Three Decades After Kunan Poshpora, Justice Remains Elusive

Published by Irfan Bashir on

TW: The article contains references about sexual and physical violence in Kashmir.

On the night of February 23, 1991, from 11:00 pm to 9:00 am, at least 53 women, from a physically challenged 13-year-old girl to an 80-year-old woman, were gang raped by the battalion of 4th Rajputana Rifles of 68 Mountain Division Brigade C/o 56 APO of the Indian Army in Kunan Poshpora village, part of Kashmir’s remote district Kupwara. Human Rights Watch has reported that the number of victims could have been as high as a hundred (Human Rights in India; Kashmir Under Siege, pg. 88). Though all international organizations, including ‘Human Rights Watch’ and The Department of State (United States) agree that the incident of Kunan Poshpora did indeed take place, both the Indian government and the Press Council of India claim the charges against the army men as “well-concocted bundle of fabricated lies” and have termed the Kunan Poshpora women as “shameless” (A Collective Shame – Kunan Poshpora); women whose husbands left them soon after the incident, women who were rejected by society, women whose children are termed as “children born out of rape”, and women who had to spend the rest of their lives in seclusion.

Justice Bahauddin Farooqi, former Chief Justice of the Kashmir’s High Court said that in his forty-three years on the bench, he had never seen a case in which normal investigative procedures were ignored as they were in this one (India Moves Against Kashmiri Rebels). Even after three decades, no action has been taken against the Army, mainly due to the AFSPA (Arms Forces Special Powers Act) of September 11, 1958, which states that Army officers have legal immunity for their actions in a disturbed area. There can be no prosecution, suit or any other legal proceeding against anyone acting under that law; neither can the government’s judgment on why an area is found to be disturbed be subject to judicial review (Constitution of India, 1958). The soldiers even after thirty years cannot be prosecuted for what they did or anything they do in the future. They have total impunity against any human rights violations they commit. 

Dwelling on the above debate, monstrosity of the highest order is evident in the Kunan Poshpora rape case. Women were continuously raped for hours by innumerable men, leaving them psychologically traumatized for the rest of their lives. As Ikram Ullah says, “Rape not only disintegrates the psyche of the victim, it perforates the hearts and leaves the victim in an abyss of despise for the rest of their lives” (A Collective Shame- Kunan Poshpora). Rape is even worse than murder; in murder, the victim dies only once, whereas in rape, the victim suffers every day for the rest of their lives. In the Kunan Poshpora rape case, justice has been denied to the victims for three decades now. The women who were completely innocent were treated as impure and are still frowned upon by society.  The Kunan Poshpora tragedy led to a series of further unfortunate events in Kashmir, giving rise to more violence and conflict.

Therefore, in order to assess monstrosity in Kunan Poshpora, the question arises – who is the monster here; is it the army for committing such a heinous act, the Kashmiri society for socially boycotting the victims, the Indian government for trying to cover it up, or the Press Council of India for calling the victims of rape shameless? Or all of them? 

Let’s elaborate on what really happened on the night of February 23, 1991, and how it was one of the monstrous tragedies in Kashmir’s history. In his article for the Telegraph, Ikram Ullah narrates, “Famous as it was in Kashmir those days, they (Army) cordoned off the Village, and some psychopathic or lunatic condition made them go berserk, breaking the windows and banging the doors, they barged into the houses of the villagers. What followed would go down into the history books as a blotch on the face of Indian democracy. As the victims recollect it, all the male population of the small village was beaten up and made to assemble at gunpoint in a separate house. The women left alone in their houses were gang raped by 4 to 6 soldiers each at gunpoint until the morning of 24th February. The night’s devils did not even spare a pregnant lady who gave birth to a baby with a fractured arm, three days after the incident. The doctors reported that the baby had suffered blows, and the woman claimed that she was kicked while they raped her.” (A Collective Shame- Kunan Poshpora)

