After the Nirbhaya rape case and the uproar that followed it, with demands for severe punishment for her rapists and killers, five young women from Kashmir were compelled to think about the routinely carried out systematic sexual violence in Jammu & Kashmir at the hands of Indian armed forces. One such case that haunted them from their childhood memories is Kunan Poshpora.
Close to 80 women of all age groups were raped by the 68th Mountain Brigade of the 4 Rajputana Rifles on February 23, 1991. The event draws attention to the widespread use of sexual violence by Indian armed forces in Kashmir and the absolute impunity that was guaranteed to them for all crimes committed. Five social activists (all in their mid-twenties) Essar Batool, Ifrah Butt, Samreena Mushtaq, Munaza Rashid, and Natasha Rather went back to the history to look at what happened to the survivors of the mass rape only to pen their life and turn it into a book titled ‘Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?’
The authors try to back the incidents and the stories of the victims with the records of the police investigation, victims’ medical records and civil society’s perspectives on the case.
“Sexual violence had been used as a weapon of war against Kashmiri women to humiliate and punish the community for their dissent and support for the struggle for self-determination,” says Natasha Rather, who grew up in the 1990s in Srinagar and had witnessed atrocities on the people because of their Kashmiri Muslim identity. “Violence at the hands of the Indian armed forces was routine and normalised and voices of dissent were choked,” adds the author.
Law graduate and a daughter of former police official Munaza learnt about the incident when she was in grade 10 and felt deceived by those who call them their own people. It was since then that Munaza decided to let the truth of those survivors reach to more sensible masses and hence she became a part of this book. “We could see double standards, standing for one of your daughters (Nirbhaya) and no one talking about mass rape done by the army. It was a criminal silence of a nation,” says Munaza. Sharing one of her memories during her research she recalls the difficulties when she would protest outside court after every hearing and army men would hide their legal counsel, “It’s a perfect example of how strong and bright truth is. It will shine bright no matter after how many years,” slams the author.
Similarly, Essar recalls the intimidating behaviour of army personnel when these authors travelled to Kupwara for court hearings. According to Essar, the army counsel made ample attempts to patronise, infantilise and humiliate them into giving up. “His assistant would stare at us the entire duration of the hearing to make us uncomfortable. Even in the court we were not safe and this stands out as the most impressionable incident throughout the process,” recalls the author.
One of the strongest anecdotes that Ifrah, who was born months after the incident of Kunan Poshpora, can recall is from the time when they were filing the PIL in J&K High Court and recording testimonies of women. There was a continuous mention about whether there was electricity in the villages on the intervening night of 23rd and 24th February 1991 in Kunan and Poshpora in the report of Press Council Team headed by Late B.G Varghese. The report has the point to argue that women don’t remember whether the electricity was available that night or not, so the details they are providing about the whole incident are fabricated. “When I asked one of the women survivors about this (even though this is not an arguable point), she replied, ‘When you see 8-10 drunk armed men entering your bedroom and realise their intentions, your whole world becomes dark at that moment. Doesn’t matter whether you are in a well lit or a pitch-dark room’,” Ifrah reiterates.
According to Samreena, a social activist and a daughter of a freedom fighter, who claims that her father was tortured and killed by the Indian army, believes that for the entire Kunan-Poshpora incident, Indian army must be held accountable and ultimately prosecuted for the crime they committed. As she further informs the present situation of the valley, she says they (army) kill, maim, rape people and enjoy complete impunity under the protection of brutal laws like AFSPA and PSA. Sexual violence is being used as an instrument of war in Kashmir. “Due to the fear of reprisals, many cases of
sexual violence committed by Indian army go unreported. Only a few cases have been reported and brought to the investigation. There is not a single case, which has lead to criminal prosecution,” claims the author.
Apprehensive and skeptical, these women lived through constant worry whether they will be able to earn the trust of women from Kunan and Poshpora. As Ifrah says that the survivors had already been visited by so many people, tried so hard to fight on their own behalf and had so many politicians and leaders making promises that were never fulfilled. “Of course it was a bit easier for us, young women, to earn their trust than it would be for politicians or male journalists, but I have to hand it to these women and the entire community for being willing to give us a chance and opening their homes, hearts, lives, and memories to us. As is always the case, it was truly us, the outsiders, who learned from them, rather than them learning from us,” sighs the author.
For her, it was really hard piecing together what happened that night as everyone had such a difficult time sharing, not just because of how many years it had been but also because trauma sometimes prevents them from accessing certain memories. “Memory and trauma are both difficult things to work with and together, it’s a bit of an emotional bomb waiting to explode,” says Ifrah. Observing and living through the present situation of women in Kashmir, Essar asserts that it remains precarious because of the presence of Indian armed forces and the impunity they enjoy. As out of all the cases of rapes, killings, tortures, no armed forces personnel has ever been charged and tried. “Even the case of Kunan Poshpora continues to be at a standstill in the Indian Supreme Court. The everyday sexual harassment of Kashmiri women at the hands of armed forces continues,” rues the author.