From Nagaland to Punjab and from Andhra Pradesh to Kashmir, from the early 1950s to the year 2003, spanning almost the entire time and space comprising independent India, there have been reports of the security forces, including the army, forcing local people to act as shields and to actively participate in anti-terrorist operations. These reports have been consistently denied by the authorities who have routinely give out other reasons, such as ‘caught in the cross-fire’, ‘aiding/ abetting terrorists’, etc, to explain away civilian casualties. This is an account of two such cases, one from Kashmir and the other from Punjab. In both cases, the army and the Punjab police, respectively, categorically denied the allegation against them, claiming that the villagers were killed in the cross-fire between the terrorists and the security forces. Since neither incident was the object of an authoritative fact finding, the truth will never be known. However, the following accounts give us a glimpse of the truth. Both accounts are based upon the eyewitness testimony of those who survived the operation itself, being similarly press-ganged into service by the troops involved and/ or surviving family members and villagers who witnessed the entire operation.
Report by Ashok Agrwaal, advocate and human rights activist
On the 5th of March 2003 there was an encounter at village Kaw-chak, PS, Kreeri, Tehsil Pattan, District Baramulla, J&K. Three militants were stated to have been killed. Some soldiers are also said to have lost their lives. In addition, two villagers were killed and several wounded. The Army/ RR claimed that these “civilian casualties happened in the “cross-fire” between them and the terrorists.
The encounter started early in the morning of the 5th. Villagers were pressed into servicing the Army’s needs from the inception. Teams of soldiers also scoured the surrounding area for more “volunteers”. At about 10 a.m three army vehicles (trucks) came from the direction of Kreeri. Ashiq Hussain Malik was sitting in his shop, by the side of the road. Mohamad Arif Mir s/o Abdul Gafar Mir and his brother Ghulam Mohamad Mir residents of Dolipora were walking on the road from Dolipura, towards Kreeri. Ghulam Mohiuddin, who had just returned from Pattan where he had spent the night, had stopped near a house opposite the shops by the road on hearing about the crackdown/ encounter in his village. The trucks stopped near the shops. Two officers, one in sunglasses and another, jumped out of the vehicles. The officer in sunglasses grabbed Ghulam Mohiuddin from behind and dragged him towards the vehicles. They ordered Ashiq Hussain Malik to close his shop and come with them. The Mir brothers, who had by then reached where the army vehicles were parked, were ordered to get into the army vehicles. However, Ghulam Mohamad Mir, a government employee, was let off when he pleaded that he had to report for duty.
Inside the truck there were four other people, residents of village Watargam, who had similarly been picked up by the Army. They were all brought to the site of the encounter, in village Kaw-chak, in the truck.
At the encounter site they were pulled out, ordered to remove their upper garments and their backs were marked with a rubber stamp, presumably in order to fix their identity. They were divided into pairs. Each pair was given some explosives – that looked like a car battery in shape and weighed about 15 – 20 kilos – and were ordered to carry these into the house in which the militants were holed up and to place the devices against the walls inside the ground floor of the building. The militants were on the upper floors.
On showing hesitation to do the army’s bidding all the villagers were beaten and threatened with death. Each explosive devise (called a “mine”) was picked up by two persons and carried inside the house. Meanwhile the exchange of fire with the militants was going on. The militants were also calling out to the villagers, warning them not to cooperate with the army. Frightened by the firing and the shouts of the militants the villagers were placing the mines against the outside wall of the house. After some mines were in place they were made to carry large stones and pile them against the mines so as to cover them. Eight villagers were doing this work, which went on till two pm.
Around 2 pm, as they were coming out of the house after placing some stones, Ghulam Mohiuddin and Arif were injured. Ghulam Mohiuddin received three bullets in his left arm. Arif was hit by two bullets in his right upper arm, near the shoulder. Both fell down, unconscious. The others dragged them to safety. They were then taken in a matador that had been commandeered by the army and brought to the Bone and Joints Hospital, Barzalla, Srinagar. Ghulam Mohiuddin stayed in the hospital for 15 days. The bones in his arm having been shattered, after two surgeries the doctors told him that he would require at least one more, with no guarantee that he will recover the use of his arm.
