Jammu & Kashmir

‘A living hell’

Print edition : July 24, 2013

At Kunan-Poshpora, three generations of a family. A file picture. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

In Srinagar on July 1, during a strike called by separatists against the killilng of two youths allegedly by the security forces in a village in Bandipora district. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

This is how a resident describes life in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora where the alleged rape of some 50 women by Indian Army soldiers 22 years ago continues to haunt the people.

THE room is full of women with grim faces and a haunted look in their eyes. One sits down not knowing where to start, careful not to rake up the trauma of the past. Hesitantly, one asks how they are, and if any government official or any Minister or any legislator has spoken to them and offered real help. “We do not want help; we want justice,” a middle-aged woman burst out. “We are not looking for charity; we want the men who did this to be arrested and for people to recognise what has happened to us,” she says in a near-hysterical tone.

Twenty-two years ago, on February 23, 1991, the remote villages of Kunan and Poshpora in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district had settled in for the night. It was around 11 p.m. and pitch dark as the villages did not have electricity. And it was bitterly cold and was snowing. Suddenly, men armed with guns burst into the hutments, threatening to kill the villagers if they resisted. The residents soon realised that the men were soldiers of the Indian Army and that they were hunting for militants. In almost every house the men were taken away even as the women screamed and pleaded for mercy.

But no one expected what followed. The troops returned and barged into the houses and attacked the women, molesting and raping them. Sara says she thought it was happening only to her; it was only later, in the morning when the men returned, that they realised that women across the two villages had been raped, some of them gang-raped. “We could not shout, there was no help, no light, it was all dark and just these men,” says Parveen, shuddering at the thought. (The names of the residents of the two villages whom this writer spoke to have been changed in order to protect their identity.)

A woman in her mid-40s, sitting in the corner of the room, does not say a word, but weeps quietly, inconsolably. The memories do not go away for the women; it is as if it all happened yesterday. Many of the women—15 or more of them—had to have hysterectomies because of infection and injury. The wounds may have healed but the scars are visible for those who care to see, and the mental agony remains. The women, clearly, are in need of psychiatric counselling and help; their lives seem to have come to a standstill since that terrible night over two decades ago. They have not been able to move on. Instead, they have found it impossible to regain lost status in a society that now looks upon them as “rape victims” and the villages of Kunan and Poshpora as “rape villages”.

Akbar was 38 years old then and cannot forget that night. He and the other men were taken out into the snow and then to a building, where they were tortured. His eyes mist over as he speaks of the rollers run across his legs (they have been almost paralysed), of the electric shocks given to his private parts and temples. Ahmad, too, shares the agony, as do many of the others among the 40-odd men who have gathered to recount those days and the intervening years through which they suffered in silence.

The men were allowed to return to the villages after 10 a.m. the next morning. Nothing had prepared them for what they saw. The villages were in complete shock, their women were lying unconscious, others were weeping, and it was then that the twin villages realised that their womenfolk too had not been spared by the soldiers.

Taunts at school

Soon, the stigma of “rape” attached itself to the village. Khalid, a handsome young boy, says quietly that he and many of his friends had to drop out of school. Why? “The other children still taunt us, asking us whether our mothers or grandmothers or aunts were raped. We cannot accept this, so most of us are not studying, or if we are we do so in colleges far away from here,” he explains.

Ironically, there is no display of anger. The usual sloganeering and angry demands and gesticulations associated with the youth of Kashmir are missing. There is just a quiet helplessness and a traumatic resignation that there will be no justice or closure for the victims of that fateful night.

For two days the residents wept in silence. Some said the troops had cordoned off the villages for that period. After two days, the people went to Kupwara to file a report. The District Magistrate, S.M. Yasin, visited the village and recorded in his report, “The armed forces behaved like violent beasts.” The soldiers belonged to the 4th Rajputana Rifles. This fact was recorded for the first time in Yasin’s report.

Some of the separatist leaders visited the villages, but only once. Others did not. No one from the mainstream political parties bothered to find out what had happened and how.

Almost a month later, on March 17, 1991, a fact-finding delegation led by the then Chief Justice, Mufti Bahauddin Farooqi, interviewed 53 women who had allegedly been raped, and tried to determine why a police investigation into the incident had never taken place. Farooqi is reported to have said at the time that he had “never seen a case in which normal investigative procedures were ignored as they were in this one”.

