Guest post by Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh
I have thought hard about why I want to write this piece at all, since so many others before me, have made robust critiques of Mr B.G Verghese’s well-known views on the Kunan Poshpora mass rape. Past criticism has focussed on questions of his obvious biases– both personal and professional, his misogyny and profound lack of empathy for the victims, his blinding nationalism, the tenor and language of his reportage. Most however accept his version of the facts, given his (often self proclaimed) claims to veracity bolstered by official hospitality, access to documents, and his reputation as an eminent journalist. ‘There was a delay in making an official complaint’ ‘medical evidence shows that the mass rapes did not take place’, ‘villager’s and early official accounts of that night are full of gaps and contradictions’, these have become the pervasive truths about the events of February 23-24, 1991, to the point where his decriers can often only counter him by explaining away the inconvenient and the inexplicable, within the narrative and factual scaffolding that he provides. Mr Verghese points to this when he writes, ‘Sadly, it [the Press Council of India Report] was and is widely criticised to this day, without critics having read it or controverted its substantive findings’. Mr Verghese fails to disclose that until recently no one has had access to the ‘substantive’ material that could allow such a critique, because the state had never disclosed that any other investigative material existed simply replying to RTIs seeking information on the status of the case, with the inscrutable ‘closed as untraced’. The unwieldy length of this piece (8000 words) will, I hope, serve to finally pursuade him that not only is his work read, it is read in painstaking detail.
Over the past year, I have grown increasingly involved with the unfolding of the Kunan Poshpora case in the courts of Srinagar and Kupwara, in North Kashmir. I have watched practically every court hearing, closely read most of the official documentation and anything else I could lay hands on about the case (including Mr Verghese’s report), met many of the people involved including administrative and medical functionaries concerned with the events in 1991, discussed legal strategy, attended protests, helped organise events and write press releases, and through it all gradually forged a relationship of sorts with several of the survivors and some of their children. Along the way, I have discovered several surprising things about Mr Verghese’s ‘factual matrix’ (as lawyers like to say), which impel me to write this. I have grappled with the ethics of using the official record in an on-going rape investigation to write this piece, especially in light of the controversy that has arisen about the journalistic misuse of such material in the Tarun Tejpal case.I have finally come to the conclusion that in a situation where truth claims have been made on the basis of privileged and monopolistic access to official records, they deserve to be, perhaps can only be adequately responded to, in the same language of facts and paperwork. All dates and factual information in this essay are from police investigative documents, filed before the Judicial Magistrate, Kupwara unless otherwise specified. I have been careful to only disclose the more general facts of the case (pertaining to numbers of victims, nature of injuries etc.) and to avoid identifying references to particular survivors.
An Honourable Man
Mr B.G. Verghese headed the Press Council of India (PCI) committee, which was requested by the Indian Army in 1991, to investigate into allegations of its human rights ‘atrocities and excesses’ in Kashmir in light of the bad press it was getting.[i] As the PCI Report puts it, ‘Deeply upset by what it saw as baseless or grossly exaggerated charges leveled against it in the press, Army Headquarters approached the Press Council with a request that it investigate the allegations’. (101) That this request came through a colleague of his father, then Army Chief S.F Rodrigues, is corroborated in his memoirs First Draft (388), and in press reports. The PCI Report questioned the credibility of the accounts of the mass rape, asking ‘Would troops on a hazardous cordon and search mission in a village known to be harbouring militants [according to sources in the Army] nonchalantly spend the night carousing and raping?’ (116) It concluded on the basis of investigations, that the Kunan Poshpora rapes were, ‘totally unproven and completely untrue, a dirty trick to frame the Army and get it to lay off Kunan Poshpora’. (130) And further, that ‘The Kunan rape story on close examination turns out to be a massive hoax, orchestrated by militant groups and their sympathizers and mentors in Kashmir and abroad as part of a sustained and cleverly contrived strategy of psychological warfare and as an entry point for re-inscribing Kashmir on the international agenda as a human rights issue. The loose ends and contradictions in the story expose a tissue of lies by many persons at many levels.’ (146)
Mr. Verghese has always been at pains to underline the independence, comprehensiveness and authoritative nature of his investigations, backing up his claims through documented interviews with survivors, witnesses, officials, ‘medical documents’ and records. While his account may have been the most authoritative when little other official documentation was publically available, unfortunately for Mr. Verghese, this is no longer the case.[ii]In March 2013, the Jammu and Kashmir police filed a final report, along with extracts from the case diary of its investigations, seeking magisterial action on the Director of Public Prosecution’s recommendation in October 1991 that the case was ‘unfit for prosecution’, and that investigations into the case be closed.[iii] This not only showed that the police had been lying all along when it claimed that the case had been closed, but also brought to light almost two hundred and fifty pages of previously unavailable documents, including a nominal roll of 125 personnel involved in the Army operation, 19 statements by survivors, over 25 other statements by several eye witnesses, the District Magistrate, and 19 suspects, crime scene maps, injury and seizure memos, letters from the Block Medical Officer who examined the women, and 32 medico legal reports. On the basis of these documents, and the survivors’ protest petition against the case closure, the Magistrate ruled that the case deserved to be investigated further, while passing strictures against the police for delaying the filing of the Final Report for 22 years, and the Director Prosecutions, for pre judging the case.
Mr. Verghese has recently written an outraged editorial in the Indian Express, and made public statements reiterating his long held views on the Kunan Poshpora mass rape and denying his role in its cover up, in response to a speech by the first public official to visit the villages in 1991, made at a function organized to commemorate ‘Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day’, the 23rd anniversary of the events at Kunan Poshpora. Mr. Verghese is an honourable man. No less a body, than the Geneva based International Commission of Jurists, the first international delegation permitted to visit Kashmir since the beginning of the armed uprising, anointed him thus, even as they gently dismissed his ‘militant hoax’ theory about the mass rape at Kunan Poshpora, stating that there were ‘very substantial grounds for believing that [the rapes] took place.’ [iv] Others have concurred on this legal view, including the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission, in its decision of October 2011 which held that a case of mass rape was made out by forty victims, and recommended that the police case be ‘reinvestigated’. On 18 June 2013, the Judicial Magistrate, Kupwara passed an order directing further investigations on the Police Final Report, finding that a ‘unbreakable chain’ of facts and circumstances existed ‘to put the suspects [the 125 army personnel admittedly a part of the search and cordon operation at Kunan – Poshpora] on trial’. But, Mr. Verghese insists that the rapes did not happen, and he is, after all, an honourable man. Even Arundhati Roy concurs.
