A Tale of Two Videos: Handwara Case Shows How Militarisation Breeds Impunity

Three weeks after a minor girl in Handwara alleged there had been a molestation bid on her by an army man, she remains in custody. Under what law and for what purpose is not clear.

What is “protective” police custody? How does such “protective” detention empower the police to abuse, slap and even spit upon a minor girl at the centre of a row regarding alleged sexual molestation by a soldier in Handwara? Under what laws are they able to record her statement on video in a police station absolving the soldier of the alleged molestation, without her parents being present?  How can such an unlawful video statement then be uploaded on social media on the same day without even a preliminary investigation? How did television channels air this victim’s “statement” without the official probe having taken place?

Does such a video manipulate opinions? How does this state-directed narrative in militarised zones exploit society’s fault-lines? How did the young girl suddenly undergo a metamorphosis in some people’s perceptions – from victim to army informer or a girl of loose morals?

Having presented its own narrative through the video on social media platforms, why did the authorities in Kupwara district then seek to monitor users with a direction that WhatsApp groups must register themselves with the district magistrate?

Why did the state seek to clamp down on the other narratives by banning the press conference in which the girl’s mother was to speak out?

A plethora of such questions surrounds the detention of the minor girl of Handwara, Kupwara district of Kashmir, following an alleged molestation bid on her by an army man and the subsequent detention of her father and uncle. The questions expose how lawlessness emanates from the state agencies in Kashmir, unarguably one of the most militarised zones in the world. The incarceration of three persons, under the guise of protection, is also reflective of the way people’s liberties have been held hostage by state policies for decades.

How events unfolded

The bizarre chain of incidents unfolded on April 12 at around 2.45 pm, after the 16-year-old school girl went to a toilet, adjacent to her school and near the bunker of the 21 Rashtriya Rifles that loomed large in the middle of the chowk. (The bunker has since been razed.)

Within a few minutes, an angry crowd gathered following allegations that an army man had molested her. Even as the people began making vociferous demands for the arrest of the army man, soldiers in the bunker began firing indiscriminately on the unarmed civilians. Two youths were killed and a woman, more than two kilometres away, received fatal injuries. Two more died in the following days as protests snowballed.

The girl was whisked away by a policeman almost immediately after the crowd began gathering and was taken into custody at the Handwara police station. Later that day, a video recording – with the girl’s face clearly visible – began popping up on various social media networks.

Essar Batool, a human rights activist and one of the women who filed a petition in court for re-investigation into the Kunan Poshpora rape case, recalls her horror at seeing the video. “Things were happening fast even by Kashmir’s volatile standards. I was still trying to make sense of all the protests, the killings and other stuff on the social media platforms, when this video surfaced on WhatsApp. I was shocked to see that this young girl’s face had not been even blurred. She seemed visibly upset, wiping her tears and rattled off her statement absolving the army, at a frantic speed. I think the original video even had a clearly audible voice in the background saying ‘shabash’.”

Who made and authorised this video? The army, in their reply to the petition filed in the high court on behalf of the mother of the girl, has denied any involvement. It claimed that it only released the video which was “already existing on various social media.” Major K. S. Suresh in the reply affidavit said that “nothing has been done by the respondents with malice.”

But the Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), which stepped in to provide legal counsel and protect the family’s rights, points out how the admission by the army about circulation of an unlawful video does warrant legal action. The very act of circulating it within hours of her detention by the police betrays a lack of sensitivity and is a “clear demonstration of the intent of the army i.e. to defame the girl at all costs.”

Playing on patriarchy

Essar observes how the media too acted irresponsibly with several national television channels airing the video, making it go viral within minutes. The video clearly had the desired impact. It changed the discourse to some extent and played upon patriarchal beliefs on notions of chastity and “good girl” behaviour. Essar also points out the change in public consciousness that came about in a short period of time. “It is unfortunate that all those who were talking of protecting the chastity and honour of sisters and mothers were now suddenly raising questions, calling the girl a prostitute and an army informer. They weren’t even thinking about the fact that a 16-year-old girl, alone in a police station, might be under considerable duress.”

Natasha Rather, a social worker and member of the support group that sprang up for the girl, said it was strange that a victim who was in a precarious condition was now being talked about as a woman of no morals. Irrelevant questions, she said, were being raised such as why did the girl go to a public toilet, why she was talking to boys on her mobile phone in the toilet and so on.

“It is almost as if they were saying that if she talks to boys or uses a phone, she is not worth fighting for.”

Significantly, the family of the girl was not allowed any contact with her until after the state-directed narrative was unleashed with the video being made and released.

The father of the girl, who was eventually able to speak to the media on May 3, has spoken of how he was summoned to the police station at around 1 am on April 13 and told he could take custody of his daughter. Instead, he and the girl’s aunt who had accompanied him, were taken into detention. All the three were taken to a stranger’s house in Shehlal village and the girl coerced into making a statement before the chief judicial magistrate in court on April 16 saying she wanted police protection. The father said he was not allowed to accompany her to court and was vehement that he had never asked for police security.

