What happened on February 23, 1991?


On evening of 23rd Feb 1991, a group of soldiers belonging to the 4th Rajputana Rifles conducted a cordon and search operations in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora in Kupwara district.

With insurgency at its peak in Kashmir during the early 90’s , such search operations were more or less routine in the valley. However, what happened next was one of the biggest human rights violations in Kashmir ever witnessed. 

In search of hidden weapons in the two villages, the army proceeded to separate the men from the women. However, instead of looking for weapons, the soldiers allegedly raped 100 or more women over the next few hours ( the actual number remains unclear). 

What happened next was a series of denials, cover ups, and unscrupulous investigation from the Govt. 25 years on, Kunan Poshpora remains one of the worst examples of human rights violation in Kashmir.

At around 11 pm on 23rd Feb 1991, around 125 soldiers of 68 Mountain Brigade from 4th Rajputana Rifles (the figure of 125 soldiers is recorded in the army statement) cordoned the village. 

The men were dragged out from their houses and were made to sit barefoot on snow. Some of the men allege that they were subjected to 3rd degree physical torture during this time. 

At the same time with the women vulnerable inside their houses, some of the soldiers came back after taking the men away.

“When the army entered, I saw they had zips of their pants already opened and they had clearly come with the intention of raping us”, quoted by one of the victim while recording for Zubaan series. 

Even pregnant women and teenage girls were not spared. Aged women were raped in front of their grandchildren; young women were raped in front of their children. The women allege that some of the soldiers had brought liquor bottles, and were under the influence of alcohol at that time.

As quoted by one of the victim, “I remember begging him, khuda ke liye hume chhod do (for God sake leave us),  hum ne kuch nai kiya ( we are innocent). I even bowed my forehead onto his shoes. He dragged me to the kitchen. My mother was already there. I screamed with all my energy,” said one of the victim.

The Investigations

The inner cordon in the two villages was lifted early in the next morning of 24th Feb. However, the outer cordon remained for a longer period, which the villagers allege was done to prevent timely repirting of the crime.

On 25th Feb 1991, the villagers wrote a letter to the then local tehsildar. However, Deputy Com. Kupwara SM Yasin (of that time) said, he received the letter of complaint in 4th March and FIR was filed on 8th March. 

On 7th March SM Yasin wrote to the then Divisional Commisioner, Wajahat Habibullah. ‘I feel ashamed to put in black and white what kind of atrocities and magnitude was brought to my notice on the spot’.

However, the incident didn’t come to the light of the media until mid March. 23 days after the incident, on 18th of March 1991, Wajahat visited the two villages. 

In the report submitted by him to the Govt, he raised doubts about the extent of the allegations, but acknowledging the anger of the people, he recommended a high level investigation into the incident. He also stated that delay in investigation had contributed to the doubts he had cast over the incident, adding that medical examination was unlikely to be enlightening due to long delay. 

22yrs after the incident, Wajahat accepted the discrepancies in the govt are handling of the situation. On the other hand , with continued protests against the alleged mass rape throughout Kashmir, Indian army requested the Press Council of India to investigate the matter led by journalist B G Verghese, a 3-member committee was flown off to Kunan Poshpora to investigate the matter in mid June. The committee dismissed the villagers’ allegation as bogus. In Oct 1991, however, the case was closed by the Jammu and Kashmir Police.

Over the years, serious questions have been raised about the Verghese committee investigation into the incident. The committee medical examination of the victims revealed torn hymens among 3 unmarried girls and abrasions on chest and abdomen of many victims. “Abrasions on chest and abdomen are likely to be common among village folks in Kashmir as they hug Kangris ( Earthern Pots and live coals) to avoid the winter chill. 

As for torn hymen this could be as a result of natural, injury, premarital sex, as revealed by committee in the report Crises and Credibility. VK Roa, one of the members of the committee said, though molestation may have happened but charges of rape were definitely not true. The committee refused to take into account the medical examination reports, citing delay in the examination. Human Rights Watch, Asia Watch rejected the investigation conducted by Press Council of India on request of Indian Army. 

In 2011, the State Human Rights Commission dismissed the PCI investigation and said that the accused soldiers had “turned into beast” on the night of the incident. It also recommended monetary relief for the victims and criminal prosecution of the accused. However that couldn’t happen. Today the women of Kunan Poshpora continue to wait for justice.

In 2013, the then External Affairs Minister, Salman Khurshid while on his visit to JK said, “What can I say? I can say only that I am ashamed that it happened in my country. I am apologetic and appalled that it had happened in my country”.

That incident of mass rape has left nothing untouched. Young and unmarried women of the twin villages have to bear the spot of the incident throughout their life. 

Getting married normally an easy affair in villages has become most difficult thing for the girls here , after the village stopped receiving marriage proposals , writes one of the writer in the book “ Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora.

As we reach the 25th anniversary of the fateful event, it is unlikely that there will ever be any justice for the victims of twin villages.

For when it comes to Kashmir, we have managed to develop a feeling of numbness, an ability to live in denial and there is unlikely to be any change to this state of mental inertia anytime soon. The haunting memories are still there.

Perhaps the truth is too costly to be told.

Perhaps the power is mighty and justice blind.

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