The section of the PCI Report, which deals with Mr Verghese’s investigations into the mass rapes at Kunan Poshpora, is therefore rather suitably sub-titled ‘The Indian Army in Kashmir: A Matter of Honour’. Besides being Hon’ble Member of the Press Council of India, Mr. Verghese has been a member of the National Integration Council, the National Security Advisory Board, the Kargil Review Committee, the advisory board of Security Watch Indiaand has served as ‘Information Consultant’ to the Ministry of Defence. The publisher of the PCI report, ‘Lancer International’ is closely related to the intelligence and military establishment, and has been described as ‘a publishing house on national and international security and defence related projects’. In his writings, Mr Verghese has been an untiring defender of India’s national integrity and security in the ‘psychological’ and ‘propaganda war’ waged by Pakistan on the Indian state, frequently in his view, using the divisive discourses of human rights and self-determination.[v] The PCI Report contains a sub –section titled ‘Psychological War’, which tells us that ‘Psychological War is a vital instrument in this campaign [to internationalise the Kashmir dispute]: confuse, demoralise and divide the opponent and consolidate and extend one’s own support among an alienated population likely to be further embittered by tales of excesses or atrocities […] In all this, the human rights aspect has received considerable attention.’ (141-142) In relation to another mass rape which took place in neighbouring Pazipora- Ballipora, in August 1990, where about fifteen women, escaping from a shoot out in the village, (in which at least twenty five local men were killed), were reportedly stripped, paraded naked, and made to shout ‘Jai Hind’ around a bonfire of their clothes, the PCI Report states as in the Kunan Poshpora case, that the Committee ‘found the reports of excesses to be false and a part of and part of a well-coordinated campaign by the militants to malign the Army …’(134) It informs us of the exact modus operandi of this operation: ‘Apparently militant groups have managed to get hold of Army fatigues and auctioned Military Jeeps to enable them to pose as regular members of the Indian Armed forces. These are typical tactics of psychological warfare.’ (130) The Committee comes to this conclusion without meeting any of the victims, or visiting the village, relying solely on the word of the ‘Commanding Officer, and officers of the 6th Rajputs [the unit involved in the shoot out and rapes], Mr Phusong the Special Commissioner Baramulla, who visited the village a day after the events, the SP Kupwara and others’ (130). Yet, without a trace of irony, it warns human rights groups to be ‘cautious in publicising [their] findings’ (130), to be ‘far more rigourous in piecing together information’ and not rely on the ‘mere say so of alleged victims and propagandists’. (149) ‘The militant groups in Kashmir are fighting for a cause’, Mr Verghese writes, ‘And they have two weapons—guns and words. With the gun they threaten the physical existence of their opponents while their propaganda is aimed at the minds of men, locally, nationally, internationally. Human Rights groups, well intentioned as they are, must be alive to the fact that they too can be subtly used.’ (144) In his recent editorial, Mr Verghese says, ‘Before departing Konan, we were treated to a harangue on the UN resolutions on Kashmir, self-determination, India’s duplicity and military high-handedness by a so-called teacher, an ideologue obviously not from the village. In his Report however, the deliver of the ‘harangue’ is merely one of a group of bystanders, who collectively say things like, ‘ Gandhi’s India and democracy in India is dead’, ‘Islam has no place in India’, ‘It is no crime to ask for freedom’, ‘the Nyari Fauj (sic) [ 4 Raj Rifles] are a bad lot’, while the teacher ‘makes quite a speech’ exhorting Mr Verghese to tell Mr Chandrashekhar [the Prime Minister] and Mr Venkatraman [the President] what he has seen. (122) In his memoirs, the ‘impassioned political harangue’ is delivered by a ‘village kazi’. (389) There is no specific mention of UN Resolutions, or self-determination in either of these sources. Perhaps, Mr Verghese has the school teacher/ kazi confused with the august delegates of the International Commission of Jurists, whose view that Jammu and Kashmir has a right to self determination under International Law Mr, Verghese also denounces, though he calls their findings merely ‘tendentious’ rather than militant propaganda. (First Draft: 426-429). But leaving such minor factual quibbles of what really transpired aside, it was the school teacher/kazi’s ‘highly political and polemical finale [which] told [the Committee] what the “Konan story” was all about.’
Given such hindsight, it is not surprising that an allegation of a human rights or sexual violation against the Indian Army, such as the Kunan Posphpora or Pazipora Ballipora from a ‘militant infested’ area like North Kashmir’s Kupwara district can only be investigated through the dense fog of Indian army’s ‘aura of chivalry’ as ‘protectors of national honour’ (129, 113). In these shadows, sexual assault gets rewritten as a kind of gruesome nationalist pornography: a hyper masculine phantasmagoria of sex, and violence. Of men gone wild, ‘berserk’ (107), ‘carousing and raping’, (116) in an ‘orgy’ of ‘ruthless abandon’ (129) to the ignorance of their gentlemen officers, (107) instead of as integral to military policy, military culture and everyday military operational procedure. Thus, with respect to the Pazipora- Ballipora rapes, Mr. Verghese writes, ‘It strains the imagination to be told that in a space of three hours, during which militants were being chased and fire exchanged in a running gun battle, 30 troopers […] should find both the time and mood ripe for parading lovely ladies, making bonfires of their clothes and then gang –raping them.’(132)
Matters of legal truth and criminal culpability too become lost in the thickets of moral victory and defeat, enmeshed in the language of loyalty, patriotism, honour and national vindication. In his memoirs, First Draft, Mr. Verghese declares ‘The [PCI] report created quite a stir […] The Army felt vindicated. No further Videos were, I believe, thereafter made of so-called human rights atrocities in Kashmir. A lesson had been learnt.’[vi] Whatever Mr. Verghese’s or the Indian Army’s feelings on the matter, the fact remains that personnel from 4 Rajputana Rifles, 68 Mountain Brigade are presently under investigation and face possible future criminal prosecution, as accused in FIR no 10/1991, pertaining to the mass and gang rapes and torture at Kunan Poshpora, before the Judicial Magistrate, Kupwara. The jury is still out on whether they shall be ‘vindicated’, and what if any lessons will be learnt and by whom.
