In Depth

21 years later, Wandhama massacre’s “untraceable” closure still evokes conflicting memories

Hours after some Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) arrived in Srinagar on January 25, 1998 for exploring homecoming possibilities, some shadowy gunners in army fatigue appeared in the sleepy Wandhama hamlet of Ganderbal and killed 23 non-migrant KPs. The event not only derailed the homecoming prospects, but also triggered some new migrations. What happened afterwards became the classic case of an “untraceable” probe.

The “ghost of threat” had apparently been exorcised when some migrant Kashmiri Pandits arrived in Srinagar on January 25, 1998 on a homecoming exploratory trip. Their hyped arrival came in the backdrop of Farooq Abdullah’s  ‘ambitious’ rehabilitation module for the migrant minority.

The visitors made no bones about their revisiting roots: “We’ve arrived to visualise the thoughts of Muslims regarding us.” Given the “heart-warming” reception they received on their arrival, it seemed the old neighbours were bound to return to their abandoned homes anytime soon now. The jolly visit apparently mended the severed ties of yore, and promised the good old days.

But for any radical element thriving on “Pandit exodus”, it was now a clear case of losing a political war cry—then, as now, being relentlessly used to counter the aspirations of the majority in the region.

That day, those touring natives had mirrored the true communal picture of the region, which had forced somebody like Mohammad Sultan to throw his weight behind his pandit neighbours, when the arrival of Jagmohan “as nurse” on January 19, 1990 had coincided with the mass migrations of KPs from Kashmir.

“When some Pandits started leaving Wandhama during the early 90s, we pleaded with them to stay back,” Sultan recalls the distressed hour of Kashmir history which would be soon politicised and communalised to the extent of pitting the two communities against each other. “Among those who stopped Pandits was the local Hizb chief Assadullah Mir. He ensured their safety in Wandhama.”

Those assurances amid the chilling carnages and crackdowns had worked. Some KP families stayed put in Wandhama and lived “happily” in their homeland.

But all this was to change, hours after some migrants had arrived on a homecoming “mock drill”.

Deserted Pandit homes in Wandhama. (Picture: Bilal Bahadur/Kashmir Life)

At around 10 pm that night, some 20 km from Srinagar, around twenty odd gunners in army dresses showed up at the doors of Pandits in Wandhama.

It was Shab-e-Qadr—the holiest night for Muslims world over—and the majority was busy praying inside a village mosque, blaring with prayers. “Then suddenly, every one of us fell silent inside the mosque when firing started outside,” recalls Abdul Rehman, a fifty-something villager. “Since Eid was around the corner, some of us initially confused those shots with crackers.”

But when guns refused to fall silent, Rehman and other scared villagers exchanged tense looks, and sat quiet. Many made restive rounds on the mosque hamaam, while waiting for the firing to stop.

When silence finally fell over Wandhama, the village women arrived calling their men at the mosque doors. Crying, they were beating their chests, Rehman recalls the night horror.

At one end of the village, he saw a temple rising up in flames. At a distant corner, Moti Lal, a popular medical practitioner’s house was raging in flames. “We couldn’t believe the sudden turn of events,” Rehman narrates the night’s details in an awkward tone. “We had exchanged pleasantries with our Pandit neighbours as a matter of routine early that day, but now they were in the middle of that inferno.”

Fearing the similar fate, many Muslim families fled Wandhama during the night itself. Those who stayed put, Rehman says, anxiously awaited dawn, without sleeping a wink.

With daybreak, when some of them walked up to the pandit houses, macabre scenes greeted them. Behind Moti Lal’s torched house, a “slaughter house” was littered with bullet-torn bodies.

Many of them shrieked and rushed to inform the nearby army camp, located barely 3 km away, at Barsoo. “But army took time to arrive,” Rehman recalls.

Soon as cops arrived in horn-blaring jeeps, they began pulling out bodies and assembling them in a nearby ground. Some scribes would later recreate the moving scenes in their reportage: “There was burning smell of the human flesh everywhere… A mother had unsuccessfully tried to save her infant by hiding him in her lap but both got killed together. The cop trying to separate them couldn’t.”