Daughters suffer

The women of Kunan-Poshpora say unmarried girls who had been raped were not allowed by the residents to come forward and file police reports. Shakina, who had to undergo a hysterectomy, says “They had to get married after all, and we did not want our daughters to suffer.”

The women say that even today they find it difficult to get good grooms for their women because of the stigma attached to the villages. Samina, wiping her tears, says that even today the girls can marry only relatives or others from the two villages. “No one from outside approaches us for marriage,” she says. “Life has been a living hell,” she adds, while those around her nod in agreement.

The then Divisional Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, led a team of officers of the Army, the Border Security Force (BSF) and the police to Kunan-Poshpora at that time. He spoke to at least 41 women and concluded in his report that there was need for a more detailed inquiry. His recommendations were deleted from the report published by the State government then, a fact that he spoke of again recently to journalists. He could not determine the extent of the violence, but he did realise that something terrible had happened to the people of the villages.

Media furore

The incident made it to the international media two months later when, in April, The New York Times reported the rape under the headline “India moves against Kashmir rebels”. The villages were besieged with reporters from across the world for a while, and by international human rights organisations and civil society groups. The men recount this, “They all came here asking us questions, making us relive that night over and over again. And they all disappeared with not even a leaf here stirring, despite the promises.” Musavir, one of the residents, says they had decided not to meet any “outsiders” now, and are quite used to living in silence, isolated.

The media furore resulted in a Press Council of India-mandated investigation, with veteran journalists B.G. Verghese and K. Vikram Rao visiting the villages. This was perhaps the most damning report for the people of the villages as it gave a clean chit to the soldiers and allowed the political establishments in both Srinagar and New Delhi to close the case without a trial of any kind.

The women continue to fight with health issues. At one point, the State government distributed some money to the survivors, which was unaccounted and unspecified so that the government would not have to accept officially that the gang rapes took place. The men in Konan-Poshpora say this was just to silence the villagers in the hope that the story will remain buried.

In October 2011, the residents of the two villages approached the Jammu and Kashmir Human Rights Commission at the instance of local civil rights activists. After hearing them, the commission ordered the reopening of the case and recommended an inquiry by a special investigation team and monetary compensation for the victims.

More recently, on June 18 this year, a Kupwara district court took cognisance of a public interest petition and asked for “further investigation to unravel the identity of those who happen to be perpetrators”. Some of the residents are happy that at least some progress has been made, but most of them appear pessimistic. “Let us see if anything happens,” one of them says.

Sara speaks for all of them when she says, “What can they do for us now, we have lost everything.” Even so, the younger people of Kunan-Poshpora want closure, they want the stigma of rape to be removed, and they firmly believe that this will only happen once the testimonies of the survivors are honoured and justice is done.

Kashmiris are used to what a young journalist described as the two Cs—crackdown and cover-up. Recently, the Valley was rocked by protests when two young persons were shot dead in Bandipora by soldiers allegedly looking for militants. No one has been arrested as yet, although the Deputy Commissioner of Bandipora told the media that a first information report (FIR) for murder had been registered against the Rashtriya Rifles battalion and that there was no need for an investigation as the charge had been established against the Army.

According to official reports, soldiers of Rashtriya Rifles travelled to the villages in unmarked vehicles, accompanied by an informer. In the villages, the people were on a round-the-clock vigil against cattle thieves. The soldiers shot dead a young cowherd when he tried to challenge them, mistaking them for cattle thieves. Following this, the local people gathered in protest, and the soldiers fired again, killing a second youth. The Army is now trying to pin the killing of the cowherd on the informer.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said the deaths of the boys had brought back in focus the need to revoke the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). “I understand that the Army needs a legal cover to operate. My point is why does the legal cover have to extend to impunity. This is what is happening,” he said. He added that the Central government at the highest levels must look into all these incidents and realise that “unless justice is seen to be done, people will not have faith in the institutions”.

Despite these strong words, little has moved on the ground. Kashmiris are still waiting for justice and the arrests and trials of those who opened fire and killed at least 117 youth in different parts of the Valley in 2010. The State’s landscape is dotted with such incidents. One woman in Kunan-Poshpora said, “When the poor young girl in Delhi was raped, you changed the law. Here, when our women were raped by men in uniform for an entire night, you have only intervened to give them a clean chit. Is this justice?”

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