Majid Maqbool Essar Batool Ifrah Butt

In 2012, when the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student in New Delhi led to widespread protests and outrage across India, in Kashmir, a group of young women were prompted to ask: “Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?” They recalled another mass rape incident dating back to 1991, taking place in twin villages in Jammu and Kashmir's northern Kupwara district. Soldiers from the Indian Army’s 4-Rajputana Rifles reportedly assaulted over 30 women.

In 2013, a petition was filed in Jammu and Kashmir’s High Court seeking reopening of the case. The court admitted the petition and subsequently reopened the case. However, in March of 2015, the Supreme Court stayed the proceedings after the Indian Army objected to fresh investigation.

The five young women, all in their twenties, embarked on a research project about the case. The result was a 224-page book, Do you remember Kunan Poshpora? co-authored by Ifrah Butt, Munaza Rashid, Natasha Rather, Essar Batool and Samreena Mushtaq. The book documents the 25-year long struggle for justice. Published by Delhi-based Zubaan Publishers as a part of its eight-volume series on “Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia,” the book examines the “questions of justice, of stigma, of the responsibility of the state, and of the long-term impact of trauma.” The book was released on February 23 in Srinagar on the 25th anniversary of the mass rape incident. In January the book was released at the Jaipur Literary festival.

In an interview with Majid Maqbool, the two co-authors, Essar Batool and Ifrah Butt, discuss how they came together to reexamine the case. Over the course of their research, Batool and Butt became increasingly involved in court proceedings, regularly travelling to the twin villages to meet and interview survivors and document their ongoing fight for justice.

Below are edited excerpts from their conversation.

Majid Maqbool: How did you all come together and get involved in the reopening of this case?

Ifrah Butt: The majority of us come from a social work background. Samreena Mushtaq and I were working with Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) on a project of Sexual Violence in J&K. It was during that time that we came to know about the Kunan Poshpora mass rape and torture incident. We deliberated with some of our friends and came up with a decision to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the State High Court. The High Court did not submit the PIL and gave a decision on May 14, 2013 that returned the matter to the State, but kept open the possibility of hearing the PIL in the future. The slothful approach of the state compelled us to bring this issue to the media’s attention again.

Essar Batool: Our co-author Samreena was working with JKCCS on documenting sexual violence cases in Kashmir. It was then that she came across the case file of Kunan Poshpora. India was on the boil after the gruesome rape and murder of a girl, in what was called the Nirbhaya case. Samreena and others at JKCCS thought of having a collective action by women in Kashmir against the sexual violence perpetrated by the Indian armed forces, because the threat still loomed large. Kunan Poshpora was not the first case of sexual violence and it definitely was not the last. That was when she called me and asked me if I remembered the incident; I did. Then we called other friends, relatives and asked them if they would like to join in signing a petition to have the case reinvestigated. We got 100 women, young and old, from diverse geographical, social and academic backgrounds, but then as identity proofs were asked to be submitted, the number dropped to 50. Munzah, the co-author of the book, drafted the PIL with the help of JKCCS and other petitioners. The case saw many ups and downs and we shuttled between Srinagar and Kupwara, tracking the developments. Given the renewed attention to the case, we collaborated with Zubaan publishers on writing this book under their project, “Sexual violence and impunity in South Asia.” Since all 50 women couldn’t be a part and all 50 were not actively involved in the “Support Group for survivors of Kunan Poshpora mass rape,” the five of us proceeded to write the book.

MM: At what point did you decide to write about the incident?

IB: The State’s appointed Investigating Officer sought extensions many times and the survivors were harassed when they were summoned for recording statements. The fight for justice was 25 years long and still continuing. We thought to document this resilient struggle. The book is not just a narrative of the survivor’s victimhood, but a testimony of how they moved beyond that victimhood.

EB: As I said above, the book just happened at one stage during a collaborative effort between Zubaan and us. We were driven and motivated by the fact that this case is a travesty of the so-called justice that India boasts of, one that humiliates  victims and gives impunity to perpetrators. For the book, we took on different angles for writing and proceeded with research that included interviewing survivors, going to court hearings, meeting people who were on the scene back then and following the case all the way through. 

MM: As women, do you think that the survivors opened up to you more when you were asking sensitive and personal questions? How hard was it to gain their trust?