The Cowardly Bureaucrat
In his recent editorial, Mr. Verghese asks that we look closely at the District Magistrate Mr. S.M Yasin’s record in dealing with the allegations that a mass rape had taken place at Kunan Poshpora. Mr. Verghese writes ‘The man fell short of his official responsibilities in February 1991, possibly for fear of militant reprisals that had become routine, but has now begun to roar like a lion!’ I cannot claim to have Mr. Verghese’s venerable acumen in matters of valour, but from my admittedly mundane reading of official and police documents, statements made to me by the villagers and (then) administrative officials including Mr. Yasin, Mr Yasin’s public statements, Mr Verghese’s own report, Mr. Yasin’s response to Mr. Verghese and his official report, he seems to me simply a man doing his job in terrible weather and difficult circumstances. On the night of 23- 24 February, 1991 during a search and cordon operation–‘a crackdown’ by personnel of 4 Raj Rifles, 68 Mountain Brigade, there were extensive gang rapes and torture of residents of the villages of Kunan Poshpora. The army cordon around the village continued until 25 February. On 24 February, several persons attempted to leave the village to seek medical treatment but were disallowed. On 25 February, a letter was written by the village chowkidar, complaining about the army’s behavior, and thumb printed by about thirty men and women from the village.
Between 25February and 2 March, amidst heavy snowfall, the villagers tried to get an FIR registered, but were repeatedly refused. A delegation from the village visited the unit’s Brigade Head Quarters on 26 February according to the Confidential Report of the Commander of 19 Infantry Brigade, Brigadier H K Sharma dated 13 March 1991 , and again on 27 February according to an interview in the PCI Report (121). The local Tehsildar knew what had taken place almost as soon as the cordon was lifted, and a medical team from the nearest primary health centre, (an ambulance, a nurse, a doctor, injections, bandages, one survivor recalls only hands with rubber gloves) is remembered by many as also visiting the village in within afew days, to provide first aid, and is corroborated by my interview with a local health worker. Still no FIR was lodged. This is not surprising given that FIRs in the early 1990s against the armed forces almost always required their consent to be filed, a practice formalized in 1992 a year after the rapes and torture, through a circular issued by the Home Department, Jammu and Kashmir, to all police stations (Letter# SP 5Exg/267881 dated 14 April 1992) directing them to not file FIRs against the armed forces without the approval of higher authorities, and to refrain from reporting accusations of misconduct on the part of the armed forces in their daily logs. (Alleged Perpetrators: 10) This also explains why the villagers are on record as making repeated trips to the Brigade Head Quarters at Trehgam, in the same period that Mr. Verghese says the events went ‘totally unreported’ (127). I imagine that the civilian officials in the know (and there certainly were several) spent that time, torn between trying to ensure that the problem would disappear leaving no trace in the official archive, (as the Army no doubt desired) while still trying to negotiate with the Army, (and they had admittedly been informed on the very next day) and to do right by their consciences in the face of meaning destroying devastation. But as their bleeding and their convulsions ceased, and their world began to remake itself, more and more survivors were able to get around, and they did. And they were angry, as the Hon’ble Mr. Wajahat Habibullah (then Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir) reports. And they would not remain silent, as history has demonstrated. According to villagers, public protests were held at the Trehgam Police Station on 1/2 March. Word of what had occurred circulated and intensified. Mr. Yasin makes a glancing reference to this particular dilemma in his report when he writes, ‘The news has started to spread in the whole district and I apprehended it might have adverse effect on the Administration’. According to police documents, Mr. Yasin officially learnt of the occurrences on 2 March, from a delegation of the villagers, including the chowkidar Jumma Sheikh who visited his office. On 3March, he reported the information to his immediate superior, the Special Commissioner, Baramulla. The Special Commissioner advised him to obtain a complaint in writing, and thereafter proceed to the village for a ‘spot inquiry’. On 4 March, according to the annotations on the villager’s hand written letter, it was formally filed at the Deputy Commissioner’s (District Magistrate’s) Office. On 5 March Mr. Yasin proceeded to the village, and conducted a preliminary inquiry, speaking to 23 women rape survivors, and several eye witnesses. On 7 March, he recorded his findings, in his now famous report, forwarding it to his superiors, including the Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir Mr Wajahat Habibullah, and various police officials. He recommended that given his preliminary findings, a full and proper investigation and prosecutions be undertaken. The Superintendent of Police, Kupwara on receipt of his report, forwarded it to the Trehgam Police Station directing that it be treated as a police complaint, and on 8 March 1991 FIR no 10/ 1991 regarding the mass rape was registered. Even if it were legally relevant, absolutely no blame can attach to the villagers for the ‘delay’ in reporting the event, their first letter written on the day after the rapes, is a matter of record.
