Amid Sobs and Tears, Kunan Poshpara Echoes In Srinagar

‘We were brutally robbed of our honour and dignity’

SRINAGAR - Indian army might have given itself a clean chit in most of the cases but it appears some of the ghosts of the early ‘90s have started revisiting it. 

More than twenty two years later, victims of the blood-curdling Kunan Poshpora mass rape spoke for the first time on Saturday at a public meet organised by Coalition of Civil Society (CCS) at Srinagar. “We have come from Kunan Poshpora to seek justice,” said Sara, one of the victims.  “Everybody has failed us all these years,” she said. 

Sara recounted how on the fateful night, at approximately 11:00 pm, soldiers of the 4 Rajputana Rifles cordoned off the village to conduct a search operation. “The soldiers raped a large number of village women overnight till 9:00 am the next day,” said a sobbing Sara.

“We were brutally robbed of our honour and dignity,” she said.

Five of the raped women have passed away. 

While the victims were sitting among the audience, their relatives were narrating the trauma covered, over the years, widely by the regional and international media as well as the human rights organisations.

 “We reported the mass rape to army officials on February 27, but they readily turned down the complaint and refused to take any action,” said Ali Mohammad, relative of one of the victims. Army has all along been maintaining that the incident was never reported by the victims or their kin.

Relatives of the victims alleged that up to a hundred women were gangraped without any consideration for age or health. 

“The victims ranged from 13 to 80 years. Even pregnant women were not spared,” said Ali, seconded by others.

The case, about twenty three years old, got a lease of life on Tuesday when a local court in Kupwara ordered the police to make further investigations. 

Earlier, the victims of the incident had filed a protest petition in the court against the police closure report of the case.

The petition reads: “Despite having information on the file regarding the involvement of One hundred and twenty five personnel of 4 Rajputana Rifles, the police had not questioned them and neither was an identification parade conducted.” 

On March 5, 1991, villagers complained to Kupwara district Magistrate, SM Yasin, who visited the village on March 7 to investigate. In his final report, he stated that the soldiers “behaved like wild beasts”. 

Following the district magistrate’s report, increased publicity about the incident led to strong denials from Indian military officials. On March 17, Mufti Baha-ud-Din Farooqi, Chief Justice of the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir, led a fact-finding mission to Kunan Poshpora.

“Over the course of his investigation, he interviewed fifty-three women who claimed to have been raped by the soldiers, and tried to determine why a police investigation into the incident had never taken place,” said Khurram Parvaiz, Convener CCS.

According to Farooqi’s report, villagers claimed that a police investigation into the event had never commenced because the officer in-charge of the case, Assistant Superintendent of Police,  Dilbagh Singh, was on leave.

Farooqi later stated that in his forty three years on the bench, he had never seen a case in which normal investigative procedures were ignored as they were in this one. A few months later, in July, 1991, Dilbagh Singh was transferred to another station without ever having started the investigation.

On March 18, 1991, Divisional Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah visited the village and filed a confidential report, parts of which were later released to public. “While the veracity of the complaint is doubtful, it still needs to be determined why such complaint was made at all. I found many of the village women genuinely angry. It is recommended that the level of investigation be upgraded to that of a gazetted police officer,” he concluded.

In response to criticism of the government’s handling of the investigation, the army requested the Press Council of India to investigate the incident.

The investigative team visited Kunan Poshpora in June that year, more than three months after the incident. Upon interviewing a number of victims, the team claimed that contradictions in their testimony rendered their allegations of rape “baseless”.

The team interviewed hospital officials who stated that one of the women who had been pregnant at the time of the incident had given birth to a child with a fractured arm just four days later. She claimed she had been kicked during the rape to crush her resistance. A paediatrician, who visited the village as part of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Basic Rights Committee, confirmed her story.

The Press Council team led by B G Verghese claimed that the foetus had been injured during delivery. Medical examinations conducted on thirty two women between March 15 and 21, nearly a month after the incident, confirmed that the women had wounds on their chests and abdomens, and that the hymens of three of the unmarried women had been torn.

The team claimed that “such a delayed medical examination proves nothing”. The team concluded that the charges against the army were, “well-concocted bundle of fabricated lies”.

The Press Council’s dismissal of the entire Kunan Poshpora allegation and the manner in which it carried out its investigation were widely criticised.

“The committee’s eagerness to dismiss any evidence that might contradict the government’s version of events is deeply disturbing. The committee has revealed itself to be far more concerned about countering domestic and international criticism than about uncovering the truth,” Human Rights Watch noted.

Asia Watch, in its 1991 report, stated: “The Press Council investigations fall far short of the measures necessary to establish the facts in the incident and determine culpability.”

The United States Department of State, in its 1992 report on international human rights, rejected the Indian government’s conclusion, and determined that “there was credible evidence to support charges that an elite army unit engaged in mass rape in the Kashmiri village of Kunan-Poshpora”.

Following the release of the Press Council’s report, Indian authorities dismissed all the allegations of mass rape as groundless.

No further investigations were conducted.

In October 2011, The State Human Rights Commission asked the government to reinvestigate the mass rape case and give compensation to the victims. They also called for proceedings to be taken against the then Director of Prosecutions who had sought a closure of the mass rape case and not an investigation.

Meanwhile, social stigma generated out of this incident has resulted in women of the area facing difficulties in getting married and it continues even today.

“We stopped to visit nearby forest to get timber, as people used to look down upon us,” said Sara Begum which left the audiences in tears. 

A number of human rights groups and civil society members have oflate been demanding a reopening of the case and justice to the victims. Indian civil society group, Centre for Policy Analysis (CPA), demanded early this month that the case be reopened and handed over to a SIT. The group led by journalist and social activist,  Seema Mustafa, sought the completion of the probe within a stipulated time. 

John Dayal,  Secretary General All India Catholic Union, said seventeen to eighteen of the forty  married women who had registered a case against troops had to get their uteruses removed. Dayal came down heavily on BG Verghese who led the Press Council of India team to investigate the matter. Dayal termed  the PCI report as shameful. One of the audiences at Saturday’s meet echoed Dayal, “If BG Verghese has a dram of conscience left in him, he should dig a hole and bury himself in it.”

Noted human rights activist, Harsh Mander, who is a member of CPA, said after his recent visit to the area, that Kunan Poshpora victims needed a symbolic justice to bring a sense of justice in Kashmir. Whether the victims will get justice or not, after such a painfully long period of time, remains to be seen but what is certain is that the image of the Army has once again gone for a toss.  From rapes to killings to forced disappearances and custodial killings, the ignominies attached to the forces in Kashmir are innumerable. What makes these crimes all the more ugly is the fact that the perpetrators go unpunished. 

In view of Kunan Poshpora and hundreds and hundreds of other gross human rights violations, can India afford to hold its head high in the comity of nations? 




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