22 Years after Kunan and Poshpora, Rethinking Kashmir: Abhijit Dutta
Guest post by ABHIJIT DUTTA; all photographs by the author unless otherwise mentioned
It looks like any other village in Kashmir.
You go past a wooden bridge, past open fields winter-barren and wet with rain. Past mountains with snow on their chin. Past wistful looking poplars. Past a brook with clear water. Past grumpy apple trees gnarled like a grinch.
Then the road narrows, and homes – of timber and brick – come into view. Some have fences, unpainted wood. Heaps of hay, dung cakes, piles of dried leaves left to smoke. Ditches and dykes choked with snowmelt. Leafless walnut trees and brunette willows. The chinars, wild redheads just months ago, now old and arthritic. There is a government school on the right, a madrassa on the left. A few houses of stone, fewer of concrete, tin roofs over all.
Before you walk any further, the village ends. The next village is Poshpora. Like Kunan before it, it looks like any other village in the valley. The two villages are so close that people no longer call them by their individual names. Everyone knows this two-in-one village as Kunan Poshpora.
This Night, That Other Year
I had arrived in Kunan with the sun, a few minutes after 7 am. The village was silent, wholly empty of morning sounds. It was as though everyone in the village was asleep, as though it was still hours before the muezzin would call for fajr prayers. It almost seemed deserted, devoid of human life. My friend, who had travelled with me from Srinagar, clucked his tongue in disapproval. ‘By now, everyone in my household would have been up, half the day would have been over,’ he said, shaking his head. We walked the stretch of Kunan, and a bit of Poshpora. Then, as we were crossing the madrassa on our way back, we saw them: a group of girls, peeking at us from behind the gate. They caught us looking, they giggled, and ran back in. Their laughter rang out clear in the silent stillness of the morning.
I had frozen for a moment. With everything I knew, it was awkward. Then I relaxed; these girls seemed young, the oldest of them perhaps fifteen. Young enough to have been spared the memory of that other morning when the village must have been the quietest. That cold February morning no one would have giggled. That morning they would have still been shivering, still disbelieving what had happened to them through the night. That morning they would have still been hurting.
That morning was February 24th, 1991. That morning, the night didn’t end.
It had been snowing on 23rd February when men from the 68th Brigade of the Fourth Rajputana Rifles, a much decorated regiment of the Indian Army, surrounded Kunan Poshpora for a ‘cordon and search operation’. Such operations – also known as ‘crackdowns’ – were a common enough occurrence in the first decade of the conflict in Kashmir. They were also, without exception, an utterly dehumanising experience for the Kashmiri, who was literally and figuratively kicked around by the jackboots of the Indian army. The purpose of inflicting such a terrorising experience on the local population was not only the discovery of arms and militants, but also to make it clear that the Indian army was in complete control and the Kashmiri lived his or her life at its mercy. The standard procedure for these operations involved yanking men, including teenage boys, out into a gathering space (usually a nearby field) where they were generally made to wait in the freezing cold while the Army searched their homes. Women and very young children would cower into corners as these men stomped around the frail wooden houses, turning everything upside down with brutish callousness. Most operations took place in the night, beginning around 10 or 11 pm and lasting till 4 or 5 am in the morning; the idea was to maximise discomfort.
Several accounts exist that describe the night when the Fourth Rajputana Rifles troopers entered Kunan Poshpora for just such a crackdown, the details in each varying with source. A composite and reliable account can be found in the text of the 2011 judgment on ‘Complaints regarding Kunan Poshpora atrocities lodged by victims and inhabitants of the Village V/s J&K State and Others,’ passed by the J&K State Human Rights Commission (JKSHRC). The JKSHRC is an autonomous body constituted by the state government under the Human Rights Protection Act (1993). It is chaired by a retired high court judge appointed by the Governor on the recommendation of a committee headed by the chief minister. After hearing all testimonies and defence statements, the JKSHRC bench, which included its Chairman, described the intervening night of 23rd and 24th February 1991:
“Analyzing the statements of all the witnesses/victims it transpires that at about 10 to 11 pm in the night, security personnel cordoned the village. The men folk of the village were ordered to come out and were confined in a Kothar [store houses]. Then small groups of security forces comprising of 2/4/5/6 personnel made their forced entry into the houses. They consumed/had consumed liquor and then gagged the mouths of the victims and committed forced gang rape against their will and consent. The personnel from the security forces had actually turned into beasts and had lost their sense of reasoning as even minor girls of 8 years of age of some of the victims were also ravished. Actually Security forces had come with the intent to ravish the chastity of all the women folk of village Kunan Poshpora and had not cordoned the village to flesh out any militant(s) (sic). The security forces did not even took notice of the presence of minor children who were only crying and witnessing their gory and shameful act (sic). The indecent incident continued approximately till 3/4 AM in the night. There was a police man namely Abdul Gani from the village who tried to raise SOS alarm for help from the loudspeaker of the local mosque, but later on he too was killed by the army personnel so that all the evidence against them is whipped off (sic). Almost all the women folk of the village suffered some atrocities during the whole night. After regaining consciousness in early morning the victims found their all clothes were torned out (sic). They were taken for medical examination and treatment to the doctors. Even later on a lady doctor was camped in the village for about a week, so that the victims can get proper medical treatment. The police did not conducted any identification parade though the statements of the victims were recorded by the police and other officers of the civil administration (sic). The victims have been suffering from various mental and physical disorder and trauma since they were subjected to forced rape. The cross examination of the victims has disclosed that the security personnel had gagged their mouths and warned them of dire consequences at the gun point. Though they cried for help but there was no one to respond. Some of the witnesses have deposed that they were not medically examined. Till date the victims have not been provided any relief by the government or any other agency. From the statements it transpires that at least 36 ladies were subjected to forced gang rape and despite that no identification parade was held.
