By Muzamil Jaleel, New Delhi Jul 11: When Judicial Magistrate Kupwara J A Geelani asked for “further investigation” into Konan Poshpora mass rape last month, it only returned the spotlight on a case that is seared into the collective memory of Kashmir as an unforgivable atrocity. And even 22 years after that dreadful night, the women of these two villages are struggling to be heard.
However, instead of starting a thorough probe, the Jammu and Kashmir government is again trying to block the process. First, the state filed a closure report in March this year – 22 years after the police claims to have shut the case — with an aim to bury the case and stall any prospect of a fresh probe. The court rejected the police’s conclusions, sought “further investigation” and directed it to “conclude the probe within three months” and it seemed that the government was left with no alibi. There was no immediate official response but once the dust settled, it was clear that the government wasn’t comfortable with a fresh probe. Twenty one days after the court order, the police are yet to get to work. Instead, the villagers say, the government has adopted a carrot-and-stick approach: plainclothes policemen keep visiting them to shut them up and a minister has approached them with doles to buy their silence.
Instead of closing the case without a proper investigation and thwarting every move to secure justice for the mass rape survivors, the government should have ensured a proper investigation, especially in light of the fact that then deputy commissioner, Kupwara, S M Yasin had on March 8, 1991 sent a shocking missive saying the army men “had behaved like violent beasts”. It didn’t happen then and now when the court has directed further investigation into the case, the government is again trying to obfuscate the truth and avoid the processes of justice.
To understand how demands for fair investigation and justice by people of Konan and Poshpora — two villages that became one in public lexicon because of the mass rape that cold February night — have been consistently scuttled, it is essential to take a look at the sequence of events and confidential reports filed by two top J&K government officials and a senior army officer soon after women of these villages alleged that they were gangraped by soldiers of 4 Rajputana Rifles during a cordon-and-search operation during the night of February 23-24, 1991.
The villagers say the army continued the cordon of the villages for three days after the incident and did not allow them to approach the local administration. And when a group of village elders finally managed to meet deputy commissioner Yasin, several days had passed. On March 5, 1991, Yasin visited the villages.
On March 8, 1991, Yasin wrote to Police Headquarters, Kupwara, about the mass rape. Subsequently, Trehgam police station registered an FIR and Station House Officer Farooq Ahmad Shah conducted an investigation and found that “the offence u/s 376/RPC stands made out against 4th Raj Rifles under the command of Commandant Adjutant R Kuler” and “arrest and the identification of the culprits was only to be done”. The government had something else in mind. Though a case had been registered, there was no way the SHO could question the accused army men. Indeed, he was soon taken off the case.
On March 22, 1991, “Director General of Police entrusted the investigation to SP Headquarters, Kupwara, Dilbagh Singh who conducted a fresh investigation and recorded the statements of witnesses again. On March 26, 1991, Singh constituted a SIT and statements of few army employees were recorded”.
On July 12, 1991, Singh was transferred and then SSP, Kupwara, S K Mishra began a fresh probe instead of relying on the two preliminary investigations conducted earlier. The survivors, however, didn’t appear before Mishra because they had already deposed several times. A sense of hopelessness had set in and the villagers had understood that the government wasn’t interested to probe the case.
Subsequently, Mishra sought the opinion of Director Prosecution in the DGP’s office. On September 23, 1991, Director Prosecution responded that the “challan is not maintainable” and the case was “un-fit for launching criminal prosecution”. On October 21 1991, Mishra decided to close the case as “untraced”. The police didn’t submit their closure report to the court and maintained a silence. It seems the move was deliberate because once other such incidents started taking place in Kashmir, Konan Poshpora faded out of the headlines.
And instead of ensuring a fair police investigation, the government was citing a report prepared by a Press Council of India delegation led by B G Verghese that had been sent on a “fact finding mission” in June 1991. The committee had termed the mass rape a “massive hoax orchestrated by militant groups and their sympathisers and mentors in Kashmir and abroad”.
Verghese had flown in an Air Force helicopter to Konan Poshpora and stayed with the army unit accused of the mass rape. The villagers insist that the PCI team never visited the village. But this clean chit given by a statutory, quasi-judicial body set up to act as a media watchdog literally replaced a police investigation.
