Last summer, the bodies of two women were washed ashore on the banks of the Rambiara river in Shopian. Eight people were to die, and some 400 suffer injuries as the embers fanned by the deaths set off fires across urban Kashmir.
For the angry young Islamists who spearheaded the protests, the deaths of the two women were murders — murders, moreover, carried out by a predatory Hindu state in its campaign to annihilate Kashmiris.
The body of one of them, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association’s investigation recorded witnesses as stating, “was lying half naked on dry sand. Her clothes were torn and hair, clothes and body were dry. Blood was dripping from her nose and it appeared sindoor had been thrown in her forehead.”
“During our investigations,” association leader G.N. Shaheen said, “we found that the perpetrators belonged to a particular community and they had even vandalised the bodies of the victims.” In case anyone had missed the point, Mr. Shaheen added the rapists were “fanatic Hindus.”
Now, the Central Bureau of Investigation has filed a charge sheet which rips apart the claims of the secessionist-linked Bar Association, politicians like People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti and much of the media. Backed by forensic detective work by the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, the Central Forensic Sciences Laboratory in New Delhi, the Forensic Sciences Laboratory in Madhuban and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, the CBI has concluded that the women were neither raped nor murdered.
Inside the bodies of the victims, AIIMS forensic experts found several pieces of evidence suggesting drowning. Pin-sized petechial haemorrhages were found on the membranes of their lungs and bronchi. Larger patches of Paltauf’s haemorrhages — bluish-red areas found in the lungs of about half of all drowning victims — were also visible. Doctors also discovered accumulations of fluid within the alveoli, suggesting pulmonary oedema, another sign of drowning.
None of the findings in themselves was conclusive. So, experts at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in New Delhi and the Forensic Sciences Laboratory at Madhuban proceeded to conduct tests which matched the soil recovered from the victims’ lungs with the earth in the Rambiara. Further tests showed that diatoms — a kind of eukaryotic algae — inside the victims’ lungs were similar to those found among some organisms in the river. During autopsy, the doctors also recovered small insects from the victims’ lungs. Experts at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute identified the insects as silverfish — small, wingless creatures commonly found under the bark of trees, under rocks, in rotten logs and among leaf litter.
But the finding that the victims were drowned did not rule out the possibility of murder — or rape. The AIIMS evidence shot down the first possibility in short order. The body of one victim did indeed have a lacerated wound in the forehead, likely caused by hitting against a hard surface but the forensic examiners believed it was “not sufficient to cause death in the ordinary course.” There were no external ante-mortal injuries on the other victim.
No evidence of rape, the experts stated, emerged either. The hymen of one of the victims was found intact. Four Shopian hospital staff members — Javed Iqbal Malik, Tariq Ahmad Tantrey, Mohammad Ismail Sheikh and Mohammad Ismail Sodagar — corroborated the findings, telling the CBI that there were no injuries on the private parts of the victims. Their clothes, six other witnesses told the CBI, were also intact at the time the bodies were found.
How could the AIIMS findings be so different from that of two separate teams of doctors who carried out earlier autopsies? Breathtaking incompetence may have played a role. Shopian doctors Bilal Hassan and Nazia Hassan ruled out drowning as a cause of death, claiming to have carried out a flotation test using samples of lung tissue from a victim. In fact, the AIIMS team determined, the tissue was from the heart.
Moreover, the lung flotation test has long been known to be less-than-conclusive proof of drowning — especially in fresh water, which has a lower density than salt water. Janson Payne-James, Anthony Busuttil and William S. Smock’s Forensic Medicine: Clinical and Pathological Aspects explains that the test rests on the fact that lung weights are usually higher in people who were drowned. But “a normal weight is possible in some drowning cases.” The more sophisticated tests conducted by the CBI experts were either unavailable or unknown to the Shopian doctors.
Nighat Shaheen, Ghulam Qadir Sofi and Maqbool Mir, who made up the second autopsy team, are also charged by the CBI with fabricating evidence. The team insisted that a victim’s hymen was damaged — an assertion the AIIMS experts’ videotaped autopsy debunks. Evidence that Dr. Shaheen had fabricated evidence, first reported in The Hindu, also figured in the CBI investigation. She claimed to have taken vaginal swabs from the victims, but later tests revealed that they had in fact been lifted from unconnected women. The CBI claims that Dr. Shaheen offered them three contradictory accounts of how this had come about — including a claim, now disproved, that she had supplied a vaginal swab from her own body under duress.
The CBI investigators were unable to arrive at a precise determination of just how the women were drowned. Human rights groups who have investigated the case say water in the Rambiara was just ankle-deep.
But official records gathered by the CBI show that the river was flowing at its year-high flood, 228 cubic feet per second, just days before the women’s death. There is, of course, no direct relationship between the flow of water in the river and its depth. However, the CBI discovered multiple witness testimonies suggesting that the river was indeed flowing at dangerous levels — the most important being a videotaped media interview given by the husband of one of the victims the day after her death. He asserted that the water level in the river was so high that “even a man could not have crossed it.” Independent witnesses, the CBI states, corroborated this claim, with one adding it was also the opinion of the victim’s family. They also noted that two separate witnesses earlier said the victims had froth around the nose, a classic sign of drowning.
Efforts to link police personnel to the crime went nowhere. Much of the case rested on the testimony of Ghulam Mohaiuddin Lone and Abdul Rashid Pampori, who claimed to have heard the women crying for help from inside a police vehicle parked on the Zawoora Bridge. However, the CBI noted, their testimony was contradictory on at least five issues. Later, the CBI says, it acquired statements from the men that they had been coerced into making the allegations. Forensic tests on 23 police vehicles and 47 officers posted in the area also threw up no evidence that they were in any way linked to the deaths.
The Kashmir High Court Bar Association says it has a letter from AIIMS forensic medicine expert Sudhir Gupta, casting doubt on the forensic findings. Dr. Gupta has offered no independent corroboration of this claim; indeed, in an in-house AIIMS correspondence obtained by The Hindu, Dr. Gupta asked for a copy of the letter so he could give a “legitimate reply.” The AIIMS spat has led to some bizarre media allegations, including assertions that its experts helped to rig forensic evidence in the murder of a Delhi teenager — a case the institution had nothing to do with. Dr. Gupta, whose name was struck off the rolls of the Medical Council of India in 2004, on plagiarism charges, may or may not be a credible witness, but if there is any serious critique of the evidence marshalled by the CBI, it must be assessed and responded to.
Failing this, many must hold themselves to account for the bloodshed that followed the deaths in Shopian. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and his government must take part of the blame. The government buckled under pressure from Islamists, transferring senior police officials who insisted that the deaths were an accident, suspended others on charges of destroying evidence and paving the way for the judicially-mandated arrests of four suspects, now exonerated. Politicians in the PDP, and among the secessionists, who cynically cashed in on the deaths to further their agenda must also be held to account. Media and civil rights groups, which paid little attention to evidence that from the outset cast doubt on the rape-murder story, cannot evade responsibility either.
Many in Jammu and Kashmir, reared on the half-truths and deceits fed by large sections of the media, are likely to believe the CBI account. It is imperative that proceedings from here on be carried out with complete transparency to avoid further muddying of the waters.