Information and updates about the campaign for justice and truth for the survivors of Mass Rape and Torture in Kunan Poshpora are available at https://www.facebook.com/KunanposhporaCampaign.
Beneath the horrors of the mass rape committed by Indian troops in the twin villages that night in February 1991, lies the untold story of systematic torture of men, carried out by the same forces with the precision and deliberation of a planned military operation.
In June 2013, a Public Interest Litigation filed in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, by fifty Srinagar based women, supported by human rights group Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil society (JKCCS) had resulted in a Magisterial order for the further investigations of the mass and gang rape by Indian army personnel of the women of Kunan, and neighbouring hamlet Poshpora, in Kupwara District of North Kashmir on the night of February 23rd-24th 1991. The police, it appears from the lack of any remotely investigative activities in the villages to have done little if anything, by way of following the court order in the last six months. On 14 September, 2013 they asked for and were granted an additional three months time for further investigations, without notice to the survivors who are legally represented in the case.
However, the closure report, which police had failed to file for twenty – two years, and which had been presented before the Magistrate of Kupwara just weeks before the Public Interest Litigation, in March 2013, had yielded several important previously unavailable official documents. These included a hand drawn police map, a nominal roll of 125 army personnel (including several officers) who were admittedly part of the operation and in Kunan-Poshpora that night, statements from victims, witnesses and army men mentioning specific locations, times and incidents, and the official medical reports of some of the rape victims. JKCCS had decided after some deliberation that if the police did not appear to be doing any investigations, they would themselves, aided by the new documents, attempt to rescue from oblivion the events of that night. Over the last three months, they have been engaged in a process of interviewing villagers, explaining to them what the police papers say, seeking clarifications, and attempting to piece together as coherent a narrative as possible given the constraints of resources, the lapses of memory, the reticence of rage, grief and repeated recounting, and the deaths of crucial witnesses. On 24th August 2013, I accompanied a team of human rights lawyers and researchers from JKCCS to the village of Kunan, on one of their visits. I was told that their interviews with those of the women who wished to speak was almost complete, and the day’s planned interviews were mostly with men from the village. Previous conversations, as well as police statements showed that interrogation centres had been set up in the village during the operation, and witnesses referred to extreme and extensive torture of men, but this was not specifically recorded in the First Information Report, and formed no part of the official list of crimes that occurred that night, which consists of rape, house trespass and illegal confinement.
As in the police documents, Kunan Poshpora has become inscribed as a story of rape in Kashmir’s public memory. But something else also happened that night. A crime so commonplace in that age of cordons and crackdowns that even the men who were its victims, barely thought to mention it, attending instead like the rest of us to the outrage of the raped women. As Ahmad Ameen put it, ‘They let us go home after the crackdown, in the morning at about 9 am.’ [Some men were bleeding; others were barely conscious and had to be carried. One man told us he crawled home on all fours].‘That’s when we realised what had happened. What they had done in every house. Then all hell broke lose.’ Several of the men were somewhat laconic when the interviews began. ‘Joh karte hai, wahi kiya’, Rahim Dar said. ‘They did what they do.’ And indeed they had– with wood, water, electricity–those universal implements for the infliction of finely calibrated pain. JKCCS believes on the basis of preliminary conversations that between hundred to a hundred and twenty men from the two villages were tortured that night. A total of twelve men were interviewed during the course of the day I visited, by three teams of researchers. I think it was after the fourth time I heard mention of medical treatments for sexual dysfunction, that the true irony of the ‘emasculation’ metaphors that are so abundant in talk about the Kunan-Poshpora rapes dawned on me. What I often dismiss as misplaced patriarchal indignation had been repeatedly made flesh that night. ‘Oh! Come on’ I want to say aloud, every time I hear or read the words ‘rape’ ‘our women’ and ‘impotency’ in close proximity–‘It’s NOT about you!’, but this time it was. And it involved wires, needles and a portable DC battery.
