TLI Exclusive | 27 Years On, Victims Of Sopore Massacre That Left 57 Dead, Await Justice
It has been 27 years since the 1993 Sopore Massacre befell the quaint north-western apple town of the Kashmir valley.
A glaring example of the use of brute and violent force by the Indian Army in the Valley, it refers to the morning of 6th of January in 1993 when the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) went on a fevered 4-hour-long killing spree leaving 57 people dead and over 400 buildings charred and rubbled.
Of a land burdened with remembrances of many bloody carnages such as Gawkadal, Handwara, Kunan Poshpora, Kupwara, Bijbehara, the Sopore massacre is one of the rare few that have been acknowledged by the Indian state.
The acknowledgement first came in the form of the acceptance of a First Information Report, that was filed in Sopore in 1993, registered as ‘FIR Number 8/1993’ by Muhammad Ilyas – president, Anjaman-i-Munir-ul-Islam. The FIR accused the BSF of killing 57 people and burning down a total of 400 houses and shops in the town.
The report charged the 94th Battalion of BSF under sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder) and 436 (mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses) of the Ranbir Penal Code (RPC).
Ranbir Penal Code was Jammu and Kashmir’s version of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which now stands null and void post abrogation of Article 370.
In response to the FIR filed by Muhammad Ilyas, the Border Security Force filed a counter FIR, registered as ‘FIR Number 9/1993’ under the same sections of the RPC charged in FIR Number 8, in addition to Section 3 (25) of the Indian Arms Act, and Section 4 (iii) of TADA (Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Act), accusing the villagers of cross-firing and subsequent damage to the armed battalion.
The high number of casualties that shook the world’s press, even caused the TIME Magazine to print its version of the massacre under the headline: ‘Blood Tide Rising‘ with an introduction that read: “Perhaps there is a special corner in hell reserved for soldiers who fired their weapons indiscriminately into a crowd of unarmed civilians.”
This case of brutal carnage had taken place against the backdrop of a communications blackout that the valley was suffering from since several months. Communication servers with the rest of India were paralysed after a micro-wave transmission tower was attacked. The government had accused separatist militants of causing the blackout, but the militant outfits then had claimed that the government had imposed it ‘to shield its ruthless tactics from scrutiny’.
The United Kingdom’s Independent had covered the mass murder from its New Delhi desk a few days after its occurrence. It reported that senior officials in India had “admitted that members of the paramilitary had gone on a ‘shameful’ rampage of killing in the mountainous state of Kashmir on Wednesday (6th Jan 1993).
The then Indian government, under the prime ministership of P V Narasimha Rao, had claimed that the high casualties were the result of an intense gun battle between the BSF soldiers and terrorists in which explosives belonging to the militants had exploded, spreading fire to nearby buildings. “But this version failed to explain why so many of the bodies were riddled with bullets” the Independent had said.
Among the 57 dead civilians, 48 had died due to bullet injuries and 9 were burnt alive, Rising Kashmir reported eyewitnesses saying.
On the day that succeeded the massacre (7th January 1993, Thursday), innumerable Kashmiris, mostly women, defied a government-imposed curfew to protest on the streets of Sopore, against the actions of the BSF soldiers.
The Indian government very quickly ordered an official inquiry into the incident due to what is speculated to be a consequence of tremendous public and international pressure. The incumbent state governor Girish Saxena was commanded to visit the wrecked area and the Prime Minister’s Office authorised a payment of Rs 1 lakh as compensation to the relatives of the deceased. The state’s healing touch was met with the Left’s criticism who demanded that a parliamentary delegation be sent to Kashmir to inspect the excesses of the armed forces in the region.
Nevertheless, the government set up a one-person commission of inquiry on January 30, 1993, comprising of Justice Amarjeet Choudhary to look into the details of the incident. Between 30 January 1993 and 30 April 1994, the one-person commission visited Jammu and Kashmir once. Subsequently, the government called its own commission a ‘farce’ and wound it up, procuring no report from Justice Amarjeet Choudhary.
Simultaneously, FIR Number 8/1993 was referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in the same month, which took 20 years to complete its investigation.