At the time, the first news report was published by the veteran Kashmiri journalist, Yusuf Jameel, for The Telegraph (Calcutta) on March 12, 1991, after a confidential letter sent by the District Magistrate of Kupwara (the district in which Kunan falls) leaked to the press. The magistrate had visited the village on March 5, a week after the incident, and spoken to the residents. He is widely quoted as having written in his letter that “the armed forces had turned violent and behaved like beasts”. The whole matter was promptly denied by the Ministry of Defence, calling the allegations “far-fetched” and “a figment of someone’s imagination”. Yet, the reports on the incident continued to multiply and finally spilled into the international press. On March 19th, the UK newspaper The Independent carried a report titled, ‘Indian villages tell of mass rape by soldiers’, based on anecdotes the reporters had heard in Kunan Poshpora. Among them, the story of a woman named Bakhti, who was assaulted by six soldiers. “One by one, they raped me, while my five year old son was forced to watch, weeping beside the bed,” she told the paper. The New York Times too reported the incident on April 7, 1991 (“India Moves Against Kashmir Rebels”), in which it noted that “no single event has contributed more to this rapidly rising militancy among women than reports of a gang rape a month ago by Indian troops in Kunan, a remote village in northwestern Kashmir”. Besides newspapers, several international human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued statements about the incident.
The then Divisional Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah led a team comprising of a colonel from Army HQ, a commandant of the Border Security Force, the Deputy Commissioner of Kupwara district and the Superintendent of Poilice, Kupwara. After gathering statements from 41 women, he decided that there was sufficient cause for a more detailed enquiry and suggested as much in his report to the Governor. When the state government published his report, they deleted this recommendation. A former Chief Justice of the J&K High Court, Mufti Bahauddin Farooqi, who also led an independent fact finding mission to Kunan Poshpora in March, concluded that “he had never seen a case in which normal investigative procedures were ignored as they were in this one”.
As may be imagined, there were no protests in India, not in Delhi, not anywhere else, against these rapes. No one laid siege to Raisina, no one led candle light vigils, no one asked for fast track courts, no one demanded committees be set up and reports be written.
No, that’s not wholly true. Someone did ask for a committee to investigate the matter, did ask that a report be written. Who? The Indian Army. Why? Because, evidently, it was “deeply upset by what it saw as baseless or grossly exaggerated charges leveled against it in the Press”.
How very gallant. The alleged perpetrator, who is undoubtedly a good man, seeks to clear his name, and willingly offers himself for inquisition. His choice of inquisitor? The Press Council of India.
BG Verghese, a former editor of the Hindustan Times and The Indian Express, and K. Vikram Rao, also a senior journalist, visited Kashmir twice: once towards the end of May, and once in June, for a total of 9 days. There was a third member, Hind Samachar editor Jamnadas Akhtar, who, because of his old age, couldn’t make the journey.
That’s right. The alleged mass rape of at least 20 women, probably 30 or more, by one of the most exalted units of the Indian Armed Forces needs only be investigated – upon the request of the Army – by a couple of aged journalists who make two wheezing visits to the valley, spending more time in Srinagar than in Kunan Poshpora, spending more time talking to state and Army authorities than to the villagers, and who selectively believe and dismiss testimonies as though they were editors, not merely of newspapers, but of Reality itself.
“The Kunan rape story on close examination turns out to be a massive hoax, orchestrated by militant groups and their sympathizers and mentors in Kashmir and abroad as part of a sustained and cleverly contrived strategy of psychological warfare and as an entry point for re-inscribing Kashmir on the international agenda as a human rights issue. The loose ends and contradictions in the story expose a tissue of lies by many persons at many levels.”
This Press Council committee’s denial forms the cornerstone of the Indian official response to the alleged mass rapes in Kunan Poshpora. In nearly every news piece, blog post, comment, even scholarly writings, a reference is made to the ‘Press Council report’ or the ‘Verghese Committee Report’ and its findings. In absence of any meaningful legal proceedings, this report is the sum and substance of the investigations, enquiries and pronouncements made by the state.
It makes sense then to scratch at it a little more on the eve of the 22nd anniversary of that night in Kunan Poshpora when more than just collective conscience was violated.
