry for the families of the other men still buried on the LOC. There have been so many graves that the village religious committees took up the task of marking each one with a piece of metal sheeting nailed to a wooden spike. Shahzad’s mother, Asha, displays the marker for her son’s grave. Painted on it in black Urdu script is the date of burial, a number (Shahzad’s body was No. 2, of three buried in that row), some identification of personal effects (his black checkered robe) and a prayer (“He came from God, and to God he will return”). She treasures this. The other mothers have only ghosts.