IB: The society in which we live is unfortunately not so compassionate. For women, it’s even more difficult to speak up and confront the perpetrators. The women of Kunan Poshpora, however, were very gracious towards us and the relationship with them is productive for both of us. Because of the belief and acceptance that they showed us, we were able to gather every minute detail of this incident. Not many people took concrete steps to support the survivors in their fight for justice.

Fighting groups use rape as a weapon because it totally destroys communities.. The former commander of UN peacekeeping forces in the eastern Congo said, “You destroy communities. You punish the men, and you punish the women, doing it in front of the men. It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.” Our women have exhibited great resilience during this struggle.  

EB: Well, it is always easier for women to talk to other women about something as sensitive as rape, because they know empathizing in such a situation is easier for women than for men. Rape in itself is always a very tough experience to narrate as it brings back the trauma associated with it. It is uncomfortable both for the survivors and the interviewers to go through the process of recollecting painful memories. I think they have told their story so many times now that they have become a little tired and skeptical. The women have been used to create stories for newspapers but nothing concrete has been done for them. In our case, we filed the PIL first and then went to them directly. This actually gave them an idea that we had done something first and then approached them, and not the other way round. 

The authors of the book Do you remember Kunan Poshpora? at a Kashmiri Women's Resistance day event on 23rd February, 2015,
From L-R: Authors Natasha Rather, Ifrah Butt, Munaza Rashid, Samreena Mushtaq and Essar Batool.

Essar Batool (center) talks about the book at its launch at the Jaipur Literature Festival in a session titled, "Body of evidence: Sexual violence and the search for justice in South Asia." 

MM: What kind of difficulties did you encounter while revisiting the case? Did the survivors have any reservations when told that you intended to write about their ordeal?

IB: The only difficulty we faced was the recollection of memories that were repressed due to fear of repercussion and shame. Twenty-five years had passed and many of the women struggled to recall these memories.

EB: We gained permission from the villagers before we started writing and they were actually very comfortable with the idea of a book, as it would help spread the word about criminal excesses by the Indian armed forces in Kashmir. It was difficult for the villagers to recall such old memories; there were many testimonies lost with victims who had passed away in the last two decades. In the legal battle the state and the Indian army continuously tried to break our resolve by creating hurdles, shifting the case to Kupwara, intimidating us, and trying to tire us out. We also faced some skepticism from people who didn’t understand what we were doing. 

MM: How did getting involved in the case, following it for years and eventually writing about it affect you personally? Did your families express apprehension about getting too involved in a case that questions the impunity of armed forces in Kashmir?

IB: My family is very supportive. I grew up with the conviction that, no matter what, we have to stand up against injustices. My parents have always inculcated this belief in me. When I started following this incident, my mother not only supported me but she took part in this fight as well. She is one of the women who filed the PIL in High Court. 

EB: My family was apprehensive in the beginning. They feared for my safety, given the record of impunity that the Indian armed forces have in Kashmir. They feared reprisals and my sister even feared that we could be raped too. 

Personally, being involved in the case and writing about it has changed me completely, in so many ways. Coming from a background where women in history have always been revered as bearers of truth and courage, being part of this struggle has actually helped me realize myself in that avatar. Being with the women gave me a whole new dimension of the world, of Kashmiri women. They inspire me to stand up for what is right and to do it with a conviction that the state fears. This case has freed me from the cage of fear that the oppressor has used to suppress us. 

MM: You write in the book that in the last 12 years (2004 to 2014) “there have been 173 probes instituted which have not resulted in a single prosecution.” What kind of impunity did the perpetrators enjoy under the Armed Powers (Special Forces) Act (APSFA) and other laws which made it difficult for the victims to seek justice?

IB: Not many people know about the struggle which the survivors of Kunan Poshpora fought from 2004 to 2011. In 2004 the survivors approached the State Human Rights Commission which issued a decision recommending monetary relief, re-investigation, and prosecution of the accused. The PIL we filed in High Court sets out the facts, identifies the laws under which the court is being asked to intervene, and ends with a suggested course of action for the court to consider. For 25 years the State has been shielding the perpetrators. On June 28, 2013, Salman Khursheed, India’s then External Affairs Minister, on a visit to Srinagar, said this about the case: “I am ashamed that it happened in my country.” Furthermore, he said that in war there is suffering, but that in the post-war period there must be “forgiveness.” Finally, he stated his helplessness in dealing with the situation. The Kunan Poshpora PIL was an opportunity for the High Court to indict the State and set an important precedent, but like many other cases of this nature, the state has failed to deliver. Impunity serves as bedrock to the unquestionable military occupation of Kashmir. In cases of sexual violence, this impunity allows security forces to get away.