Meanwhile, the mother who moved a habeas corpus plea in the high court in Srinagar through a legal team was not allowed to speak to the media. Even as journalists began arriving at the JKCCS office in Srinagar on the morning of April 16, they found there was a total lockdown. A posse of armed police and troops from the CRPF had put up barricades and denied them access. Inside the office, two researchers, the girl’s mother and programme coordinator Khurram Parvez were also being held “hostage”, so to speak, as police personnel had locked doors and were not allowing them to go outside and meet the media.

The two researchers later wrote of how such lockdowns are part of a larger pattern of illegal detentions, undeclared curfews and the blockade of the internet.

At the end of the day, however, a video recording of the mother, was released to the media, challenging the police’s version of events. In the recording, the mother spoke of her helplessness at the way in which her daughter had been brought into disrepute and of her desire to have the girl set free.

The juxtaposition of two videos – that of a mother and of a daughter – making seemingly contradictory statements evoked mixed reactions. Essar and Natasha pointed out how the mother’s statement was that of an adult, given voluntarily. The daughter’s statement was that of a minor, made under police custody, where she would be under pressure.

Girl in detention

The legal team, which was given permission, by the high court to meet the girl, said that she had clearly expressed her will to be freed. This was also reiterated by the girl in a meeting on April 22 with Nayeema Mahjoor, chairperson of the State Commission for Women, an autonomous statutory body. But despite Mahjoor’s instructions to the police to set her free, the girl continues to be under detention. There has been criticism of Mahjoor’s handling of the case and she has been charged by JKCCS of misrepresenting the facts. She reportedly told the media that the girl was sticking by her statement made to the magistrate while the JKCCS said the girl had not done any such thing. This ambiguity perhaps reflects the inability of many institutions in a militarised milieu to function effectively and stand up to the state’s might.

The case in the high court has been delayed because of non-availability of judges and because the chief justice who can constitute a Division Bench is on vacation.

Reflecting on the state of affairs, Pervez Imroze, who is part of the legal team representing the family, said that a very discouraging aspect of the case was that the mother had filed a habeas corpus petition before the court. Courts have been very sensitive to issues of life and liberty and in this case the 16-year-old ought to have been produced before the court. But she still continues to be under wrongful confinement by the police.

He observed how in the name of protective custody a video was uploaded on social media which is endangering the reputation, credibility and security of the family. In other places, law enforcing agencies might not have been able to do this for fear of it blowing up into a major issue but, in Kashmir, the army and police, who are in nexus with each other are convinced they can do anything and get away with it.

Imroze noted how such calculated tactics to disarm public sympathy are not new. He cited the example of the three villagers who disappeared from Dardpora in December 2015 after meeting an army personnel. Later, canards began floating of how they must have been army informers.

Defaming the victim

Mahum Shabbir, a researcher and also a member of the group that was formed to support the Handwara victim, spoke of how the same tactic of defaming the victim was very evident in the Shopian case of 2009 when two women were found dead in a shallow stream near army camps. Although the doctor’s findings cited rape and murder, a CBI probe overturned it. Letters were supposedly unearthed suggesting that the two women were having affairs and that they were women with ‘loose morals’.

Analysing the reasons why militarisation breeds impunity and why having discussions on gender justice are so challenging in such an environment, she said, “A bunker may be bulldozed in Handwara chowk but that doesn’t mean militarisation has gone away. The personnel have just gone somewhere else.”

The larger issue of militarisation, she said, means that there will be no attempt to resolve any problem or case politically. “A security state just wants to ‘manage’ things at all levels and for this you need covers. Impunity is the first cover.” She explained how effectively the state uses the fault-lines in society to prevent any discussions on gender and gender justice.

When instances of sexual violence are reported, an attempt to ‘manage’ the situation is made and a narrative is projected that nothing happened and so no investigations. “How do we even know whether anything happened or not in Handwara when the army hasn’t even investigated it?

“There is already a dearth of discussions on gender in our society. So how do we have nuanced discussions about issues like gender or anything else when the stress and pressure of living in militarised conditions means that the overwhelming concern is about lives that have been lost?”

She added that when politics is stunted at every stage and the state creates a politics that is not the people’s politics, conversations of gender, class and so on are stymied.

Despite the hurdles, efforts are on to ensure the state does not sidetrack this issue. Imroze spoke of efforts to put pressure on the courts, to galvanise civil society so that the girl is at least set free.

Despite the state pressure, both the father and mother have made statements before the media about the illegal custody of their minor daughter.

A support group for the victim held a protest on April 20 and there is an online campaign going on in the valley for the girl. More and more people are posting online or conducting signature campaigns pledging their solidarity towards the girl.

As Essar and a number of other young women have pointed out, the challenge for civil society in Kashmir is to be able to fight injustice at two levels – that perpetrated by the state and that created by the society. In the case of the minor girl of Handwara, it will be pertinent to see how the community reacts after she is set free. Will they stand by her and continue to support her? Or look upon her with suspicion, compounding the trauma she has already been through.