Amid blooming apple orchards, an eerie clam prevails in this north Kashmir hamlet, 80 kms from the summer capital of Srinagar. After six years, there is hardly a villager who has forgotten the gruesome Tabinda Gani rape and murder incident, which shook the village to its foundations.
The memories of the ill-fated morning of June 27, 2007 are still fresh in the minds of people here, who recall how Tabinda, a 13-year-old girl was brutally gang-raped and murdered in one of the first incidents involving two non-locals and two local youth with “criminal background.”
Sitting on the verandah of his modest home at Batpora Langate, frail Abdul Gani Shah (77) stares at their ancestral graveyard located near the compound of his house where Tabinda was buried. Shah is lost in deep thoughts.
After a while, he runs to another room in utter desperation and opens a trunk to see the belongings of his deceased daughter. In the trunk lay a broken pencil, some books and clothes which have started decaying. He takes out the note books of his daughter and breaks down while looking at the notes written by her.
Victim’s brother Muhammad Iqbal says they expected life imprisonment or death penalty to the accused within six months to one year of the crime. But, the trial, he says, is on at a snail’s pace. “In the recent Delhi gang-rape incident, the Government of India acted swiftly and constituted a fast track court for speedy trial of the case. But in an equally horrible rape and murder case of my sister in 2007, the state government promised the same only to cool down the tempers. We want the case to be tried on fast-track, like on the pattern of Delhi incident,” says Iqbal.
The institution of ‘Tabinda State Award of Bravery’, which is being given to three children every year, has not brought any cheer for the family. “J&K government has set up an award in her name to celebrate bravery. But there is nothing celebratory about it, especially when her killers and rapists haven’t been punished so far,” says Shah, as tears trickle down his gloomy eyes. “Of course my daughter was brave, she fought with four beasts and nailed them which helped in their identification and arrest later. But mere celebration of her bravery cannot ensure us justice.”
Tabinda’s father says the State should have punished the culprits before setting up the award. “The most precious gift I could receive from the State is punishment to the guilty, not setting up awards in her name. There is no point giving an award in the name of Tabinda when her perpetrators have not been punished,” Shah adds.
He says, “The long wait for justice has killed me inside. I don’t expect much now.”
Six years after Tabinda was killed, the hype surrounding the case has fizzled out and her family has lost hope. “It took six years to record the statements of 81 witnesses out of 86 cited by police. And yet the statements of five witnesses are pending. What more can you expect in such a system?” he asks.
It was June 27, 2007 when Tabinda, a class 7th student, was walking towards her home. She usually took a narrow, muddy, hilly track to reach her Batpora residence at Langate Handwara. On that day, she had promised her elder sister that they would have lunch together. Their mother had passed away some years before and her father and brother were away for work. Almost 300 meters from the main crossing, someone suddenly appeared from behind and threw sawdust in her eyes. She was then dragged into a nearby orchard by four young men, two of them local Kashmiri boys with “criminal background” and two from outside the State, who tore apart her clothes. When she resisted, the accused beat her up and then took turns to rape her. Fearing detection, the assailants slit her throat and dug up a small grave where she was buried.
Later, Tabinda’s uncle received a phone call from one of the family members that her school bag and shoes have been found in a village orchard. Few minutes later, another caller informed them that Tabinda’s body had been found. She had been left naked with a pencil in her hand; her uniform almost 50 meters away from her body and her bag full of books.
The accused Muhammad Sadiq Sadiq Mir alias Saeda Choor, Azhar Ahmad Mir alias Billa, both residents of Langate Handwara, Mochi Jahangir Ansari from West Bengal and Suresh Kumar from Rajasthan, had laid an elaborate trap for Tabinda. Minutes before she arrived on the ill-fated day, two boys were about to take the same route. The assailants didn’t want their plans derailed. They intercepted the boys and handed them chocolates with a suggestion to take another route. A bear was spotted in the orchards and it was not safe to move on the road, the assailants told the boys who unwittingly left without protest. They later deposed before the court and recognized Azhar and Suresh, a cobbler.
As the news of Tabinda’s killing spread, it sent shockwaves across Kashmir and triggered spontaneous protests with people demanding immediate arrest of the culprits. No one had a clue as to what had really happened and who was responsible. Many people blamed the Army.
A mass protest was organized in Tabinda’s village where the locals put the blame on police. Azhar, a short, lean boy was vocal in his claims that the state government was behind Tabinda’s disappearance. No one knew that Azhar, barely few days back, had allegedly participated in the rape and murder of Tabinda. “If people had got a sniff, he would have been lynched. When we exhumed the body, it started raining in Handwara, as if the skies were weeping. The wind was so fast that the roofs of residences were blown away. But the harsh weather couldn’t deter people from coming out on the streets and participate in her funeral,” says Iqbal Ahmad.
President of the ‘Justice for Tabinda Gani Forum’ said for next 21 days, Handwara remained closed with loud cries for justice. When the police started investigations, they found nail marks on Suresh, the cobbler’s body who was subjected to intense questioning during which he broke down and the case was cracked. The police claimed that the accused have confessed to their involvement in the crime and that the prosecution’s case was very strong.
Ghulam Muhammad Shah, Senior Public Prosecutor told Greater Kashmir that parents of Tabinda should not lose hope from the judiciary, though there was some delay due to ill health of accused’s Counsel who could not appear for past sometime on health grounds. He said the Court has to give free trial to the accused also. “The court has fixed 28 May as next hearing of the case and the statements of DNA experts (who have to come from Delhi), FSL experts from Srinagar and then DSP Handwara will be recorded,” he said.