On India’s Republic Day, we must remember Kunan Poshpora

As the Kunan Poshpora mass rape hearings continue, we talk to the co-author of a book which seeks to remember the 1991 events as an act of resistance.

Amrit Wilson
26 January 2017
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A paramilitary soldier standing guard in Srinagar on Jan 26, 2017 as separatists called for a general strike in the Indian-controlled Kashmir region on India's Republic Day. Credit: AP /Dar Yasin

On 26th January as India’s right-wing Hindu supremacist government celebrates Republic Day with a massive show of military might and ‘crack downs on anti- nationals’, large swathes of India’s population, in Kashmir, Manipur, Chhattisgarh and elsewhere will be placed under ‘high alert’. For them this celebration of India’s national pride most likely entails an added dose of repression.

In Kashmir, 2016 was a terrible year. Between July and November, the India's armed forces and police ruthlessly attacked a series of spontaneous protest demonstrations following the killing of a popular militant leader. Some 17,000 people were injured, at least 90 killed and hundreds (many of them children) blinded, some permanently, from plastic pellets fired directly at their eyes. Meanwhile, in Delhi, the twitter handle of Digital India, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's flagship projects, was tweeting a poem promoting the killing of Kashmiris by the Indian Army.

In December last year, I met Kashmiri social worker, legal activist and author Essar Batool while she was visiting London, to discuss a remarkable new book she has co-authored with four other young Kashmiri women. Do you remember Kunan Poshpora focuses on a horrific mass rape carried out in 1991. Twenty years later, in the aftermath of the Delhi gang-rape case of 2012, the five women, all involved in social activism, came together to help the survivors push for the case to be reopened. Memory, silence and the patriarchies of the Indian state and Kashmiri society, are the underlying themes which run through the book. 

Remembrance as resistance


The central focus of Do you remember Kunan Poshpora are the events of a bitterly cold night in February 1991 when the 4th Rajputana Rifle battalion of Indian armed forces cordoned off the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora in the remote Kupwara district of Kashmir.  The men were taken away at gun point and severely tortured, while the women - girls as young as thirteen, women as old as sixty, pregnant women - were repeatedly gang raped.

There followed a massive cover-up by the Indian state. The gang-rape allegations were declared baseless and an infamous Press Council of India investigation by senior journalist B.G.Verghese concluded that the alleged incident was a "dirty trick to frame the army". Verghese stationed himself at a military base, flew to Kunan Poshpora in an army helicopter and used someone from the local police station as an interpreter - clearly even a pretence of impartiality was not considered necessary.

The book was written and published in November 2015, providing an exposé of the state and its agencies and an analysis of the systematic use of sexual violence by the armed forces, as well as a sensitive account of people's experiences. The Kunan Poshpora mass rape, it shows, was just one of the terrible human rights violations faced by Kupwara in the 1990s: reprisal rapes were common against a population seeking ‘Azaadi’, the Kashmiri word for freedom.  So was forced labour, horrific tortures, disappearances and extra-judicial killings.

One striking chapter uses the accounts of survivors to demolish the state's discourse and create an alternative narrative. I asked Batool whether it was difficult to get the people of Kunan Poshpora to speak out.  She tells me that the events of February 1991 have taken their toll on the mental and physical health of the survivors. Some have died, many others suffer symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for which they have received no treatment or care. In addition, as in other South Asian societies, women are seen as the bearers of honour and those who have been raped are stigmatised along with their children. It has led to deep-rooted feelings of shame on the one hand, and social ostracism on the other. This has meant many have been unable to get married or even receive an education.

At the same time, she says,  "they have been used as "media fodder", pressurised to give endless interviews, to fact-finding teams and state investigations. The local media even forced them to be photographed holding up blood stained clothes. But nothing had changed for them....initially they did not want to speak, but after they got to know us and realised that we were with them in a collective struggle for justice, their attitude  changed".

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Neelofar Jan's mother at Shopian, after the government exhume the bodies of her daughter and that of another woman, whose unsolved rape and murder sparked weeks of protest. Credit: AP Photo

"Forgetting", she says, "has been a coping mechanism. People push memories into remote corners of their minds... then remembrance becomes resistance." In a patriarchal society, she elaborates, silence is inculcated into women as a survival technique,  and the state is then able to use this to stop women indicting their rapists and fighting for justice. A key idea of the book is that the very act of remembering and speaking out challenges the power of the state.