Several villagers who houses are close to the site of the encounter had fled to another part of the village (called Harnau) to escape being forced into military service. Sometime that afternoon, some army jawans came to this part and selected four people. These were: Abdul Rashid, aged 42, Ghulam Mohd. Mir, aged 40, Abdul Hamid Bhat, aged 25 and Bashiruddin aged 30.
At the encounter site three of them were taken towards an army truck loaded with boxes. Each of them was given four bottles filled with petrol with cotton wicks stuffed in the neck (Molotov cocktails) and made to sit behind the house of one Mohd. Akbar Bhat, opposite the house of Ali Mohd. Bhat where the militants were holed up.
Ashiq Hussain Malik was sitting already present behind Mohd. Akbar’s house when they reached there. The soldiers were very angry with Ashiq Hussain as they felt that he had spoilt/ damaged one of mines entrusted to him. They claimed that but for this they would have destroyed the house and killed the militants holed up inside, much earlier. Due to this delay, they claimed, one of their comrades had died. They were threatening him with dire consequences while Ashiq was repeatedly pleading his innocence.
The soldiers took the Molotov cocktails from the villagers and carried them inside Mohd. Akbar’s house. The officer with sunglasses (called ‘captain’ by the villagers), asked for more Molotov cocktails. Two of the villagers, Bashiruddin and Abdul Hamid Bhat, were ordered to get some more from the truck. When they returned, Ashiq and Abdul Rashid were not present at the back of the house. They were made to sit down again. No talking was permitted between the villagers but Bashiruddin and Abdul Bhat heard the soldiers shouting – ‘Bhaag gaye saale’ accompanied by heavy firing. They kept sitting there, thinking the soldiers were referring to the militants.
Shortly thereafter, there was a call– ‘Aur civilians ko bhej do’. Bashiruddin and Abdul Bhat were sent inside the house. They were forced to remove their upper garments and their backs were marked with a stamp. Bashiruddin was handed a mine and Abdul Hamid was made to pick up a couple of stones. We were pointed out the spot, near a window, where we were to place the mine. Immediately after they returned the mine they had placed blew up and the house in which the militants had holed up, collapsed.
Thereafter, the villagers were ordered to go and pull out the bodies of the militants from the rubble. Initially, they could not find any bodies. The soldiers then ordered them to blow up a cattle shed adjoining the collapsed house. Just after that they heard a cry for help from the rubble. On the soldiers’ orders the villagers placed an explosive device with wires near that spot, which was then exploded. The cries for help persisted.
Some other villagers were brought to the site all were put to the task of removing the rubble. The newcomers were: Maksood Ahmed Din, Bashiruddin’s brother, Ali Mohd. Bhat and his younger brother, Abdul Hamid Bhat and Ghulam Nabi Waza. The rubble was very hot. Fires were burning in some places. Their hands and feet were singed by the burning heat. Finally, they pulled out the militant who had been calling out for help. He was still alive. He was asking for water. The officer with sunglasses refused saying— ‘we gave him so many opportunities to surrender’.
The officer and his men interrogated the captured militant. His name was Shabir. He was from Kachua Mukam (Kandi area), Tehsil and district Baramulla. Then they took him away somewhere. The villagers were ordered to continue their search beneath the rubble. They found two fully clothed bodies. At first they did not recognize them and thought they were dead militants. The soldiers asked them to search their pockets. From one pocket they recovered a purse and from the other a bunch of keys and an identity card. On seeing the identity card they realized that the bodies were of two villagers, both of whom had been pressed into service by the Army. The man with the purse was Abdul Rashid Mir, a teacher by profession and the man with the keys and the identity card was Ashiq Hussain Malik. The keys were to his shop. Half of Abdul Rashid’s face had been torn apart by a burst of bullets. Ashiq had a similar burst of bullets on his back around the waist.
The villagers were ordered by the officers to keep quiet about the fact that two civilians, villagers, had been killed in the encounter and made to continue the task of removing/ searching through the rubble. The rubble was very hot – their hands and feet were getting blistered and burnt. However, the officers refused to allow us to pour water on the rubble to cool it.