EB: Take one look at the number of cases against Indian armed forces where punishments have been handed out and it will become clear that the Indian state has acted solely as a protector of its military in Kashmir, resorting to probes and enquiries as deceptive tricks to fool people both in and outside of the region. The fact that Indian armed forces have committed some of the worst war crimes in Kashmir and still haven’t ever been tried is just an example of the kind of legal impunity they enjoy. The impunity does not just flow from the laws such as AFSPA, but is a reality that is accompanied by moral and political impunity. The fact is that no Indian armed forces personnel have ever been tried in a civilian court. And any court martials issued have only resulted in vague “disciplinary action.” This is evidence that war crimes as considered by the state to be an issue of internal and unaccountable discipline. Criminal courts are prevented from trying such soldiers. To add to this impunity, there are people in the so-called Indian intelligentsia such as B.G. Verghese, Wajahat Habibullah, Arnab Goswami, and Shekhar Gupta who come to the aid of these “men in uniform” and clear them of all charges on Indian television news channels. The same is true of Indian politicians who have always maintained that their armed forces can do no wrong ever. If this is not foolproof impunity, I don’t know what else is. 

MM: How did the state and police administration of decades past fail to prevent the incident and, later, fail to support the survivors seeking justice? What did your research reveal about the complicity of state administration at that time?

IB: The State administration has been no better than the Army. Had the State police investigated the case in 1991 without any partiality, things would have been much different. The women were labeled as militant sympathizers and said to have created a bundle of orchestrated lies. It looks like the State administration and police are puppets in the hands of Army. Their powerlessness is quite evident.

EB: The Indian armed forces are accountable to no one in Kashmir. Of course they must have intimated the police before going in for the operation, and they did take along constables of JK police with them. The operation turned into a mass rape and torture incident, where drunken armed forces personnel went on a rampage. This is very clearly explained in the chapter, “That night in Kunan Poshpora,” by Munaza Rashid. We observed that the state and the police have always tried to create hurdles in the case and in the legal processes. For many days after the incident the villagers were placed under cordon so as to disallow them the privilege of filing an FIR and taking a medical examination. The police also had filed no closure report until 2013 and yet had closed the case as “untraced.” The state and police never allowed proper investigations into the case back then and even now. They have been party to humiliating the survivors by examining them in open courts, naming them and accusing them of being greedy for compensation money. Instead of playing a positive role, the state has always helped the Indian armed forces. In 2014 when the High Court ordered compensation to be paid to survivors, the state challenged this order in the Indian Supreme Court.

MM: In the book you’ve also written about the social stigma that the rape survivors and their families had to endure years after the incident. How did this stigma affect their lives and the lives of their children?

IB: Like I said, our society is not so compassionate. A raped dead body is an honorable thing for us but a living survivor is not so worthy. We don’t accept them as a part of our society. Women carry the honor of society and perpetrators know where to hit the society which is unbeatable. We as a society have failed to reunite with the survivors. Our collective approach to them is apathetic. Survivors face emotional torment, psychological damage, physical injuries, disease, social ostracism and many other consequences. The stigma is attached to villages forever, the survivors, and their children, minors, everyone is ridiculed and seen as a resident of the “raped village.” The education of their children and their future was put at risk.       

EB: Given the patriarchal nature of our societies, we treat women as honor bearers of the families. Unfortunately when these bearers of honor are raped, we treat ourselves as having been dishonored and disrobed. We should treat survivors of rape as any other victim of crime. Instead we have attached a stigma to rape that makes us talk about the victims as unclean. This very notion has affected the women in Kunan Poshpora too. They have been looked at as unclean by the society immediately around them. Apart from facing health and economic issues, the women have been subject to social ostracization and marginalization. They had issues getting married and that is the reason that many cases in the villages were not reported, for the fear of unmarried girls not getting married.
The children of the village have had to leave their studies midway because they would be taunted, asked if their mothers were raped too and if they were the result of the rapes. To add to the injury, the media has treated the villagers and their tragedy as a sensational headline and we have seen insensitive, circulating photos of them holding their torn, blood stained salwars to evoke sympathy. We have forgotten that they are fighters, courageous women who have fought the Indian armed forces for two decades so that the incident is not repeated ever again. We have been unable to change the stereotype we have created about these women.  