Silence, as Batool and her co-authors write, has also shaped their own lives. Batool's family never spoke about the occupation, and till her early teens she was brought up to regard the army as Rakshaks, or protectors - the word emblazoned on armoured vehicles. Rape was never mentioned in her home. It was the same for her co-authors. So all encompassing was the silence that Samreena Mushtaq found out about her father's arrest, torture and death in a newspaper cutting when she was fourteen years old.

As these young women write in their book, "silence is unfortunately taught as a survival technique, to women across society. Patriarchy seems eternal and natural. It is the governing principle of the lives of women, imbibed through society, religion, tradition and culture. But we bear another burden: the silences of an occupation are even more deafening."

A collective action by the women of Kashmir

Twenty-one years later, in December 2012, a massive anti-rape movement swept India following the gruesome rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi. At that time Samreena Mushtaq, one of the book's co-authors, was documenting sexual violence cases for the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS). She was struck by the fact that the frequent rapes by the army in Kashmir, even mass rapes as in Kunan Poshpora, had not led to protests in India. On the anniversary of the Kunan Poshpora rapes in 2013, she and her women colleagues decided to petition the Jammu and Kashmir’s High Court to reopen the Kunan Poshpora case, and to organise 'a collective action' by women in Kashmir against the sexual violence perpetrated by the Indian armed forces. There has been many attempts to re-open the case prior to this, but none had been successful.


Protesters outside the Indian Presidential Palace during a protest against the gang rape of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi, India. Dec 22, 2012. Credit: Tsering Topgyal AP/Press Association Images

This was when Batool got involved as one of the petitioners. As more and more women heard about the attempts to reopen the case, nearly a hundred came forward eager to be petitioners. The State agencies then demanded their ID cards. This was clearly intimidation since it is well-known that without a card one can be arrested, tortured or even 'disappeared'. In the end, about fifty women stood their ground and petitioned the High Court, sitting through endless court hearings under the hostile, misogynistic and patronising gaze of the authorities. The court admitted the petition and reopened the case. More recently, however, the Supreme Court stayed the proceedings after the Indian Army objected to a new investigation. But the case continues, with hearings still going on.

Reprisal rapes are routinely used in India by the powerful against those who resist - by dominant caste landlord armies against Dalit women fighting for land rights and dignity in Bihar, by the state and paramilitaries against Adivasi women who are fighting displacement by powerful corporates in the mineral rich central states of India, like Chhattisgarh, or by the army against women in the North Eastern state of Manipur, where, as in Kashmir, the Armed Forces Special Forces Act (AFSPA) is in force giving total impunity to the men in uniform.

If the AFSPA were repealed, would the situation in Kashmir change? "It would mean an end to legal impunity but the armed forces will continue to have moral and political impunity to rape and kill", says Batool. One of the arguments which she and her co-authors frequently heard, she says, was that "rape was forgivable when committed by uniformed men".

Batool sees the years 2008 and particularly 2010 (when 120 people, most of them young, were killed) as turning points in terms of women's participation.  While the stereotype of the Burkha-clad Kashmiri women, the perpetual victim, with no opinion of her own, still lingers, a new image of the Kashmiri woman is emerging. "She is dressed", as filmmaker, Sanjay Kak, wrote back in 2010 "in ordinary salwar-kameez, pastel pink, baby blue, purple and yellow. Her head is casually covered with a dupatta and she seems unconcerned about being recognized. She is often middle aged, and could even be middle-class. And she is carrying a stone. A weapon directed at the security forces". 

Do the women of Kunan Poshpora and the petitioners expect justice? In the words of Samreena Mushtaq, "We filed the petition not because we expect justice... but to make the Indian army answerable, to make it understand that its personnel cannot go scot free and repeat the same crime".

As for the book which she co-authored, it is a record of this enormously important struggle: "a remembrance, a tribute, a movement against forgetting, a way of preserving and giving our memories back to ourselves".

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