Srinagar (by Nasir Ganai)
There was darkness all around. At 9:30 pm in the evening the army entered the village. They took the men and children out to a nearby bus stand. Then they entered our homes at around 11:00 pm and started assaulting women.”
Draped in an embroidered pheran (a traditional Kashmiri gown) and a white scarf, a bespectacled elderly woman recalls the night of February 23, 1991. She is sitting in her home in Kunan-Poshpora, a small village in the north of Kashmir, the northernmost Indian state that has witnessed much violence and turmoil since 1947.
According to the old woman, around 10 to 15 soldiers entered every home in the village. “They would gag women to prevent them from raising hue and cry. We were not able to make much noise,” she says. There must have been around 1,000 soldiers in the village that night, she recalls. When interviewed in 1991, villagers claimed about 100 women had been molested. “They left the very small girls untouched,” she adds. “Besides them, no one was spared.”
The women were systematically assaulted and gang-raped, regardless of marital status, pregnancy, or age.
The next day at 10:00 am, the deputy commander of the soldiers came to the village. He told the women that the army has not done anything wrong. Furious, this elderly lady pulled her friend, who was also abused that night, out of her home to stand in front of the army commander. “I told him that she is an 80-year-old lady, but even she was not spared by his men.”
“He didn’t say a word. He stood speechless,” she recalls. “He just looked down.”
Twenty Two years have passed since that night, but justice has yet to be achieved for the rape victims of Kunan-Poshpora. Up until now, nobody in the village has been willing to talk. Silence about that night, a collective gesture from the villagers, greets you like a wall. But behind this silence lie tragic stories.
On April 7, 1991, the New York Times reported the Kunan-Poshpora rape incident under the headline, “India Moves Against Kashmir Rebels.” According to the report, on March 5, 1991, villagers complained about the incident to the then Kupwara District Magistrate, S.M Yasin, who visited the village two days later to investigate. “According to a report filed by Yasin,” the article reads, “the armed forces behaved like violent beasts.” He identified them as members of 4th Rajputana Rifles and said they rampaged through the village from 11:00 pm on Feb 23 until 9:00 am the next morning.
The Indian authorities have dismissed the mass-rape charges as “groundless.” No further investigations have been conducted. The Kunan-Poshpora rape case has been buried like thousands of other cases of rights abuse by men in uniform in Kashmir.
However, in its 1992 report on international human rights, the United States Department of State rejected the Indian government’s conclusion, saying there was “credible evidence to support charges that an elite army unit engaged in mass-rape…in Kunan-Poshpora.”
After initial reluctance and much prodding, Saifuddin, a village elder from Kunan-Poshpora, opens up. (Family names are not commonly attributed to people from Kashmir and were not collected for this story). His story is like that of the old woman. “It was snowing outside that night. People were sleeping in their homes. The army came and entered every home. The men were taken out and interrogated near the village bus stand.”
He pauses, briefly. “Then they locked the rooms and raped our mothers and sisters.”
As dawn broke on that night in 1991, the soldiers let the men of the village go. The men immediately ran for their homes. “When we reached our homes we found our womenfolk weeping,” says Saifuddin. Despite their rage, which prompted them to seek swift justice for the crimes of the soldiers, the people of the village were unable to do anything. “We would have gone to lodge a First Information Report (FIR) against the army, but we couldn’t as the entire village was cordoned off.”
Four days after the incident, the villagers eventually were finally able to gain an audience with the nearby authorities. They collectively lodged an FIR at the nearby rural police station. The police arrived in the village to collect evidence and file a case against the army.
It was not difficult to muster up evidence and credible witnesses: doctors and nurses examined the women, police confirmed mass rape, and a report was submitted. But according to the villagers, almost 20 years later, the reports of doctors confirming rape are still lying in the Trehgam police station near Kunan-Poshpora. Dilbar Singh, who was the Deputy Superintendent of Police of Kupwara in 1991, investigated the case, but after he was promoted the investigation was stopped.
The incident has had serious ramifications for the women in Kunan-Poshpora that extends far beyond psychological damage and sensitivity. Memories of the incident are raw. Some women are even now afraid of marriage, while others are harassed or ignored by the men of the village because of the stigma associated with rape.
A young woman named Rahte was holding her baby in her lap when the men entered her home. “She fell from my arms near the window as I shouted for help.” Rahte’s daughter – who was a baby in 1991 on that night – comes inside the room, limping from the injury on her left leg that she sustained that night. More than thinking about her own past, her mother is worried about her daughter’s future. Her daughter hides behind Rahte’s scarf, shying away from any talk about her. “She doesn’t want to marry now,” Rahte says as her daughter keep her eyes lowered, fiddling with the edges of her mother’s scarf.
Over the years, many Kunan-Poshpora families have opted to marry their daughters to relatives because it is now difficult to find suitable matches in other villages. “People outside the village talk about our daughters, and say they are from ‘that’ village,” she says, putting emphasis on the word so that it becomes derogatory. “This label has made our lives difficult.” After the incident, some women who were unable to live with the shame fell into depression and died in the years that followed. Many refuse to talk about the abuse they have subsequently suffered from their neighbours and others.
Sakeena’s life has taken a turn for the worse since 1991. Her eyes are cold and expressionless as she explains that her mother was 35 years old when the men barged inside their home. Sakeena herself, being a little girl at the time, was not hurt, but she was in the house while her mother was raped.