The dark slaughter had piled up around 23 Pandit bodies, including four children, nine women and 10 men of four families. Among the dead, five were guests from Jammu, visiting their relatives.

Only one, then 14-year-old Vinod Kumar aka Ashu, survived.

“The gunmen were dressed like Indian Army soldiers,” Ashu would later piece the details of the night slaughter. “They had tea with us, waiting for a radio message indicating that all pandit families in the village had been covered. After a brief conversation they rounded up all the members of the pandit households and then gunned them down with Kalashnikov rifles.”

The teenager had slipped away and hidden himself in a dark corner of the house.

After the night passed, the mourning villagers realised that their neighbourhood had changed forever. Those killed that night had chosen to stay in the valley despite the fact that majority of their community members had migrated in 1990.

“Earlier we had pleaded them to stay back,” Rehman says, turning glum. “But now, there was only one around, a kid, who soon left for Jammu. After that Wandhama was never the same again.”

That morning, who’s who in the state machinery had turned out at Wandhama’s slaughter spot. “I believe foreign mercenaries were involved in the massacre,” SL Bhat, then Kashmir Divisional Commissioner almost cracked the case, even before the probe could begin.

In the protracted probe run, such claims would ultimately cast a conflicting shadow on the entire investigation.

By the time, Farooq Abdullah arrived at Wandhama, tempers were already flying high. Muslims and Pandits from neighbouring villages held his government responsible for the carnage.

But Abdullah lived by his spontaneous reputation. He blamed the Lashkar-e-Taiba militants for the massacre, in which an FIR No. 22/1998 under section 30, 436, 295 RPC [with 7/27 Arms Act] was lodged at Police Station Ganderbal.

“There is no possibility of Kashmiri Hindus’ honourable return to their homes in Kashmir in view of the wicked gameplan of Pakistan to create communal clashes,” Abdullah told the press.

But for those, who wanted to return home, Farooq had a plan.

Akin to what he had advised his party supporters during 1990 when Jagmoham dismissed his government—“go even across the border for training in arms, but not to get caught by Jagmohan”—Farooq had the same “arms” formula for Pandits: “We will give training in the use of arms and even provide arms to the Kashmiri migrants desirous of returning home.”

Such political utterances, however, never helped the case. Even New Delhi—otherwise habitual of playing the KP Card—failed to create any headway in the case, despite the promise of former Prime Minister of India, IK Gujral.

While granting Rs 20 lakh as relief to the sole survivor in the massacre, Gujral, the then Prime Minister of India had vowed the war-footing justice, saying, “They [Killers] were neither Kashmiri nor speaking local language.”

IK Gujral, the then Prime Minister of India.

But amid the solemn ceremonies and customary visits, the war of words soon ensued when Farooq Abdullah’s home minister, Ali Mohammad Sagar termed the Wandhama massacre as a “security lapse”.

The defence ministry hit back, saying that around a dozen “foreign militants” carried out the massacre “because of links with certain political leaders” of the area.

The carnage created a new crisis and exposed the ‘trust deficit’ between the local unionist camp—whose cadres had bled for upholding Indian Constitution in Kashmir—and Indian armed forces, who were now new enforcers in the region.

“They [Killers] had been identified and would be neutralised soon,” the army spokesperson had boasted.

But nothing much could be known about the case progress, until another twist came, some two years later.

On March 13, 2000, Indian Army’s Rashtriya Rifles gunned down Hizb commander Hameed Gada alias Bombar Khan at Sheikhpora. It was termed as the killing of the “mastermind behind the Wandhama carnage”.

The claim only added a new dimension in the case, leaving many in the minority community wondering: How come a local militant became the ‘mastermind’, when both Farooq Abdullah government as well as New Delhi had blamed “foreign mercenaries” for Wandhama massacre.

“Kashmiri militants can never indulge in such a barbaric act,” said Shadi Lal Pandita, president of the Soan Kashmir Front (SKF).