Around sunset the Army/RR commandeered some more villagers. They were asked to pick up the bodies. Eight villagers picked up the two bodies and carried them to the army vehicle by the road. Then they were asked to bring a third body. This turned out to be of the militant whom they had pulled out of the rubble, alive.
After this, they requested an officer – addressed as ‘CO. Saab’ – that they be allowed to go as they were exhausted. Four of them were allowed to go. They were: Bashiruddin, Ghulam Mohd. Mir, Ishtiaq Ahmed Ganai and Abdul Hamid Bhat. Others continued to work at the Army’s orders, searching the rubble. Bashiruddin’s brother, Maksood was one of them. Maksood and about 30 other villagers were forced to continue removing rubble till 11 AM the next morning. Most of them were from village Dolipura. About eight or ten people were from village Kaw-chak.
These people recovered one body around 9 pm on the …... It was fully burnt. Another body was recovered around 10 AM the next day. They also recovered two guns and empty magazines. Around 11 AM a procession of protestors from Dolipura arrived at the site. The Army fired in the air to disperse them. Frightened by the firing the protesters ran helter skelter. Shortly thereafter, thinking the situation might deteriorate, the Army ran away.
The bodies taken by the Army to Hambray. Ashiq Hussain’s brother, Tariq Ahmed, who had reached the site in search of his brother, was also forced by the Army to clear the rubble of the demolished house. Even though by that time his body was already in Army custody, they told Tariq that Ashiq’s body was lying beneath the rubble. The bodies were handed over to the police at P.S. Kreeri. Ashiq’s parents were away on the Haj pilgrimage when he was killed.
Minister Ghulam Hasan Mir, Minister Sharifuddin Niazi and a Corp Commander (a Sikh) from the army came for Taziat (the shared mourning after a death). One of the officers wounded in this encounter, a Major, also came. The Corp Commander expressed regrets for the civilian deaths. ‘However’, he said, ‘the casualties cannot be helped as we cannot do our job effectively without civilian help’.
The Ministers promised to take up the issue of the Army using civilians in this manner. They also promised relief to those killed and injured. The Major expressed regrets and said that had he not been injured, he would not have allowed this mishap to occur.
Both families lodged a report with the police but till the time of this investigation, about a month and a half later, they had not been given a copy of the FIR.
The visiting Ministers had ordered that inquiry into the incident and directed that it should be completed within 15 days. They also ordered payment of ex gratia compensation and compassionate appointment to next of kin under SRO 43. According to Ashiq Hussain’s family they had been paid an ex gratia of Rs. 1 lakh but the compassionate appointment had not yet been given.
The Inquiry against the Army had made no progress. The families of those killed were afraid to press for the inquiry though they wish that justice is done with the guilty officers being identified and punished. The villagers asked the CO of the unit concerned, who had come to condole, to produce the guilty officer. He merely echoed the Corp Commander and said ‘We need the civilians. What happened will happen again. This cannot be helped’.
Publicly, the Army took the stand that the two villagers, Ashiq Hussain and Abdul Rashid Mir were killed in ‘cross-firing’ during the encounter. However, the truth of the matter was reported extensively by the press who visited the village on the very next day, the 6th of March 2003.
On being asked whether their were any circumstances in which they would willingly provide assistance (of the non-dangerous kind) to the security forces in their battle against the terrorists/ militants the response of the villagers was a uniform and vehement no. The villagers also informed the investigation team that some days later, even as the ministers were promising that they would ensure that such incidents are not repeated, the Army conducted a similar operation at Tilgram, using the local villagers as human shields and for menial tasks that thrust them into the midst of the firefight and put their lives at extreme risk. However, fortunately no civilians were killed in that operation. There was only one militant involved in that encounter.
Report by Ram Narayan Kumar and Amrik Singh, human rights activists
Based upon the affidavit filed before the NHRC by Ashok Bath, Superintendent of Police (Detective), Tarn Taran.