A Crisis of Credibility
I tried looking for the full report, hoping to read more than just extractions (“massive hoax”, “well-concocted bundle of fabricated lies”, “without foundation”) that are regurgitated so frequently. I quickly learnt that it is practically impossible to find the report as a standalone document but that it survives only as a chapter within a book titled, ‘Crisis and Credibility’. It turns out that the Committee was already tasked, via a separate Press Council order issued December 14, 1990, to “examine the role of the Press and its functioning in the current environment in the state of Jammu & Kashmir on the one hand and the role of authorities of the state government in dealing with the press on the other.” When Kunan happened and media reports began to indict the Army for its role, the committee was “further asked to go into reports published in certain newspapers alleging excesses by the civilian population in Kashmir”. To do this, the committee visited Kashmir twice: May 21-26 and June 10-12. In July they published the “Second” and “Third” report, titled ‘Crisis and Credibility’ and ‘Human rights Excesses or Exaggerations’, respectively. The ‘First Report’ had been on the role of media in Punjab (‘Overcoming Fear’) and was originally published in January 1991. The Second Report, which gives the book its name, covers the general media landscape in Kashmir at the time, while the Third report focuses on specific allegations like Kunan Poshpora, Dudhi, Pazipora, and Tengpora, among others.
There is much that is curious about the Third Report, and they get curioser and curioser as you turn each page. The introduction itself offers several opportunities for pause. In an attempt to provide background to why this report was needed, it offers this etiology:
“In any democratic society, the police and para-military forces are there to uphold the law and protect the citizen while the armed forces, the ultimate protectors, have traditionally been imbued with an aura of chivalry as keepers of national honour. It is understandable therefore that the Indian Army should be perturbed by media reports alleging various kinds of excesses by its personnel in Kashmir. What is most refreshing however is that it should seek an impartial verdict of the media record through a body such as the Press Council of India.”
If you can set aside the fact that to read the words ‘chivalry’ and ‘national honour’ in the same context as Kunan Poshpora is to experience the most vile sort of stomach turning, spine snapping, sycophantic mulch, it is easy to see how this is a fitting and a most appropriate introduction to what follows: an embarrassingly elaborate, unctuous apology for the role of military and para-military forces in Kashmir.
In a paragraph headlined ‘The Army Arraigned”, the authors list all the different allegations that have been made against the Indian Army (a long list) and ends with this sentence: “The last two incidents (Dudhi Killing and Kunan Poshpora) have given rise to the most grave charges of all. Hence it would perhaps be best to dispose of them first.”
It is an interesting choice of word. The committee feels it necessary to ‘dispose of’ grave charges rather than ‘investigate’, not ‘examine’, not ‘look into’, not even a neutral ‘turn to’. No, they must dispose of these charges.
This is the general tenor of the report. It speaks in the language of an Army PRO, eager to proffer the benefits of the slightest doubt to the good men of the armed forces, and ruthless in seizing upon the slightest discrepancy in the testimonies of traumatised women who were interrogated like criminals, about the tiniest details of a brutalising incident – purely from memory and after nearly four months of the incident – in front of strange men, and much of it through a male interpreter. The committee has no trouble in rubbishing the report of a Block Medical Officer (a government official) alleging 32 rapes based on medical examination as “worthless” and in dismissing the report made by the District Magistrate (also a government official) to the Divisional Commissioner as being “clearly anecdotal, hardly investigative”. However, the committee is wholly willing to believe the military version, which suggests that after a whole night of searching houses and interrogating men (never mind the raping), the Commanding Officer “distributed sweets to some kids who appeared”, without the slightest trace of skepticism.
And why be skeptical? After all, there is no reason whatsoever to doubt the integrity of these much accomplished Committee men who are entirely independent and completely objective. The impartiality and credibility of their report is unquestionable. Till you look at the cover jacket that is.
Crisis and Credibility, says the cover, is published by Lancer International. Inside, there is a logo and a selling line: “Knowing is half the battle”.
Never having heard of them, I trawl the web for a background check, starting with its own website. It informs me that (a) Lancer is a publishing house on national and international security and defence related projects; (b) Lancer was established by a former Captain of India’s Armoured Corps; and (c) Lancer used to publish the Indian Defence Review (“which pioneers research on contemporary security issues”) before it started with a series of ‘Lancer Papers’. The Press Council report is ‘Lancer Paper 4’. Look through other Lancer Papers (there were 6) and it is immediately clear that with the exception of Paper 4, every other paper is authored by a retired armed forces personnel.
There is more.
The URL for Lancer Publishers page is an extension of this website: http://www.bharat-rakshak.com.
What be Bharat-Rakshak? According to itself, it is “A Consortium of Indian Military Websites” that originally included the websites of the Indian Army, Navy, Airforce, Space and Missiles. Not without a touch of pride, it chronicles its growth since the early days thus:
“By 15 August 1997, the 50th Anniversary of India’s Independence, the Bharat Rakshak website had attracted more than 12,000 visitors. It was then decided to put all the sub-sites on a common server, with the BR main page. Seetal (the founder of the first defence website) then made the investment of registering the domain name (www.bharat-rakshak.com) and leasing out server space. The cost however was too expensive for just one person to carry and thus it was decided that all the webmasters would chip in.
Seetal (known as BIG BOSS by the other web masters) then came up with the idea of having a sponsor so that they would cover the costs and we would host their site. Soon with luck and determination, Seetal found the perfect sponsor Bharat Rakshak was looking for – Lancer Publishers & Distributors Ltd. This company was a very renowned publisher of military books in India. Lancer sponsored Bharat Rakshak by contributing their information and resources for the use on the website, and in fact Lancer’s own site is designed and maintained by Seetal himself. This relationship with Lancer later on helped Bharat Rakshak in developing its own website for marketing of books related to Defence and Military issues. The influx of higher traffic after the nuclear tests in 1998, necessitated a mirror site till the time better servers were engaged to cater to the high traffic.”
