The police officer’s arrest is much more than just the plot of a thriller.
On January 11, Davinder Singh, a deputy superintendent of the Jammu and Kashmir police, was arrested while ferrying two terrorists and an overground operative in his private car to Jammu.
Singh’s arrest is not just a shocking revelation about the nexus between terror operatives and security agencies. It exposes institutional decay in the security apparatus in a region where the government’s obsession with security concerns rides roughshod over democratic norms and people's civil liberties.
The arrest — and Singh’s chequered past — raises many questions. Several official claims following the arrest only add to the mystery. However, beyond the story of Davinder Singh lie serious issues of security, and patterns of impunity in Kashmir. The challenge is to grapple with all these conundrums without being selective.
Zoom in on the arrest
Davinder Singh was arrested with two militants, Naveed Mushtaq and Rafi Rather, and an alleged overground worker. Vijay Kumar, the inspector general of police, Kashmir, addressed a press conference a day later. He said he had received specific intelligence that two militants in an i10 vehicle were travelling to Jammu, that the vehicle was going fast, and that he directed the deputy inspector general of police, South Kashmir, to put up a checkpoint in his area.
What was the nexus between the DSP and the terrorists? Where and why was he ferrying them? Were they being transported for a possible false flag strike? If so, where?
“I must have lost my mind to do what I did,” Singh reportedly told a police interrogator after failing to impress them with his theory of having nabbed a top terrorist. Singh has since been handed over to the National Investigation Agency.
While only a fair investigation can settle the question of what the arrested men were up to, the riddles need to be linked to Singh’s murky past.
Recruited as a sub-inspector in 1990, Singh and another probationary officer were accused of selling contraband when some narcotics were seized from a truck, and faced an internal inquiry.
“There was a move to dismiss them from service which was stalled by an inspector general rank officer purely on humanitarian grounds and the duo were shifted to the Special Operations Group, a team of policemen engaged in countermilitancy offensive,” a news report on Tuesday quoted police officials as saying about this case. “However, he could not last there for long and was shifted to the police lines, only to be rehabilitated in 1997 again in the SOG. During this period, he was posted in Budgam and is alleged to have indulged in extortion for which he was sent back to the police lines.”
The report added, “His proper rehabilitation began in 2015 by the then Director General of Police K Rajendra, who posted him in district headquarters of Shopian and Pulwama. However, after some alleged wrongdoing during his stint in Pulwama, the then Director General of Police SP Vaid transferred him in August 2018 to the sensitive Anti-Hijacking Unit in Srinagar, though the move was opposed by some other officers.”
According to the Structures of Violence, a report by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society and the International Peoples’ Tribunal on human rights abuse in the erstwhile state, Singh was among four police officers accused in the June 2000 abduction, torture and extrajudicial killing of 19-year-old Aijaz Ahmad Bazaz of Gowkadal, Srinagar.
The report states, “On 15 June 2000, Aijaz Ahmad Bazaz went to meet his relatives at Bemina, Srinagar. On 17 June 2000, the family of Aijaz Ahmad Bazaz heard that he had been picked up by the SOG of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, Humhama Camp. The family members went to the SOG, Humhama Camp, and met SHO Imtiyaz and Davinder Singh. Both of them accepted that Aijaz Ahmad Bazaz was with them and that a meeting would be arranged if Rs 40,000 was provided to them.”
The report, published in 2017, continues: “On 22 June, 2000, the Kral Khud Police Station informed the family of Aijaz Ahmad Bazaz that his dead body was with them. He was shown to have been killed in an encounter at the Bemina Bypass, Srinagar. The family of the victim did not file any report in the police station nor did they seek any relief. The family believes that Aijaz Ahmad Bazaz died due to torture. It is unclear whether the police itself filed an FIR in the case.”
Around that time, Davinder Singh had become notorious for abduction, torture and extortion. He was even nicknamed “Torture Singh”.
He was named in another extortion case, where he faced trial in a sessions court. The court had directed the police to take action against him in 2003 after finding him and another DSP guilty of extorting money. The order was ignored.
All this was in the public domain.
However, the most damning allegations about Singh’s shoddy past came in connection with the 2001 Parliament attack case, in which Afzal Guru was sentenced to death on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Guru was hanged in 2013.
Guru wrote two letters with similar content, one to his wife Tabassum and the other to his lawyer Sushil Kumar. Tabassum’s letter was printed verbatim in Kashmir Times and the Asian Age before being picked up by other local newspapers in Kashmir.
