Review: Giving Voice to the Silenced Case of Kunan Poshpora

Five young women use memory as a powerful weapon against the shameless attempts of the state machinery of Jammu & Kashmir and the Centre to erase mass sexual rape from public consciousness.

Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?, by Essar, Ifrah, Samreena, Munaza and Natasha. Zubaan Pvt Ltd.

Essar, Ifrah, Samreena, Munaza and Natasha
Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?
Zubaan Books, 2016.

“Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?” This loaded question from one young Kashmiri woman to another became the start of a conversation, and then a book, the first in Zubaan’s series in the “Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia” project.

Five young authors, Essar Batool, Ifrah Butt, Samreena Mushtaq, Munaza Rashid and Natasha Rather use memory as a powerful weapon to counter the attempts that have been made by the state machinery of Jammu and Kashmir and the Centre to erase the complaint of mass sexual rape from public consciousness.

The five women as authors raise disturbing questions about the state and the armed forces’ lack of accountability by analysing the distortions and erasures of truth in the state narrative. And, in their role as activists who succeeded in re-opening the investigations in 2013, they reveal the manner in which delays in court and manipulations are still being sought to “sabotage justice.”

On the intervening night of February 23 and 24, 1991, during the height of the militancy, troops from the 4th Rajputana Rifles had gone to the hamlets of Kunan and Poshpora, near the Line of Control, ostensibly on a cordon-and search operation. An FIR had been filed by the women about the violence that had occurred thereafter but it was generally believed the case was “closed as untraced.”

Questions after the Delhi rape

The legal fight to re-investigate the case was born in the aftermath of the huge protests all over India in December 2012, after a young woman was brutally raped, and died due to the violence inflicted.

It was then that Samreena, a volunteer in a civil society organisation, asked her friend Essar, “Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?” No justice had been done to these women of Kashmir. Why did the rape in Delhi evoke huge protests but the rape of women by soldiers in Kashmir remain shrouded in silence? Why is rape in India punishable but rape in Kashmir not?

Although sexual violence as a weapon of war is common in history, international jurisprudence has now clearly defined this as a crime against humanity. Why did discussions on Kashmir skirt the issue?

Could not something be done to “make the Indian army answerable?”  – as Samreena put it. Ifrah, who had worked as a volunteer for a report on violence against women with the NGO Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), raised the point that the Kunan Poshpora case did not involve the rape of a single woman, but rather of over 50 women. And, yet the perpetrators of this mass rape could not be traced.

A few girls, and then some more

She initiated a Support Group for Justice to Kunan Poshpora and began work on the public interest litigation plea to re-open investigations. At first there were seven girls as petitioners. But Ifrah believed more women should come forward. She appealed to others, and “some agreed without hesitation while others were reluctant.” Her own mother asked if she could also be one of the petitioners.

The PIL was not admitted but the court proceedings threw up a startling revelation. The case, contrary to public opinion, had not actually been closed. In March 2013, the J&K police hurriedly filed a closure report before the magistrate’s court in Kupwara. This, though, was not accepted. On June 18 that year, the judicial magistrate of Kupwara ordered further investigations by the police to be completed within three months. Those three months have long since passed, but the case is still awaiting action. The twists and turns of this labyrinthine legal struggle are meticulously recorded and analysed in the book.

From victims to actors

Alongside the trial, another remarkable social phenomenon was unfolding. The women of Kunan Poshpora, who for years had been stigmatised, now emerged as key players. Their appearances in court and their resilient spirit showed that they were not merely hapless victims. In their first public appearance in Srinagar in 2013, one of the women claimed that since they had been raped because they were Kashmiris, they should be accorded the same honour as people who had contributed to the struggle much like the young men who had been killed and were considered martyrs.

Interestingly, such an attitude had also been demonstrated by Bangladesh’s 41 biranganas (war heroines). They sought official recognition for the stigma and suffering they suffered, beyond the sexual violence by the Pakistan army and their local collaborators that they had endured during the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971.

This paradigm shift of women unfolding their stories through their perspective has been facilitated by the emphasis on gender by feminist activists. For the five Kashmiri authors who wanted to reach out to a wider audience and share their experiences of the trial and the efforts to rip apart the silences, Zubaan, as a publishing house, afforded an opportune literary space.

Urvashi Butalia, the founder of Zubaan, said, “The women said they wanted to do a book but didn’t quite know how. So we invited them to Delhi and did a two-day intensive workshop and this was the result. They’re really fantastic young women.”

As Butalia points out, women-headed organisations and publishing houses like Zubaan are now making it possible for more and more women to recognise the need and the power of speaking out.

Women activists “may not be writers, or they may not even be literate, but they have something to say, something that’s important and needs to be heard. And this has given rise to a new form of writing, by poor women, often illiterate women, women who write in their own languages or who speak their books to friends and others. This kind of writing does not replay the victim trope. Just the mere act of writing breaks that trope – and it also questions the accepted canons of writing.”

A personal journey towards activism

In fact one of the book’s most engaging features is the way the book’s five authors intertwine their personal journeys as young Kashmiri women professionals along with the stories of the rape survivors of Kunan Poshpora. They explain the complexities of growing up during a conflict. The jubilation, even in police departments, when Pakistan won in India-Pakistan cricket matches is what lawyer Munaza, whose father serves in the police department, recalls. Samreena was 14 when she learned from a newspaper cutting that the father she lost when she was just three-years-old had actually died after being tortured and held by the BSF at an interrogation centre. Natasha learned of Kashmir’s politics through voracious reading even though discussions on the conflict and militancy were strictly discouraged at home.