In any objective evaluation, little blame can attach to Mr. Yasin either. The urgency of his actions, the tenor and wide circulation of his report, along with mounting public outrage surely had a role to play in getting the brass to realize that this simply could not be buried under the snow much longer. While the snow may have certainly delayed matters, in a time when Kunan and Poshpora, were a four to six kilo metre walk from the nearest motorable road (at Trehgam), no one other than Mr Verghese attributes the ‘delay’ in registering the FIR to the snow alone. Mr Verghese is particularly caustic, about Mr Yasin’s inability to brave the snow, ‘Why did he not go sooner? Heavy snow? But everybody else seemed to be on the move’ he points out. This is ironic, given that Mr. Verghese’s own committee was unable to make its scheduled visit to the Kashmir valley in January 1991, because of ‘snow bound’ conditions, (PCI Report: 8) despite apparently having army helicopters at their disposal. Those of the villagers, who were in any state to get around, certainly did so. In any event, Mr. Yasin’s account became the starting point of the police investigations in March 1991. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Yasin was transferred to Jammu, and took no further official action on the matter, though contrary to Mr. Verghese’s assertions he continued to give interviews to the press, and to human rights investigators about his role in the Kunan Poshpora case.[vii] Mr. Yasin made a statement to the police in 1991, and maintains that he is ready to co operate with legal processes in the case, and to testify in court if summoned. The accused army personnel will then have every right to cross-examine him, as Mr. Verghese suggests they should. Provided of course, that this case ever comes to be tried in a court of law. But given the fact that the court process is currently stranded in the Kupwara Sessions Court, because of an army Revision Petition seeking to close down the further investigations, that the police have done little except seeking repeated extensions to complete investigations, (without notice to the survivors, or giving them copies of documents) and are in contempt of the Magistrate’s orders, that the state appointed Public Prosecutor has been removed from the case due to his simultaneous appointment as Central Government Standing Counsel, and the new appointee knows nothing of his appointment, that the Double Bench in the Srinagar High Court which is to hear the survivors’ Petition against the police inaction has not convened for the last four months, and that sanction for prosecution in a civilian court, required under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act has never been granted in a single case involving an accused army personnel in Jammu and Kashmir, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Meanwhile the Army, plainclothesmen from the CID and Intelligence Agencies and the police continue to monitor, harass and intimidate the survivors and witneses, even as the Hon’ble Law Minister tries to bribe them into silence.
The Unreliable Numbers
Mr. Verghese frequently draws attention to the strangely fluctuating numbers of reported survivors of the mass rape, and in his report quotes Mr. Wajahat Habibullah’s similar bafflement at this phenomenon. Mr. Habibullah writes: ‘The number of alleged victims has been continuously fluctuating. While the rumour of a single rape was reported by the villagers to the Cdr 68 Bde two days after the alleged crime, a figure of 23 was reported to the DC. 39 ladies claiming to be victims have appeared before me, and some villagers stated that there were still others who were too modest to report openly. Private investigators have been told of 53 cases. If in each case 5 to 15 persons as alleged committed rape there would have to have been at least 300 men in the village doing nothing but this! In fact the number of men was 150.’ (Mr Habibullah’s other reasons for disbelieving the women include: ‘The discovery of liquor bottles on spot. [Since] no force is permitted to carry drinks on a operation […] the bottles are therefore quite obviously a plant.) Conjectural mathematics, and the drinking habits of the armed forces aside, the fact remains that we may never know exactly how many women were raped that night because timely investigations were never carried out, and many women especially unmarried girls, chose or were compelled to hide their rapes. 23 women spoke to Mr. S.M Yasin, 39 to Mr Habibullah in their official inquiries, 13 spoke to Brigadier H.K Sharma, though ‘about thirty’ were present (Brigadier Sharma dismisses them in his report, for ‘giggling’ while the others spoke) in their respective official inquiries in March 1991, 53 spoke to an independent fact finding team led by Justice Bahauddin Farooqui. 32 women were medically examined on 15 and 21March 1991 and reported being raped, 19 women gave statements to the police in 26 March 1991, 40 women have so far successfully pursued their cases before the State Human Rights Commission, and 13 women’s cases are still pending. These are the only official numbers we have – the rest is wild conjecture or educated guess work. The survivors of Kunan Poshpora are an aging lot. Five have already died, some of them as a result of their rapes. Most are acutely aware of the likelihood that their legal battle will outlast them. Given the apparatus of impunity in Kashmir, Mr. Verghese’s justifiable impatience with the fluctuating numbers may be finally laid to rest, as the number of survivors dwindle to a single, sad but irrefutable digit: Zero.
The Worthless Medical Reports
Mr Verghese states in his recent article that the medical evidence of 32 survivors is ‘delayed’ ‘anecdotal’ and that no ‘medico legal reports as required were filed.’ The PCI Report states, in no uncertain terms, that the ‘BMO’s [Block Medical Officer’s] medical report on the alleged 32 rape cases is worthless.’ (128) Mr. Verghese perhaps had access to a different set of documents than those submitted with the police final report, for surely an honourable manwould not engage in outright misrepresentation? [viii] Annexure 34 of the PCI Report contains two tables, summarizing the findings of the 19 and 13 women examined by the Block Medical Officer on 15 March 1991 and 21 March 1991 respectively. The dates, names, and brief accounts of the injuries correspond with those on the police file. The notes appended to the tables however state the 19 women examined on 15 March all reported being ‘molested repeatedly’, while the 13 women examined on 21 March all reported being ‘repeatedly raped by army personnel.’