After years of living in horror and hopelessness, a survivor finally approached the State Human Rights Commission on November 10, 2004 to seek re-investigation into the mass rape case. Subsequently, more survivors approached the SHRC in 2006 and 2007. The SHRC treated their petitions as a “composite complaint”.
On October 19, 2011, the SHRC said it had “found that personnel of the 4 Rajputana Rifles, 68 Mountain Brigade, had raped women in the villages of Kunan Poshpora on the intervening night of 23/24 February 1991” and recommended that the case be “re-opened” and “reinvestigated” by a Special Investigation Team headed by a SSP rank officer. The SHRC also asked the state government to prosecute the then Director Prosecution in the DGP’s office for “recommending that the case should be closed” and also provide “compensation of two lakh rupees to each of the victims”.
The government didn’t take any action.
In March 2013, a group of 50 young women from across Kashmir came together in a Support Group for Justice for Konan Poshpora and planned to file a PIL in the J&K High Court, seeking implementation of the SHRC decision in the case.
On March 30, 2013, the J&K police filed the closure report before the Judicial Magistrate, Kupwara, 22 years after they had closed the investigation. The filing of the closure report in the case wasn’t a coincidence; it was a calculated move to again obstruct any prospect of a fresh probe.
On 20 April, the support group filed the PIL. On May 14, the High Court disposed off the petition. The court observed that “on account of the pendency of the statutory process for implementation of the recommendations made by the SHRC in its report and also the pendency of the proceedings before the magistrate at Kupwara, we are not inclined to entertain this petition at this stage”.
It, however, said that it hoped the government-appointed committee would examine and “expeditiously” implement the SHRC recommendations within four weeks “after which the petitioners are at liberty to approach the court afresh in the matter’’.
On June 10, human rights lawyer Parvez Imroz filed a protest petition on behalf of the survivors against the closure report.
On June 18, Judicial Magistrate, Kupwara, J A Geelani dismissed the closure report and asked for “further investigation to unravel the identity of those who happen to be perpetrators”. He ordered that “a police officer of the rank not below SSP should investigate the case within three months”. This order came as a surprise and generated a little hope for a fresh probe. But the hope started to fade away soon.
According to the survivors, they were summoned by SSP, Kupwara, Abdul Jabbar through Assistant Sub Inspector Abdul Rashid to present themselves for recording of statements from July 3 onwards. But once the first group of survivors, along with their male family members and Imroz, arrived at the SSP’s office on July 3, they were asked to wait till 4 pm. “At 4 pm, SSP sent us a message that the programme to record statements has been changed and asked us to return home,’’ Abdul Ahad Dar of Konan told The Indian Express. “We were told that SSP would come to our village to meet the victims”.
There has been no further movement since. When contacted, the SSP refused to comment. In fact, he declined to even confirm that the police have begun investigation.
To understand why a thorough investigation into the mass rape case was never allowed to happen, a careful reading of the confidential reports sent by then deputy commissioner, Kupwara, S M Yasin, then Commander 19 Infantry Brigade, Brig H K Sharma, and then Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, Wajahat Habibullah is essential.
Yasin was the first top government officer to visit Konan Poshpora on March 5, 1991 and conduct an on the spot enquiry. He wrote to Habibullah that “I feel ashamed to put in black and white what kind of atrocities and their magnitude was brought to my notice on the spot”. Yasin said there was a hue and cry in the village and that he had recorded statements of the victims, seen their torn clothes and inspected the rooms where they were gangraped at gunpoint. “It was found that armed forces had turned violent and behaved like violent beasts,’’ he said.
Since a deputy commissioner heads the administration in a district, Yasin’s report put the government on the defensive. He had copied his confidential letter to Habibullah to the DGP, two other senior police officers and the SP of his district. On March 7, 1991, Habibullah received the letter but didn’t act for another 11 days. Finally when he visited the villages, it was not to ascertain the facts and order immediate action. “… the news of the alleged offence had attracted strong adverse comment from the local and national press and denials issued had failed to carry conviction,’’ he wrote in his confidential report to the government. “After discussion with the DGP and Corps Commander, therefore, it was decided that the undersigned might visit the village and also talk with concerned army officers to determine the course of action required to be followed to allay doubts and restore confidence. I, therefore, visited the village accompanied by Lt. Col Naeem Farooqi, Shri Tyagi, Commdt 76 BSF, the DC and the SP of Kupwara on 18/3/91”.