In their documentary, the Journeyman Pictures reported that just before the Kunan Poshpora incident, “Young nationalists attacked an Indian military checkpoint and retreated into the night” (Rape of Kunan Poshpora). So, how is it that an attack on a checkpoint leads to a whole battalion of the army losing its mind? Kaplan explains, gang rapists are usually quite young, and vulnerable to peer pressure: they play ‘follow the leader’. The rape is a rite of passage, and the unwilling rapist may be even more unwilling to oppose the group. The gang, moreover, often builds to extreme violence, as members are challenged to outdo each other. Some studies suggest that offenders slow down as they age. Older men simply don’t travel in packs (The mind of the Rapist). So, what happened that night, was it a competition of brutality between the Army men? It’s impossible to believe that none of those men had a conscience. While some of them didn’t directly commit the rapes, all of them were involved in one way or the other. In her article for the Hindu, Ayesha Pervez explains, “Sexualized violence in wars and conflicts is neither incidental, nor is it a question of sex. When 125 soldiers lay down a siege over a village, separate the men from the women and sexually assault more than 50 women, from ages 13 to 60, it is indicative of a systemic military practice. The intent was not only to terrorize and traumatize the people under assault — they are often accused of harboring militants — but also sending out a message of retribution to the Kashmir resistance movement” (Politics of Rape). Clearly, the motive was to teach Kashmiri people a lesson that they would never forget. It would seem that the whole Kunan Poshpora mass rape was orchestrated to force the Kashmiri people into submission and instill fear in Kashmiris.

Moreover, rape is not just about sex, it’s more often than not about feeling in control. The Asia Watch and Physicians for Human Rights in their report said, “In both, conflict and non-conflict situations, the central element of rape by the security forces is power. Soldiers and police use rape as a weapon: to punish, intimidate, coerce, humiliate and degrade” Rape is also considered as “spoils of war” (Rape in Kashmir, A Crime of War, pg. 03) and as Nicholas says in his book, rape is an “effort to degrade and humiliate the victim” (Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender, pg. 160). This is especially true in Kashmir, where the list of atrocities keeps on piling with nothing being done about it. In Kashmir the army is above the law, they are feared by everyone and are legally unaccountable for their crimes. But who gave them so much power? The answer is simple: The Indian government.

The Indian Army enjoys absolute legal impunity. Menecksha states, “Extra-ordinary legislation such as the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, for example, stipulates that the J&K government cannot prosecute armed forces personnel without sanction from the central ministries. Not only has no sanction ever been given, but there exists a sense of immunity so pervasive even the normal procedures of criminal law, such as registering a First Information Report (FIR), initiating investigations, or filing a closure report before a magistrate, are routinely disregarded” (Kunan Poshpora: Reconstructing Truth). There are extraordinary legislations like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), UAPA, TADA, and Section 144 which provide unlimited power and impunity to the forces personnel. These articles violate the fundamental constitutional rights of right to life, liberty, equality, freedom of speech and expression, peaceful assembly and protection against arbitrary arrest. 

The Indian government commits monstrosity by shielding the army from any judicial enquiries. Partly, because they don’t want their image of being the world’s largest democracy tarnished. Kashmir is a conflict zone and has always been under the scanner of media. If human rights violations persist, then Article 2 and 3 of the Geneva Convention would apply, which prohibits torture in conflict zones; the Indian government doesn’t want this to happen (Rape in Kashmir, A Crime of War, pg. 06). That said, the Indian government and the Press Council of India have always shown the general population of India that their army men are the real-life heroes and can’t do anything wrong. There are movies made on army men and their bravery which portray the army as selfless devotees of the country. In reality, the army has often been accused of misusing their power through acts of rape, raid, pillage and plunder in backward areas of the country. There can be no doubt that the use of rape is common and routinely goes unpunished. Indian governmental authorities have rarely investigated charges of rape by security forces in Kashmir. (Rape in Kashmir, A Crime of War, pg. 03). 

In the Kunan Poshpora Rape case, the then District magistrate of Kupwara, Habibullah claimed that the government “deleted important portions of his confidential report” (Kunan Poshpora Mass rape: Silence of the night). This tells us how desperate the Indian government was to maintain the facade of being the largest democracy in the world; Kashmir is the only province in India with a Muslim majority and this helps India further strengthen their claim that it is the largest democracy of the world. Post the removal of Article 370, attempts have been made to change the demography of the former state. The Indian government has perpetuated grave injustices by denying justice to the victims, one of whom was kept under jackboots by the soldiers while her daughters were raped before her eyes; a pregnant woman was not spared either (Politics of Rape in Kashmir). The government and judiciary have denied justice to the rape victims for three decades years and have ignored the suffering of those women.

