In the early morning of 27th March, 1996, a college going student Abid Hussain, from Kurus Raj Bagh, walked to the banks of Jhelum. He saw a body floating in a sack bag down the river. It had got entangled with the lines of two boats anchored ahead. Abid raised an alarm, soon more people from the neighborhood gathered and pulled the body towards the banks. The body’s waist was tied by a rope around it. It wasn’t an unusual sight for the people living near the banks. In those days, many bodies and body parts would come ashore. Sometimes bones with flesh hanging from it, sometimes sacks containing decapitated heads.
The neighbours took off the sackcloth from the body’s face. The eyes were gouged out and the body bore injury marks. It was a familiar face of someone who had lived in that neighbourhood – a young advocate by the name of Jaleel ul Qadir Andrabi. He was tortured and then thrown into the Jhelum, a usual practice in the 1990s of the Indian forces in Kashmir. A fact revealed by the post-mortem report said that he was killed weeks before his body had surfaced. The report stated that there wounds to the head and facial bones were broken, skin all over the head body was loose and peeling, gunshot wounds to the head that resulted in his death.
Months before his assassination, Jaleel had confided in his brother that there were masked gunmen stalking him. The threat of assassination was always there. He had dared the state with his fierce courage to hold them accountable to a dirty war waged on the people of Kashmir. Widespread cases of rapes, arsons, massacres, murders, destruction of paddy fields etc were used by the Indian state to break the will of Kashmiris. Jaleel, had founded the Kashmir Commission of Jurists which looked into these reports and fought to release prisoners, filed scores of habeas corpus on behalf of the prisoners. He won rulings to prevent the army from conducting torture and extra judicial killings. He also took on the black laws operating in Kashmir. Jaleel, was a fierce advocate of independence of Kashmir and was part of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.
In the early 1990s, Hriday Nath Wanchoo, a prominent Human Rights activist was assassinated by unidentified gunmen after he had reported human rights abuses by the Indian forces. Later Dr Abdul Ahad Guru, a prominent cardiologist and an ideologue of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front was assassinated by unidentified gunmen. Dr Farooq Ashai who had also documented the torture and custodial killings, was also assassinated by the Central Reserve Police Force. Mian Qayoom, a prominent lawyer who had also documented the human rights abuses, survived an assassination attempt in April 1995. Advocate Abdul Qadir Sailani was also assassinated in October in Srinagar. Therein lay a pattern of silencing those who spoke against the abuses of the Indian state in Kashmir.
In 1995, Jaleel had gone to attend and address the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. He frequently called on the Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists, and Amnesty International. He was also a frequent visitor to the United States’ State Department.
After coming to know about the threats, Jaleel shifted his base to New Delhi for a month where he had meetings with the Indian civil society and different diplomats to bring their attention to Kashmir. He had raised the issue of human rights abuses by the Indian state in Kashmir. He was also due to address the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva again in 1996. Something which wasn’t likened by the Indian state. This had put a target on his back, surveillance on him was heightened. Indian state saw his vocal attitude and courage, as a threat to their ‘work’ in Kashmir.
In March 8th of 1996, he came back to Kashmir to be with his family on Eid. On the day of Eid, Jaleel was travelling with his wife, Rifat Andrabi towards home. His car came to a halt, when an Army contingent led by a Sikh Army Major stopped him at a make-shift checkpoint on the road. The planning was meticulous, the area was cordoned and surrounded by military vehicles for three continuous days. Jaleel was caught by the army and thrown into a military truck at Parraypora. A blanket was thrown over his head. Rifat pleaded with the head officer, but he sped off with his troops. Rifat couldn’t drive, she took an auto-rickshaw travelling nearby to give the trucks a chase. The trucks were too fast for the auto-rickshaw, this was the last time Rifat saw of his fierce courageous husband.
The same evening, Rifat went to file an FIR naming the army personnel for the abduction of Jaleel. The FIR was refused by a local police station in Saddar area. One report by the Amnesty. International says that there was interference from the police, army and central government to not mention the Army in the abduction report. Later that night, Rifat got a call from Inspector General of Police, assuring her that Jaleel was ‘with them’ and he would be released after investigation. The High Court Bar Association filed a habeas corpus directing the agencies and the army to declare the whereabouts of Jaleel. The Rashtriya Rifles, part of the Army said that they do not operate in the area. Police had told the family to mention unknown persons instead of the Army had abducted Jaleel. They agreed reluctantly as they were told, that doing so will release Jaleel. On 13 march, the FIR was finally registered but Jaleel was still not released.
After an uproar, a special investigation team (SIT) was instated. The Army repeatedly said that Major Avatar Singh the man who had abducted Jaleel, did so in his individual capacity. They also cited their unawareness over his whereabouts. It was only after an Indian Express reporter, Hartosh Singh Bal tracked him down in Ludhiana. The report was never published but Hartosh says that Avatar had said that he was made into a scapegoat.
A pro government militia, Ashraf Khan said that he had heard Andrabi being tortured by Singh in custody. He also said that Jalil was shot in the head and his body was driven in a car and thrown into Jhelum. To destroy any possible evidence and eyewitnesses that could incriminate him, he killed five of his pro-govt militia who were an accomplice when he abducted Jaleel.