[ix](236-37) Puzzlingly, Mr. Verghese states, in the text of his Report, that ‘According to the BMO’s Report three women said they were raped, 19 said they were molested and there is no specific comment about the remaining 10’(116) I do not know how Mr. Verghese arrived at these numbers, which contradict the table he himself provides, which itself contradicts the documents in the police record. Be that as it may, the actual 32 medical reports on the police file make no distinction between ‘molestation’ and ‘rape’.They are neither ‘anecdotal’ nor based solely on the ‘women’s say so’, and obviously they were filed with the police, since they form part of the final report. These are medico legal documents, written by the Block Medical Officer, Kralpora, and are expressly clarified to be such by his letter dated 29 August 1991. They certify to the doctor’s clinical examination of the woman in question, her reported history which is in all 32 cases is recorded as history of rape, ‘by multiple persons and many times, against her will about twenty six/ twenty one days ago’ (or a close variation thereof). In the case of two minors, and an unmarried young adult, they record a finding of ‘ruptured hymen’. They separately record two categories of injuries, those in the genital area and those on other areas of the body. In most cases, despite the lapse of time, they record healing abrasions, contusions, and marks of resolving injuries mostly in the region of thighs, chests, buttocks and abdomens, and in some cases healing vaginal lacerations. In the case of one woman the medical report details healing ‘teeth bite marks on the face’, and in the case of one of the men a ‘small resolving laceration on the penis […] caused by passing of current’. In his report, Mr. Verghese expostulates that “Abrasions on the chest and abdomen’’ are likely to common among village in Kashmir as they hug “kangris” or earthen pots with live coals.’(116) Kangris can be angry. They have been known to cause Bollywood stars to duck very quickly, bad burns, and even perhaps a peculiar kind of cancer, but I’ve never encountered one that can bite you in the face. Mr. Verghese also states ‘As for the torn hymen, this could be a result of natural factors, injury, pre-marital sex, or rape.’ With regard to the medical evidence, Mr. Verghese, further points to the contradictions in Mr. Yasin’s report centering on whether a particular baby was born prior, (as reported by Mr. Yasin) or subsequent to the rape (as narrated to Mr. Verghese by the survivor’s mother). This minor inconsistency, probably the result of a typographical error by Mr. Yasin or a misreading by Mr. Verghese (it’s unclear from his wording, if Mr. Yasin means four days prior to meeting him, or four days prior to the mass rapes) is cleared up by the survivor’s own statement to the police as corroborated by eye witness testimony, and the medical examination conducted on the baby in question, on 29 August 1991 which records a finding of ‘grievous injury’ and ‘fracture due to blunt instrument’, and a reported history of ‘manhandling by soldiers’. [x]
Mr. Verghese also finds it incredible that several of the survivors apparently sought medical help of the doctor who accompanied the army ‘search party’ immediately after the crack down was lifted, that villagers visited the Medical Infirmary [MI] run by the army in the days immediately following the rape [ 24 -28 February], and that people from the village continued to use army’s public health facilities three months later in June 1991 at the time of the PCI team’s visit. The Report thus exclaims, ‘And after the orgy, some of those same women or their neighbours went to the same formation doctor in Kunan itself, and subsequently at Trehgam and sought medical treatment for their loved ones!’ (129). According to the ‘Military Version’ of the events reported by the PCI Report, ‘[At about 6:30 am] the CO distributed sweets to some of the kids who appeared and the Medical Officer set up a clinic which was attended by 23 persons, including 8 women, some of whom bore names similar to those subsequently named as rape victims.’ (118) Brigadier H. K Sharma too reports this in his inquiry report, though he also reports that ‘there were no injuries’ and ‘no shouting’ at night, both facts belied by other sources. Since no list of survivor’s names who met the doctor is annexed to the PCI report, (as presumably none was provided to Mr Verghese who has otherwise meticulously annexed every piece of official correspondence and documentation relied upon) this information cannot be independently corroborated. An army doctor, Captain Shyam Sundar did accompany the army unit on their operation, by his own admission in police statements. He is reported by several army witnesses as being present in one of the three ‘interrogation centres’ where extensive torture took place. His statement to the police however states that ‘he was not involved in the search or interrogation.’ He further states that, ‘In the morning, [of 24 February] the locals were asked to bring patients. I checked 30-40 and gave medicines for simple ailments […] The CO [Commanding Officer R. Khullar] spoke to the villagers and there were no complaints’. He makes no specific mention of whether, or how many of these ‘patients’ were women, or what ‘simple ailments’ he treated them for. Male survivors of torture with whom I have spoken during the course of my involvement with the case recall being carried to an ‘army doctor’ after the crack down, and being given ‘tablets’ by him. None of the women survivors I have spoken to recall visiting the army doctor, or indeed the Medical Infirmary, though some do recall a visit by a medical team, including a ‘lady doctor’ and nurses, probably sent from the local (civilian) Primary Health Centre at Kralpora to the villages a day or two after the cordon was lifted. In the immediate aftermath most of the survivors sought, and to this day several continue to receive private medical treatment (including multiple reconstructive surgeries for fractured bones, hysterectomies, other gynaecological surgeries and disorders, rectal surgery, treatment for male sexual dysfunction, migraines, PTSD symptoms etc.) for the long term health impacts of their rape and torture. Many have medical records of their treatments.
Even if the survivors’ apparent lack of ‘revulsion and disgust’ in seeking medical treatment from the very organization they accused of perpetrating their rapes and torture, (albeit in a place and at a time when medical facilities were in Mr Verghese’s words ‘very poor, where they existed at all’ ) are proof positive that they are lying, Mr Verghese’ own assertions in this regard are, dare I say, worthless. He relies upon a single casual conversation with ‘a man and two women from Kunan Poshpora’ who happened to be out-patients at the MI clinic on the day the PCI committee visited, and ‘expressed full confidence in Military Doctors’; and an ‘attendance register’ maintained by the MI room for the days in question, in which ‘ many women bear the same name as those of the alleged victims though family details are not available’. (125-126, 237). ‘Same name’ however proves on closer perusal to be something of an exaggeration (or perhaps it is ‘an excess’? or ‘an atrocity’? )[xi] The ‘List of Female Patients From Kunan Babagund at ADS-B 68 MTN BDE, Trehgam’ annexed to the report, contains 23 female first names, with no other corroborating information such as age, family name, or locality, of which only one (a very common name) corresponds to the name of an actual survivor. 12 of the names, most of which share only a single syllable in common with the name of a survivor, are marked as ‘Probably [survivor’s name]’, presumably based on Mr. Verghese’s estimation of which of the victims it most closely approximates.