As I read this, I realised the printer’s devil on the the cover. The title of the book was not meant to be Crisis and Credibility. Surely, the authors had made the ethical choice to disclose the truth about themselves and simply wanted to call the book ‘A Crisis of Credibility’.
Once upon a time it was journalists that we looked to, to help us distinguish between what is ‘essential truth’ and what is the rubble of detail. Yes, there is a place for certainties and immaculate testimonies, for coherence and consistency. But reading through each sentence of the committee’s report, it is far too evident that its distinguished members were tasked not with finding the truth, but only with making a grotesque caricature of everything that the women of Kunan Poshpora, wet with tears and burnt in shame, told them.
Fact, Stranger than Fiction
In fact, the truth of Kunan Poshpora is so dangerous that it is not enough to simply dismiss it as fiction; it must be denied even as fiction.
Reviewing Mirza Waheed’s novel The Collaborator for Outlook magazine (Mar 7, 2011 issue), Member of Parliament and MoS for HRD Ministry, Shashi Tharoor, dismissed a fictive reference to the rapes as a “preposterous claim”. Waheed had written these lines:
“I gaze at people, at the whole setting, the trees, the hill, the sky, and stop at the brightly painted green pulpit to check something that had struck me as familiar earlier and – yes, my God, yes – there it is, painted dimly beneath the Allah-o-Akbar: ‘Eid Mubarak, Mohalla Committee, Poshpur’… and I feel a leaden weight, a sinking feeling, of guilt, of shame, descend on me at once, for long ago – Oh, Poshpur! – when Noor Khan had told me about the nearest big village, Poshpur, whose women had been raped by Indian soldiers and from where a lot of boys had left together for Pakistan to become militants, I had taken it with a pinch of salt, thought of it as yet another Noor Khan exaggeration, but now, looking at these men – there is not a single boy here – I believe everything at once, know it was true then, know it is true now, and in so doing feel guilty again, and am filled with rage both past and current! You have no idea what people look like when their women – all their women – have been raped.”
Tharoor is very much toeing the government line when he rants against Waheed’s depiction of “a village where every single woman has been raped by Indian soldiers”. For Tharoor, such and other narrative fallacies, like the failure to create “a single sympathetic Hindu character” and absolving Pakistan, are simply a bunch of “preposterous claims made as if they reflect fact”.
Unfortunately, truth is a bit like a pimple head: it will never completely disappear, however many layers of make-up you apply; and in time it will burst.
The 2011 JKSHRC judgment, which was primarily dealing with specific petitions made to it by a few victims, reported that the then Director General of Police (DGP) of J&K, the ‘top cop’ of the State who had initially “tried to brush aside this serious matter with just a casual approach”, later came forward “with a little bit of truth and tried to open the closed doors of investigation”.
The DGP had in fact, in a report dated 22-05-2010, “affirmed that during the intervening night of 23/24 of Feb-1991 Army personnel cordoned village Kunan Poshpora,” and that men were dragged out of their houses, women interrogated. Crucially, the DGP’s report also acknowledges that the petitioner’s medical report “has proved the allegations of torture and ‘rape’ to be correct”. However, the report also took the standard stonewalling line of defence, arguing that “as no identification parade of the army personnel was made, the investigation of the case was finally closed as ‘untraced’.” Justifiably frustrated, the judgment asks, “…can for God’s sake the police chief of the state answer a simple question as to why in such a serious and heinous case the identification parade was not held? Who was responsible for this intentional dereliction of duty and what action the DGP J&K has taken against the erring officials?”
The JKSHRC further accuses that “it prima facie appears that all the officers from top to bottom were in a hurry and wanted to scuttle the investigation of the case and they have succeeded in their evil design but in a very bad and crude way. The main complainant in the lead case has clearly and unequivocally mentioned that she is and was in a position to identify the offenders, but investigating officer(s) and their high-ups were not in a mood to proceed with the investigation of the case in a fair and impartial manner.” It similarly chastises the Director Prosecution responsible for the case for scuttling the investigation of the case and for playing “a pivotal role in this whole incident where by due to his intentional omissions/commissions and negligent approach he has deterred the investigating agency from taking due action as warranted under law and thereby has been responsible for violation of human rights.”
In its conclusion, the JKSHRC bench recommended that proceedings for prosecution be initiated against the Director Prosecution under section 19 (1) of the J&K Prevention of Human Rights Act 1997; that a minimum Rs. 2 lakhs each be paid to all victims; and that, most importantly, the FIR lodged at the time of the incident be re-opened and re-investigated through a special investigative team not below the rank of an SSP and that “the investigation must be taken to its logical end without any further delay and hiccups within a specific time bound period.”
Naturally, nothing has happened since, except the selective flinging of loose change masquerading as compensation.
