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Kashmir Mass-Rape Survivors Struggle as Kafkaesque Justice Reigns

[Protesters at India Gate in Delhi demanding the government to take action after the 2012 New Delhi gang rape. Image by Ramesh Lalwani] [Protesters at India Gate in Delhi demanding the government to take action after the 2012 New Delhi gang rape. Image by Ramesh Lalwani]

Twenty-two years and six months is probably enough time for India to think it has policed memories and fostered institutionalized forgetfulness in Indian-administered Kashmir. But such efforts have proven counterproductive.

On the wintry night of 23-24 February 1991, an Indian Army unit systematically executed a mass-rape in Kunan and Poshpora villages in north Kashmir’s Kupwara region. The Army cordoned the villages, forced the men out of their houses and then took them into custody. The troops barged into houses under the guise of a search operation and raped the women. Survivors and human rights organizations report the number of raped women— between the ages of thirteen and eighty— to be over one-hundred. While women were raped, the Army tortured over one-hundred men. This continued until morning.

Since then, India not only turned a blind eye to evidence of the mass-rape and torture, but also covered up the case through its institutions in Kashmir. However, India’s institutionalized violence and injustice has only strengthened the resolve of the affected women to resist a militarist-masculine state.

“The Indian Army might have raped us over two decades ago, but today it is India which stands naked before the world. Our struggle will continue,” explained a survivor. She shared this  during the first conference of its kind. On 22 June 2013, mass rape survivors came together to speak to a large gathering of students, activists, doctors, journalists, lawyers in Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar. During the meeting, organized by a human rights group, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), survivors, defying the culture of silence that India has been carefully nurturing, narrated their stories of gross brutality and spoke of their struggle. One woman shared 

“For twenty-two years we exhaustively spoke to activists, journalists, social workers from India and abroad. They heard our stories, clicked pictures to no avail. But we will keep fighting.”

The meeting was held three days after a top legal officer of Kupwara region, ordered that their legal investigation be re-opened despite police protest.  

Probes and evasive justice

After the Indian Army carried out the systematic sexual violence in 1991, it barricaded the two villages for four days and impeded the residents’ access to legal or medical aid. The village leaders managed to meet SM Yasin, a top district administrator in Kupwara region, after several days.

Yasin was the first government official to visit the villages and on 8 March 1991, he reported the mass-rape to the police. In the report he sent to Wajahat Habibullah, the then highest-ranking civil administrator of Kashmir, Yasin wrote that the armed forces ‘behaved like wild beasts’.

Subsequently, a First Information Report (FIR) was registered in a police station in the Kupwara region. A police officer conducted an investigation and wrote ‘arrest and the identification of the culprits was to be done’.

On 18 March 1991, Habibullah visited the village, and filed a confidential report, parts of which were later released to the public. His report was the first attempt to cover up the crime by describing the complaint as ‘highly doubtful’.

In March, 1991, Mufti Baha-ud-Din Farooqi, the chief justice of Kashmir’s highest court. led a fact-finding team to Kunan-Poshpora. He interviewed about fifty-three of the mass-rape survivors. Farooqi stated that in his forty-three years on the bench he "had never seen a case in which normal investigative procedures were ignored as they were in this one."

On 22 March 1991, the the highest ranking police officer in the state, entrusted the investigation to Dilbagh Singh, one of the top officials of Kupwara’s police force. He recorded the statements of witnesses again.  Four days later, he constituted a Special Investigation Team. But in July 1991, Singh was transferred. When a new officer, SK Mishra, replaced Singh, instead of relying on earlier investigations carried by Yasin and Singh, he began the probe afresh. Human rights activist and lawyer Parvez Imroz, who represents the survivors, says, “The probes have deliberately been carried at snail’s pace to tire the mass-rape survivors.”

In September 1991, Mishra sought opinion from the legal officer of the police who responded that the case was “un-fit for launching a criminal prosecution”. A month later, Mishra closed the case, but didn’t file the formal closure-report.

The Kunan-Poshpora mass-rape is one of the numerous crimes India has been trying to bury. Imroz maintains that during the past ten years, the state ordered one-hundred and sixty eight inquiries to probe rights violations carried by the armed forces. These inquiries have either remained incomplete or failed to result in any indictments. Imroz comments,

“Whenever there is a huge outcry over human rights violations, the government holds an inquiry and then it bites the dust. A fresh incident of human rights violations then overshadows the previous inquiry and people lose interest.” 

Kashmir remains one of oldest conflicts in the world today and a highly militarized zone. For over six decades, Kashmiri people have been resisting Indian rule and seeking the right to self-determination. India has resorted to mass repression and gross human rights violations like torture, rape, enforced disappearances, and used carrot and stick tactics to quell the resistance movement. Indian Army forces deployed in the region are governed by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) and thus enjoy immunity from prosecution.