MM: What is the present status of the probe in the Kunan-Poshpora rape case? Last year the Supreme Court stayed the case proceedings after the Army objected. Do you think the rape victims will ever get justice in the present political circumstances? 
IB: In December 2014, the Government of Jammu and Kashmir challenged before the Supreme Court the Srinagar High Court order to pay compensation for the Kunan Poshpora case. To date, the Government has failed to prosecute the culpable parties, including the 9 officers of the 4 Rajputana Rifles. The Union of India has failed to file its response in this case. The Registrar of the Supreme Court on September 30, 2015 denied any further opportunity for the Union of India (through the Ministry of Defence) to file a response.

The survivors have been fighting for justice over the last 25 years. Few states have been held accountable for the use of rape as a prohibited weapon of war. A number of PILs were submitted in the Supreme Court for conducting fast-track court proceedings for rape cases, and calling for the implementation of the UN Convention of Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). But so far the PIL of Kunan Poshpora has not been accepted. The best justice which the survivors can get is prosecution of perpetrators. The “present” government of Jammu and Kashmir has continued the earlier government’s approach to the case and has chosen not to withdraw the petition in the Supreme Court. 

EB: The Jammu and Kashmir High Court directed the Government to pay compensation to the victims. They have challenged this in the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the army has got a stay on the investigations—ordered by a lower court in Kupwara—in the JK High Court. So, the JK Government doesn’t want to pay compensation, and the army does not want investigations. This despite our position, and confirmed by the Kupwara court, that there is evidence in this case which should lead to prosecutions and justice.

In the Supreme Court, the case is still before the Registrar and not before the judges of the court yet. The Registrar has issued notices and wants parties to file their written submissions and only then place the matter before the court so as not to waste the time of the Judges. Over here, interestingly, the Government of India (through the Ministry of Defence) has not bothered to file any response in the matter. So, now the Registry, after giving them adequate opportunities, has barred them any further opportunities.

We need to understand that justice is relative; it takes on many meanings and connotations. Justice for rape in India would be to try and punish the criminal. In Kashmir it is not only restricted to trying and punishing criminals (which has never happened yet), but also to strip the Indian armed forces of the impunity they enjoy and which encourages them to perpetrate such crimes. This case exposed the Indian judicial system and the impunity they provide to criminals despite boasting of a clean human rights record in the international arena. The survivors themselves say that compensation is not justice; it is a mere indicator that the state accepts that the crime has happened. Justice will come the day there is no fear of impunity to Indian armed forces. 

MM: How have people responded to the book so far, both in and outside of Kashmir?

IB: So far the response has been appreciative. People thank us for documenting a part of our history which reflects the courage and valor of Kashmiri women.   

EB: The response has been overwhelming. We receive numerous messages every day from people who are reading the book and recommending it to others. These people mostly thank us for bringing forth the facts of the case, for bringing alive the memories of a case that was forgotten. A woman thanked us for writing the book and telling the story that she never knew about. People have discovered truth about the case, about the ugly face of the Indian state and its armed forces and that is saying a lot. And even more surprisingly, readers in India have been reading the book and appreciating us for writing it, for telling them something that the Indian media would never tell. The book is being read especially by young people and that is what gives us hope that young people are reconnecting with their history, with reality, and with their responsibility towards uncovering truth. 

Essar Batool is a 27-year-old professional social worker and human rights activist based in Kashmir. She is one of the petitioners in the case against Indian Armed Forces in Kunan Poshpora mass rape case of 1990.  She works on development of expression and spaces among young women, creating spaces for dialogue based on understanding of gender among youth. She also volunteers with the human rights organization JKCCS (Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society) on documentation of human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. Currently she is working as a freelance consultant and trainer in the social sector in Kashmir.
In 2014, she along with co-authors Natasha Rather, Ifrah Butt, Munaza Rashid and Samreena Mushtaq collaborated with Zubaan, a feminist publishing house based in New Delhi, to document the case in the form of the book, ‘Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?’, under their project, ‘Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia’.
Ifrah Butt is 24 years old and has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and is presently pursuing a Master’s degree in International Relations from Islamic University of Science and Technology.  In 2013, she started working with JKCCS (Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society) on a report on rape cases in J&K.

Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based in Srinagar, Kashmir.  Recently his work was published in Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now and Asia Literary Review.