Valley Voices

Between Selma and Srinagar, India, a murder-suicide links two valleys

This photo provided by the Fresno County Sheriff's Office shows Avtar Singh. Singh, a former Indian Army officer wanted in a 1996 killing in the disputed Kashmir region, killed his wife and two of their children in their California home on June 9, 2012 before taking his own life, authorities said.
This photo provided by the Fresno County Sheriff's Office shows Avtar Singh. Singh, a former Indian Army officer wanted in a 1996 killing in the disputed Kashmir region, killed his wife and two of their children in their California home on June 9, 2012 before taking his own life, authorities said. AP/Fresno County Sheriff’s Office

This summer marks a five-year anniversary that few in the region may remember, but binds our San Joaquin Valley to the Kashmir Valley. On June 9, 2012 a resident of Selma, Avtar Singh, called the police to notify them that he had killed his wife, three children – ages 3, 15, and 17, and was now going to kill himself.

The phone disconnected and the SWAT team arrived to discover four dead bodies. The 15-year-old son, Aryan Singh, a student at Selma High, survived for a few more days before succumbing to the gunshot wound.

Almost immediately the background story of the killer also became known. The murder-suicide was committed by Avtar Singh, owner of Jay Trucking Lines. But nearly 15 years earlier in the mid-1990s, he had been an Indian Army Major fighting counter-insurgency operations in Indian-held Kashmir. Maj. Singh was the prime suspect accused in the killing of a human-rights lawyer named Jalil Andrabi.

Andrabi had made a name for himself in the early 1990s for his bravery in speaking up against Indian Army abuses in its fight against terrorism. He uncovered and documented cases of arbitrary arrests, detentions, custodial killings and “disappearances.” He was well-known internationally for his work.

In March 1996, while preparing to present his findings of Indian Government human rights abuses at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, he was taken into custody by the Indian Army just days before his departure. Amnesty International and other leading human rights organizations immediately lodged their concern about his imprisonment.

Within days of his arrest, autopsy reports later revealed that he had been tortured and killed. His body was recovered almost three weeks from the day of his arrest floating in the Jhelum River, with his hands bound, eyes gouged, and face mutilated from a gunshot wound to the head.

The case received considerable international attention, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the Indian Government in April 1996 to conduct a “thorough investigation” aimed at “establishing the facts and imposing sanctions on those found guilty.”

The pressure was enough where local state courts ordered the Indian government to confiscate Singh’s passport, after another member of his army unit provided testimony of his direct involvement. Still in 2001, the BJP-led Indian government issued a passport for Singh and, along with his family, he left for Canada . From Canada, they traveled south to the United States and settled in Selma.

His identity was discovered in 2011, after the Selma police responded to a domestic violence charge and fingerprinted him. The police identified him as being wanted by Interpol for his murder of Andrabi. While the discovery was reported to the Indian government, they made no move seeking his extradition and the matter was dropped until the murder-suicide.

If this case has largely been forgotten in Selma, in Srinagar the story is widely known and Andrabi continues to be honored. The entire store was narrated for a global audience in a fictionalized account in Arundhati Roy’s Man Booker Prize long-list novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” changing only minor details of the incident in Selma.

The real tragedy is that the climate in Kashmir remains full of terror. Every day, citizens defiantly throw-stones only to face being blinded by pellet gun attacks and even used as human shields by the Indian Armed Forces. Their desire for peace and freedom remains vibrant.

Singh’s story in our Valley opens up other questions that have been little explored. While the conversation of deportations has taken center stage, how many other human rights abusers live in our midst? Few El Salvadorans would need to be reminded that one of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s murderers, Alvaro Saravia, resided in Modesto until he was extradited.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit that focuses on deporting human rights abusers from the United States. It is small, little-funded and largely focused on regions except Asia.

But in an area like the Valley, where some human rights criminals, including Laotian officials or members of Punjab Police reside, the story of Avtar Singh’s murder-suicide is a stark reminder of the need to identify, prosecute, remove such perpetrators, and strive toward justice for all.

Deep Singh of Fresno is the executive director of the Jakara Movement, a youth development nonprofit and the largest Sikh volunteer organization in the United States. Connect with him at deep@jakara.org.

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