The Indian government is not alone in its monstrosity; it enjoys full support of its biased press. The state sponsored media has always been quick to dismiss all human rights violations that are reported from Kashmir. Some media reports even claimed that the number of victims in the Kunan Poshpora Case kept changing, and therefore the accusation couldn’t have been true. The women of Kunan Poshpora say that given the sensitive nature of the complaint, only a few older women initially spoke out. Unmarried women and teenagers did not, for fear of social stigma. The number of women who complained has thus fluctuated (Kunan Poshpora: Reconstructing Truth). Ikram Ullah in his article says, “The nationalist young Indians who came protesting against the brutal rape of a 23-year-old women in New Delhi last year (2012) demanding severe punishment to the culprits should look into the mirror and ask themselves of the hypocrisy they have been exercising when the culprits of this heinous crime are their Soldiers. The deafening silence that the general public maintains on the Kunan Poshpora stands antithetical to their effort for the concept of ‘rape-free’ India. Unless justice is demanded for the victims of the past rapes and the nationalistic sentiment is sidelined for a more honorable sentiment of humanity, the cries for a “Rape-free-India” will sound hollow” (A Collective Shame- Kunan Poshpora)

In India, when a woman was raped in 2012, the general public erupted and demanded justice for Nirbhaya (the rape victim), but at the same time they have selectively ignored the case Kunan Poshpora. The false sense of nationalism somehow doesn’t allow them to see clearly when the culprits are the armed forces. In a country where a woman is raped every 30 minutes, why is it difficult for the public to believe that Indian Army commits rape in Kashmir? This is a perfect case of human hypocrisy, wherein only selective justice is being demanded. By routinely demonizing Kashmiris, the state sponsored media has consistently choked the voices of the Kashmiri women who remain unheard at the national level.

The Kashmiri society was no less monstrous than the army or the state sponsored press. In the Journeyman documentary, the victims stated their fear of their daughters being left unmarried and of society eventually rejecting them (Rape of Kunan Pospora). In another documentary, released almost two decades later, the victims narrate that the society frowns upon them and no outsider is ready to marry their daughters (Ocean of Tears). In Kunan Poshpora, marriages are negotiations; they are about shifting the burden from one tainted home to another. Marriages are more of a mourning than celebration. Basharat Masood, in his article for the Indian Express, speaks about a girl who was 16 years old when the Army raped her. Three years later, in 1994, when her parents began looking for a match for her, none of the young men in the village came forward to marry her. A search for prospective grooms outside the village was never an option after the incident. “People from other villages simply wouldn’t talk to us, leave alone marrying our daughters and sisters,” Ghulam Ahmad, the brother of the victim said. With no option left, the girl was married off to a 50-year-old divorcee who was a father of three children. (Kunan Poshpora Mass rape: Silence of the Night). The people instead taunted the victims who should have been provided medical care, compensation and rehabilitation. The women were treated as culprits. Such a paradigm reflects social rot that manifests through patriarchy in the Kashmiri society. The Kunan Poshpora mass rape exposes the blatant patriarchy that is deep-rooted in India and Kashmir across multiple societal hierarchies.

The village of Kunan Poshpora has seen monstrosity of all kinds. The screams of the women from the night of February 23, 1991, still linger around the desolated corners of the twin villages. It was a night when a mother tried to escape, but hearing her daughter say “Mouji mai kamis travakh (Mother, will you leave me behind with them)?” the mother let herself be taken by the army too, just so that she could be with her daughter to share her pain. (Kunan Poshpora Mass rape: Silence of the Night). In the case of Kunan Poshpora, everyone decided to be a monster, through silence, denial and wronged blame. Justice has been denied for three decades. Testimonies from the people of Kunan Poshpora have been discarded as lies. Lives have been ruined. Women have been blamed for rape and boycotted by the society. For three decades cries for justice have been ignored. Kunan Poshpora marked the darkest chapter in Kashmir’s sad history. But does anyone care?                     


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