Major Gogoi’s Hotel Escapade Exposes Vulnerabilities of Women in Kashmir

As long as the Army brass turns a blind eye to violations of the law by its men, incidents such as these would continue to take place, and a besieged population such as that of Kashmir would always find itself at the receiving end.

“What goes on between two consenting adults is not anyone else’s business,” said a high-ranking army officer while commenting on the recent indictment of the controversial army officer, major Leetul Gogoi, posted with the Rashtriya Rifles battalion, by a court of inquiry (CoI) for his hotel escapade on May 23 involving a young Kashmiri woman.

The utterances of the army officer do not seem to be in sync with the findings of the CoI, approved already by the Corps commander, which has issued orders to initiate disciplinary action against the erring major. The inquiry has found him guilty on two counts: one, fraternising with a local in spite of official instructions to the contrary; two, being away from the place of duty while in an operational area.

The People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), a Delhi-based civil liberties organisation, had in its statement on the incident in June drawn attention to the facts of the case “which suggest it to be one of abuse of power by an army man in a ‘disturbed area’.”

PUDR was reacting to the claim of the Jammu and Kashmir police that the case was related to two “consenting” adults.

In its report, the police claimed that neither the girl nor the hotel where they were to stay had filed any complaint in the matter, and hence, Gogoi wouldn’t be booked under any case.

On the other hand, PUDR argued, “The police’s emphasis on the absence of complaint as evidence of consent, is questionable as it fails to address the fears that civilians have of men in uniform in a conflict area where, under AFSPA, the military enjoys enhanced powers and immunity. The circumstances of this present case as reported in the press, illustrate this impunity.”

The statement also stressed that the power of the uniform makes refusal impossible, all the more so if the woman is a local person, and in a war zone.

“This will not be the first time that security forces have been guilty of sexual malpractices, aided by their positions of power,” the statement said.

The report also makes a mention of the CBI verdict given on May 30, 2018 regarding the infamous 2006 scandal which exposed the widespread sexual exploitation of women by powerful persons in J&K including senior officers engaged in counter-insurgency operations.

K.C. Padhi, a former deputy inspector general of the paramilitary Border Security Force (BSF) and Mohammad Ashraf Mir, former deputy superintendent of police, were among those who were found guilty in that case.

“What is worrying about the police’s arguments about consent is that it has failed to pay attention to the power and influence of Major Gogoi, a man known for his brutality against civilians and the army’s reward to him for using Farooq Dar as a human shield on April 9, 2017. Hence, the question is not whether Major Gogoi is guilty of violating the Army Act’s code of conduct, as the Army chief suggests. It is a case of how a culture of impunity is being normalised in which army men have the right to make sexual claims over the civilian population,” the PUDR statement had noted.

Pertinently, Major Gogoi had reportedly barged into the house of the girl twice before the incident. “I fainted when Army Major Leetul Gogoi barged into our house one night and started enquiring about our well-being,” the girl’s mother had claimed while talking to the reporters. “He was accompanied by another man, and both were in civilian clothes. Later, I came to know that the man accompanying Gogoi was Sameer Malla from Lokipora Poshkar.”

The Jammu and Kashmir Police had told the court of chief judicial magistrate (CJM) Srinagar that Major Gogoi faked his identity as a Muslim youth, Ubaid Arman, on Facebook to become friends with the Kashmiri girl. “Earlier I was not knowing that he is an army man and later I came to know a month back that he is an army officer,” the police quoted the girl in its report.

It was Sameer Malla, a local army man, who had transported the major to the Srinagar hotel in his private car. While booking the hotel, Major Gogoi had given Tinsukia, Assam as his address and stated, “I am travelling for business and I may be using a business credit card,” as ‘important information’ about himself.

Sources in the Army, however, declined to discuss the likely punishment which could be awarded to Major Gogoi as it would mean pre-judging a judicial process currently underway.

There have been several cases of alleged molestation by the men in uniform in Kashmir.

On April 12, 2016, a 16-year-old girl, whose alleged molestation by an army man had sparked violence in Handwara, leading to the death of five civilians in police and Army firing, had demanded the registration of a case against the accused soldier as well as the Handwara superintendent of police. Earlier, the girl had deposed before the chief judicial magistrate, Handwara, that she was not molested by an army man but by two boys, including one in school uniform. However, the girl later retracted her statement, saying that she had been pressured by the police to make such a statement.

“I had gone to a public washroom. When I was coming out, a soldier came and held my hand…I freed my hand and ran out, weeping,” the girl had said, recalling her alleged molestation.

The girl said she has written to the Handwara SHO to register an FIR against the soldier. “The army soldier, whom I don’t know, must be punished for his actions of sexual assault,” she wrote. “I request that an FIR be filed against him.”

The girl, according to Nayeema Ahmad Mehjoor, chairperson of the J&K State Women’s Commission (SWC), alleged that she was kept in dark while the video was shot at the police station in Handwara.

Mehjoor said the girl told her that police officials shot the video, which appeared all over on the social media, after giving assurance that it won’t be leaked. “The girl said she has been vulnerable. She said her face is now known to all,” Mehjoor had said, adding that what has happened in the police station has visibly disturbed the girl. “The girl is not totally happy with that.”

“They (police) told me not to tell the truth to anyone, they slapped me and warned me against revealing my version of the incident. Then the SP of the area came and told me that he will record my statement. I pleaded with him [not to] record and send it to anyone. What I was saying in the video was all what they forced me to say. I was all alone and none of my family members were there when they made the video clip,” she said, according to an India Today report published on May 16, 2016.

Just two days ago, a police constable was arrested on allegations of house trespass and for gestures intending to outrage the modesty of a woman in Baramulla district of north Kashmir on Saturday night.

Many international agencies and national NGOs have documented that in conflict-ridden areas, violence against women is often applied on a massive scale. Women are systematically raped, intimidated and sexually abused. More than 27 years ago, Indian soldiers allegedly raped more than 30 women in the Kashmiri villages of Kunan and Poshpora. Those who survived the attack are still fighting for justice.

Although the Indian government′s investigations into the incident rejected the allegations as ‘baseless’, international human rights organisations have expressed serious doubts about the integrity of these investigations and the manner in which they were conducted, stating that the government launched a “campaign to acquit the army of charges of human rights violations and discredit those who brought the charges.”

Most of the survivors experienced emotional trauma, stress and depression. In fact, many of them have been socially ostracised or discriminated against.

Whether it is active conflict or protracted low intensity conflict, it is the women who are at a higher risk of different forms of violence although the entire community gets affected.

Major Gogoi was emboldened to cross the line drawn by the army rules itself when he was supported and awarded with a commendation card by the Army chief last year when Gogoi tied Farooq Dhar, a civilian, to a jeep as a ‘human shield’. As long as the army brass turns a blind eye to violations of the law by its men, incidents such as these would continue to take place, and a besieged population such as that of Kashmir would always find itself at the receiving end.

Farooq Shah is a Kashmir-based journalist.