In December 2012, when the nation was rocked by the brutal gangrape of a 23-year-old paramedic in Delhi, a young Kashmiri social activist, Samreena Mushtaq, called up her friend Essar Batool and asked anxiously, “Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?”
On the night of February 23, 1991, personnel of the 4 Rajputana Rifles of the Indian Army cordoned off the two villages Kunan and Poshpora in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district during an anti-insurgency operation and allegedly gangraped at least 23 women – with some estimates placing it at around 40.
Four years after Mushtaq had asked the question, it transpired into a book on the infamous ‘mass gangrapes’, co-authored by five Kashmiri women activists, all in their mid-twenties – Mushtaq, Batool, Ifrah Butt, Munaza Rashid and Natasha Rather.
The new book “Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?” – published by Delhi-based Zubaan Publishers as a part of its eight-volume series on “Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia” – was officially released at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month.
What exactly happened that night in Kunan Poshpora remains shrouded in a narrative of conflicting inquiry findings and the case is now being heard at the Supreme Court.
Nonetheless, it remains a most unfortunate chapter in the Valley’s history, because this is only instance of allegation of “mass sexual violence” against the Indian Army.
The Army has consistently denied the accusation over the years. A Srinagar-based spokesperson of the Army said he can’t immediately comment on the case because it was “old and sensitive” and he was not aware of the details. HT has registered an official query with the Army PRO at Delhi and but did not get a reply till the report was filed.
The 228-page new book documents the case details and discusses how “rape has been used as a weapon of war and terror in Kashmir”.
“We were inspired by the outrage following the Nirbhaya incident. We thought that we must not forget the allegations of rapes of Kashmiri women in the ongoing conflict,” said Batool.
The book actually stems from the five women’s instrumental effort in re-opening the Kunan Poshpora case. In March 2013, motivated by them, 50 Kashmiri women from different walks of life had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition demanding the re-opening of the case.
Although petition was rejected by the high court after three hearings, it re-started the legal battle with a series of fresh appeals that followed.
The aim behind filing the PIL was “questioning impunity” and making “the Indian Army answerable”, writes Mushtaq in the book. An inquiry report by the Army -- dated March 1991 and carried in the book -- comes to the conclusion that the charges were “mischievous and motivated” and was made to “defame the army”.
Rashid, a lawyer associated with the JKCCS who was instrumental in drafting the PIL, said, “There are many young Kashmiris who are completely ignorant about horrific incidents like Kunan Poshpora. I hope this book keeps it alive in our conversations. We shall not forget.”
The book is divided into seven chapters titled: Kunan Poshpora and Women in Kashmir, Sexual Violence and Impunity in Kashmir, That Night in Kunan Poshpora, Life in Kunan Poshpora Today, Inquires and Impunity, People Who Remember and The Recent Struggle: An Insider’s View.
The book contains records of police investigation, victims’ medical records, and civil society’s perspectives on the case.
The survivors’ accounts presented in the book recreate the gory episode with chilling details. For instance, a survivor tells the authors, “Three army men caught hold of me and 8-10 army men raped me in turns. They had huge battery torches with them and they used them to see my naked body, while making lewd remarks.”
The book also documents how women and children from the two villages are still ostracised and taunted as “people of the raped villages”.
“Kunan Poshpora women continue to suffer tremendous shaming. This reflects how patriarchal Kashmiri society is,” said Rather.
The state government maintains that it is doing the best possible to help Kunan Poshpora women come out of the trauma. Chairperson of the State Commission for Women (SCW) Nayeema Ahmad Mehjoor told HT, “The PDP-led government had been trying to help the women of the two villages economically, and create employment avenues.”
But it was the state itself that had obtained a stay order from the Supreme Court in March 2015 after the HC directed the victims to be compensated.
A highly placed state official whom HT asked the reasoning behind the state seeking a stay order said, “Yes, the state had obtained a stay on all orders of the high court – pertaining to the compensation and re-investigation – in the case, but I can’t reveal why.”
Wajahat Habibullah, the then divisional commissioner of Kashmir, who had conducted an inquiry into and raised doubts about the accusations, alleged in 2013 that the government had “deleted important portions of his confidential report” on the case in which he had recommended a high-level police probe.
“We need to answer why the whole thing came up. There could be two possibilities – one, the people were under pressure from militants, or number two, something actually did happen that night. So, we need a high-level inquiry to ascertain the truth – this is what I have been maintaining forever,” he told HT.