Konan Poshpora mass rape: The silence of a night

Konan PoshporaIt's been 22 years since the Konan Poshpora mass rape.
It's been 22 years since the Konan Poshpora mass rape. With yet another round of investigations set to begin, women in two villages of Kupwara, now joined forever, ask when will the questions end and the answers begin

On a February night in 1991, during a cordon-and-search operation, soldiers of 4 Rajputana Rifles of the Army's 68 Brigade swooped down on Kunan and Poshpora, twin villages 7 km from Kupwara, forced the men out of their homes and confined them to two houses in Kunan. Then, they barged into the other houses and allegedly gangraped women and children—from a 14-year-old physically challenged girl to a 70-year-old grandmother.


Konan Poshpora mass rape: 22 years on, state still out to scuttle probe

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That's the night Kunan and Poshpora became Konan Poshpora, joined together in public lexicon by a catastrophe that changed the lives of its people forever. Twenty-two years later, that night has seen no closure despite several probes and reports. With further investigation into the mass rape case set to begin—this time on the orders of the Kupwara judicial magistrate—the wounds have once again been prised open.

A narrow road from Kupwara, lined with paddy fields, hamlets and orchards, leads to Kunan and Poshpora. It is an address everyone tries to disown. "Kunan? This is not Kunan," a man says dismissively in one of the villages on the way.

Ironically then, it's easy to miss Kunan, a cluster of exposed red-brick houses, while Poshpora hides just behind it. Villagers are wary of outsiders. Men talk in hushed tones, some walk away to avoid conversation, women pull their scarves over their faces and children look on suspiciously. However, for a village that has every reason to be distrustful, there are no boundary walls around the houses, almost as if they are in a constant, wary huddle. "After 1991, we have lived in fear. Though we would like to build walls around our houses, we are too poor to afford them," says Ghulam Ahmad Dar, a 70-year-old villager from Kunan.

Starting a conversation is difficult. The village is often visited by policemen and intelligence officials in plain clothes and people open up only after they are convinced of your identity. "If a reporter or a human rights group comes to our village, they are followed by policemen and Intelligence Bureau officials," claims Abdul Ahad Dar, who heads the Konan Poshpora Coordination Committee formed by villagers in 2007 to seek justice for the rape victims. "They ask us why the villagers didn't inform them in advance. Why should we? They want to silence us."

At Dar's mud-and-brick house, the men and women assemble in separate rooms. As the women begin to talk, slowly, one by one, sobs and sighs break out around the room. "We want to move on," says 40-year-old Zareena Begum (name changed). "But tell me, is there a medicine that helps you forget?"

***

Though the police FIR in the Konan Poshpora case—filed on March 8, two weeks after the gangrape—mentions only 23 rapes, 40 women approached J&K's State Human Rights Commission in 2007, alleging rape. The villagers say many more women were sexually assaulted, only they didn't come forward. Says Dar, "Fifteen- and 16-year-old girls were raped. But we chose silence because they were unmarried and we were concerned about their future. A lot of them didn't file complaints."

The first officer of the state administration to visit Kunan and Poshpora was the then Deputy Commissioner of Kupwara S M Yasin. In his report sent to then Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, Wajahat Habibullah, Yasin wrote that he feels "ashamed to put in black and white the kind of atrocities and their magnitude that was brought to my notice on the spot". Yasin added that he found that the armed forces had turned violent and "behaved like beasts''.

Habibullah, now the chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, didn't act on Yasin's report for more than a week. And when he finally visited the villages, he concluded that the mass rape allegation was "highly doubtful" and "exaggerated". In his confidential report, Habibullah reasoned that if in each case "rape was committed by five to 15 persons as alleged, 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". "It is impossible to believe that officers of a force such as the Indian Army would lead their men into a village with the sole aim of violating its women. Even if it were possible to concede this and the Army was indeed such a brutal force, it would then be impossible to explain why the officers themselves did not participate in such an orgy," Habibullah wrote in his report. The government used this to give a clean chit to the Army.

Speaking to The Sunday Express recently, Habibullah claimed that the government "deleted important portions of his confidential report", in which he had recommended a police probe, upgradation in the level of investigation, entrusting the case to a gazetted police officer and seeking an order from the 15 Corps Commander to ensure Army cooperation in the probe.

However, Habibullah's report wasn't the only one to deal a blow to the women of Konan Poshpora. The Defence Ministry also sent a team headed by then chairman of Press Council of India B G Verghese on a "fact finding mission". The committee termed the mass rape "a massive hoax orchestrated by militant groups and their sympathisers and mentors in Kashmir and abroad" and termed the women of Konan Poshpora shameless. The villagers claim Verghese never visited Kunan or Poshpora and prepared his report in an Army camp in Baramulla.

***

Saleema Bano (name changed) was 16 years old then. Three years later, in 1994, when her parents began looking for a match for her, none of the young men in the village came forward to marry her. A search for prospective grooms outside the village was never an option after the incident. "People from other villages simply wouldn't talk to us, leave alone marrying our daughters and sisters," says her brother Ghulam Ahmad. With no option left, the teenager was married off to a 50-year-old divorcee, a father of three.

In Kunan and Poshpora, villagers say, marriage is no occasion to celebrate. Most weddings since the incident have taken place within these two villages. "Our marriages are negotiations," says Fehmeeda (name changed), now in her late 30s, who was allegedly raped by the soldiers 10 days after her wedding. "They are all about shifting the burden, from one tainted home to another. We don't sing at our weddings. It is more like mourning."

