Mohan Lal was just 18 when militants gunned down four members of his family. They were among 24 Kashmiri Pandits killed on a March night in 2003 at Nadimarg in the Shopian district of Jammu and Kashmir, triggering another exodus from the Valley.
Ever since, Mohan Lal, now 37, has waited for justice. There’s finally a glimmer of hope.
Hearing in the massacre case, stalled since 2011 after the trial court refused to grant the prosecution more time to produce witnesses in the case, is set to be fast-tracked.
Last Saturday, the High Court of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh allowed the prosecution’s review petition and directed the trial court to ensure examination of witnesses through video conference and expedite the proceedings.
“It (the High Court decision) has offered a ray of hope, the guilty may be punished,’’ said Lal, an eyewitness to the massacre.
“Nineteen years have already passed and the militants who, according to police, carried out the massacre, have already been killed. But gruesome crimes of such nature cannot succeed without local support,’’ Lal said, alluding to policemen deployed in Nadimarg to guard the Kashmiri Pandits — 7 policemen were charged with dereliction of duty.
Recalling the night of the massacre, Lal said some men in police uniform knocked on the door of their house and called out his father Radha Krishan, saying a search operation was underway.
“As the family was on the second floor, we could see some armed, masked men and sensed something was not right. We decided to exit the house from the other end.”
He said the militants broke open the door and took his parents, sister and uncle near a temple to join other Pandits. After some time, he heard the sound of gunfire. He later found his family members in a pile of bodies.
The next morning, political leaders and senior officials showed up at the village. “Our requests to let my aunt and her two daughters reach from Jammu fell on deaf ears. I do not know who cremated my parents and others,’’ he said.
Lal was granted the job of a government school teacher on compassionate grounds since his father worked with the education department. He lives with his wife and daughter in a Jammu locality.
Vijay Kumar Bhat, 52, who lost eight family members — parents, two sisters, brother, uncle, cousin sister and brother — was in Jammu that night.
“I was shopping in Jammu for my cousin’s wedding. I came to know about the killings on March 24 morning. By the time I reached home, the cremations were done,” he said.
“Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and BJP leader L K Advani visited the village and we all sought their help in shifting us to Jammu. But the Mufti Sayeed-led coalition government wanted us to remain in the village,” he said.
Vijay got a government job on compassionate grounds. He married in 2004 and lives with his wife and daughter in a Jammu village.
“While the militants who carried out the massacre have already been killed, justice will be delivered only if the policemen who accompanied them are punished too,’’ he said.
Vijay and Mohan Lal have not returned to Nadimarg after they left their land and house. “Even if the situation normalises, we do not intend to return to Nadimarg. We will sell off our properties once the situation improves,’’ both said.
Kashmiri Pandit leader and founder of Panun Kashmir, Dr Agnishekhar, welcomed the High Court verdict asking the court to expedite trial. “Although belated, we welcome it,’’ he said. He also asked the Central government to enact a special law to deal with such incidents.
Four Pakistani Lashkar-e-Toiba militants, including Zia Mustafa, were arrested by the Jammu and Kashmir Police from different places in April 2003. Charges were framed against them in a Shopian court in October 2003. Seven policemen, on guard duty at the village, were charged with dereliction of duty.
Mustafa, who police said was leading the militants that night, was killed in October last year when militants ambushed a police team taking him to a hideout during a transit remand.
The trial in the case dragged on as the prosecution found it hard to get witnesses to court. In eight years of trial, the prosecution could produce only nine of the 38 listed witnesses. In November 2011, the trial court closed the evidence of prosecution, saying no more time could be granted to produce witnesses.
In 2014, the J&K government approached the High Court, challenging the trial court order on closing evidence. The High Court dismissed the plea as the state government failed to appear for hearing of the petition.
The J&K government then went to the Supreme Court. In 2015, the apex court directed the High Court to consider the petition again.
But the prosecution again failed to appear before the court. On August 11, 2017, the High Court dismissed the petition citing “lack of interest” by the prosecution.
Following the dismissal, the prosecution filed a review petition before the court. On August 24, the High Court recalled its earlier order. On October 29, the High Court allowed the review petition, and called for expediting the trial.