September 13, 2020 2:53:34 am
“If only they give me a handful of bones of my son, if only they show me where he has been buried… I would hug that mound of soil and only that would relieve me of my heartache,” says 74-year-old Bakhti Begum at her home in Tragpora in north Kashmir’s Sopore.
For nearly two decades, Bakhti Begum has waged a lonely battle against the mighty network of State-backed counter-insurgents in Kashmir, under police protection, with even her lawyer pulling out under threats. On August 28, in a rare conviction in a case against counter-insurgents, Additional Sessions Judge, Baramulla, Naseer Ahmad Dar held Abdul Qayoom Tantray guilty of abducting her son Manzoor Ahmad Wani, 28, and sentenced him to 10 years and a fine of Rs 50,000.
But it acquitted the counter-insurgent on charges of murdering the 28-year-old. Having already served 14 years behind jail during the trial, Tantray walked free and is now back at home in Tragpora, just a few hundred meters from Begum’s house.
The court order also called the Army officer accompanying Tantray at the time of the incident as the “main accused” and “prima facie” guilty of charges including murder. But, no action was ever initiated against Major S Bhattacharya of 28 Rashtriya Rifles as the authorities didn’t give sanction for his prosecution, and Judge Dar was scathing on the failure to chargesheet him in the case.
“This is not justice,” cries Bakhti Begum. “This is a joke. Justice would be if they punished Major Bhattacharya.” The 74-year-old lives with her three sons, all of them working with the J&K Police.
Around the mid-’90s, the Army and state agencies had co-opted several surrendered militants to take on the ultras. Locally known as Ikhwan, the counter-insurgents are accused of hundreds of extra-judicial killings and human rights violations.
In 2001, Wani had been on his way to Baramulla with his mother and wife when a group of counter-insurgents accompanied by Major Bhattacharya, stopped their bus and took Wani away. Bakhti Begum says a family dispute was the reason for the abduction. That was the last time anyone in the family saw him.
In 2006, a chargesheet was filed by the police against Tantray and another counter-insurgent, Ghulam Ahmad Malik alias Jehangir, over Wani’s abduction and murder. Gulzar Ahmad Bhat, a civilian, was named for conspiracy in the case. Tantray was arrested the same year.
Bakhti Begum says the family has not had peace since she lodged the complaint. “They (the counter-insurgents) raided my house… They beat my elder son. Such was their fear that nobody from the village would even dare accompany us to the police station or court. One day our lawyer folded his hands and pleaded with me that he couldn’t go on as he had been threatened.” The government had then provided protection to the family on the directions of J-K High Court.
In the 14 years of trial, most of the prosecution witnesses turned hostile. Malik was killed in a militant attack before the police could file a chargesheet. Bhat was acquitted earlier this year.
In its August 28 order, the court was scathing in its observations about action in the case, adding that the Army officer named by Bakhti Begum was “prima facie found involved in the commission of offence” under sections including 302 (murder). The court noted that he had not even been produced by military authorities nor the police informed about where he stayed now. The Wanis say they are back to living in fear . One of Bakhti Begum’s sons, Ghulam Hassan Wani, said his 18-year-old son had been beaten up by Tantray’s relatives recently as word got around that he was set to be released. “If anything happens to me, my children or grandchildren, the government and court would be responsible,” Bakhti Begum says.
Sopore SP Javid Iqbal said, “we will provide them security. We had also offered them secure accommodation but they refused.”
As hope for justice fades, the 74-year-old clings on to just the expectation of seeing Wani’s body. “If the court has found him (Tantray) guilty of abduction, why not murder?… If Tantray is only guilty of abduction, who killed him?… I want to tell the judge that it is okay if you have let him off, but give me the body of my son. Or if he is alive, produce him.”
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