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Book Review: Do you Remember Kunan Poshpora?

By Adil Bhat                       

Do you Remember Kunan Poshpora?
Authors: Ifrah Butt, Munaza Rashid, Natasha Rather, Samreen Mushtaq, Essar Batool
Publisher: Zubaan Books
Pages: 228
Price: INR 395 

“…The valley is full of cries and wails, of the songs of mothers about their sons who are dead, of women who found their world destroyed overnight, raped by Indian Armed Forces, the men in those hideous green uniforms, the sight of which makes you cringe if you are a Kashmiri woman.”

In the dead of the intervening night of February 23-24, 1991, there stood two ransacked villages of Kunan Poshpora in Kupwara District of Northern Kashmir. In the garb of a cordon-and-search operation on that unfateful night, the Indian Army troops from the 4th Rajputana Rifles rummaged through the houses wreaking havoc on the villagers, who were busy with their daily night chores. All hell broke loose. The dreadful army personnel marched inside the houses, picked up the men and dragged them to the  interrogation centre close-by, while others brutally raped women of the house, one by one, irrespective of age (from the age of 13 to 60).   Women of these houses lay unconscious; some writhed in pain, while the children dozed off to sleep with tear-stained faces. The dimly lit homes, with swinging bulbs, scattered torn clothes on the ground and the rattling liquor bottles, did all the talking. The image still lingers in the collective memory of Kashmiris, who continue to struggle and live under the brutal military occupation by India. It was a quiet chilly winter night and in few hours the whole setting had changed.

It is this brutal exhibition by the Indian armed forces that has for 24 long years been systematically silenced. Despite all the attempts by the Indian state to obliterate the horrific facts and erase the public memory of that dreadful night, five courageous women from Kashmir – Essar Batool, Irfah Butt, Samreena Mushtaq, Munaza Rashid, Natasha Rather – decided to come together to the forefront to fight for justice and articulate the stories of men and women of Kunan Poshpora in this compelling book, Do you remember Kunan Poshpora? These brave young girls had themselves grown up in an environment that was brutalized by military occupation, countless murders, enforced disappearances, mass graves and mass rapes. Coming from different backgrounds, the five fearless women embarked on their daunting journey to “speak truth to power”.

Published by Delhi-based Zubaan Publishers as a part of its eight-volume series on “Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia”, the book remembers and attempts to preserve memories of mass violence. The idea of the book germinated when in December 2012, the young social activist Samreena Mushtaq called up her friend Essar Batool and curiously asked, “Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?” Batool was aware of the atrocities. She replied in the affirmative and since then a group of young women started their legal battle afresh.

It was on the 22nd anniversary of that gruesome case (February 23, 2013), that they started discussing the case with Advocate Parvez Imroz of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCC) and finally decided to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) for reopening the case. Later in April that year, at least 50 Kashmiri women from all walks of life filed a PIL before the High Court, demanding a Police reinvestigation of the mass rape and torture case. However, the signing of the PIL was not an easy task either. Since the beginning there were challenges. When the court demanded the petitioners to submit their identity proof, the signatories declined to support fearing a backlash from their families that were either orthodox or on government payrolls. Decline and denial have been two sides of the same coin in this struggle. The initial declining of the support by signatories dampened their spirits. But the eventual filing of the PIL with the help of other bold women helped them to step their first step to justice. And the denial came from the army quarters, for obvious reasons.

Ever since the premeditated attack by the army, the perpetrators have flourished with impunity. The army has consistently denied the charges. The entire state machinery, including the inquiry committees instituted by the state, were abrasive in their inquiry (read denial) reports. An inquiry report by the Divisional Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, dated March 18, 1991, stated that the account of the rape is “dubious””and under “militant pressure.” The fact finding reports by the state agencies conveniently impugned the testimonies of the victims. More alarming conclusions came from another ‘independent inquiry’ – claimed to be a product of exhaustive investigation – by the Press Council of India (PCI) team led by B.G. Verghese, who labeled the incident as “militant hoax”, and completely dismissed the allegations of rape and torture, including the Block Medical Officer’s report that established the rape of 32 women. His attempt at inquiry was more of a malignant campaign against the people of Kunan Poshpora. Verghese probed the incident at the request of his associate, Francis Rodrigues, father of the then Army Chief, General S.F. Rodrigues. The PCI report, written at the behest of the army, read:

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 an 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.