On 8.6.92 the police received information that Surjit Singh Behla s/o Tarlok Singh Jat, r/o Behla and Madan Singh @ Maddi @ Sukhdev Singh @ Chota Behla s/o Santokh Singh r/o Behla, self-styled Deputy Chief and Lieutenant General of Bhindranwala Tiger Force of Khalistan (BTFK), a sikh militant outfit was holding a meeting with other terrorists and planning to commit a major terrorist crime. A police party with officers of 91/Bn and 102 Bn CRPF cordoned the village Behla. When the police were searching the first floor of the house of Manjinder Singh Behla the terrorists, who were hiding inside the house, opened fire and killed HC Jarnail Singh and LC Harjit Singh 4160/TT. Constables Pargat Singh & Som Datt and L/K (?) Kalash Chander were injured. The terrorists “cordoned” (?) the police party who had gone inside the house to conduct their search. The army was deployed to tighten security arrangements for the night. The next morning the police officers who were trapped inside the house were freed with the army’s help. The cross-firing continued till the next day. Two jawans of the Punjab Police were killed and one constable and 3 jawans of the CRPF were injured in the encounter. After the firing ceased, the police recovered 9 bullet ridden, dead bodies of terrorists. Four of the bodies were identified on the spot and the remaining five bodies were identified later on.
(Note: The affidavit provides the identities of only 8 of the 9 bodies: Harbans Singh, Ajit Singh, Lakhwinder Singh, Paramjit Singh @ Shingara Singh, Sakkattar Singh @ Mangga Singh, Naranjan Singh, Madan Singh @ Maddi @ Sukhdev Singh @ Chota Behla, and Jagtar Singh @ Varpal. A large quantity of arms and ammunition was recovered from the site (house) of the encounter.
The investigation by the CCDP
Based upon interviews conducted with the families of the deceased and other eyewitnesses.
Nine persons were killed at village Behla in the course of an encounter on 8-10 June 1992. Out of these nine, three were militants and six were villagers unconnected with the militancy who the security forces used as human shields to storm the house in which the three militants were hiding. The body of one person killed in the encounter remains unaccounted for. The CCDP’s (Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab) investigation took it to the homes/ families of 8 of these 9 persons and other eye-witnesses in the village.
On 8 June 1992 morning, a large mixed force, comprised of the Punjab police led by SSP Ajit Singh Sandhu and Khubi Ram, SP (Operations), and units of the army and paramilitary, surrounded the old and abandoned house of Manjinder Singh, a former member of the Punjab Legislative Assembly, in village Behla. Apparently, the house was being used as a hideout by militants associated with Surjit Singh, s/o Tarlok Singh from Behla village. One of his associates, 18 year old Sukhdev Singh, alias Maddi, son of Santokh Singh, was also from Behla. After completing his matriculation, he had started working in a Sugar Mill at Sheron. The police often illegally detained and tortured his elder brother Kulbir Singh for information because of their suspicions of his having militant connections. Sukhdev Singh was unable to tolerate this injustice done to his brother and decided to become a militant himself. Later on, his father Santokh Singh was abducted and disappeared by the police. The third associate of Surjit Singh Behla was Harbans Singh, s/o Mehr Singh from Sarhalli in Tarn Taran subdivision of Amritsar district.
Before storming the house, the police officers decided to round up seven or eight villagers to walk in front of the police force and to act as human shields. The following are the names of the six of those who got killed in the course of the operation that followed:  Kartar Singh, s/o Aasa Singh,  Niranjan Singh, s/o Boor Singh,  Sakatter Singh, s/o Niranjan Singh,  Lakhwinder Singh, s/o Channan Singh,  Gurmej Singh and  Ajit Singh, s/o Mangal Singh.
The police randomly selected these people, and this had nothing to do with suspicions of their possible involvement in the militancy. For example:
Ajit Singh, from Behla village in Tarn Taran, was a 60 year old man married to Preetam Kaur with seven children. He owned a horse driven cart and was employed by a brick kiln owner to transport bricks to his clients.He had no political or militant association, no criminal background and no enmity with anyone in his village.
Ajit Singh had that morning carried a cartload of bricks to the house of Niranjan Singh when the police came and forced him along with Niranjan Singh and his sons to be part of the front column.