In Other Rooms, Other Rapes
Kunan Poshpora was not the first instance of rape of by the armed forces in Kashmir. In his memoir, Curfewed Night, Basharat Peer talks about a rape that had happened less than a year ago:
“Women and girls formed a circle, held hands and sang. They moved back and forth, tapped their feet on the ground, shook their heads, raised and lowered their voices. It was an old custom practised before the groom left for the bride’s house; grooms left for the bride’s place after the sunset and returned after a late dinner. Kashmiris had discarded that centuries-old tradition after the evening of May 16, 1990, when Indian paramilitaries fired upon a marriage party and raped the bride.”
Peer was referring to the case of the 18 year old bride Mubina Gani in Anantnag, who was travelling by bus with her husband and a marriage party of 27 people. The bus was fired upon and stopped near Badasgam village in Anantnag district by a patrolling party. The bride was kidnapped by the jawans, gang-raped and released after 48 hours.
Mubina’s was perhaps the highest profile case of sexual assault by the armed forces in J&K in 1990 – the first full year of the Kashmir conflict – and among the rare ones where there was some token action (the BSF suspended 4 jawans). In September of that year, The Illustrated Weekly of India published a special report, ‘Protectors or Predators’, chronicling several other cases that had taken place in a span of just 8 months (January-August). Among them:
- “Three unmarried sisters from a well-respected family in Lal Bazar, a downtown area of Srinagar, were carried off to the cantonment and released after two nights of sexual assault.”
- “Young girls in scenic Trehgam village were dragged inside their homes alone and subjected to various forms of physical torture from blows with belts and rifle bulbs (sic) to electric shocks.”
- “Eighteen year old Mumtaz of Tangwara mohalla had the flesh of her left cheek gouged, her clothes stripped off and it is uncertain whether she escaped rape for she has withdrawn into herself.”
- “Near Chokibal, another serene village in Kupwara, a couple was arrested and taken to an army camp where the husband was tied to a tree while his wife was raped by jawans.”
- In Ballipora, a dozen women from neighbouring Pazipora were “raped by 9 or 10 men. One of them was pinned down in a field for as long as three hours, her blood-stained salwar later set on fire by the jawans.”
- In Kupwara town, after a crackdown, 26 year old Rabia was caught alone by three jawans who “snatched her baby out of her arms and knocked her to the ground with their rifle butts. They then gagged her with one of her own phirans, tore her kurta, and raped her. One of them even pressed his boot down on her child’s chest so that he could not cry out while they were unleashing their passion. This carried on for an hour, after which she fainted.”
Several other news and investigative reports, including the Physicians for Human Rights/Asia Watch report ‘Rape in Kashmir: A Crime of War’ (1993) and the report by Committee for Initiative on Kashmir, ‘Kashmir: A land ruled by Gun’ (1991), chronicle dozens of other atrocities and assaults on similar lines.
And of course Kunan Poshpora was not the last. Besides the well known case of Nilofer and Asiya who were allegedly raped and then drowned in Shopian, there have been several cases of rape by the Army. Alleged Perpetrators, a landmark report published by the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian Administered Kashmir (IPTK) in December 2012, examines 214 cases of human rights violations, several of which include rape.
It is striking that in each of the cases where rape is alleged, it has never taken place in isolation. The army did not arrive to rape; it also raped. Most often, the primary reason for the men to arrive into the home or village was to interrogate or take into custody a family member with alleged links with militants or militant activity. In some cases, it was a regular crackdown, in others an ad hoc ingress.
A rape is a rape is a rape?
Throughout the time we were reading, reflecting, raging against what happened that night to our braveheart, the Unknown Citizen who loved, laughed and watched a movie one December night, we were reminded of a few other names, a few other places – Kunan Poshpora among them. In those alchemic days when the men and women of Delhi seemed galvanised to speak up and fight for the right of every woman to be safe anywhere in the country, there was a generosity of spirit that allowed them to embrace all the Others. When they asked for justice, they asked for it without qualification; when they sang of Azadi, they borrowed their meter from the Kashmiri chant for freedom; and, in between demands to ‘rape the rapists’ and ‘hang the rapists’, their cardboard placards and hand-scrawled posters found space to also ask for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). In Kafila, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and several others wrote with heart that we shouldn’t be selective in our outrage, that, really, the same long thread of impunity, of trenchant male patriarchy and sexual power politics, runs through Khairlanji, Manorama, Soni Sori, Nilofer & Asiya, Kunan Poshpora and hundreds of other cases that we have failed to metonymize.
It’s true there is a likeness in the cultural, moral, and social sanctions that allow the rape of women in a Kashmiri village and of a girl on an empty Delhi bus. Yes, there are similarities in the mindsets of Ram, Mukesh, Vinay, Pawan, Raju, Akshay and the men of 4 Rajputana Rifles. Yes, there is the same patronising narrative that weighs down popular sympathy, treating the rape of a woman ultimately as the trespass of private property. Yes, in both cases the language others the victim, and yes, both events took place on a cold winter night.
Yet there is a difference and it is this: Kashmir is a military occupation and Delhi is not. This is not a political opinion, it is a statement of fact. Any land that requires half a million troops to hold down and protect, that necessitates the systemic use of brute force and bodily violence, the routine use of riot gear and curfew restrictions, the daily violation of human dignity, is unarguably a military occupation. It is a fact that even the myopic Army-commissioned Government-endorsed Press Council Committee sees clearly, albeit they see it as a justification for abuses rather than its essential cause. Speaking of the pressures of serving among an “alienated population,” the Committee wrote: “…many security personnel were prone to regard themselves as part of an occupation force under siege and the entire populace as ‘enemies’.”
