AT every juncture, there have been at least two versions of the Handwara episode. On April 12, a 16-year-old schoolgirl entering a public toilet in the north Kashmir town was allegedly molested by an army officer. As word spread, protests broke out across Kupwara district and security forces opened fire on demonstrators.
But a second story about the alleged incident emerged almost immediately. As the protests raged, the army put out a video. It featured the girl, who said she had not been molested. According to this report, she said local boys had grabbed her bag and insisted she go to the police station to file a complaint. Several questions swirled around the video.
First, the provenance of the video could not be ascertained, though the girl was heard addressing a police uncle. Several reports claimed she was speaking to the police. But the army spokesperson said she was addressing local mediapersons.
Second, though the army said it had obscured the girls face before releasing the video, in several versions floating around on social media, her face was clearly visible. The girl was a minor and the victim of an alleged sexual crime. Making her identity public, many articles pointedout, went against laws guarding the privacy of such victims.
Third, if the testimony was indeed recorded in a police station, it would appear to be a violation of procedure, which lays down that the victim must record her statement before a district magistrate.
Finally, how did the army get access to the video?
In the days that followed, the girl continued to remain in police custody, variously described as “police protection” or “police security”. Shortly afterwards, it was reported that her father had also been detained. The police claimed it was protective custody, provided at the familys request.
The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society claimed the girl and her father were being held against her will. They said the girls mother had approached them for legal counsel. Soon, a second video was put out, this time by the JKCCS. It featured the girls mother.
She said it was an army man who had tried to molest her daughter. She said the girl had been pressured by the police into giving a statement and that they were bent on defaming her. She said her daughter was taken to a police station without our knowledge. Now her daughter, her husband and another relative were in police detention and she had no access to them. They had asked the court to start an independent probe.
As these allegations gained ground, the chairperson of the State Womens Commission, Nayeema Mehjoor, made a public statement. Mehjoor saidshe had spoken to the girl and they were not in police custody but staying at a relatives house. A couple of policemen were with her to make sure she felt safe. Mehjoor added that she had also spoken to the director general of police, K Rajendra Kumar, who had assured her that all possible security would be provided and the girl could stay wherever she felt safe.
By then, the girl had apparently repeated her testimony before the district magistrates court not army men but local youth had harassed her. The JKCCS alleged that the statement had been made under duress, but a local boy, allegedly identified by the victim, was arrested in the molestation case.
If the girl and her family were indeed being held in protective custody, it does not explain the state administrations rather strenuous efforts to keep them from speaking to the press.
On April 16, the girls mother and a relative travelled to Srinagar to hold a press conference at the JKCCS office in Lal Chowk. Both JKCCS activists and journalists recounted how the police surrounded the area and cordoned off the road from the public. Police and intelligence officials entered the office, locked it up and said the press conference could not be held as it would incite trouble. Even an audio conference was forbidden. But the JKCCS managed to send the mothers statement, recorded in the video mentioned above, to a couple of media organisations. Activists also claimed that the police followed the girls mother halfway back to Handwara, to make sure they did not turn back.
The police, for their part, claimed a curfew had been declared three days in advance, a notice declaring the imposition of Section 144 had gone up in the district magistrates office, people were not allowed to gather in large numbers under such circumstances. But journalists reporting on the story said it was an undeclared curfew, and that Section 144 was not enough to keep the ordinary pedestrian from the street.
They also reported serious difficulties in trying to report on the protests in Kupwara district and reaching the families of those killed in firing by the security forces, let alone the family of the girl.
It was only after the girl emerged from 27 days of custody on May 12, protective or otherwise, that she spoke to the press. Once again, it was a press conference held under the aegis of the JKCCS.
Seated between her parents and wearing a hijab, she echoed what the JKCCS and her mother had said earlier. She had been abused and spat at in police custody, coerced into exonerating the army and naming a local boy; the video of her statement had been circulated even though she had asked the police not to.
She now wanted FIRs, against the army man who allegedly molested her and whom she knew, against the policeman who recorded and circulated the video against her will. Life after the incident on April 12 had been tough for the 16-year-old. Back in school, she said, her classmates had told her she was not welcome and blamed her for suppressing facts.
The police, for their part, said the girls new statement had been made at the prompting of pressure groups. Whatever the case may be, the harassed 16-year-old needs a fair hearing. Due process must be followed, and charges of police coercion investigated.
What exactly happened in that public restroom and subsequent police action in the molestation case remains clouded by evasions and conspiracy theories. What is known is that, in the protests that followed, five people lost their lives after security forces opened fire. While the mystery of April 12 continues to grab headlines, the conversation around who should account for these killings has died a quiet death.
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