Guru alleged he had been tortured by Davinder Singh and two other policemen, and coerced into working for them. Subsequently, he added, Singh sent him to Delhi with one of the Parliament attackers, to provide basic logistics.
At the time, some journalists went to interview Singh. He threatened one of them, but admitted to another to having tortured Guru. However, he denied the allegation of coercing Guru into providing logistics for the Parliament attack. These interviews were published, one was on camera.
It is not clear whether the letter was produced before the Supreme Court while it was hearing Guru’s case. But its contents have been public since 2004. Neither the court nor the police took cognizance of the allegations to investigate Singh’s role. Many officials at that time dismissed the contents of the letter as a “figment of Guru’s imagination”.
The letter also named two other police officers who had been in touch with Guru – Vinay Gupta and Altaf Hussain, a relative of a police superintendent named Ashiq Hussain bukhari.
Interestingly, someone named Tariq is mentioned in the chargesheet of the Parliament case as one of the three people who had masterminded the attack. Guru had met Tariq at the Humhama torture centre and, Guru’s letter said, Tariq advised him to cooperate with the police to save his skin.
Guru wrote: “In the same Humhama STF camp there was one more victim named Tariq. He suggested me that I should always co-operate with STF otherwise they will always harass and will not let me to live normal — free life.”
Nandita Haksar, who was Guru’s lawyer for a while, writes in her book The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism: “The other two, Ghazi Baba and Masood Azhar, were well known militants but never learnt anything about this mysterious man, Tariq, either from the media or during the trial.”
The Tariq story was also never probed.
While Guru’s letter can’t be treated as the gospel truth without a thorough investigation, it was simply ignored. He was hanged to “satisfy the national conscience”, on the basis of circumstantial evidence of his role in providing logistics. The man alleged to have sent him to do this job was not only not questioned, he was left free to carry on business as usual.
Singh’s confession to at least using torture to break people in his custody, including Afzal Guru, did not raise an eyebrow higher up, where illegitimate forms of torture are normalised. Especially when it comes to Kashmir.
The list of people in Kashmir who have been tortured or coerced into working for counterinsurgency forces, including the Army and paramilitary forces, or used as human shields is so long that the practice is treated as a norm. Some of the SOG personnel have been especially notorious. But personnel from other forces have been no better.
According to the Structures of Violence, which documents hundreds of cases, Tasveer Hussain of Haveli, Poonch, was allegedly picked up by an Army officer, Captain Pyara Singh Toor, on August 23, 2003. Hussain was confined and tortured, and subsequently died as a result of the torture.
An FIR was filed by the police but the Ministry of Defence in 2011 declined sanction for prosecuting Toor. In 2008, the State Human Rights Commission, on the basis of a report on police investigations, had indicted the officer and recommended Rs 1 lakh ex-gratia government relief and compassionate employment for Tasveer’s family. At the time of his arrest, media reports quoted Tasveer’s family members as saying “the Army wanted him to work as a source for the Army but he refused”.
The pressure on surrendered militants to work for security agencies in counterinsurgency operations is well-documented. In her report, Violent Activism: A Psychosocial Study of Ex-Militants in J&K, noted psychologist Shobhna Sonpar collated many testimonies from several former militants that highlight this point. “The pressure on surrendered militants to cooperate in counter insurgency activities is considerable,” the report said. “Many do so to protect themselves from militant retribution. Some volunteer to be absorbed into the police as Special Police Officers.”
This practice of pushing former militants back into the throes of violence comes with the additional methods of abuse, humiliation and intimidation, as pointed out in this report. But they have become an accepted and normalised part of the system. So have allegations of corruption, extortion, and other wrongful practices by men in uniform.
In line with this, Davinder Singh’s list of ignominious actions is large. But it is partly due to the normalisation of such wrongful practices — including extortion, torture, even custodial death at the hands of the uniformed personnel — that they are left untouched.
However, the allegations made by Guru were far more serious. This was a case that shook the nation and changed the political narrative of the country. Questions thus arise whether there is more to the culture of impunity that is imposed through this normalisation or possible callousness.
Davinder Singh’s case may not be an aberration. The allegations against him are reminiscent of another case that never got a fair probe.
In 2013, celebrated and decorated “encounter specialist” Shiv Kumar alias Sonu was in charge of the SOG, Kishtwar. He was accused of coercing young men into carrying out “subversive activities” after a grenade blast at a police station in Thathri. In 2017, he was acquitted by the Bhaderwah sessions court after 15 key witnesses turned hostile.