The state instituted inquiry commissions and their reports received flak from international human rights organizations, including the Human Rights Watch (HRW), which noted that the committee was concerned about countering the domestic and international criticism than about uncovering the truth. “The committee’s eagerness to dismiss any evidence that might contradict the government’s version of events,” according to HRW, “is deeply disturbing”. The committee’s final reports showcased India’s more identifiable and notorious nationalist sentiments that can be summarized as those thoughts that “always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations”, in George Orwell’s words who defined nationalism as “power-hunger tempered by self-deception” and can be well placed in India’s hunger for holding power on Kashmiris. In his Notes on Nationalism, published in 1945, Orwell writes, “Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.” Solely, or mainly, thinking in terms of “competitive prestige”, Verghese acting in his nationalist capacity while ‘investigating’ the case, “stuck to his belief even when the facts were overwhelmingly against him.”

The brutality of the forces and the self-deception that followed over the years led to the “non-recognition of the sacrifices made by the women” in a general patriarchal social setting. Speaking on this, Anjum Zamrooda Habib, the chief of Muslim Khawateen Markaz, who is also the author of a jail memoir, Prisoner No.100, in an interview with Mushtaq ul Haq remarked, “When resistance is amalgamated with politics only power seems to be the concern, plus in the war zone memories are short lived, add to this the fact that the whole world is male dominated and men don’t want to acknowledge the sacrifices of women and all these factors add up to foster this apathy.” Despite these hurdles of exclusion, owing to patriarchal nature of society, there have been women resisting publicly in strong political voice.

“The Maqbuza or Occupied Kashmir,” writes Natasha, has “gone through its own contradictions between modernity and tradition and, as everything in Kashmir, the militarization has a role to play in gender relations as well.” However, “making the language of resistance their mother tongue”, in the words of Gita Hariharan, the younger generation of women in Kashmir has become “increasingly participative in the discourse of dissent and resistance.” As the Kashmiri men were torn between the struggle of tradition and modernity, it was the women who carried the onus of honour on their shoulders.

In the brutal context of 1991 incident, rape had a brutalizing impact on women, both from the outside and inside. Natasha further writes:

In the kind of social milieu we live in, rape can understandably be devastating for a woman. The raped woman, although a victim of conflict between the army and militants, faces ostracism coupled with ignominy. This was seen in Kunan Poshpora…I came to know how difficult it was to arrange marriages for even the next generation of women, not only outside the village but also within. Many families arranged marriages for their girls with relatives; some of these were a total mismatch.

This idea of “collective dishonor” faced by the Kashmiri men in the growing climate of impunity has added to the social stigma of the people from the two villages. This has travelled through time, negatively impacting the younger generation of the victims and non-victims from the Villages. Samreena in her narrative writes:

Getting an education has become a costly affair for them as they often have to commute to other towns where they will not be recognized. The hostility towards the students, especially children from families where women had been raped, was rampant, and teasing, taunts, bullying and humiliation were the order of the day. The unfriendly educational atmosphere forced many children to opt out of school, thus jeopardizing the future of Kunan Poshpora as a whole.

The disturbing account of women survivors and their children shows the tragic implications that the incident has had on all spheres of their lives – social, political, economic or physical. “The hostility towards them was extreme, and every day students came back to their homes with a plethora of complaints, and even bruises and injuries from fights,” writes Samreena. This climate of ridicule and exclusion led to students losing interest in their studies. The children chose to recede to their cocoons, resulting in significant number of dropouts in schools and other educational institutions.  The damage done on the night of February 23-24 was not short lived. The silence and shame that surrounded the rape stories have already done enough harm. What needs to be done now in Irfah’s words is to “finally break” that silence and shame “and recover at least part of their [survivors] stories”.

The five young women, who have been bound together by a common cause, have undertaken a journey of Justice for the survivors of Kunan Poshpora mass rape case. Though the destination appears elusive, the expedition in itself is an achievement for women who come from a place that is imbued with structural, sexual and psychological violence, both without and within. Acknowledging the tough battle that lies ahead, one of the authors, Batool, poignantly notes, “We have always known how tough the battle is going to be but over time we have also seen that despite the desperate attempts at cover-up, the proceedings only expose the reluctance of the state to own up to the crimes of the Armed Forces.”

Do you Remember Kunan Poshpora? is available on Amazon India.

Adil Bhat is an Assistant Editor with Café Dissensus.


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