The Ignoble Policeman
Mr. Verghese asserts that the actions of Police Constable Abdul Ghani, Dar a man from Kunan village, who was officially assigned to the soldiers by the Trehgam Police Station, as a police escort to accompany them on the operation in Kunan Poshpora, and who on the morning of the 24February signed the mandatory ‘No Objection Certificate’, certifying that the villagers had no complaints regarding the military operation in their village, is ‘deeply suspicious’. [xii] Mr Verghese’s incredulity at Constable Dar’s subsequent ‘silence’ despite being an eyewitness to the events of that night, and a member of the police force, is belied both by the official record, and Mr Verghese’s own report. Constable Dar gave a detailed Section 161 Cr PC, witness statement to the police, which includes mentions of several survivors, including seeing one survivor lying semi-conscious when he entered a house. She was naked. ‘In the same way, in many houses I saw women in the same state’, he says. Dar is also recorded as having accompanied the 32 women to the Health Centre at Kralpora, where the medical examinations were conducted by the Block Medical Officer. His statements to Mr Verghese paint a chilling picture, both about what transpired that night, and his deeply conflicted role in the proceedings as a man from the village. ‘Since screams and cries of women and children pierced the silence all night long, the men outside the school [menfolk from the village who had been detained and were awaiting interrogation] who obviously belonged to the houses being searched, grew restive and asked Abdul Ghani to investigate. So both he and Bashir Ahmed [the other police escort assigned to the search party] jointly and severally made couple of forays to find out what was going on. At some stage, an officer gave each policeman one of his gloves as a mark of identity so that they would not be stopped by jawans […] He [Ghani Dar] went to a house about 40 to 50 yards away and there saw a bare headed and bare footed woman in a pheren [upper garment] without any salwar standing outside [in the snow]. Two jawans could be seen in the open doorway. They covered their faces in their parkas and slunk away in a hurry as the woman cried, ‘Save my child’ […] Abdul Ghani took the woman and her child to a neighbour’s house and knocking on the door, asked the family to take care of them’. (124) The villagers to whom I have spoken, tend to regard Constable Dar as something of a hero. He is remembered as having helped in whatever way he could, carrying messages and providing water and help through the course of the night, before getting locked up by the soldiers in a shed, for remonstrating. In the aftermath, he is viewed by villagers as instrumental in helping get the police investigations (limited as they were) underway. Far from ‘[doing] nothing to find out what was going on, or report it then or later to the CO or any other officer’, he is on record as being present when the District Magistrate visited the village to conduct his enquiry on 5 March 1991, when the women’s statements were recorded by the police on 26 March 1991, and as accompanying the 32 women to Kralpora for their the Medical Examinations on 15 March and 21 March 1991. Constable Dar’s actions on the night of 23 February and morning of 24 February 1991, in serving as the police escort to the army operation, and signing the ‘NOC’ may be viewed as morally reprehensible, but they were not particularly remarkable in that day and age, where civilian authority was routinely required to rubber stamp military actions, at gun point. His police statement, which describes what he saw, heard and did that night and the coercive circumstances under which the NOC was signed, may not entirely redeem him, but it remains one of the most courageous, coherent and detailed eye witness accounts, substantiating much of the other evidence. Constable Ghani Dar was killed in his home by ‘unidentified gun men’ in 1993. The villagers believe it happened because he was an inconvenient witness and an out spoken man.
The Dissembling Video Cassette
As his coup de grace, Mr Verghese presents the intriguing anecdote of the ‘fake video cassette’, which he describes in his report as ‘a carefully rehearsed piece of disinformation’ (127). ‘Who would make such a staged video, and why? Which “rape victim” in conservative rural Kashmir would recount and relive such a horror story in public for a world audience?’ he perspicaciously asks. The ‘undated’ and ‘uncredited’ video is rendered even more mysterious by the varying accounts that Mr. Verghese provides of its provenance and contents. While the PCI Report, states that it was handed over to the Committee by unnamed ‘human rights sources’ (and was made by ‘persons unknown’ (126), in his memoirs Mr. Verghese refers to his source as a ‘respected NGO, on behalf of secessionist elements, who claimed they had shot the video after the rape, after revisiting Kunan Poshpora, and interviewing each of the women who had been allegedly raped, their parents, and other villagers. It concluded with an impassioned harangue by the kazi’ (First Draft: 391). In his Report however, the interviewees are ‘25 women and some of the men’ as well as ‘Muzaffar Ahmed, a private teacher [who] delivered the same impassioned peroration [they] had heard at Kunan.’ (126-127) In his editorial, Mr. Verghese states that, ‘The foliage on the trees suggested the film was made sometime in April, five to eight weeks after the event.’ In his memoirs he dates it as ‘two to three months after the alleged event’ without telling us why. (389) And perhaps most mysteriously of all, in his Report he states that it was ‘made around mid April 1990’ [i.e. Ten months before the rapes took place].(126)
His account of what the women said on the tape substantially corroborates their statements to the police, to other human rights organizations and to Mr. Verghese himself. (126-127). Yet they appear to him to be lying, primarily because the women are strangely ‘well groomed’ and ‘dressed for an occasion’ unlike the ‘grimy ladies’, the ‘illiterate’ ‘poor’ villagers he himself had interviewed. (126, 127). That he says nothing about the truth or falsity of the women’s substantive testimonies (except to point out the contradiction already referred to, involving the confusion over the day on which a particular infant was born, though the Committee never met the woman in question, only her mother) exposes only the extreme misogyny of his views. This is in keeping with the general style of the Report, which is peppered with details about the survivors’ lack of respectability, such as ‘[a] woman who came forward [to speak to Brigadier H.K Sharma] was the abandoned wife of a mad person, whose whereabouts are not known’ (119). Moreover, he informs us, relying on military sources, that ‘Kashmiri women, particularly in militant infested areas, are far shy and docile, and indeed quite aggressive in defending their men, shouting, screaming, beating their breasts and tearing their clothes.’(119) At another point in the Report, referring to a young survivor of the Pazipora- Ballipora mass rape, he expresses incredulity that ‘one of the unwed girls […] got married some months later to nobody’s shame.’(132)
It’s no surprise then, that Mr. Verghese believes that the women of Kunan Poshpora have brought shame and infamy to their village, by tenaciously telling the same story for twenty-three years, to film makers, press, police, administrative officials, human rights delegations, feminists, judges, and any one else who’ll listen. Mr. Verghese reads the phantom video as the ultimate sign of their effrontery. The PCI report states for instance, ‘[E]veryone has been tirelessly seeking publicity. None is coy or afraid. The lament is that Radio Kashmir did not broadcast the news. The news is printed and circulated world wide and reprinted again months later. A video recording is made.’ (129) The women of Kunan Poshpora stand dishonoured in his eyes, for their crime of refusing to participate in a conspiracy of silence. It is a ‘tragedy’ that they have brought this upon themselves, they are victims not of rape, but of the mass delusion they have participated in. They deserve their stigma, for speaking out. No wonder, Mr. Verghese insinuates, no one wants to marry their daughters.
