Justice has eluded, for 22 long years and four months, the victims of the alleged mass rape by Indian army men in Kunan Poshpora village in Indian-administered Kashmir, in February, 1991. And they say they are still waiting for justice. They say they will fight. They will not forget. They will not forgive.
“When someone is martyred here in Kashmir, his father and mother feels proud of the sacrifice and martyrdom. Not only the parents but everyone feels proud. The family is given respect. The Indian army snatched our honour by molesting us. We were attacked for the same reason they martyr the Kashmiri youth. But see the irony, we, the 40 women from Kunan Poshpora, were gang raped by the Indian army men on 23-24 February, 1991 feel stigmatised. Our's was also a sacrifice. No one feels proud of us,” said Zara*, one alleged rape victim, during the first-ever press conference of this kind organised by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) in Srinagar last week.
People from all walks of life attended the press conference ‘Kunan Poshpora Mass Rape And Torture: Case Re-opening And The Future Strategy For Justice” in a local hotel in Srinagar. There were emotional scenes inside the jam-packed hall. People gave a standing ovation to the women to express their solidarity.
After 22 years, the alleged victims had come all the way from Kunan Poshpora in North Kashmir’s frontier district Kupwara— some 60 miles from Srinagar— to meet and interact with journalists, members of civil society, and human rights defenders. This became possible only after a local court recently ordered a time bound re-investigation into the case of alleged mass rape.
A court order dated June 18, 2013 makes a reference to a letter quoting the written complaint lodged by the inhabitants of Kunan Poshpora village, stating that “during the intervening night of 23-24 February, 1991 the Indian army (Battalion of 4th Rajputana Rifle 63 Brigade) cordoned the village at 2300 Hours IST and intruded forcibly into the residential houses, took men into their custody, locked them inside two houses, continued interrogation and a few army male members made a forcible entry into the houses and on gun point committed gang rape upon 23 women indiscriminately, whether old, married, virgin or pregnant.” This horrible crime continued allegedly until the morning of 24 February.
The JKCCS had demanded that the re-investigation be done by the Special Investigation Team (SIT), headed by an officer of Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) rank. However, the court while mentioning the lack of authority in ordering SIT, asked further investigation to be conducted by an officer not below the rank of SSP and within a time bound period of 3 months.
Representatives of the Support Group for justice for Kunan Poshpora in a press release described the order of judicial magistrate, Kupwara for further investigation as an “achievement”.
“For 22 years, the villagers of Kunan Poshpora have lived with injustice. For 22 years, civil society and human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, social workers, and Indians, came, heard their story, clicked their pictures, and left,” their press release said.
For over two decades now, the women have had to explain their pain and agony to many investigators, fact-finding teams, police and journalists from Indian-administered Kashmir, India and abroad. They have revived their old battle with new spirit.
The women spoke about their ordeal with mixed emotions – some with tearful eyes, others with a sense of hope that someday “justice will be done”.
“We are not here to seek any monetary compensation; we are demanding justice and want the perpetrators to be punished for their crimes,” said Hadia*. Villagers and eyewitnesses (the women themselves themselves) say the number of women who were gang raped in Kunan Poshpora in 1991 was 40.
Zehra* gave a horrific account that among the possible 40 victims of mass rape, at least 18 women had their uterus removed through surgery. At least five have died since. “Help us seek justice. India should leave Kashmir.”
She added: “The Indian Army might have gang raped us two decades ago, but it is India which stands naked before the world even today. Our fight is on till justice is done.”
The Kunan Poshpora case was dead and buried. But on June 18, 2013 the judicial magistrate Kupwara, Mr. J A Geelani, dismissed the conclusions made by the police in the recently filed closure report in the case. He returned the case file to the police, asking for “further investigation to unravel the identity of those who happen to be the perpetrators.”
Soon after the complaints filed by the villagers of Kunan Poshpora in 1991, the authorities appointed Boobli George Verghese — a senior Indian journalist who is now associated with a New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research — as head of the Press Council of India team which was assigned with the task of undiscovering the truth. The B G Verghese-led investigation team gave a clean chit to the Indian army. His report became hugely controversial and raised many eyebrows.
Kashmir civil society members accuse Verghese of a cover up and demand that such individuals be declared persona non grata and socially boycotted in Kashmir until they are criminally prosecuted and handed out appropriate punishments.
Dr. Altaf Hussain, a noted pediatrician, civil society activist and member of the JKCCS fact finding mission, told Dawn.com that Mr. Verghese had not even gone beyond Baramullah town, where he sat inside the Indian army headquarters and wrote his report. “Mr. B G Verghese closed his eyes to the facts. Forget Kunan Poshpora, he does not even know where Kupwara is on the Kashmir map. He prepared a fabricated report and gave a clean chit to the perpetrators.”
Dr. Hussain also said that it was the moral duty of civil society to extend all possible support and help to the women from Kunan Poshpora . “They (rape survivors) have no reasons to feel stigmatised. They should not feel isolated. The perpetrators should feel ashamed. The victims are asserting their right to dignity, self-respect and honour.”
Ali Muhammad, a resident of Kunan Poshpora who accompanied the women, told the audience that they are fighting because they don’t want women and girls in other parts of Kashmir to meet the same fate. “We are not alone in this battle. Both men and women are fighting for justice. We want the Indian Army men accused of rape to be punished severely.” He also said that some victims had accepted government compensation worth INR 100,000 to get their cases registered. “Why would they be offering compensation if nothing had happened?”
Khurram Parvez, the programme coordinator JKCCS, assured the women that they were not alone in their battle for justice. “This is our collective fight. Together we will fight till justice is delivered.”
Prominent human rights defender Advocate Parvez Imroz had filed a protest petition on behalf of the survivors of the Kunan Poshpora alleged gang rape against the closure report of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, before the judicial magistrate, Kupwara. The petition, dated 10 June 2013, argued that the police investigations were incomplete and male fide as despite having the information on file regarding the alleged involvement of 125 personnel of the 4th Rajputana Rifles, the police had not questioned them and an identification parade was not conducted. The chief prosecuting officer had filed some strange objections, but the judicial magistrate acknowledged the submissions made by Mr. Imroz.
The court judgment ordering further investigations into the case also mentions that “Until date the investigating agency has not unveiled the identity of the culprits despite having a clear cut nominal role of 125 suspects”.
The state through its chief prosecuting officer had made some interesting arguments before the magistrate. It had argued that there was no right to file a protest petition. It surprised legal experts with the argument that the protest petition was being filed to allow other victims to get monetary compensation, and that the victims appeared to have woken up after a long gap of 22 years.
It still remains to be seen whether after 22 years, the truth will be uncovered.
*Names changed to protect the identity of the alleged rape victims.
Gowhar Geelani is a writer/journalist, who has served as Editor at Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) in Bonn, Germany. Previously, he has contributed features for the BBC. Feedback at (firstname.lastname@example.org).