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Grim Mystery Slowly Unfolds in Indian Kashmir

The army is looking into the case of four missing porters. A cryptic letter says troops killed them.

November 16, 2005|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

MANGU CHAK, India — The mailman delivered the first clues in the disappearance of Bushan Lal.

They were written in a letter from someone claiming to be a member of the Indian army, who identified himself only as "a savior of humanity."

The anonymous informant claimed that Indian soldiers had killed Lal, 25, along with three other porters hired to carry equipment and supplies for army troops fighting insurgents in disputed Kashmir.

The letter charged that two Indian army officers in the Rashtriya Rifles, whose members have been investigated for numerous abuses, ordered the men shot to boost the guerrilla body count -- and their prospects for promotion.

India's security forces are frequently accused by civilians and human rights groups of killing noncombatants and claiming they were militants, in what are known here as "fake encounters."

The victims usually are from Kashmir's Muslim majority. But like most of the soldiers in the unit, the four missing porters were Hindus. If they were killed, the prime suspects are the men they worked for.

Lal's father, Madan, is a retired army rifleman who fought in India's 1971 war with Pakistan. His faith in the Indian military vanished along with his son.

"I have no trust in the army's investigation," he said. "They are trying to hush up the matter."

The army said Friday that its investigation was continuing, and a spokesman declined to comment on the specific allegations while the inquiry was underway.

About 10,000 people have been reported missing in Indian-controlled Kashmir since 1989, when the guerrilla conflict began, according to the Assn. of Parents of Disappeared Persons.

Indian authorities say that the number of missing is 3,900 and that they went to Pakistan, where India says about a dozen groups train militants for attacks in Indian-held Kashmir. Pakistan, which controls about one-third of the divided territory, says it provides only moral support to the insurgency.

The Lal family lives in this village 8 miles from Jammu, the winter capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Their four-room brick house is home to 13 people, who scratch out a living from a quarter-acre field sown with wheat and hay for a few cows and a water buffalo.

As he told the story of his son's disappearance, Madan Lal, 65, sat in the yard on the edge of a wood-frame cot, next to a heap of cattle dung about 5 feet high.

Bushan was working as a laborer in a Jammu market last year when a man recruiting porters for the Indian army offered him a job. He said it paid $130 a month, with free clothes, meals and accommodation.

If Bushan worked hard, he could get a full-time job, he later told his father. His family desperately needed the money, so Bushan left home on April 13, 2004. He promised to send word when he arrived at his post.

"We kept waiting for his message or letter, but he never sent any address," his father said. "He only told us that he was joining the army supply wing. I told him to avoid this job because of the situation in Kashmir. But he assured me that he would come back if he didn't like it."

After five months without hearing from his son, Lal went to inquire at an army base in Jammu, but the guards wouldn't let him in, he said.

Then, more than a year after Bushan left home, the anonymous letter arrived. Dated Aug. 19, 2005, it was sent to the four missing porters' families, in envelopes postmarked New Delhi.

"Sir," it began. "There are some beasts in the Rashtriya Rifles who have defamed the army and slaughtered humanity."

The letter named an army major and three other soldiers who, the informant said, led Bushan and three other porters to an army camp in Kashmir's Lolab Valley. Then, on April 20, 2004, the four porters were taken to a hilltop overlooking the village of Dewar and shot at 8:45 a.m., the letter said.

Eight soldiers were in the unit that carried out the killings, acting under the orders of a major and a colonel, the letter said.

The porters' families took the letter to an army major in Jammu, who promised a full inquiry. Nothing happened after 25 days, so they complained to a brigadier. He gave them each 30 days of food rations.

When villagers joined the families in a street protest, the army announced a formal inquiry. Army officers showed Madan Lal a picture of what they said was a militant killed the day that the informant said soldiers had shot the porters.

The corpse, which appeared to have one bullet wound to the head, was lying next to a rifle, the elder Lal said. Its face was partially obscured by hair, but Lal said he was certain it was his son. "We have given birth to him and raised him. How we could not have recognized his body?"

Lal wept as one of Bushan's two young daughters squeezed close. "I have to feed the family of my son," he sobbed. "I am an old man, and I have only a small piece of land. How will I be able to manage this?"

The porters' families filed a criminal complaint in Kashmir's Kupwara district, where police commander Sunil Dutt said his officers were conducting a separate investigation. It will include DNA tests because another family has claimed the body that Lal says is that of his son, Dutt said.

Lal doesn't trust authorities to tell him the truth. His faith is in the letter and another clue that he discovered himself.

It is the label from a shirt on what was officially called a militant's corpse. Police allowed relatives to see the garment, which bears the name of a village tailor near here. It's the shop where Bushan bought his shirts.

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