A Matter of Honour
In his writings, Mr Verghese persistently engages in public and deliberate naming, shaming, defaming and disclosing identifying information pertaining to rape survivors including highly private medical information. Given that he is a former member of the Press Council and Editors Guild of India, and an expert on media ethics he is undoubtedly acquainted with Section 228A Indian Penal Code (the identical Section 228 A of the Ranbir Penal Code, is applicable in Jammu and Kashmir) which prohibits the disclosure, not only of a rape victim’s name, but also of any facts that could lead to the identification of the victim, and which carries a punishment of two years; [xiii] and the more recent Norms of Journalistic Conduct (2010) issued by the Press Council of India in this regard. [6(ii)] Yet, rather surprisingly in relation to a September 1990 Illustrated Weekly article ‘Protectors or Predators?’ which investigated over ten instances of rape by armed forces in Kashmir, mainly from the Kupwara district, Mr. Verghese accuses the author, Sukhmani Singh of ‘gross journalistic impropriety, probably born of inexperience’ for using pseudonyms instead of the real names of the victims especially ‘in a story making a specific and major charge against the Indian Army’. The PCI Report states, that ‘this is a legitimate practice, but in every such case it must be clearly stated that a pseudonym is being used to save the person concerned avoidable embarrassment or whatever’. (133) Contrary to Mr. Verghese’s assertion, there is no legal requirement that an author disclose she is employing pseudonyms. In all cases of reporting on rape the masking of identifying information is the legally mandated default position, and indeed can be assumed, since anything else would render the journalist and the publication criminally liable. But then, the Indian Army’s honour code has always over ridden the Criminal Procedure Code in Kashmir, as most recently demonstrated in the Pathribal case. The Support Group for Justice for Kunan Poshpora Survivors had in their Public Interest Litigation, in April 2013 sought prosecution of Messrs. Habibullah and Verghese for their respective roles in the criminal cover up of the Kunan Poshpora case. It is time that Mr. Verghese, honour notwithstanding, faces the criminal consequences of his words.
In the concluding paragraph, of the PCI Report, Verghese lauds the Indian Army for having ‘broken new ground in taking the bold decision to throw open its human rights record to public scrutiny, through the press Council of India.’ He continues, ‘few armies in the world would invite such an inquiry. The Indian Army has co operated in this task. And, it has, all things considered emerged with honour.’ (149) At the time of writing, every soldier of the 4 Raj Rifles involved in the operation that night in Kunan Poshpora has earned his stripes, his battle scars , (and no doubt his gallantry awards), been honourably discharged, and retired to a life of superannuated unease and / or a hero’s funeral. All honourable men. Down to the last man standing.
[i] Verghese, B.G et al, 1991. Crisis and Credibility, Lancer Paper 4: Report of the Press Council of India, Lancer International: New Delhi. The Committee was initially tasked (by the PCI) with investigating the ‘media’s role and responses’ in view of the prevailing ‘law and order situation’ Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir in December 1990. It submitted its first report on Punjab, ‘Over-coming Fear’ in January of 1991. In July 1991, it submitted a second report, titled ‘Crisis and Credibility’ consisting of (i) ‘Crisis and Credibility’ on the ‘media’s role and responses in Kashmir’, (ii) A post –script on it’s Punjab report of January 1991, and (iii) ‘Human Rights Excesses or Exaggerations: The Indian Army in Kashmir A Matter of Honour’ addressing the Indian Army Headquarters specific concerns about it’s press image. [p.101]. The team’s investigations into various human rights ‘excesses’ including extra judicial killings at Dudhi, Tengpura and Zakoora Crossing, and mass rapes at Kunan Poshpora and Panzipora-Ballipora are contained in this part, and it is this part (Part III) . The section of Part III ,titled ‘The Army Arraigned’ (111- 137) which deals with the Committees investigations into these events is available online at <http://www.kashmir-information.com/crescent/chapter8.html> [Note: Names and Identifying information n have not been redacted, as in the original report. The last paragraph on the web page is not part of the original text]
[ii]Mr. Verghese’s investigations rely upon reported interviews of seven rape survivors, (he also states as the team was leaving they ‘were summoned back to speak to five or six distinctly younger girls’ but does not mention if these girls were actually interviewed, and if so what they said), several men from the village including the village chowkidar, the village lambardar (revenue official) and a Police Constable from the village Abdul Ghani Dar, administrative officials including the Divisional commissioner, Kashmir, the Special Commissioner Baramulla, and District Magistrate S.M Yasin, army officers including Commanding Officer of the 4 Raj Rifles and the Commander 68 Mtn Brigade and unnamed others, unnamed doctors and out-patients at a local army run health clinic, the Chief Medical Officer and Superintendent of of the Kupwara District hospital (not the doctors who examined the women), 32 ‘anecdotal’ ‘medical documents’ whose validity Mr. Verghese doubts, ‘a so-called teacher, an ideologue obviously not from the village’ or a private school teacher (118-127), who is in memoirs referred to as a ‘kazi’. In total they comprise 18 closely typed pages, and Six Annexures relating to the case.
[iii] The text of the Director Prosecutions letter, to the Director General Police, J and K dated 23.9. 91, (whose conclusions echo those of Mr. Verghese) reads:
Subject: Case FIR no 10/ 1991 u/s 376/452/354/342/ 325/ 323, RPC, Police Station Trehgam. […]
The case has been thoroughly examined in the Police Head Quarters and found suffering from the following defects:
- The statements of the witnesses are not only stereo typed; they suffer from serious discrepancies and contradictions.