Naturally, there is no accompanying reflection as to why such a situation has come to occur, why the population is alienated, why, if the forces are indeed stationed there to ‘protect’, had they come to see the “the entire populace as enemies”.
What happened in Kunan Poshpora that night was not a random event. This was not a bunch of drunken soldiers who chanced upon a couple hapless women and couldn’t resist giving into their beastly ‘male urges’ heightened in isolation and stress of a hardship posting. This was a planned, highly organized crackdown, meant to discipline the recalcitrant Kashmiri.
In the introduction to the 2009 report issued by the IPTK, Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked and Mass Graves in Indian Administered Kashmir, the authors wrote:
“The structure of governance affiliated with militarisation in Kashmir necessitates dispersed and intense forms of psychosocial regulation. As an established nation state, India’s objective has been to discipline and assimilate Kashmir into its territory. To do so has required the domestication of Kashmiri peoples through the selective use of discipline and death as regulatory mechanisms. Discipline is affected through military presence, surveillance, punishment, and fear.”
The Illustrated Weekly report quoted above (‘Protectors or Predators’), also carried an interview with the then DGP of Kashmir, JN Saxena. There is a telling exchange that reveals this link between rape and psychosocial disciplining:
Interviewer: Why is it that the maximum number of rapes and other atrocities have taken place in Kupwara?
DGP Saxena: Because it is badly infested (with terrorists) area. Udhar to jahan pair maariye wahan arms milte hain (wherever you kick you find arms there).
The truth is that rape in Kashmir is less about the power relations between man and woman in a patriarchal context; it has everything to do with the relations between State and Subject operating within the context of an armed occupation. There are several complicating factors of course, like the fact that the State is no longer in control of the situation politically and (therefore) is entirely dependent on its armed apparatuses to keep it together, as well that the Subject is stubbornly disobedient in its response to statist overtures of repression or rapprochement. You could argue that an occupation is semiotically akin to patriarchy and it would be a fine argument indeed, except that that sort of sophisticated philosophical argument is least helpful when we are trying to see clearly what is what. We must be able to see that a rape in Kashmir is no different from an enforced disappearance, an extra judicial killing, an illegal detention or a case of torture. When Captain Ravinder Singh Tewatia of 12 Rashtriya Rifles and SPO Bharat Bhushan rape women inside their own home in Banihal (Alleged Perpetrators report, Case 42) or DSP Altaf Ahmad Khan rapes a schoolgirl who is the cousin of a surrendered militant inside the Zachaldara Police Post (Alleged Perpetrators report, Case 57) or Captain Gurtej Singh rapes a man’s wife in Qazigund (Alleged Perpetrators report, Case 98) they are doing their duty, they are teaching “them” a lesson, they are keeping Kashmir “integral” to India.
This is precisely why a singular focus on repealing AFSPA as a remedial action to institutional sexual violence in Kashmir (or Manipur or Chhatisgarh) will lead to squat. Let’s set aside what Human Rights activists say for a moment and turn to the Army for some plain speaking. In its defense of AFSPA, which it calls an ‘enabling act’ it has this to say:
“The provisions of the Act wrongly termed as draconian by vested interests merely give certain additional powers and immunity from prosecution akin to those enjoyed by police force under CrPC to armed forces personnel deployed in counter terrorist operations. […] A perusal of the various powers available to the Police authorities under the provisions of the CrPC vis-a-vis those available to Armed Forces under AFSPA would reveal that the police authorities still enjoy wider powers relating to arrest, search, seizure, summoning of witnesses, preventive detention etc than the powers enjoyed by the Armed Forces.” (Source: Official Website of the Indian Army; emphasis added)
This maybe a rather sorry apology for the Act, but the facts are accurate enough. There are indeed a whole range of mechanisms available to the state today, some overt, some covert, that are opportunistically used to discipline the population. As the nature of the conflict shifts from a straightforward confrontation between the Army and the militants to a more sophisticated ballet involving multiple State actors and an incredibly broad-spectrum Resistance, we will see – in fact, we are already seeing this – a gradual burgeoning of subcutaneous repression. The state doesn’t need to always rape kill or abduct, it can achieve its ends by ruining careers, permanently restricting mobility, always-on surveillance, co-option, information blockade, pressurising parents, or simply ensuring lifelong, bone crushing poverty. Therefore, if we truly want to not be “selective” in our outrage against rape, we need to be able to see (and protest) the wider rape of Kashmir and the Kashmiri.
A Political Distraction
It is quite likely that in due course, once Omar Abdullah, New Delhi and the Army have had their fill of playing games, they will indeed repeal AFSPA, or reduce the scope of its application. It will be a cause to cheer and we will cheer for it. And when we are whooping with joy, in the background, they will quietly cook up a new Act, a new acronym, a new anagram to do worse than AFSPA. Remember that the notorious PSA (Public Safety Act), which has become as much of a buzzword among Human Rights activists as AFSPA, was introduced in 1978 during Sheikh Abdullah’s time for checking the menace of timber smugglers! Today, it is the primary instrument employed by the state to hold the population ransom. The army doesn’t even get involved! It is the friendly neighbourhood Kashmiri policeman who will come around and take you away.
