Is it a strange case of human rights versus a "strategic partnership"? Is the much-touted special relationship between Washington and New Delhi helping a Kashmir rights activist's suspected killer hide out in the United States?
Former Indian Army Maj. Avtar Singh, a 15-year fugitive from justice, is known to have been holed up in California for quite some time. For months now, people in the far-off, India-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir have been waiting for repeated demands for his extradition to be met.
Following are the ascertained facts about the murder of Jalil Andrabi, a human rights lawyer associated with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF): Major Singh, from a Rashtriya National Rifles unit of the Indian army, and his men, along with "renegades" (of whom, anon), took Andrabi into detention near his Srinagar home under the extraordinary power enjoyed by the armed forces in the long-troubled state, on March 8, 1996. When the lawyer did not return, his wife went to senior officers of the state police, who assured her of his early release.
On the morning of March 27, 1996, however, Andrabi's tied-up and mutilated body was found in a burlap sack on the banks of the Jhelum River where it flows through Srinagar. The 42-year-old lawyer, dead for a week according to the autopsy's findings, had been shot in the head and his eyes had been gouged out.
Thus began a long struggle by Andrabi's family and supporters for ever-elusive justice. The struggle may have neared success by now, but for the unofficial asylum extended to Major Singh by the world's superpower and raucous champion of human rights.
Right on the morrow of Andrabi's detention, on March 9, the Jammu and Kashmir Bar Association filed a habeas corpus petition in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. The court called upon the army to produce Andrabi. The army responded by denying his detention.
The state government continued to get extensions of the deadline for replying to the petition. The federal government, subsequently, said that Major Singh's whereabouts were not known. The finding of an officially appointed special investigation team, identifying an army major as the main person behind the murder, made no difference. It transpired later that he had fled to Canada. His relatives and friends alleged that New Delhi had actually facilitated his emigration by issuing him a fake passport.
The alleged role of "renegades" in the crime added to the Kashmiri outrage over all this. The appellation referred to surrendered or captured militants, who constitute a dreaded scourge in Kashmir. Since early 1995, India's security forces have funded, armed and trained "renegades" to assist in counterinsurgency operations, even if outside the formal security structure. Human Rights Watch Asia has detailed the cruelties and crudities of the system.
Even while the campaign for justice in the case continued without eliciting any serious official response, Major Singh had moved to the US. A letter forwarded by the United States National Central Bureau (USNCB) of Interpol to its office in New Delhi on November 25, 2009, reportedly confirmed that he lived in California.
The USNCB of Interpol asked Interpol New Delhi to furnish the record of proceedings translated, as well as certified versions of the conviction record, charge sheet and other relevant documents. For the provisional arrest and extradition of Major Singh, the Interpol also wanted a formal request. None of this was forthcoming.
By March 15, 2010, a Srinagar court was still asking the state government how a passport was issued to Major Singh, while the authorities continued telling the court that the process of his extradition had already been taken up with New Delhi.
The case took a curious turn on February 26, 2011, when Major Singh was reportedly arrested in California on the charge of domestic violence and later released. The arrest led to an announcement by the Jammu and Kashmir government that it had begun a fresh attempt for his extradition. An official team was said to have left for New Delhi to discuss the issue with the ministries of external affairs and home affairs and then with the US Embassy. The state government took the opportunity to claim that it had taken up the matter with the US Embassy more than a year ago, but without making any progress.
On March 10, 2011, the prosecution told a Srinagar court that "formalities" required for the extradition had been "completed." The state government, however, thought it would still take longer to "take the process to its logical end." No specific timeline was mentioned at that time or since, probably because none really exists.
Policymakers in the US may be concerned over the consequences for its "strategic partnership" with New Delhi if it expedites the extradition. Many interested parties, of course, will interpret it as an intervention inimical to India. Even others may ask: sure, Washington is sending back Singh, but has it wielded its clout in Islamabad to curb the crossborder terrorism targeting India on Pakistan's soil?
The Obama administration will do well to ask itself whether, by withholding even minimal cooperation in this case, it will promote India-Pakistan peace or tame terrorism in South Asia. Moreover, it should ask, does such withholding heighten the United States' own dwindling reputation as a defender of human rights?