Sultan M Hali
ON the night between February 22 and 23, 1991, a battalion of Indian Army’s 4th Rajputana Rifles conducted a cordon-and-search operation in the adjacent villages of Kunan Poshpora in the Kupwara district of Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK). That fateful night, 26 years ago, allegedly more than a 100 Kashmiri elderly women, young girls and pregnant women were gang raped and tortured by the brutal Indian army personnel in the two villages. The cries of anguish and pain of the victims have fallen on deaf ears because the inhabitants of Kunan Poshpora have been demanding justice and fighting the case in court since 1991. Their efforts have been stonewalled by the Indian Army since not a single culprit has been jailed or punished.
In 2012, when entire India was shocked by the cruel gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student in New Delhi, a group of five young women took up the cudgels for the rape victims of Kunan Poshpora. They were prompted to recall the ghastly incident 21 years earlier in IOK and asked the inevitable question: “Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?” In 2013, a petition was filed in Jammu and Kashmir’s High Court seeking reopening of the case. The court admitted the petition and subsequently reopened the case. However, in March of 2015, the Supreme Court stayed the proceedings after the Indian Army objected to fresh investigation.
The five young women, all in their twenties, embarked on a research project about the case. The result was a 224-page book, Do you remember Kunan Poshpora? co-authored by Ifrah Butt, Munaza Rashid, Natasha Rather, Essar Batool and Samreena Mushtaq. The book documents the 25-year long struggle for justice. Published by Delhi-based Zubaan Publishers as a part of its eight-volume series on “Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia,” the book examines the “questions of justice, of stigma, of the responsibility of the state, and of the long-term impact of trauma.” The book was released on February 23, 2016 in Srinagar on the 25th anniversary of the mass rape incident.
The highly moving book chronicles the emotional involvement of the co-authors, who regularly travelled to the twin villages to meet and interview survivors and document their ongoing fight for justice. The motivation to pursue their cause is presenting a collective action by women in IOK against the sexual violence perpetrated by the Indian armed forces, because the threat still loomed large. Kunan Poshpora was not the first case of sexual violence and it definitely was not the last. But it provided the authors a base to give hope to the rape victims to cope with the trauma of their ordeal, the social stigma they faced, to bring the perpetrators of the heinous crime to justice and deter the Indian armed forces from wreaking havoc on the hapless people of IOK, especially the women.
The book exposes the travesty of the so-called justice that India boasts of, one that humiliates victims and gives impunity to perpetrators. It is also an acknowledgment of the bravery of the victims of the heinous Kunan Poshpora mass rape episode, who shared the details of their gory and harrowing experience so that justice could prevail. The authors of the book did not let the victims down. Besides narrating the mass tragedy in their bold and forthcoming book, they have declared February 23 as “Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day” so legal action will be augmented with political action which can be memorialized around the world in solidarity. The courageous quintet protested, rallied and appeared on national and international TV talk shows to highlight the dreadful experience of the mass rape victims.
The writers have brought out that not many people knew about the struggle which the survivors of Kunan Poshpora fought from 2004 to 2011. In 2004 the survivors approached the State Human Rights Commission which issued a decision recommending monetary relief, re-investigation, and prosecution of the accused but to no avail since the Indian Army blocked it. The bold authors highlight the impunity that serves as bedrock to the unquestionable military occupation of Kashmir. In cases of sexual violence, this impunity allows security forces to get away. To illustrate this harsh reality they point out the number of cases against Indian armed forces where punishments have been handed out and it is evident that the Indian state has acted solely as a protector of its military in Kashmir, resorting to probes and enquiries as deceptive tricks to fool people both in and outside of the region. The fact that Indian armed forces have committed some of the worst war crimes in Kashmir and still haven’t ever been tried is just an example of the kind of legal impunity they enjoy. The impunity does not just flow from the laws such as AFSPA, but is a reality that is accompanied by moral and political impunity.
The fact is that no Indian armed forces personnel have ever been tried in a civilian court. And any court martial issued have only resulted in vague “disciplinary action.” This is evidence that war crimes as considered by the Indian state to be an issue of internal and unaccountable discipline. Criminal courts are prevented from trying such soldiers. To add to this impunity, there are people in the so-called Indian intelligentsia such as B.G. Verghese, Wajahat Habibullah, Arnab Goswami, and Shekhar Gupta who come to the aid of these “men in uniform” and clear them of all charges on Indian television news channels. The same is true of Indian politicians who have always maintained that their armed forces can do no wrong ever. World conscience needs to be awakened to the plight of the Kashmiris and the reign of terror unleashed on the inhabitants of IOK, especially the women.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.