Sakeena was married outside her village in Nowgam six years ago, but at the time of her wedding, her in-laws were unaware of her village’s sad history. When they eventually learned about the incident from newspapers and relatives, life became difficult for Sakeena.
“She was harassed and taunted by her in-laws,” her mother tells us in her modest house overlooking a narrow street. Three years ago, Sakeena was sent back to her home in Kunan-Poshpora. Her in-laws are now seeking a divorce, but instead of talking to Sakeena directly, they delivered the message to her neighbours. The shame they seek to impart on her is manifest. Her husband never came to take her back and she had a stillborn child.
Another woman from Kunan-Poshpora, Sameena, who lives down a small street from Sakeena, has a very different story to share. She was married only a few days before the incident occurred in 1991. The morning after she and other village women were assaulted, the soldiers slung a gun across her shoulders. “They took pictures of me while I was paraded before the villagers,” she recounts. The soldiers used these tactics to instill fear in the villagers.
But unlike other victims, Sameena refuses to simply live with the shame. She wants a life of dignity, not the condemned life of victim. She also wants to help other victims. A social worker in the area came up with the idea of establishing a self-help group, and Sameena jumped at the opportunity to be involved.
Sameena was instrumental in bringing together 15 local women to form the self-help group, of which she is now the Chairwoman. Three years ago, and with some financial help from a social worker, she opened a bank account for the 15 Kunan-Poshpora rape victims. Initially three lakh rupees, or about 6,670.00 US$, were deposited in the account. Now, the women save some money each month. They are truly an anomaly in the village.
The men of Kunan-Poshpora have had difficulty dealing with the reality and aftermath of the incident. Some have resorted to violent revenge. After the mass rape, approximately 35 unmarried young men, between the ages of 18 and 30, left their homes to cross the border into Pakistan for arms training. They wanted revenge. According to the villagers, about 20 out of those 35 boys have been killed by now, and more have disappeared. A woman from the village says her only son left home immediately after the incident. “He couldn’t see us in this condition. He was 18 when he left home. I came to know later that he had crossed the border for arms training,” she says as tears well up in her sunken eyes. She says her son returned after some years, to seek revenge and redemption for the women abused during the incident. “He was later killed by the army in an encounter.”
The village elders say being interviewed by journalists, human rights activists, and filmmakers from across the world has brought only disrepute to the village and its women instead of redemption. The rape victims, having recorded their statements on multiple occasions in the years following February 23, 1991, feel ostracized and ignored by the government. No financial compensation has been provided to the affected women. Kunan-Poshpora has had to rebuild itself.
At another home in the village, a bearded jobless young man says he gets very angry when journalists and human rights activists ask his mother questions about that night.
“Many people from India and abroad have come to this village in the past years,” he says angrily. “They record the testimonies of our mothers and sisters, and then they never return.”
Frustrated, angry, and impotent; bitterness lingers in Kunan-Poshpora, and the injustice of 19 years ago remains. (dispatchesinternational.org)
Post-Script: In October 2011, the J&K State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) asked the state government to reopen the mass rape case. It called for proceedings against the then director prosecution who had recommended that the case be closed. SHRC also sought action against the officials who approved the “childish recommendation” of the director. The SHRC had sought a report from the government after 34 petitioners filed four petitions with the rights panel in 2004. Now, the SHRC has ordered a compensation of Rs.2 lakh to the petitioners. “The offenders have been neither taken to a civilian court nor a court martial was initiated. Instead, the case was closed. The investigation was stopped and the files were shelved. This has benefited the offenders,” SHRC member Javid Kawoosa said.
“We feel sorry for the victims that the government has never taken the trouble to approach them and offer help. Right from February 1991, successive governments have been negligent, insensitive and indifferent towards the victims as if nothing happened at Kunan Poshpora. We recommend that a minimum of Rs.2 lakh be paid to all the victims and complainants in all the six petitions, including the composite complaint of 34 petitions,” the SHRC said.
The SHRC mentioned the statement of the then Kupwara district magistrate, who visited the village on March 7. In his final report, he had said the soldiers “behaved like wild beasts… In the morning, when the menfolk were released, they were shocked to see that the army personnel had gangraped their daughters, wives and sisters. They forcibly took no objection certificates from the locals. I feel ashamed to put it in black and white what kind of atrocities and their magnitude was brought to my notice on the spot,” the magistrate’s report said.
Though medical reports and testimonials confirmed the gang-rape, the investigation was closed as “untraced.” When the case was picked up by the international media, the Press Council of India sent a team in June 1991, more than three months after the incident. The then Press Council of India chairman B. G. Verghese concluded that the charges against the army were a “well-concocted bundle of fabricated lies”.
However, the SHRC quoted reports from the then director general of police and health officials of the Kralpora hospital. These say that the “chastity of women was ravished”. The police report said “it had been alleged that army personnel after consuming liquor raped 23 women irrespective of their age”.
There were 34 petitioners against the incident – all describing in gory details the army brutality – on the intervening night of Feb 23 and 24, 1991. They said the army cordoned off the village, the men were taken to a field for an overnight interrogation and the women were gang-raped in their homes without any consideration for their age and marital status. The age of the victims ranged from 13 to 70.