A kind of unmooring from the realms of human language has characterised the description of the Kunan Poshpora rapes. District Magistrate S.M Yasin’s report speaks of being unable to put down in ‘black and white’ the acts committed by the ‘beasts’ for instance, and the rape survivors themselves talk of the chaos of a toofaan, of foul smelling shaitaans apparating through their black-outs and disassociated states as they lay in the dark . But, as I listened to the men, ranging in age from 90-year-old Lal Dar (68 at the time of the torture) to 40 year old Manzoor (18 in 1991) their torture seemed to bear a somewhat different relationship to language and the world. What happened to them was nailed to a scaffolding of banal bureaucratic and military terms—interrogation, information, identification, search, cordon, crackdown—and tethered to mundane physical objects and familiar places–-buckets, logs and planks of wood, helmets, torchlights, batteries, wood sheds, barns, streams and trees. As the men spoke I began to picture that night, not as an endless orgy of a horde of rampaging beasts, but as a quiet and efficient military operation, carried out by trained men. Four companies of men from the 4th Rajputana Rifles, 68th Mountain Brigade commanded by a Colonel K.S. Dalal, in fact, as the army itself admits in police statements. Alpha and Delta Companies were deployed in the outer cordon, Bravo and Charlie in the search and interrogation. While teams of ten to twenty soldiers, sometimes headed by an officer who they were heard referring to as ‘Sir’, went on a systematic house to house search, rooting men out of their beds, demanding to be taken immediately to militants or hidden weapons, strip searching them and burying them in the snow, their comrades were otherwise engaged. Most of the commissioned officers were deployed at the ‘interrogation centres’ according to the army. Two kuthars (large barn like outbuildings for storing grain, fodder and cattle) within yards of each other, belonging to Asad Dar and the village numberdar (revenue official) Aziz Shah, and Abli Dar’s home, on the main lane of Kunan’s maze of winding alleys, were quickly commandeered and their lofts or rooms converted into make shift ‘interrogation centers’, while their compounds formed a holding space for the men. All three were provided with the same basic equipment – a bench fashioned out of planks of wood, a large wooden log, a bucket of chilli water, a couple of wires connected to a radio battery forming a crude live-circuit, assorted sticks and ropes, a few chairs, and somewhere to suspend the men from–but adaptations were made according to available resources and geography. For instance, in Asad Dar’s yard through which the village stream ran, repeated dunking in its icy depths formed part of the standard procedure. At two of the compounds, Aziz Shah’s and Abli Dar’s where firewood was stored in the wood-shed a bonfire was lit, around which parka-clad soldiers chatted and drank, and villagers recovered from their water treatments. At Asad Dar’s kuthar a tall, fair and somewhat chubby faced officer sat on a chair before a wireless set, giving orders and flashing his torchlight. Downstairs, in all three yards, men squatted or stood in the snow waiting for their possible turns on the equipment. Occasionally when they went up, they saw a neighbour or brother who was before them in line, slumped on the floor at the head of the stairs. Some like Salim Dar, whose brother was a surrendered militant, paid a visit to two of the three centers. He still walks on crutches as a result.
The village of Kunan has changed in twenty-two years. It is no longer ‘the huddle of thatched and wooden houses’ that journalists described in 1991 (‘Indian Villagers Tell of Mass Rape by Soldiers’, The Independent, March 19, 1991). Buildings have been torn down, and rebuilt in brick, cement and tin. The chashma (natural spring) that emerged from the earth behind Aziz Shah’s kuthar has dried up, and only a muddy depression now marks the spot. Ghulam Afzal walked with us around the hamlet amidst squawking chickens and curious children, pointing out the sights– ‘this is where the Abli Dar’s old kuthar stood, that there- is his new house…this is the wood shed in which I hid, this is the nallah along which Naba ran, this used to all be clear ground then…’ For some reason, seeing those buildings brought home to me an intimation of what it was like to be a man from Kunan-Poshpora on that night, in a way even their words hadn’t.
