This day, 18 years ago, a pack of masked gunmen arrived in dusky Chittisinghpura to slaughter 35 Kashmiri Sikhs. The carnage, coinciding with the then US President, Bill Clinton’s India visit, rendered 30 Sikh women as widows. Years later, these widows continue to be haunted by the memories of that tormenting night, amid the elusive justice.
On the poorly-lit porch of her two-storey house, septuagenarian Jeet Kaur recalls the dreadful night of March 20, 2000, with an onerous sense of pain and pathos. That night changed her two daughters-in-law, whom she once knew as happy souls. They now make the air mournful around her.
Jeet tries hard to hide the agony of the past. But her parched face and sunken eyes that well up with grim recollections give away the torment of the night that made her a reluctant matriarch some eighteen years ago, when gunmen killed her husband, two sons, one grandson and 31 others of her tribe.
That massacre made her one of the 30 widows in the once idyllic—and now gloomy—Chittisinghpura village, nestled 11 kilometers from the southern Kashmir’s Islamabad district.
“Both of them were widowed that night along with me,” says Jeet, pointing towards her daughters-in-law. One of them is Sheshander Kaur, now a single parent of two sons and a daughter. The other Kashi Kaur is taking care of her two daughters.
Like every day, Jeet’s husband Fakheer Singh, her two sons Karnail Singh and Sheetal Singh, and her grandson Rajdeep Singh had returned home from their daylong work on March 20, 2000 and sat together in a single room to wait for bedtime. Suddenly, some unknown masked gunmen in Army fatigues barged into their house and asked the male members to come out.
“Following the order of the masked gunmen,” Jeet recalls, “our male members went out. I went after them. It was a bit dark outside. One of my sons told me ‘Mamma! Aap jao andar ye fouji hai, kuch puch taash karni hai’ (Mother! Go inside, they are soldiers, searching for something). I didn’t know that I was listening to the last words of my son,” she breaks down saying.
Her daughters-in-law’s unmoved body language perhaps gives away a sense that such breakdown moments have become a matter of routine for them now.
“So,” Jeet resumes, clearing her choked throat, “I returned somehow satisfied that my family members are with the armed forces.”
But as their men took time to return home, Jeet and her newly-wed daughters-in-law wrung their hands in distress. They were unaware of how just 50 meters away from their house, in front of Singh Sabha Sumandri Hall Gurdwara, their four family members along with 14 other Sikh men were lined up in a single row on a mud pathway. At the same time, barely 150 meters away, 18 other Sikh villagers were placed in a single row in front of Shaukeen Mohalla Gurdwara.
“It was 10 minutes before 8pm when they lined up people at both the spots,” remembers Arvind Singh, Secretary, Gurdwara Shaukeen Mohalla. “They first opened a single shot in air just to give a signal to other party to be ready to kill. After that they continued fired at the people in front of them for 10 minutes.”
Except a 65-year-old Nanak Singh, all others were killed on the spot. He received a bullet in his belly. “He [Nanak] survived because the gunmen thought he was dead,” Arvind says.
35 Sikhs were butchered that night on the eve of the Hindu festival of Holi in the Sikh majority Chittisinghpura village. The dark massacre took place when then US President Bill Clinton was on his India visit. While many victims were taken out from their homes, the locals say, others were arbitrarily caught while returning home from their work.
Initially, many organizations entered into a war of words, holding each other responsible for the attack. But till date, the mystery over the massacre prevails.
Standing near the bullet-marked porch in Chittisinghpura, two widows Kalwant Kaur and Narinder Kaur recount the details of the night when gunners came, yelling: “Kahan hai militants! Kaha chupa kay rakha hai!” (Where are the militants? Where did you hide them?)
The masked gunmen, Kalwant says, had come for hunting the three militants who used to come to Chittisinghpura before that incident. As Kalwant details the horror, Narinder counts death on her fingers, murmuring under her breath, distressingly, that around 30 women turned widows that night.
Moving her index finger from Kalwant to herself to other neighboring houses, Narinder, while rechecking her counting, continues, “Yes! Yes! 30 women were widowed that day.”
Kalwant and Narinder were married to two brothers Uttam Singh and Gurbaksh Singh. “That night, my husband parked his truck near the Gurdwara before coming home,” recalls Kulwant. “After sometime, some masked gunmen entered our house and asked my husband and my visiting brother Richpal Singh to come out. They were in army uniform—speaking proper Hindi, not like Kashmiri Hindi. I also went out but one of them told me to go back as they only wanted to check their identity proof.”
Kalwant walked back home hoping that her brother and husband would soon rejoin her. She was wrong. Waiting at her door sill, she was rattled some minutes later when gunshots reverberated across Chittisinghpura.
The massacre had begun.
“After hearing gunshots we hurriedly came out of our houses,” Narinder says. “We found a pile of bodies lying in blood. The bodies were shaking and wobbling. Our dear ones were dying in front of our eyes, but we were helpless. We don’t know whether they were the army, militants or any other agency. All we know is that they were murderers.”
In Chittisinghpura village, no one knows the exact count of masked gunmen who entered their village that evening. The villagers say when the gunmen left they even fired on the tyres of Uttam Singh’s truck so that no one could be shifted to the hospital. Uttam’s truck was the only vehicle present in the village that night.
Five days later, the Indian army blew up a hut in Pathribal village, killing five civilians, passing them off as foreign militants, responsible for the Massacre. It shifted the entire focus from one of the most gory incidents in Kashmir involving a minority community.
While justice remains elusive in this case—as in several other cases in Kashmir—the victim families were provided a ritualistic job, and one lakh rupee under SRO-43 by the state government.
But mindful of the denied justice, the villagers have preserved the signs of slaughter, including a bullet-marked wall and a photo gallery of their fallen.
Among them are Jeet Kaur’s husband, two sons and her grandson, Rajdeep, who as class 10 student became the youngest victim of the massacre.
“All these years, we lived like corpses,” Jeet says, taking a long look at the gate from where she was sent back by her son on that fateful night.
“The pain of losing our dear ones is killing us every day. What had we done to deserve this?”
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