As Fehmeeda talks, 50-year-old Fazi Begum (name changed) intervenes. "For God's sake, stop it now," she wails. "I can't hear any more of this."

She then gets hysterical, takes off her headscarf to show how the soldiers dragged her by her hair that night. She says she and her pregnant daughter were raped in the same room. "When the Armymen entered the house, they dragged away my daughter. I tried to escape but my daughter held me and asked, 'Mouji mai kamis travakh (Mother, will you leave me behind with them)?' The soldiers dragged me away too."

The women say they have to hide their faces when they pass through neighbouring villages. Within the village too, the faultlines are all too clear—the families not affected that night have disassociated themselves from the victims. Any social contact is banned and there is constant bickering among villagers. "Don't take our pictures. We are not part of them," says a villager, referring to the families whose women were molested and raped.

The women assembled in Dar's house ask why they had to suffer. Why do they have to tell their stories over and over again—to the police, fact-finding committees, journalists? Why has society turned its back on them? "When a man's son is killed by soldiers, he holds his head high and says his son has been martyred," says 42-year-old Nafeeza Begum (name changed). "But why are we being looked down upon? Did we ask for it? It was done to us."

***

The stigma has stuck to the children too. The government school in Kunan is deserted, still shut for the summer break. The school takes students up to Class VIII, after which children have to walk down to neighbouring villages such as Trehgam and Kupwara, which have high schools. But most children drop out after Class VIII, unable to bear the taunts and barbs directed at them when they go to the other villages.

At Konan Poshpora, they wander aimlessly, hanging out at street corners. In these 22 years, only two boys have made it to university from here.

"Our youth have lost everything. Their entire life has been ruined," says Ahmad. "They can't move ahead and will have to work as labourers like us. This village is destined to be poor."

Most of the men here work as manual labourers in the towns of Kupwara and some work as farm hands in paddy fields.

In some ways, Konan Poshpora has moved on. From around 4,000 in 1991 to close to 8,000 today, its population has doubled. A few of its men have even joined the police force and a couple of them work as forest guards.

But for the women, the shadow of that night hangs too dark. There are questions to face, investigations to bear, taunts to endure. And if that was not enough, they say, what bothers them more than anything else now are the questions their children ask.

"They ask me why this happened, why we are looked down upon, and I have no answers. When journalists or human rights activists come to meet us, we talk to them in a separate room, away from our children. Only some days ago, a journalist came to visit us and my granddaughter insisted on staying behind. As the journalist left, my grandchild had tears in her eyes. She is a baby, just in kindergarten," says Fehmeeda, her eyes welling up.

"The older children tell us not to talk about it to anyone. When our stories are published in newspapers, they are humiliated at school. We too are tired of these interviews. People come, record our statements and leave. We talk only because we hope it will help us get justice."

A long fight

1991

February 23-24: Soldiers of 4 Rajputana Rifles cordon off Kunan and Poshpora villages and allegedly rape more than 40 women. Villagers say they were not allowed to move out of the villages for the next three days.

February 26: The village chowkidar and a few others manage to get out of the village and lodge a complaint with the then Deputy Commissioner S M Yasin.

March 8: An FIR is registered at Trehgam police station, stating 23 women were gangraped in Kunan and Poshpora. Probe begins.

March 22: Then DGP entrusts the investigations to IPS officer Dilbagh Singh, then SP of Kupwara. Special Investigation Team (SIT) formed to probe the case.

July 12: SP Dilbagh Singh is replaced by S K Mishra. Mishra starts the investigation afresh. He sends a letter to then Director (Prosecutions) at the police headquarters (whose name the government is not willing to reveal) for his opinion.

September 23: The then Director (Prosecutions) informs the Kupwara SP that the case is "un-fit for launching criminal prosecution". A month later, the case is closed.

2004

A rape victim approaches J&K State Human Rights Commission seeking re-investigation in the case.

2007

September: More women approach SHRC asking for case to be reopened.

2011

October 19: SHRC asks J&K government to re-open the alleged mass rape case, compensate the survivors and prosecute the then Director (Prosecution) for recommending closure of case. The Commission asks the government to constitute a high-power committee.

2013

March: A group of 50 women, under the banner of 'Support Group for Justice for Kunan Poshpora', plans to file a PIL before the J&K High Court seeking implementation of the SHRC recommendations.

March 4: J&K Police file an instant closure report.

April 20: 'Support Group for Justice for Kunan Poshpora' files PIL in J&K High Court.

May 14: High Court disposes of the PIL, since the "statutory process" for implementation of SHRC's recommendations was pending and also since the matter was pending before the Kupwara magistrate. The court, however, observes that it hopes the government-appointed committee would examine and "expeditiously" implement the SHRC recommendations within four weeks, after which the petitioners could approach the court afresh.

June 18: Kupwara Judicial Magistrate dismisses the police's closure report in Konan Poshpora and directs it to further investigate the case.

July 2, 2013: SSP Kupwara issues summons to the survivors asking them to be present for recording their statement from July 3 onwards. The villagers say when they turned up to record their statements, they were made to wait for the entire day and finally told to come another day. "We were told that SSP sahib will himself come," says Abdul Ahad Dar of the Konan Poshpora Coordination Committee.

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