What was it like, I found myself imagining, to be squatting in your own snowy barn yard, drowning in your tin bucket, broken and blubbering on your hard granary floor, blinded by chillies from your own store? And then all the hypotheticals began, as my mind ran on and on. How did it feel I wondered to hear the sounds coming from the village? Yah Khudaiyo! Yah Khudaiyo! Could you hear them over the sounds of the interrogation? Pakistan, Militants, Samaan, Information, Bol Saala! Could you hear them over the groans of your neighbours? Could you hear them over your own yells? Which was worse–to definitely identify the scream of a loved one, or merely contemplate if it was them, through the fog of your insensibility? What was it like to be told you could leave in the morning, to be given painkillers by the army doctor, (Capt. Dr Shyam Sundar accompanied the unit according to his own police statement), to come home and realise what had seemed so far like a recurring nightmare—another crackdown, agonising but vaguely familiar –had been another kind of visitation altogether? And then, to unable to leave or get help for two days, because of the army siege around the village? To have no family or neighbours to turn to, because everyone you knew, was in precisely the same state as you? What kind of courage did it take to be Abdullah the compounder, from neighbouring Trehgam who snuck into the village using the back route through Chopan Mohalla, to deliver what analgesics and first-aid he could knowing it to be hopelessly inadequate? Or most unimaginably of all, to be Abdul Wani. To return from an over night business trip to Srinagar and find your front door broken, your two sons in bed electrocuted, your wife and three daughters raped, and your family’s barn turned into the village torture chamber? How does one live with such knowledge? And having held one’s peace for twenty two years, how does one begin to tell a stranger with a note book, not about what was done to the women, not about what was done to the never to be named teenaged girls, but what was done to you, to your own aging and scarred body, all those many years ago?
That night is full of other kinds of silences, not as innocent but just as tortured. What can one say of Abdul Ghani, the police constable who was related to several families in the village who accompanied the soldiers on their rounds, and signed a ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC) the next morning stating that the villagers had no complaints? He appears in many accounts like some kind of will o’ the wisp with a torch light— relaying messages between houses and family members; accompanying one man back to his home to fetch more firewood, allowing him to peep in through the windows and see his wife on the kitchen floor but not to enter; giving water to a woman with a broken spine; getting locked in a cow shed for remonstrating with soldiers; carrying a cousin home on his back in the morning, weeping as he related what he had witnessed. How do we begin to disentangle the betrayal, the subversion, the unlooked for kindness of it all? Constable Abdul Ghani Dar’s statement of what he heard, saw, and did that night, would have formed a crucial part of the prosecution evidence, if the case ever comes to be tried in a court of law. But ‘unidentified gunmen’ murdered Abdul Ghani in his bed in 1993, pumping thirty bullets into his gut, rendering his words hearsay, and obliterating them from the legal record.
Several other critical eyewitnesses have died in twenty two years, including Sharif-ud-din Sheikh who led the fight to get the police report registered and the case heard in the State Human Rights Commission. Some have died as a result of their rape or torture that night, others from age, bullets or disease. By some estimates from villagers, fifteen of the rape survivors have had hysterectomies. Along the way I lost count of the many other surgeries, unsuccessful treatments, chronic aches, intolerable pains and nameless ailments I heard described. One, however stood out. Lal Dar, whose knee was shattered by a rifle-butt early in the proceedings, and who spent most of the night sprawled in the snow outside his home watching the comings and goings of the men, said that he subsequently had two surgeries, the second to remove his knee cap. He said he could not bend his left leg any longer. He finds it hard to pray.
A Meeting in the Park
Impressions and reflections on meeting the survivors of the mass rape at Kunan Poshpora, at the Sher- e-Kashmir Park in Srinagar on Human Rights Day, 2013
It came as a surprise. I don’t think any one, even amongst the organisers of the event at Sher- e Kashmir Park, on December 10th, had expected that women from the two villages would come. It was assumed that the survivors would be represented by members of the Village Committee, elderly men folk from Kunan and Poshpora, themselves survivors of the mass torture that took place on the night of February 23rd-24th, 1991. But the women had come, almost thirty of them. They had arrived in Srinagar by Matador van, leaving their homes in Kunan and Poshpora at seven in the morning, when the frost was still hard on their windows. I had met some of them before, but it was different seeing them here in Srinagar. I couldn’t remember all their names; their biographies had come detached from their faces. Many of them hugged me.