Barring these small developments, the case failed to reach to any conclusion, until Jammu and Kashmir government closed it in 2008, owing to “untraceable killers”.

Before the Amarnath Land Agitation would erupt that year, the closure of Wandhama massacre triggered a new campaign for justice. It was astounding how government had first named “foreign mercenaries” behind the massacre, before terming a local commander as its “mastermind” and finally closing the case on an “untraceable” note.

“The investigation was deliberately done so weakly or faulty that the culprit(s) was/were set free for the lack of evidences,” Sanjay Tickoo, President of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, said.

But years later, Omar Abdullah tried to set some records straight, saying all Harkat ul-Ansar militants “involved in the massacre” have either been arrested or killed. The controversial chief minister only contradicted the statement of his father, who had identified the “killers” as Lashkar militants.

“17th Feb 1998, security forces launch ops in Wandhama area and 6 foreign (probably Pakistani) militants killed & 1 injured,” Omer tweeted on January 25, 2014. “All HUA cadre. Injured HUA militant admits to being part of Wandhama massacre and names other dead ones as accomplices with name of ISI commander also. [sic].”

Further operations over next years in Wandhama area see six more HUA foreigners killed and no evidence or intelligence of further involvement, he said: “As a result the case was closed. To suggest no action followed in Wandhama massacre or Govt slept/ignored is NOT supported by facts.”

Sanjay Tickoo. (Picture: Greater Kashmir)

But Omar soon faced the ‘fact-finding’ commission of sorts from the Kashmiri Pandit Sangarash Samithi (KPSS) — the body that had earlier contested the information furnished by various agencies on Wandhama massacre.

“Sub Divisional Police Officer, Ganderbal Showkat Ahmad, who was then Station House Officer for the area told Early Times that ‘the case has been closed, as no one was identified as the killer of these Pandits’,” the KPSS rebutted Omar’s tweet statement.

But the communiqué, dated January 27, 2012, from Inspector General of Police, CID, J&K, Jammu to Director General of Police, J&K, Jammu vide no. CID/HR/SHRC-250/2008 reveals that on February 17, 1998, in an encounter at Safapora, Bandipora six militants got killed on spot, while as one injured militant lying on the hill was arrested. (This was exactly the same information tweeted by Omar Abdullah.)

“On questioning he [injured militant] deposed that he along with other 6 killed militants were affiliated with Harkat-ul-Ansar militant outfit. He also deposed that the said 23 Kashmiri Pandits of Wandhama village were killed by 21 militants of the said outfit under the orders of their commander namely Captain Shair Khan,” the communiqué said.

But, as per RTI information provided by Police Department, filed by KPSS, there is “NO” report of any type of killing/ encounter/ cordon in District Bandipora in general and Safapora in particular on February 17, 1998, the Samithi said.

The police report further stated that 13 other militants “all foreigners involved in Wandhama killings” got killed in different encounters.

But if all culprits were “foreigners”, as stated by the police, many ask, how did a local militant Hamid Gada’s name come up?

“And at what input it was made out that the gunmen were foreigners?” the Samithi asked. “As per previous police version, the killing was claimed by unknown militant organization, Intikaam-ul-Muslimoon, according to an alleged letter tagged to one of the bullet ridden bodies of Kashmiri Pandits. But as per the next police version, the inhuman act was done by militant outfit namely Harkat-ul-Ansar.”

Amid these conflicting statements and unanswered queries, the investigation of the case was itself closed as “un-traced” on June 15, 1998, the Samithi said. But, interestingly, the closure was announced almost a decade later.

“Based on the police response there should be two FIRs where the killings of these foreign militants have been registered and investigated,” Sanjay Tickoo said. “We urge that the police should be asked to provide a list of these foreign militants killed and the place where they have been buried.”

But like all massacres that Kashmir witnessed since last 30 years, said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, no one was held accountable and punished in Wandhama, in which an “impartial probe” should be held, demanded Syed Ali Geelani, “so that the ‘involved forces’ are held strictly accountable.”


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