Ever since the bodies of two young women washed up on the banks of the Rambiara river in Shopian in south Kashmir ten weeks ago, the investigation into their death has been hit by crisis. On Tuesday, this newspaper broke the news that vaginal swabs purported to have been taken from the victims were, in fact, drawn from other women. Since the presence of semen in the swabs has been the keystone of the investigation into allegations that the women were raped and then murdere d, the fabrication could mean that the truth about Shopian would never be known. Opinion is divided on whether the fabrication was carried out to protect powerful perpetrators or, in the alternative, to defame security force personnel alleged to have carried out the rape. What is clear is that the investigation was messed up from the start. First, the district police failed to sanitise the crime scene, which raised the possibility of a loss of critical evidence. Then the doctors who conducted two sets of autopsies on the victims provided inconclusive findings on the cause of death and whether the two women had been sexually assaulted. Shockingly, the autopsies were carried out by non-specialists, without the aid of basic equipment such as microscope. The post-mortem was not videotaped. Despite allegations by Shopian residents that the women had been raped by police and paramilitary personnel, authorities delayed initiating a full criminal investigation. Matters were made worse by politicians, whose efforts to cash in on the tragedy set off street battles. All this has stretched the credibility of the Jammu and Kashmir government to breaking point.

Three possibilities now face investigators. Did the police personnel under investigation for their possible role in the deaths arrange for the slides to be switched? Or did the doctors and forensic experts who handled the swabs swap them with fakes, either to assist the suspects or those alleging that the women had been raped by security force personnel? Or was there a genuine mistake? The poor record of the J&K Police Special Investigation Team, which has been handling the case, gives little reason for confidence. It is yet to question several suspects who merited investigation in the eyes of the Justice Muzaffar Jan Commission of Inquiry. The SIT has failed to persuade the families of the victims to consent to the exhumation of the bodies for forensic tests. Bowing to demands from angry legislators, the State government has said it would seek to hand over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation. This must be done immediately. The families of the two young women and the State’s people are entitled to the unvarnished truth about Shopian.

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