One of the lesser known facts of the Bijbehara massacre which was allegedly carried out by BSF personnel on 22 October 1993 is that 25 of the 40 slain persons were students who were buried in the park where they would often play.
The victims were fired at when they were marching on the Srinagar-Jammu highway protesting against the government forces’ siege of Hazratbal shrine, one of the holiest places in the Valley, where some militants were holed up.
More than 200 protesters were injured in the firing.
One of the deceased students was a 16-year-old orphan, Muhammad Shafi Hamdani son of late Abdul Rashid Hamdani. His mother also died some time later, leaving behind three daughters.
Another 16-year-old orphan, the only son of his parents, Manzoor Ahmad Badroo son of late Ghulam Qadir Badroo also lost his life, leaving behind his ailing mother and five sisters.
His mother, Fazi Begum, according to the neighbours, developed multiple psycho-social problems and remained confined to her home only after the death of her son.
Afroz Ahmad, 11, son of Abdul Rashid Zargar and a student of class 5 was another victim.
Locals remember most of these boys as good cricketers who often played cricket at the public park in the New Colony, Bijbehara, as the sports ground was used by the youth who were elder to them.
“No space was left in the local graveyard as well as the martyrs’ graveyard so we buried them in the same public park they used to play,” said Abdul Rasheed Waza whose nephew Javaid Ahmad was also killed in the massacre.
Muhammad Shafi, a resident said, “The troopers fired bullets on the funeral procession and the movement of the people was curtailed as a result of which we were forced to bury people in the park.”
Though an enquiry was initiated into the incident, it remained inconclusive and 17 years down the line, the families of victims are still awaiting justice.
Witnesses alleged that BSF deputy commandant JK Radola fired the first shot on the unarmed marchers. “His troopers of 74 battalion followed the suit,” they said.
Noor Muhammad Vaid, an elderly local resident who claims to have witnessed the incident, said, “After the Friday prayers around 10,000 people gathered in the lawns of the local Jamia Masjid to protest against the siege. As the procession reached Gooriwa locality, the BSF men closed in on them from three sides and opened fire indiscriminately, killing at least 30 people on the spot and injuring more than 200 others. Later, 10 more succumbed to the injuries taking the toll to 40. The firing continued for several minutes with the troops targeting the crowd and those who were injured.”
According to the doctors, most people could have been saved had the ambulances and medical aid been allowed to reach the victims.
“The BSF men even fired at the wounded inside the hospital complex, killing and injuring more,” they said.
Showkat Ahmad, a witness said: “A youth Muhammad Shafi Wagay, whose house was a few yards from the site, somehow managed to take his grievously wounded brother Abdur Rashid to the hospital. But when he reached the hospital lawn, the BSF men shot him (Muhammad Shafi Wagay) dead on the spot.”
Abdur Rashid, who was injured, spent about a month in the hospital and survived.
Two days after the carnage, BSF commandant SC Kokerei, claimed that 17 of the slain “were found to be militants.”
“According to these claims one of the deceased, 15-year-old Abdur Rashid Vaid, son of Abdul Hamid Vaid was a JKSLF militant responsible for an earlier militant action in which an army Major, RS George, was killed. However, the killing of the Major was carried out by Hizbul Mujahideen as earlier claimed by the army itself belying the BSF claims,” said a rights activist wishing anonymity.
He said the BSF also blamed another deceased, 11-year-old student of class 7 Muhammad Iqbal Ganaie, as one of the “leading figures of JKLF who was involved in many acts of militancy and extortion”.
“The BSF also claimed that the deceased 16-year-old Kamal Ji was also a Hizb militant. However, when they came to know that the deceased was a Kashmiri Pandit the accusation was dropped. Kamal Ji Tikoo was a young member of the only Pandit family that was living in Bijbehara,” he added.
The government ordered a magisterial inquiry into the killings and the BSF unit posted at Bijbehara was withdrawn. Moreover, it was the then BSF director general Prakash Singh, who instituted a commission to probe the incident.
The enquiry report, (No. EN/BFC/93/23-24), prepared by the enquiry magistrate Bijbehara and submitted to the government on 13 November 1993 concluded that “firing on the procession is absolutely unprovoked and the BSF claim that they were forced to retaliate the firing of militants for self-defence is baseless and concocted”.
It said, “The security men have committed offence out of vengeance and their barbarous act was deliberate and well planned”.
The report indicts deputy commandant of the BSF JK Radola for “tacit approval given by him to the indiscriminate and unprovoked firing”.
The report recommended “immediate dismissal of the accused persons”. It recommended that “this should be further followed up with the initiation of criminal proceedings against them and every effort should be made to ensure that justice is done and maximum possible punishment under the law of the land is awarded to the culprits”.
After orders passed by the National Human Rights Commission, 13 BSF men were charged with murder, but the subsequent General Security Force Court (GSFC) trial led to their acquittal.
When NHRC sought the transcripts of the trials for examination to satisfy itself that the BSF had made a “genuine attempt” to secure convictions, the then BJP government, headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, refused.
On 1 November 1993, the NHRC sent notices to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls the BSF. The Ministry subsequently sent to the NHRC a report on the incident based on the magisterial inquiry ordered by the state government as well as one based on the Staff Court of Inquiry ordered by the BSF, which claimed that disciplinary proceedings had been initiated against 14 BSF officials, but no details were provided.
On 17 January 1994, the Commission, based on the government report, made recommendations that included immediate interim compensation to the victims’ families and that apart from disciplinary proceedings under the Border Security Force Act, there should be parallel criminal prosecution proceedings based on the magisterial inquiry.
However, the Government of India did not respond positively to these recommendations.
Nearly three years after the NHRC had called for an action, on November 12, 1996, A K Tandon, then director general of the BSF, informed the NHRC that “a General Security Force Court trial was conducted in respect of 12 BSF men involved in the incident” but the results of the trial were “being withheld for the time being.”
The BSF had initially claimed that it had acted against the accused. According to press reports, all those charged with murder were acquitted by the General Security Force Court.
The Home and Defense Ministries refused access to the case files of the Court Martial to NHRC. In September 2000 the NHRC finally dismissed the case without dispensing justice to the victims and their families.