On March 25, 2000, the army launched cordon and search operations in Anantnag district’s Pathribal village, killing five persons alleged to be foreign militants and announcing recovery of considerable arms. Search operations in the area had been intensified after the brutal Chittisingpura massacre five days earlier, but the facts of the 7 Rashtriya Rifles’ Pathribal case were contested almost from the beginning, including by the state police, and in following years, it became a critical file to interrogate judicial and administrative procedures in Jammu and Kashmir. Bodies were exhumed and identified by local residents to challenge the army’s claim that they were foreigners. Based on its investigation and findings that Pathribal was a fake encounter, the Central Bureau of Investigation named specific officials and jawans of 7 Rashtriya Rifles. The mechanics of how to follow up on the investigation went to the Supreme Court, and subsequently, in 2012, the army took the case from the court of the chief judicial magistrate, Srinagar. On Thursday, the army closed the case, saying, “The evidence recorded could not establish any prima facie case against any of the accused persons except that it was a joint operation conducted by police and army on the basis of specific intelligence.”
In light of the charged politics and allegations of a staged encounter, the army’s decision has predictably come under fire. J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has referred to the “self evident” findings of the CBI, and questions will be validly posed on how the army came to a conclusion so much at variance with that of the investigation agency. For a start, the army needs to be more forthcoming with details of the case as it progressed in the past two years. It must explain how a rather more transparent inquiry’s conclusion that it was cold-blooded murder was ultimately rejected. At stake is the credibility of the government, state and federal, to oversee fair trial and delivery of justice in a case involving allegations of outright human rights violations, especially one that has interrogated the state’s responsiveness to ordinary persons caught in the crossfire between the militants and security forces. The army must place the facts more substantively before the people.
Transparency will of necessity have to be mediated by the political leadership. This being so, the development also reinforces the need for the Central government to undertake a proper review of the military footprint in Jammu and Kashmir.