In 2013, when the CBI finally came out with its report, it stated that: “The list of 51 victims submitted by the complainant was cross-checked with the records collected by the CBI during the investigation and it was found out that out the 51 persons, names of 33 figure in the investigation record.”
The Logical Indian reached out to Parvez Imroz, President of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS), who said: “The case was closed by the investigation bureau on the account of ‘non-cooperation’ by the victims with the claim that it was hard to locate them. But we say that the probe into the massacre was not fair and cannot be called ‘justice’ in any way.”
Parvez Imroz, who runs JKCCS – a renowned human rights organisation, has been leading the fight for the victims of the Sopore massacre.
“We had filed a protest petition against the 2013 report of the CBI in a TADA court in Srinagar. The court, on December 31, 2019, dismissed our petition but we will not give up”, he said.
Tabish Latif, a lawyer working with the JKCCS, read out the operative conclusion of FIR Number 8/1993 to The Logical Indian. The official conclusion written against the FIR lodged by Ilyas for the survivors, mentioned the 2001 court-martial as consolation for justice.
“On 11th of October, 2001, the BSF officers implicated were tried in a general security court, under the BSF Act of 1968. They were charged under the RPC for their offences in Sopore”, she read stating the summary of the FIR’s operative conclusion.
“We have requested the court to make the proceedings of the general security court public and available to us, but that wasn’t done quoting section 47 of the BSF Act” she added.
What Instigated BSF?
As per the official files and copies of the FIR Tabish had, she told us that FIR Number 9/1993 said that it was difficult to deduce which BSF personnel first opened fire.
“They have said that there was an attack on their battalion due to which Constable Arvind Pandey was killed. There is also a statement claiming that Constable Jagat Pal’s LMG (Light Machine Gun) was snatched by a ‘militant’ and he was subsequently injured in the tussle”, she informed, reading out the lines in the FIR.
Kashmir Life’s extensive survivors’ account on the Sopore tragedy stated that the killings were an outcome of a clash between eight militants who were attempting to leave the town when they faced a BSF patrol at Baba Yousuf Gali near Women’s Degree College, Main Chowk, Sopore.
A militant allegedly lobbed a grenade and it triggered a scare. A border guard who was eating apple nearby (Jagat Pal) had his LMG seized by unmanned militants which led to a fire exchange. As a result, a militant was injured along with two BSF personnel (Arvind Pandey Jagat Pal Singh), one of whom (Pandey) later succumbed to his wounds.
Soon, the two sides evicted their men from the site with their injured comrades and additional BSF reinforcements were rushed towards the spot.
“The rest is history,” it reads.
After the court-martial of 2001 and the following proceedings in the TADA court, FIR Number 9/1993 was disposed by the judge and the dismissed protest petition’s copy has not been handed over to the JKCCS lawyers owing to the judges’ vacation that is set to end on January 15 this year.
“We hope to get a copy of the court’s reasoning for dismissing our protest petition after their vacation. We were not satisfied with their 2013 judgement that relied on the BSF personnel’s court-martial as the final punishment for their offences. The main accused in the case have not yet been tried and they have not yet been even considered for trial. Our fight continues”, Parvez Imroz said.
“The court-martial file has not been shared with us upon BSF’s refusal. The CBI record has names of ten BSF officers/personnel who could be indicted in this case, including the then DIG RS Jasrotia, Sector Headquarters, BSF, Baramulla and Commandant S Thanggapan, all of the 94th Battalion, but the investigating officers have sought to rely on the BSF court-martial to close investigations”, he added.
Stating the information collated through an RTI, Imroz said that the court-martial process was clearly an attempt to cover up the massacre as only seven BSF personnel were prosecuted, guilty of only “Mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, etc”. The maximum punishment awarded was “3 months rigorous imprisonment in force custody”.
Even the survivors of the Sopore massacre had contested the closure of the case, and the CBI was asked by the TADA court in Srinagar to produce the entire investigation report on 20 January 2014.
Report Made Public
Sections of the CBI’s investigation are accessible through digitalised newspaper articles which have quoted relevant bits of the report.
The media reportage on the CBI file came into public limelight when the chairperson of the International Forum for Justice and Human Rights (IFJHR), Muhammad Ahsan Untoo registered a petition in Jammu and Kashmir’s State Human Rights Commission.