India has used its civil administrators, police representatives and the Kashmir government to push its agenda in the conflict torn region. Therefore, institutions such as courts and police in Kashmir have worked like extensions of India’s militarist state rather than civil servants of the peace. 

The Army’s probe to silence world

The Army, in order to wash its hands of culpability for the mass-rape sent its own team to investigate the mass-rape. The then chairman of Press Council of India, BG Verghese led the investigative team and reportedly visited the villages three months after the incident took place. The team concluded that charges against the Army were a ‘well-concocted bundle of fabricated lies’ and dismissed the case as a ‘massive hoax’. Verghese allegedly never visited the villages himself and filed his report from an Army camp in Baramulla, a neighbouring region of Kupwara.

Avoiding proper investigations and relying on a report prepared by a journalist rather than a judicial body by the Army highlights India’s unwillingness to deal with its human rights violations in Kashmir. The investigations of this team were widely criticized. Human Rights Watch wrote, “In the end, the committee has revealed itself to be far more concerned about countering domestic and international criticism than about uncovering the truth.”

Even the United States Department of State, in its 1992 report on international human rights, rejected the Indian government's conclusion, and determined that there ‘was credible evidence to support charges that an elite Army unit engaged in mass rape in the Kashmiri villages of Kunan-Poshpora’.

Thirteen years later

Thirteen years after the mass-rape, in 2004, a survivor approached the government’s human right watchdog, State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), to seek a re-investigation. In 2006 and 2007 more survivors approached the SHRC. On October 19, 2011, the SHRC said it had ‘found Army had raped women in villages of Kunan-Poshpora’ and recommended that the case be ‘re-opened’ and ‘reinvestigated’ by a Special Investigation Team headed by a high ranking officer.

SHRC also asked the state to prosecute the police’s top legal officer, who had in 1991 recommended that the case be closed. The government’s human rights body also said the survivors should be compensated. The government, however, not surprisingly, ignored the recommendation from its own institution.

2013: Kashmir activists join hands

In March this year, a group of fifty women across Kashmir including social workers and law students came together to form the Support Group for Justice (SGJ) for Kunan-Poshpora. The SGJ filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) claim before the highest court in Kashmir state seeking a re-investigation of the mass-rape. The Kashmir police submitted its closure report, which had not been officially filed for about 22 years, in a court in Kupwara on 30 March 2013. In it, the police sought an end to investigations. Interestingly, the closure report was submitted days before SGP filed its claim before the highest Kashmiri court. The court rejected the PIL saying it was ‘premature’ to intervene.

On 10 June 2012, Imroz filed a protest petition in Kashmir’s highest court against the police’s closure report. He sought judicial intervention to re-investigate the mass-rape after years of silence.  The petition argues that the police investigations were incomplete, and despite having the information about the involvement of one-hundred twenty-five Army troopers it had not questioned them.

The Kashmir government. which is an extension of New Delhi’s administration,  argued that “the women had no right to file a protest petition as they appeared to have woken up after a long gap of twenty two years.”  

Despite being dismissed, by bringing the case before the court again, the PIL shed new light on the state’s deceptive practices and its Army’s sordid history.  

On 18 June 2013, a top-most judge of the court in Kupwara region snubbed the police. JA Geelani, the judge, rejected the police’s closure-report and asked for ‘further investigation to unravel the identity of those who happen to be perpetrators’. He ordered that a high-ranking officer should investigate the case within three months but explained that “his court lacked the authority to order an investigation by a Special Investigation Team”.  

Not surprisingly after covering up the case for 22 years, the state once again resorted to its tactics of delaying the probe and demonstrating an unwillingness to act. 

On 3 July 2013, following Geelani’s order to re-investigate, the senior most police officer of the Kupwara region, Abdul Jabbar, summoned the mass-rape survivors to a local court to record their statements. Imroz arrived at the court by 10 am and after a long wait, the lawyer representing the government passed on Jabbar’s message that he has cancelled the scheduled recording of statements, as ‘he was busy with other unscheduled engagements.’ A statement issued by Imroz’s group –Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society and the Support Group for Justice for Kunan-Poshpora, captured the survivors’ reaction to the abrupt cancellation: 

“We were informed that the whole schedule has been cancelled for some unknown reasons and Jabbar wants to meet the women before preparing revised schedule…It appears from Jabbar’s behavior that the state wants to discourage, harass and exhaust the people of Kunan-Poshpora,” 

The groups maintained that nothing will deter them and submitted a letter of protest to Jabbar’s office and sought a written explanation on the postponement.