The High Court in 1997, had directed the government and the police to impound his Indian passport and also to keep a watch on him. In fact a red corner notice was issued by the INTERPOL. In 2004, the Army told the court that it intended to court martial Avatar Singh rather than take him to civil courts. In 2006, Avatar Singh had applied for a political asylum in Canada, on grounds that Indian state was framing him for the murder. The Canadian government rejected his application. Somewhere in 2006-07, Avatar Singh had somehow entered the United States illegally. The Canadian stance to reject applications of Indian Army personnel accused of war-crimes was dropped in 2010. After it went public in the Indian media, and the government accused the Canadian government of hurting India’s sensitivity on Kashmir. Reeling in recession, Canada withdrew its policy.
Major Avatar Singh was not only responsible for the murder of Jaleel Andrabi but he was known as tyrant in Srinagar. Called, “Bulbul” the nightingale by his colleagues, he had abducted and killed many youngsters from various localities. He always had his band of men, a group of pro-government militia called ‘The Ikhwan’, the Khmer Rouge of Kashmir who are accused of thousands of war crimes. They would kill a person, and dispose of his body by the highway so that one, there would be no evidence, two the media and the government would blame it on pro-independence fighters. The Ikhwan were patronised by the Indian army with money and weapons. They also participated in counter-insurgency operations alongside the army. They would loot and extort money, rape women and kill at will. One of their heads Yusuf Parray or Kukka Parray became a legislator in the Kashmir assembly in 1996.
Avatar Singh had married a Kashmiri Sikh woman from Jawahar Nagar locality in Srinagar. He would kill people on the request of his inlaws, personal animosities and to settle family scores. He killed a tailor Balbir Singh from Mahjoor Nagar in 1997 because the family owed debts. He also killed the lover of his sister in law, in cold blooded murder.
Avatar Singh was notorious for his torture techniques, an eyewitness remembers that at Palhallan Camp in 1997, he had brought a local teacher and shoved his torn undershirt into his mouth with a cane. The teacher died. He was also notorious for burning people alive in an iron tank inside the Shariefabad camp.
In 2000, a police steam went to Karnal in Haryana where Major Avatar Singh was posted in a regiment of Territorial Army. Despite court orders, the police failed to arrest him. In December 2000, the police filed a chargesheet without producing the accused, unheard in criminal law. Several warrants were issued against Avatar Singh, but to no avail. At the same time the Indian government, according to Jaleel’s brother Arshid facilitated Avatar Singh to obtain travel documents and allowed him to cross immigration in blatant violation of court orders.
After many years of silence on the absconding war-criminal Major Avatar Singh. In 2011, a woman in Salem called the police station over domestic abuse by her husband. When the husband was brought to the station, he was interrogated. His name popped up on the computer screen. There was a red-corner Interpol notice on him. It was Major Avatar Singh in a new avatar.
Zahid Rafiq, a young Kashmiri journalism student was in Berkeley when the appearance of Avatar Singh came to fore. He went to Selma to interview the man who had been involved in many cases of abuse. He met the police chief, who informed him that they had issued a notice to the Interpol’s Washington office and they had told the chief to hold him till they made contact with the Indian counterparts. The Interpol Spokesperson said that contact was made but there was little to no response.The Indian government was responsible to initiate extradition process to begin. But they did not.
Meanwhile Avatar Singh had built a flourishing trucking company called Jay Truck Line named after his youngest son.
The police chief waited for two days, and he released Avatar Singh. After Zahid had spoken to few people in the community about his desire to interview the man. Avatar called him, and threatened him with death, “Just set your foot in Selma and I will shoot you . I will kill you.”
Avatar Singh filed a complaint and a restraining order was issued against Zahid Rafiq. Singh was also pending removal (deportation) while investigation in his ongoing case continued. He was arrested in July 2007 by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for his illegal presence in the United States for deportation. In December 2009, US Interpol confirmed the presence of the accused in California and sought a formal request for his arrest and extradition. But Indian Ministry of External Affairs delayed the extradition and did not send a formal request to the US government.
During the June of 2011, Harinder Singh Bal, the Indian Express journalist who had first found him in 1998 spoke to Avatar Singh in the Open Magazine. Avatar Singh claimed that, “ There is no question of my being taken to India alive, they will kill me… The agencies, RAW, military intelligence, it is all the same…if the extradition does go through, I will open my mouth , I will not keep quiet.”
Two days after his threatening call to Zahid Rafiq, Avatar Singh again called the police. But this time he said that he had murdered his three children and his wife and was about to kill himself.
The police reached his home only to find Avatar Singh and his entire family in a pool of blood. His children were Chris, 17, Aryan,15 and Jay 3. It was a mysterious killing, after a tumultuous week of being exposed and his cover blown.
According to his friend Sudarshan Sharma who told reddif.com, that it looked like an organised crime and that he did not believe he killed himself and his family.
Arshid Andrabi, the brother of Jaleel, feels sad over the shooting of his family by Avatar Singh, saying that these deaths could have been avoided, had India extradited Avatar Singh from the United States. Arshid also says that the pursuit of justice for Jaleel Andrabi’s killers will continue, as it wasn’t just Avatar who killed him but there were many who supported him.
Avatar Singh had said, that he received instructions from other officers to bump off Jaleel Andrabi.
Ultimately, it shows that India instead of putting the war-criminals to justice, has helped and facilitated them. Avatar Singh received the President’s Award for bravery four times. He had also been stationed in Assam before he unleashed his carnage in Kashmir.
There are many such Major Avatar Singh’s who used their power to commit crimes against the people of Kashmir at the behest of winning ‘hearts’ and ‘minds’. The crimes of the state have got unpunished for over decades. Despite the challenges and adversities, many Kashmiris are following the footsteps of Jaleel ul Qadir Andrabi. That in itself is a great tribute to the man who lost his life, to honour the sacrifices of people and for an independent Kashmir.