Niranjan Singh, a 55 year old farmer, was married to Balwinder Kaur and had three sons and a daughter. He was a devout Sikh unconnected with any political or militant organization and took care of his family by cultivating three acres of land and selling milk from his buffalos.
Twenty-five year old Sakatter Singh was Niranjan Singh’s son. He used to help his father with the agricultural work and was married to Sharanjit Kaur with two daughters who are now barely teenagers. He had never been arrested before and had no political or militant connections.
Sakatter Singh died in the police operation. His younger brother Sukhchain Singh, also included in the front column, managed to escape after getting seriously wounded.
Twenty year old Lakhwinder Singh, the youngest son of Channan Singh and Gurmej Kaur, had no political or militant associations or record. He was watering his fields when the forces picked him up and compelled him to walk in front of them as a human shield.
Kartar Singh, a 62 year old farmer, was married to Iqbal Kaur with four adult children. He also had no record of a political or criminal past.
After entering the house, the security forces discovered that it had a basement but no door to enter it from inside. They started demolishing the floor that was also the celler’s roof. When the militants holed up inside opened fire, the police pushed these six villagers to the front, and using them for cover, fired back. All of the six persons who have been named died in this situation. Two others got seriously injured. The encounter lasted around 30 hours.
Three militants, holed up in the cellar who also got killed, are:  Surjit Singh Behla, s/o Tarlok Singh,  Sukhdev Singh Maddi, s/o Santokh Singh. Both were from Behla village.  Harbans Singh, the third militant killed in the action, was a resident of Sarhalli Kalan .
In the evening of 9th June, the police extricated the bodies of all the people who had been killed in the action without bothering to distinguish the militants from the others who the police had used as human shields.
The next morning, the police told the press that they had killed nine militants in the action. In the aftermath, several newspapers published stories questioning the police claims and explaining how the six unconnected villagers had been pushed into the jaws of death. Two others, wounded in the course of the operation, had been abandoned by the police to their own resources to obtain medical help. Embarrassed by the publicity, the Punjab government later announced an inquiry, which was, however, never carried out.
The police cremated all the bodies at Tarn Taran on 9 June 1992, labeling them as “unidentified/ unclaimed”, though the family of Ajit Singh attended the cremation. Other families were not allowed to attend.
Subsequently, in 1995-96, on orders from the Supreme Court the CBI carried out an investigation into the illegal cremation of thousands of bodies by the Punjab police between 1984 and 1994. Its December 1996 report to the Court divided the 2097 such cremations by the police in three cremation grounds in Amritsar district of Punjab into three categories: “identified”, “partially identified”, and “unidentified”. The CBI’s placed the cremations of Ajit Singh, Lakhwinder Singh and Harbans Singh, a militant and an associate of Surjit Singh Behla, in the “identified” list. Five others,  Surjit Singh, r/o Behala,  Sikkatar Singh, r/o Behala,  Niranjan Singh, r/o Behala,  Madan Singh, alias Maddi,  Kartar Singh, r/o Behala, were placed in the “partially identified” list. According to the CBI, SHO Gurbachan Singh of Tarn Taran city police station carried out these cremations in the same case of encounter under FIR No. 57/92. Out of these, Surjit Singh and Madan Singh, alias Maddi, (who must be Sukhdev Singh Maddi) were the militants. The other three, Sikkatar Singh, Niranjan Singh and Kartar Singh had been picked up to serve as human shields.
These cremations from the identified and partially identified lists of the CBI do not account for the body of Gurmej Singh, one of the six villagers forced to become a human shield and killed. The CBI’s list of unidentified cremations does not show any cremation on 9 June 1992.
 Reported in Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab pp 293 & 496, Pub. South Asia Forum for Human Rights, Kathmandu, May 2003
 Curiously, the CBI duplicated the record of Niranjan Singh’s cremation under Sl. No. 121/392 of its “identified” list. Here, it recorded Niranjan Singh’s cremation as having occurred on 18 April 1991,over a year earlier than its actual date. Further, the information to identify all was not only available to the police but had also been published in newspaper reports. Hence, it is not clear why the CBI decided to place some of them in the list of partially identified bodies.