So, at the risk of the stating the obvious, AFSPA isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that too many of us, including those who turn up on a Delhi street with ‘Justice for Kunan Poshpora’ and ‘Repeal AFSPA’ scrawled on cardboard placards, believe that those half a million troops swarming in a tiny valley of six million are indeed needed to keep Kashmir ‘integral’ to India. The real problem is that many of us actually believe that India has the right to deny Kashmiris their Right to Self Determination, believe that Kashmir is an Indo-Pak issue, Kashmiris be damned. The real problem is that so many of us believe (wish?) that there is no substantive, genuine sentiment in favour of ‘separatists’ and Pakistan, that any such thing – even the idea of it – is nothing more than a well-concocted bundle of lies fabricated by evil, poisonous people high on drugs laced with cash.
The problem is that too many of us believe that what Kashmiris really need – what they really want – is our development packages and apocryphal bridges. The problem is that in our eagerness to take up cudgels on behalf of human rights – a rape, a killing, or a hanging – we attempt to paint the victim of abuse in a light that is most convenient for garnering the widest possible support for the case. For that, it is often necessary to assert and emphasize that the victim was ‘innocent’, that she had nothing to do with throwing stones, giving the finger or sticking her tongue out at the State. The victim preferred by activists are the ones with a squeaky clean record, preferably teenaged, and ideally on their way to school or playing cricket when they were picked up, tear gassed, PSAed, raped or abused. This approach, whatever the intent, essentially and effectively feeds into and strengthens the statist narratives that seek to criminalize political dissent and create the trope of an ‘ANE’ – a popular acronym that routinely peppers statements issued by the Army or the government in its defense, and expands to Anti National Element. And by doing that it refracts reality.
When Afzal Guru was hanged earlier this month, several people wrote, including on Kafila, against it. The emphasis, without exception, was on the lack of a fair trial, the inefficiency (and ludicrousness) of Speed Post and the politics of death row sequencing. The question that no one asked, even if it was at the back of their minds, is that what if Afzal had claimed responsibility, had staked his claim as the mastermind of the attack on Parliament. What if he had said, yes, I did it, and I would do it again. The Parliament of a nation that colonises me is a legitimate target of attack. Hang me, Hang me now. What do we think would have been the reaction in Kashmir? Would he have been seen as a “terrorist” or would he have been celebrated and lionised as an even bigger hero? And what would have been our reaction, all of us who wanted him saved from the gallows?
To be clear, there is no denying that AFSPA is a legislation completely at odds with the ideals – and the idea – of a self-professed democratic, republic state. In a signed response to an RTI application (Home/RTI/15/2012/1213) filed by Khurram Parvez, co-ordinator of J&K Coalition of Civil Society and a well known human rights activist in Kashmir, on the number of prosecutions sanctioned under AFSPA, the J&K Home Department simply stated that “no sanction for prosecution has been intimated by the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Defense to the State Government from 1990-2011 under the J&K Armed Forces Special Powers Act.”
No prosecution in 21 years. None. Not one.
For this reason alone we must continue to use every occasion possible to advocate for the repeal of AFSPA. And we must recruit as wide a support base to do so. Yet we must also be careful that when we conflate a rape in Delhi with a rape in Kashmir (in our desire to be inclusive) we remain alert and fully aware of the fundamental politics at work. Investing all our rhetorical energy behind a de-contextualized protest against AFSPA is to fall into a narrative booby trap and being, willy nilly, complicit in accepting, condoning and, worse, ignoring, the military occupation in Kashmir. As Kartik Murukutla, co-author of the Alleged Perpetrators report and an International Human Rights lawyer says, “AFSPA is a bad law that needs to go but it is also a tool of political distraction.”
Keepers of National Honor
The Verma Committee Report on Amendments to Criminal Law (2013) has been widely hailed as a breakthrough for its unequivocal stance against the shame-honor complex that governs the Indian imagination of rape. Speaking of how the concept of shame has given law enforcement agencies an upper hand, it notes that it is “deplorable” that “the police have become arbiters of honour”. “In other words”, the Committee writes, “we feel that an indirect validation of police inaction in rape crimes has taken place as a result of – a) amorphous attribution of women’s position in Indian society; b) the theory of shame-honor; and c) the policeman, ‘being the male’ in a patriarchal society, ought to be the ‘moral judge’. It not only skews the justice delivery system at the stage of lodging the complaint, but it has a strongly debilitating effect resulting in direct violation of fundamental human freedoms and rights under the Constitution and the various international instruments.
Read this paragraph a few times over and it is clear that a few modifications are needed when describing the situation in Kashmir. It is more accurate, for instance, to say that “an indirect validation of State inaction in human rights excesses has taken place as a result of – a) amorphous attribution of Kashmir’s status in Indian nationalist history and geography; b) the theory of ‘Anti-nationals’; and c) the Army, ‘being the keepers of national honour’ in a jingoist society, ought to be the ‘moral judge’. It not only skews the justice delivery system at the stage of lodging the complaint, but it has a strongly debilitating effect resulting in direct violation of fundamental human freedoms and rights under the Constitution and the various international instruments.”