Hand in Glove

Wajahat Habibullah who was the first government official to whitewash the crime committed by the Army, recently revealed that the government ‘deleted important portions of his confidential report.’ But, Habibullah’s revelation came after he retired from the government service. He remained mum while he served as a bureaucrat with the Indian government. Imroz maintains

“Wajahat Habibullah has always been pretending to be sympathetic to the victims of human rights atrocities in Jammu and Kashmir. This shows how he himself was hand in glove with the perpetrators while holding an important position in the administration in Kashmir. He and everyone else involved in the cover-up, must now be held accountable.”

Habiblullah was not alone in expressing sympathy.  Recently, after the case came under public scrutiny, many other Indian state-actors, who maintained silence for twenty-two years, visited Kashmir and issued statements expressing ‘concern’ and ‘sympathy.’ However, such opportunism by the Indian power holders is not new. Such announcements aimed to appease the public sentiment and score points over the opposition and thus only an image building exercise.  

The game of denial and acceptance

Even when the Indian government has rejected the allegations against the Army, the former Director General of the paramilitary Border Security Force (BSF) recently termed the incident as a blot on Indian democracy. He said, “There is not an iota of doubt that India security personnel from four Rajputana Rifles raped the women of Kunan-Poshpora.”

If there is not an ‘iota of doubt’, the question remains why no action has been taken? The Indian government has denied the allegations and has focused only on buying time by forming committees and ordering more probes with no practical action on the ground. By doing so it has sought to exhaust the survivors by engaging in vapid legal formalities while systematically working to foster forgetfulness. Ironically, BSF has itself been involved in at least two massacres in Kashmir but none of its troopers has faced the law.

Similarly, India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said on his recent visit to Kashmir that he was ‘ashamed’ of the 1991 mass rape of Kashmiri women by  Indian  soldiers in the Kunan-Poshpora villages but Kashmiris must ‘try and  forget’  the incident and  learn to ‘move on.’ This highlights India’s larger policy of carrying out its public-relation exercise without touching on the core issues of crime and punishment.

“Ordering inquiries has just become a ritual and the government either does not complete these inquiries or does not make it public. It is all a façade and people do not have faith in these inquiries,” Imroz maintains.

The answer perhaps lies in what a young dissenter told me, “We are occupied by India. Why would it deliver justice when its aim is to repress us?” 

The survivors remember and the struggle continues

Since the mass-rape, five women have died. The uteri of eighteen women were damaged and had to be surgically removed. Some survivors recalled that their minor children as young as three years old witnessed the rape. Women sustained wounds on their chests, abdomens and torn hymens.  Most of the women are still on medication and their wounds refuse to heal. In addition to such brutal physical violence, the mental trauma is immense.

The state’s attempts to bury the case and foster forgetfulness have not borne fruit. The women still remember. “Our homes suddenly turned into centers of violence. Rooms remind us. Our bodies bear witness,” one woman testified.

Survivors declared that individuals responsible for covering up the case and maligning them should be held persona non grata and be socially and professionally boycotted. Such incidents of institutionalized sexual violence in Kashmir with half a million Indian troops highlight how rape is being used as a weapon of state violence. It is one of the tactics deployed to quell the struggle for Kashmiri self-determination.

Survivors also pointed out the massive response to the brutal Delhi gang-rape case and the legislative amendment it prompted in Indian law. They compare it to the state’s failure to bring the perpetrators to book in Kunan-Poshpora.  After the Delhi rape incident, the state formed a judicial committee headed by Justice Verma. Justice Verma’s report suggested amendments to criminal law to sternly deal with sexual assault cases. Following the amendment, other offences like acid attack, sexual harassment, voyeurism, and stalking have been incorporated into the Indian Penal Code.

Justice Verma’s report interestingly mentions, “Sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel must be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law." However, this was not incorporated into the amendment.

The survivors are not alone in their fight. Men folk of the villages have also joined struggle of these women. “We commemorate the day every year and we will fight together. Silence is a sin,” an elderly man said.

In Kashmir where deliverance of justice is in hands of the very state, which perpetuates the crime, Kafkaesque justice cannot come to life in better form. Thus in a state like Kashmir where the gate to the law appears open, in reality, it is diligently guarded by gatekeepers.

As put by one young woman at the meeting: “It is the same police which will carry out the investigations and the same Indian Army from whom co-operation for investigations will be sought. They have consistently refused to co-operate with investigations. But we will resist.”

Re-opening the case is not an exercise of hope as much as it is the continuation of a long struggle aimed at exposing the state’s machinery, which aims to maintain the status quo in Indian-administered Kashmir.

I remember the words of Bhakti, an elderly woman from Kunan– whom I met in 2011. Bhakti is a brave woman not least of which for her courage to speak against a militaristic state. She described how she shouted at men whom the Army coerced to record statements whitewashing the Army’s crimes. Bhakti recalls that after that night in 1991, she was the first one to mobilize people for protest and openly challenge the Army.  She stoically said, “Our wounds bleed and they will speak. Monetary compensation will not do. We will never forget and forgive.”

 

 

 

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