Habibullah’s report was the first attempt to whitewash this crime. Though he listened to how women were repeatedly raped by the army men that night, his report came up with appalling reasons to question the veracity of their tragedy. “If in each case rape was committed by 5 to 15 persons as alleged there would have to have been at least 300 men in the village doing nothing but this! In fact, the number of men was 150,’’ he wrote, of the women who deposed before him. “It is impossible to believe that officers of a force such as the Indian Army would lead their men into a village with the sole aim of violating its women. Even were it possible to concede this and the Army were indeed such a brutal force, it would then be impossible to explain why the officers themselves did not participate in such an orgy”. In fact, the use of word orgy for an allegation of mass rape of such magnitude is an unforgivable offense in itself.
Habibullah’s conclusion was that the mass rape allegation was “highly doubtful” and “exaggerated”. He even speculated a militant hand behind the complaint. “While the veracity of the complaint is thus highly doubtful, it still needs to be determined why such a complaint was made at all. The people of the village are simple folk and by the Army’s own admission have been generally helpful and even careful of the security of the Army officers,’’ he wrote in his confidential report. “It is possible that they have acted under militant pressure and that the long delay in making the report was a result of their not being able to withstand this. That elements wishing to discredit the army as brutal, the civilian administration as ineffective and the Govt of India as uncaring have orchestrated a campaign on the issue is also evident. This comes in the face of growing goodwill for the army among the public and improved civil-military liaison”.
Habibullah, however, recommended a police probe, upgradation in the level of investigation, entrusting the case to a gazetted police officer and seeking an order from the 15 Corps Commander to ensure Army cooperation in the probe. But these recommendations were not part of his report that was made public by the then government. In a recent interview with The Indian Express, he had said that the then government had “deleted” these paragraphs from his report. Habibullah became the first Chief Information Commissioner of India after he retired. He is currently the chairman of the National Commission for Minorities.
Habibullah breaks silence: Govt deleted key portions of my report on J&K mass rape case
After the deputy commissioner’s damning report, the army sent a senior officer, Brigadier H K Sharma, to the village on March 10, 1991. In his confidential report, he mentioned that the women told him that the soldiers had raped them. “Most of the ladies were between 40 to 50 yrs of age and some were in their thirties. These women were segregated and asked to explain their complaints away from the menfolk in the presence of Police pers, Village Headman and the School Teacher. Thirteen women came out with info that they had been raped. First two ladies stated that two to three persons had committed rape. The later complainants increased the No to 6-8 pers assaulting one lady. The alleged misconduct took place around mid night and as per women the tps (troops) stayed in the house for one to two hrs,’’ he wrote. “At the initial stage only old women came forward, then gradually, as if on cue from the school teacher, other women also came forward to give their complaints. The first one was abandoned wife of a mad person whose whereabouts are not known. While the ladies were giving out their complaints, the other ladies were giggling and when this was brought to the notice of the school teacher, he was quite crestfallen”.
This shocking insensitivity towards the survivors and absurd and contradictory reasons for the women to go public with the allegations of mass rape is evident throughout Brigadier Sharma’s report and it is clear that the aim of his visit was not to find the truth but hide it. While he termed the mass rape as “baseless, unfounded, mischievous and motivated”, there are serious contradictions as to why these women came forward to depose before the authorities. He claimed that the villagers praised the army and, in fact, voluntarily helped them recover hidden ammunition but listed “defaming the army” and “protection of suspected ANE’s (anti-national elements)” as the reason behind such a serious allegation.
Here is why Brigadier Sharma thought the women would raise such a hue and cry. “It appears that the taunts the inhabitants of Kunan/Pushpora recd from their neighbouring villages that their women folk had been defiled motivated them to lodge the complaint. Help of J&K Police personnel who are residents of the village was taken to bring this issue to the notice of highest police authorities,’’ he wrote.
Konan Poshpora is an open wound, festering for the last 22 years. The coercive methods to shut up the survivors haven’t worked earlier. And there is no way that wads of cash and job offers by the government can make up for a deliberate denial of even a legal process.
Courtesy: Indian Express
-The Writer is Associate editor of Indian Express.