Four weeks after three north Kashmir residents disappeared from their homes, the Army has begun an internal investigation into allegations that the men were murdered by a rogue military unit which passed them off as jihadists killed while infiltrating the Line of Control.

The internal investigation, the Jammu and Kashmir government hopes, will lead to the prosecution of two mid-ranking military officers who, a police investigation has suggested, were linked to the murder of Nadihal-area villagers Shahzad Khan, Riyaz Ahmad Lone and Mohammad Shafi Lone.

Lead investigator Brigadier G.S. Sangha does not, however, have a mandate to examine whether the north Kashmir-based 53 Infantry Brigade failed to adequately supervise the Macchil-based 4 Rajput Regiment, its commanding officer Colonel D.K. Pathania and his immediate subordinate Major Bhupinder Singh.

Nor is he charged with investigating why the Srinagar-based XV Corps carried out no diligence before releasing Rs.6,00,000 the 4 Rajput said was due to informants for the April 30, 2010 shootout — and, critically, why no internal investigations were launched when police and intelligence services in Jammu and Kashmir first reported doubts over the encounter on May 3.

The Army has so far refused to hand over Colonel Pathania and Major Singh for questioning by the police.

A bloody trail

Last month, the Jammu and Kashmir police arrested local residents Bashir Ahmad Lone, Abbas Husain Shah and Abdul Hamid Bhat on the charges of kidnapping and conspiring the murder of the three men. Lone, the police say, promised the victims Rs.2,000 a day for working with the Army to haul weapons and stores along the Line of Control. The three victims were then driven to a military outpost in Kalaroos, where they were received by Major Singh on April 29.

In a report filed at the Kalaroos Police Post the next night, the Army said it had shot three terrorists in an intense engagement along the Line of Control, “unmindful of the volley of bullets.”

The local police, however, refused to file a First Information Report until the 4 Rajput produced the bodies of the three dead. Their relatives, who reported that the three men were missing a week after they had left home, recognised the victims from the photographs published in local newspapers. The police arrested the three local conspirators on May 27 and exhumed the bodies the next day.

Forensic investigators found no evidence to support the proposition that a fire-fight had taken place: the three victims had all been shot through the head at point blank range.

Shah, a former jihadist who was recruited to the 161 Territorial Army Battalion, is believed to have told the police that Major Singh paid each of the conspirators Rs. 50,000 for helping to kidnap the victims.

Police sources told The Hindu that Colonel Pathania kept Rs. 2,00,000 of the source-payment funds authorised by XV corps. Major Singh is thought to have kept Rs.1,50,000.

The 4 Rajput claimed to have recovered Kalashnikov assault rifles, three other assault rifles, 230 rounds of ammunition and grenades from the killed men. The police believe that they were likely part of a cache recovered by troops along the Line of Control in 2009.

Military sources say the killings were likely driven by intense pressure to secure operational success — a prerequisite for promotions in the Army's intensely competitive hierarchy. The 4 Rajput had registered little counter-infiltration success, compared with other units in the 53 Brigade and adjoining 104 Brigade's areas of operations. The police are now investigating the possibility that the 4 Rajput might have staged an earlier shootout that took place in August 2009 in the Sonapindi pass.

Key to the malaise, the Jammu and Kashmir government believes, is the Army's failure to act against rogue elements.

In 2006, a Jammu and Kashmir police internal investigation threw up evidence that security forces at Ganderbal had eliminated several south Kashmir residents, claiming that they were unidentified jihadists. The former Ganderbal Superintendent, Hans Raj Parihar, and Deputy Superintendent of Police Bahadur Ram are now being tried for their alleged role in the murders.

No criminal action has yet been taken, though, against officers of the 5 Rashtriya Rifles, the 13 Rashtriya Rifles and the 24 Rashtriya Rifles who filed false First Information Reports to make it appear that the victims had been killed in legitimate counter-insurgency operations.

Four porters hired by the Army — all Hindus — were eliminated in a similar series of staged killings carried out by officers of the 18 Rashtriya Rifles in 2004. The Army initiated internal proceedings against the officers, but did not allow their prosecution in a civilian court.

The military authorities have also resisted efforts to prosecute Army officers alleged by the Central Bureau of Investigation to have murdered five civilians at Pathribal in 2000 and passing them off as terrorists.