I remembered S. though, one of the more outspoken survivors I had met— her sharp, twinkly eyes behind thick, black rimmed granny glasses, her wide smile full of crooked teeth, in a face wrinkled and brown like a walnut. We had met at Kunan, in August 2013, when I accompanied a legal research team, from Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) who was representing them in their recently renewed litigation against the Indian army. She had spoken fiercely about the injustice of it all; the many outrages that she read about everyday in the papers, her desire to see such criminals behind bars for life. Her anger was loud and visceral. But when it came to the actual events of that night, she had refused to answer any questions. She had a terrible headache, she said. She could not wait, she had blood pressure, she was dizzy—she had to leave, she always felt like this when she thought of that night, she would not talk to us anymore. It was the only interview that had to be abandoned half way. Today, she was complaining about the long journey, ‘bumping-bumping-bumping all the way.’ ‘We should have come by Sumo’, she grumbled. But, it seemed to me that despite this, she couldn’t quite mask her delight at being out in the sunshine. In the open, amidst the falling leaves, outside the shadows of their men folk, their kitchens, their village, the women grew garrulous. S. told me of her daughters, one married to a doctor, the other working at the Social Welfare Department. At one point, Gul Fatima, from the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, wife to a disappeared man, came over to the group of Kunan Poshpora’s women. ‘Where are you from?’ she asked them. ‘From Kupwara’ S. replied, naming the district. Then, a shadow seemed to cross her face. ‘Kunan – Poshpora’ she said. We’re here from Kunan Poshpora.’
Many of the women from Kunan Poshpora, did not wish to be photographed. The cameras made them uneasy. Some of their children, and grand children they said, did not know their stories. They huddled together and covered their faces with scarves, but the photographers persisted. It felt undignified– cringing behind shawls, cowering under ‘We Demand Justice for Kunan Poshpora’ posters, being asked to join the circle and sit in the appropriate place like an errant schoolgirl, when one had wandered away to avoid the cameras. In 2004, Manipuri women activists protesting the rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama had shocked us by their dramatic inversion of the figure of the cowering and shamed raped woman. Stark naked, they had stood in front of the Assam Rifles Base at Imphal, holding a banner that read ‘Indian Army Rape Us’. The photograph had made headlines across the world. I thought of it as I pleaded with a particularly intrusive photographer on behalf of the women to ‘please respect their privacy’. At this, he turned around and asked me, ‘Why have they been asked to come here, then?’ .I didn’t really have a good answer. It is true. We do need them. We want to have their pictures. We want to put faces to their tragedies, to commemorate their losses and violations. We need them to remind us that we remember, that we have not lost the battle against forgetting yet.
After I got home, the women of Kunan Poshpora, and their attitude to the news-cameras, made me think of a question. Would the agitations against the Shopian rapes in 2009, have been so angry, so volatile, so strong, if Asiya and Neelofar had lived? If they had survived, would we have heard of them at all? And if we had, what particular stories would we hear? Perhaps their rapes would have been covered up, as so many have been in the villages of Kunan and Poshpora, in the name of marriages, families, reputations, futures, for the sake of preserving innocence. A raped dead body makes for an uncomplicated heroine– worthy of both victimhood, and martyrdom. But a living rape survivor is a different being altogether. Her speech and her silences are more fraught. The women of Kunan Poshpora have been voices, not victims through these twenty three years. They have spoken back to the forces of occupation, before media crews, independent fact finders, the police, the state human rights commission and the courts of law. But, they constantly remind us– by covering up before our cameras, by getting dizzy, by blanking out, by her reticence before our questions, that we are all incriminated in her secret yet public shame.
Names and identifying information has been changed to protect identities in both pieces