The book is a mix of the collective voice of the women and the singular  – as when one of the women takes up a particular issue and writes a chapter. Having varied voices makes for interesting reading. But it also leads to a problem. It would have helped to have each chapter specifically credit the author or authors at its start, as the overlapping voices can create confusion.

Looking at old documents with new eyes

“That Night in Kunan Poshpora”, written collectively, is an important chapter, in which the authors analyse key documents such as the case diary submitted by the police to the Kupwara court, statements made by the rape survivors to the State Human Rights Commission and their personal interactions and interviews with the Kunan Poshpora villagers. These effectively show how myths were constructed and certain truths deliberately buried.

Munaza, the lawyer, speaks of how even her fellow male lawyers were still uncomfortable with using the word “rape” out aloud. Earlier reports too couched the incident in ambiguous language. These young authors, however, are unflinchingly able to record details of the horrendous sexual violence the women suffered and even speak of the sexual violence the men underwent – something that has scarcely been talked about or documented.

One of the key documents analysed is the hand-written letter in Urdu, in which the villagers complained of rape to the superintendent of police and deputy commissioner, affixed with thumb impressions of 30 villagers, on the very next day after the incidents. Translated into English by Munaza, it demolishes the police’s argument that the villagers had delayed filing the complaint and were instigated to do so by others. Significantly, this letter was ignored by B.G. Verghese when he was conducting a probe on behalf of the army under the aegis of the Press Council of India. He questioned the delay in making a complaint.

As the authors point out, it was the investigations that were shoddily carried out and guidelines on confidentiality of victims that were violated. Their own investigations and a conversation with the block medical cfficer, Dr M Y Maqdoomi, reveal how the first set of medico-legal certificates dated 8/9 March were never made part of the police file. Why? Were investigations deliberately botched?

The blindspots of official reporting

Another important chapter critically examines how the mass rapes were officially reported and dissects the roles of Wajahat Habibullah, then divisional commissioner, and Verghese who probed the incident at the request of his associate Francis Rodrigues, father of the then army chief, General S.F. Rodrigues.

These are the most disturbing and painful parts of the book for an Indian reader. They demonstrate how dangerously “nationalist” ideas can blind one to justice, and how they continue to do so.

Habibullah, who ironically went on to become chief information commissioner, has now claimed important parts of his confidential report were deleted. But why did he remain silent for 22 years? This silence makes him culpable of covering up a crime.

The role of Verghese, who continued to maintain that the Kunan Poshpura rape story was a massive hoax, and vilified the rape survivors afterwards, is even more alarming. The book recounts how he dismissed the block medical officer’s reports of healing vaginal lacerations, injuries, multiple abrasions over thighs, buttocks and chest as “worthless”. The authors charge Verghese with serious misrepresentations that were then used by the director prosecution in 1991 as the reason for closing the case.

It is also chilling to note how an unofficial document, with no real legal validity – the Verghese report –  became the basis for seriously distorting public perception of the case and blocking legal rights to justice and truth of the survivors.

In a small respite, the court on May 20, 2014 issued notices to all those involved with the case, not just to the perpetrators but also Verghese and Habibullah, since they were seen as being morally accountable. (Since then Verghese has died).

The “girls from human rights”

Essar’s chapter weaves in the legal twists and turns of the trial with a colourful account of action and drama offside. Particularly striking is her portrait of the army lawyer, Karnail Singh. He would deliberately come late to the Kupwara court, never hesitating to show a condescending and patriarchal attitude to the “girls from human rights”. There is also the cynical manner and apathy with which the legal fraternity too dismissed the case.

Ifrah uses memory to create the “parallel” history of that night (versus the “official” state-sanctioned narrative). She does this primarily through interviews with people like the former tehsildar of Kupwara, Sikandar Malik, block medical officer, Dr Mohammad Makhdoomi, noted journalist Yusuf Jameel who broke the story for The Telegraph, Dr Altaf who had accompanied Justice Bahaudddin Farooqi for his probe and whistle-blower S M Yasin, ex-DC of Kupwara whose report became the basis of the FIR.

In his interview, Yasin reveals how he was subsequently intimidated by the army and by Verghese.

The technicalities and the legal aspects of the case run side by side with narratives of the people. Samreena writes movingly of the trauma of the village, capturing all the nuances of a patriarchal society where notions of “shame”, honour or women being viewed as bad omens are played out.

Is this the way forward?

This is indeed a brave book in its candid understanding of both the army’s role in Kashmir and of gender. As Ifrah told me, “Zubaan helps us look at the phenomenon of violence against women through their eyes – something that was unrecognised for many centuries. Social attitudes and practices are now openly critiqued. For a change, here is a book that portrays women (rape survivors) as fighters and not as victims who have been silenced by society.”

Can addressing gender and feminism then help to cut across some of the divides of nationalism? Can telling stories of truth about women become easier if there are also women at the other end? Essar says it is significant that a feminist publishing house chose to go ahead with publishing the book at a time when India is swamped with nationalism. She feels writing for an Indian feminist publishing house that caters to audiences in India and Kashmir multiplied chances of the truth of the incident going out to larger sections of people.

She hopes that this is a book that will be relevant to women beyond Kashmir, and beyond India. She believes that even if some women disagree that there is an occupation in Kashmir, they do understand how the female body has been used to propagate terror and break people. They will sympathise with how the woman’s body is abused to punish people and silence dissent.