Importantly, the court observed that the “police have not investigated the case properly, and directed senior superintendent of police Doda to hold enquiry into the matter”.
Nothing is known about any such enquiry thereafter.
Fast-forward to present case
Singh has a long dark trail that can no longer be ignored. In particular, there are two key questions that beg answers.
The argument that he was doing this for petty pecuniary benefit at a time when security and surveillance in the valley has been maximised is unpalatable. After preliminary investigations, some officers pointed out that he was getting Rs 12 lakh for the job. The argument seems implausible, not only in view of the fact that the two terrorists he was ferrying out of the valley had a much bigger bounty on their heads, but also because of the risks involved.
Guru had alleged that he was coerced into working for Singh and had been specifically sent by Singh to provide logistics for the Parliament attack about which Guru had no knowledge. In light of the present case striking a chord with Afzal Guru’s letter, it is important to know who was taking orders from whom. Was Singh working for Naveed Baba, or was it the other way round?
Second, in view of Singh’s background, it is important to ask whether he was allowed to come this far without patrons at a higher level. Who was protecting him? Why? Will the truth of this deeper malaise ever emerge?
Reading another leaf from the past would be instructive. In 1996, human rights lawyer Jalil Andrabi was abducted from his home and killed, allegedly by Major Avtar Singh of the Territorial Army. The case never received a fair probe. Two years later, journalist Hartosh Singh Bal interviewed Avtar Singh at the Territorial Army’s barracks in Ludhiana, at a time when the Jammu and Kashmir were still claiming that the major could not be traced.
Bal’s interview was not published at the time. But in 2011, Bal wrote an article for Open magazine, headlined “The Man Who Knows Too Much”, detailing the botched case and his conversations with Avtar Singh.
Bal wrote, “In 2000, the SIT finally told the court what should have been verified much earlier — that Avtar Singh was still in Ludhiana. Soon after, despite the court orders, Avtar Singh was able to obtain a passport and leave the country for Canada, and then Selma, California, where he runs a transport service, driving his own truck. In February this year, his wife reported him for an incident of domestic violence. When the Selma police checked his records, they found there was an Interpol Red Corner notice against his name.”
In a telephonic interview with Bal, Avtar Singh had said, “I am being made a scapegoat. Since I was originally from the Territorial Army, it is easy to disown me and deny the culpability of other organisations.’’ He pointed to a major in military intelligence who went by the code name of “Major Clifton”.
Bal wrote: “But, I ask him, what if the extradition does go through. He does not hesitate: ‘There is no question of my being taken to India alive, they will kill me.’ Who will, I ask him. ‘The agencies, RAW, military intelligence, it is all the same.’’ He has also just told me about constant threats from the Al Qaida and I’m inclined to not take him seriously, but he goes on: ‘If the extradition does go through, I will open my mouth, I will not keep quiet.’”
In 2012, Avtar Singh was found dead. He is alleged to have killed his family and then committed suicide. It’s not known if the deaths were investigated.
Like Avtar Singh, Davinder Singh is a man who not only has a shady past but probably also knows too much. How will the NIA deal with him?
In light of these revelations and related questions, many other cases in which security personnel have been accused of torture, killings and hob-nobbing with militant groups or other criminals need to be opened.
This is necessary to maintain ethical practices and for the security of the country. The complicity of some personnel in cases of human rights abuse, and the impunity they have enjoyed in evading prosecution, has been an issue well-recognised in the past. The Davinder Singh case makes it imperative to probe the probable complicity at a much deeper level in perpetuating terror attacks.
Who are the people patronising him and those like him? Who are their sponsors?
This case highlights that the wars of the counterinsurgency are not just about valour, but can be murky and dirty. As long as the success of counterinsurgency operations is measured in terms of the number of kills that may remain so.
A senior security official recently described Davinder Singh as “an asset gone rogue”. The question is not only about when assets turn rogue and whether or not there is a seamless transition between the two domains, it’s about the notions of “asset” and “rogue”.
Is it that as long as personnel involved in wrongdoings are believed to be crucial to counterinsurgency operations, they are seen as “assets”? Is it also that the moment they begin to hob-nob with terror operatives they turn “rogue”? Or, do they become “rogue” only when caught?
Too many questions. But the quest should only be for the truth — the absolute truth.