- It is surprising that such a serious incident was not immediately reported to the Police Station, which is located hardly three kilo metres from the place of occurrence
- The report purported to have been written by the villagers on February 25/26, 1991 was actually presented before the District Magistrate on March 4, seven days after the occurrence which [leads] to the legal presumption that the incident has been stage managed.
- The inability of the witnesses to [identify] the alleged accused has introduced a fatal and incurable lacuna in the prosecution story.
- In view of the above the case is unfit for launching criminal prosecution in the [eyes] of law. The case may therefore be finally reported. The C.D file along with connected papers are returned herewith’
[iv] Goodhart W. et al, 1995.Human Rights in Kashmir: Report of a Mission, International Commission of Jurists: Geneva, at 63.
[v]For details of Mr. Verghese’s valiant crusade in protecting India’s boundaries against acts of ‘cartographic aggression’ by the US Defence Mapping Agency, China and Pakistan, see his memoirs Verghese, B. G. 2010. First Draft, Witness to the Making of Modern India, Westland: New Delhi at 442-443.
[vi]The ‘video’ referred to in the quote is a piece of found footage, which was given to Mr. Verghese by ‘human rights activists’ after his return to Delhi. I deal with Mr Verghese’s findings regarding this video later in this piece. However, a trawl through you tube would demonstrate that Mr. Verghese is mistaken in his belief that no further ‘videos’ were made with regard to the Kunan Poshpora rapes. See for instance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3y3SuBvCDes and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foe-6ePl75I
[vii]See for instance, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBAfN27MYmg at 5:13
[viii]Mr. Verghese’s access to these medical documents, and his reproduction of them, without any redaction of identifying information raises some troubling questions about rape survivors’ right to privacy, medical confidentiality, and evidentiary due process, as well as chronology. If these were indeed the official medical examinations, conducted as part of the police investigation why was he given access to the reports, and on whose orders, 22 years before they were filed in court? Annexure 34 to the Report contains a table summarizing the medical examinations conducted on 15 and 21March 1991. The Note to Annexure 34 states that the records were provided to the team, by the Chief Medical Officer of the District Hospital, Kupwara on 12th March 1991, that is three days before they are stated to have taken place. If they are indeed a different set of medical documents, which have never been filed in court, Mr. Verghese has a legal responsibility to bring these, and any other evidentiary material he may posses to the notice of the J and K police which is presently (supposed to be) investigating the case.
[ix]While the Urdu letters written by the Investigating Officer, requesting these medical examinations employ the words ‘jammah na-jaayaz’ [lit. collective illicit (intercourse)] and ‘zinna baljabbr’ [lit. illicit intercourse by force’] both commonly understood terms for forcible sexual intercourse, the responses by the Block Medical Officer (ie the Medico Legal Reports) are in English, leaving little room for mistranslation by Mr. Verghese, who presumably read the doctor’s reply and not the Urdu questions, since he quotes from them (abrasions, resolving injuries etc). Mr Verghese repeatedly makes reference to, and devotes an entire section of his report to the ‘vagueness’ of the vocabulary employed by survivors and witnesses on the one hand, and human rights groups (excesses/ atrocities/ genocide etc) on the other. Most of his observations are based on misunderstandings of widely understood cultural terms for sexual assault/ violation the exact magnitude of which could have been easily cleared up with sensitive questioning. See for instance his gloss on the phrase ‘tang karna’ which he claims he was told can mean anything from ‘nestling against a woman’ to ‘raping her’ (102) Documents filed by survivors before the SHRC, clearly show that the ‘forensics’ of proving their violations are well within the grasp of the survivors. For instance, one survivor provided extensive documentation of medical complications, including rectal surgery resulting from her anal rape on that night to the SHRC.
[x]In his Report, Mr. Verghese also mentions the contradictions related to the same baby, in the version narrated to him by a survivor’s mother, and the survivor herself in the unnamed and un credited ‘video cassette’ that ‘came to the Committee through Human Rights Sources’ (126), or alternatively ‘a respected NGO on behalf of secessionist elements ’. (First Draft: 391). His claim is unverifiable since the information about the film provided by Mr. Verghese is vague and contradictory.
[xi]The PCI Report [Part III] is titled ‘Human Rights Excesses or Exaggerations’. It states ‘Various phrases have been used in reporting some of these events [investigated by the sub committee] and it is important to be clear about their meaning.’ The Report goes on to distinguish between ‘excesses’ and ‘atrocities’ stating that ‘An excess is something beyond permissible limits. It may be legal but defensible, the excess being a result of a panic reaction or an error in judgment. An ‘atrocity’ on the other hand suggests an act of extreme brutality with deliberate intent, thus rendering it illegal and beyond the pale of law.’ (102) The Report states that ‘over reaction on occasion have resulted in excesses as paramilitary forces were pitchforked into a role far beyond their charter’ and that ‘under conditions of stress fatigue and emotion, when murderous brutalities are inflicted on their comrades […] something snaps and individual jawans or small groups of men without proper leadership go beserk.[…] In the case of excesses in the course of duty , the CRPF and BSF hold departmental inquiries and take action on the findings. But where the action of any member of the security forces is indefensible in terms of going beyond the law, the case is handed over to police for investigation. Rape and molestation cases are also put in Court’ (107)
[xii] The ‘NOC’ was required as a part of the procedure for a military operation, such as a ‘search and cordon’ under operational procedures under the AFSPA and the Disturbed areas act. The Text of the NOC reads: This is to certify that there was no damage to any property, houses, men or material during the search carried out in village Kunan Babagund on 24 Feb 91 between 0230 h to 9 30 h. No property (incl. money, valuables, etc) has been taken away and no women folk ill treated or molested. ‘It is signed by local witnesses, and the two police escorts as well as by Ranjan Mahajan Capt. Adjt. For CO 4 Raj Rifles. The District Magistrate’s report notes that this was ‘forcibly’ taken from the villagers, as does the Police Constables’ witness statements.
[xiii]The previous section 228, Indian Penal Code was amended in 1983, and was the prevailing law both in Jammu and Kashmir and India 1991 when the PCI Report was written. It has been amended in 2013 to include the new categories of sexual assault contained in the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013 (not applicable to J and K)