A similarly comparative reading may be applied onto several other recommendations made to ensure justice for rape victims elsewhere in India. To peel away these politics from an event like Kunan and to make our support contingent on a discrete, discontinuous act of oppression, to support human rights in Kashmir while we ignore the essential conflict that gives rise to these abuses, is to inflict a far more brutalizing narrative abuse on ‘innocent’ Kashmiris.
No, it is not necessary to agree with the politics of Kashmiri resistance movement (which in any case is a polymorphous thing and not some monolithic idea that one could agree or disagree with) to be able to sympathize with the abuse of human rights. But we also cannot ignore the context, or gloss over the relation between the State and its Subject in a situation of conflict. If we do, it is tantamount to allowing ourselves to be tricked by refracted and motivated etiologies. In time, it will make us blind.
The swiftest possible redressal of human rights abuses – be it rape or any other abuse – in conflict situations like Kashmir is to offer an acceptable political solution to citizens who have come to hate everything about India through their own personal experiences of living in a militarized state that owns him mind, body and balls. If this cannot be done, let us not assert a spurious moral supremacy by token gestures to hurt a little less, to kill a little softly.
Every time I have visited Kashmir over the years, Kunan has been on my mind. But I have never managed to drag myself there. What could I say? How would I look them in the eye? Why should I scrape at their wounds?
This time when I had begun writing this piece, I decided I had to see the place, I needed to locate it in my brain, needed to change the shape of Kunan in my head. I wanted to dust off the distance that makes them ‘victims’ in my mind, that makes them the details of a case file. I went because I was afraid that after this piece was written, after another 22 years had passed, I wouldn’t be able to remember them, I wouldn’t be able to remember what was done to them in my name. I went because I wanted to clear out space in my mind, space to grow new memories, memories that were of people, people who were complete individuals, individuals whom i could remember by their particular features. I could only imagine their distinct laugh, imagine their expressive eyes, their hunched backs over glowing stoves, their grey pheran with blue flowers, their evident amusement at seeing me shiver with my 5 layers of warm clothes – all this I needed to see for myself, to record with my own eyes.
As it happens, I arrived in Srinagar to curfewed streets and concertina wires. Afzal Guru had been hanged the day before and the Valley had been prepared for the news with a siege. Police and Para-military, like some new species of a weed, had sprung up in thick rows along sidewalks and streets from the airport to downtown. After being turned away at half a dozen checkpoints, my cab driver suggested I walk the remainder of the way to my hotel.
Dragging my suitcase on uneven, pebble-strewn streets that morning, my cold cheeks kissed by the noon sun, my lungs filling with clear winter air, I wondered if I was being silly to look back at something that happened so long ago when what was happening now needed attention, needed speaking up for. In this era of breaking news and insta-updates, what did it mean to look back, to tell the same story that had been told a hundred times, a thousand times. It was a thought that kept bothering me through the days that followed – days that brought news of deaths in Watergam and Sumbal, days that disappeared newspapers from the valley, days that seemed to have become scenes from a Kashmir documentary of the 90s.
Even to reach Kunan, I had to navigate the present. The road to Kupwara, the district in which the village falls, goes through Sopore, Afzal’s hometown, and several other ‘incorrigible’ towns of north Kashmir. These areas had been the most volatile, the curfew there among the worst. For the first four days it seemed impossible to make the journey. The present was obstinately obstructing my access to the past.
Finally, emboldened by my friend’s company, I decided to make the trip. We left Srinagar before 5:00 AM, hoping to reach Kupwara before the curfew is clamped at 6:30/7:00. That dark morning, as every few kilometers dissolved its nocturnal depths and revealed a bit more of the landscape, I remembered reading something Joe Sacco wrote in his book Footnotes in Gaza. The book itself is focused on two massacres that had taken place in 1956, but Sacco draws the reader into present day Gaza by inserting himself into the narrative. Several times, both in first person and third, he visits this question: what does it mean to chase ’56 when everyday, all around, there are people being killed, houses being demolished, children being maimed. As one character says to him with some anger, “everyday here is ’56. ’56 is dead”
He deals with this in some detail in the introduction to the book. He writes:
“Palestinians never seem to have the luxury of digesting one tragedy before the next one is upon them. When I was in Gaza, younger people often viewed my research into the events of 1956 with bemusement. What good would tending to history do them when they were under attack and their homes were being demolished now? But the past and present cannot be so disentangled; they are part of a remorseless continuum, a historical blur. Perhaps it is worth our while to freeze that churning forward movement and examine one or two events that were not only a disaster for the people who lived them but might also be instructive for those who want to understand why and how hatred was planted in their hearts.”
In one television debate following the Afzal Guru hanging, an (Indian) guest – a former Foreign Secretary – had bristled: why, he asked in a shrill voice full of outrage, why are Kashmiris so upset about the hanging of a convicted terrorist?
Perhaps it is worth our while, as Indians, to reflect on one or two events in Kashmir that have taken place over the past decades – rape of a village, massacre of a crowd, killing of an innocent, ruination of a generation – and ponder over that question, asked so earnestly.
Previously by Abhijit Dutta in Kafila:
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