The petitioner claimed that 77 civilians were killed while 100 houses and 300 shops were torched in 1993 during the Sopore massacre by BSF men.
In order to respond to the petition, the CBI filed its findings before the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) and disclosed that all the accused persons who were found guilty during the court of inquiry (CoI) were tried by the general security force’s court and awarded sentence.
The report stated that as per law, “No one once can be tried and punished twice for the same offences as the same will amount to ‘double jeopardy.'”
“Constable Mohan Singh was dismissed from the service by his Unit on December 12, 1996, and his name too was deleted from the charge sheet. Thus, all the accused personnel who were found guilty during the Court of Inquiry and Record of Evidence proceedings were tried by the General Security Force Court under the BSF Act and Rules and based on the findings, and the Court has awarded sentences to the accused persons,” it read.
The report also stated, jibing at the SHRC’s involvement, that “as per the human rights act, when in a matter, a final report has been filed under Section 173, CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure), in the competent court and the matter is sub-judice, the jurisdiction of the commission (SHRC) to entertain any other complaint is not maintainable.”
But, the petitioner, Muhammad Ahsan Untoo, along with the survivors and their advocates at JKCCS have argued that the names of the BSF personnel who were charged under sections 304, 307 and 436 of the RPC have not been communicated and no information about where the convicted BSF men were lodged for serving their sentence has been made public.
“The victims and survivors, invoking the misuse of Section 173 (8) of the CrPC, had challenged in our protest petition that the 2013 report was an unfair investigation”, Parvez Imroz informed.
“We felt that we had argued our case really well in the TADA court but the judge ended up dismissing our petition and dissolving FIR Number 9/1993”, Tabish Latif added.
Ghosts Of 1993 That Still Haunt
The chilling eyewitness records and survivors’ accounts claim that the BSF troopers herded native Kashmiris into their shops and houses that morning as they rioted across town. The forces then allegedly shot them, splashed paraffin over the bodies and set their homes on fire.
Officially, more than 250 shops and 50 homes were destroyed, but Kashmir sources claim that more than 450 buildings were burnt down. More than 20 bodies might have been trapped under the smoking rubble, which were retrieved much later.
The BSF also sprayed gun powder and petrol on many surrounding buildings, shops, and houses and set them alight.
Around five localities including Shalpora, Shahabad, Muslimpeer, Kraltang and Arampora were turned into ashes. In the long rows of wood and cement structures that were set ablaze, landmarks like Women’s Degree College and Samad Talkies (movie hall) were also pulverised.
One of the most numbing parts of the massacre is the eyewitness account of the uniformed men killing everyone on board in a Bandipora bound state transportation bus, bearing the registration number JKY-1901.
Greater Kashmir (GK) recorded one such survivor stating: “Among the 57 dead civilians, scores had been burnt alive. The troopers dragged the driver out of a bus and showered bullets on the passengers on board, resulting in the on-spot death of 20 passengers.”
Another eyewitness speaking to GK added: “A day before the massacre, one of our fruit-laden trucks had got stuck in a drain near the main Chowk. Four members of our family who were recovering the truck that day had taken shelter in a shop when the BSF troops started firing at the people. The BSF men entered that shop and killed them all.”
What Next For The Survivors?
“The Sopore victims have very bravely taken up this fight. They have been very organised in persistently following up and fighting for justice”, Parvez Imroz said.
According to the senior advocate, many victims of Kashmir’s various massacres give up their battle owing to the taxing machinery of the Indian judiciary. “In this case, the victims are struggling in every way possible”, he added.
“For example, the case of the Kunan Poshpora victims is still with the Supreme Court.”
The Logical Indian asked him what was the ideal outcome for the victims of the Sopore tragedy, to which he said: “More than anything, it has to vindicate the Kashmiri victims and Kashmiri human rights groups – who have been campaigning for justice for so long. The full and just acknowledgement of the state’s and army’s crimes by the judiciary is emancipatory and a much-needed acceptance from a formidable verticle of the Indian administration that the oppression, repression, and suppression of Kashmiris is systemic.”