WMC Women Under Siege

The long struggle against systematic rape in conflict-ridden Kashmir

Just a few weeks ago, some 50 Kashmiri women came together to demand that police reinvestigate a well-known case of mass rape. The women—teachers, students, journalists, human rights workers, lawyers, and other professionals—filed a public interest litigation case before India’s Jammu and Kashmir high court. The alleged set of crimes, known as the Kunan Poshpora case, happened more than 20 years ago, on February 23, 1991, when armed forces allegedly raped at least 32 teenaged, adult, and elderly women.

During a search operation in the Kupwara district, troops took men from their homes to interrogate them and allegedly raped the women who were left behind. The survivors, who at the time ranged from 13 to 80 years old, are still waiting for justice.

This is but one infamous example of conflict-related rape in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, a region that India and Pakistan have been fighting over for decades. When the two countries formed during the partition of 1947, the mostly Muslim Kashmiri population was promised a popular vote to decide which state it would be part of. But that vote never took place, and conflict broke out over the disputed territory. Violence has erupted over and over since then, with major armed conflict starting in 1989. As a secessionist movement bubbled up, India deployed military forces to tackle the insurgency and to repress a population of more than 10 million.

Women protest a rape in the Shopian district of Jammu and Kashmir in 2009. (Bilal Bahadur)

Around that same time, the government also extended a draconian law, which had been passed in 1958 to deal with unrest in India, so that its jurisdiction now included Jammu and Kashmir. The law, called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, allows Indian security forces to kill suspected civilians in “disturbed” regions—and prevents security personnel from being prosecuted. As a result, not a single soldier or paramilitary member has been tried for rape, murder, or destruction of property.

Sexualized violence in Kashmir—rape, sexualized abuse, and harassment, often accompanied by torture in cases where the woman is from an alleged militant’s family—is arguably systemic and institutionalized. It can be located within a larger framework of collective punishment meted out to the civilian population. And with an estimated 600,000 to 700,000 members of the Indian armed forces still deployed there, the Kashmir valley remains one of the world’s most militarized zones.

As Human Rights Watch reported in 1994, security forces have used rape and other forms of violence to target women who may be “militant sympathizers.” Soon after the Indian government’s crackdown against Kashmiri insurgents, which started in January 1990, reports of rape by security personnel began to surface. In 1992 alone, according to a United Nations report, Indian security forces in the region reportedly gang-raped 882 women. And a study conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières in 2005 found that “11.6 percent of interviewees said they had been victims of sexual violence since 1989” and that “one in seven had witnessed rape.”

In an interview, Afsana Rashid, author of Waiting for Justice: Widows and Half Widows on the many women who’ve lost husbands to Kashmir’s violence, spoke to the problem of tracking rape cases. “There are thousands of unreported cases of institutionalized sexual violence in Kashmir,” Rashid said, “and the main reason for underreporting is the notion of shame and stigma attached to it in the patriarchal society of Kashmir.”

Meanwhile, the Kunan Poshpora mass rape case remains a prominent example of how even those alleged incidents that do get reported rarely get investigated—or investigated properly—by local authorities. The case exemplifies not only the legitimization of human rights violations in the Kashmir valley by armed forces in the name of “national interest” and “counterinsurgency,” but also the unbridled impunity enjoyed by security personnel.

In a report titled, “Rape in Kashmir: A crime of war,” Asia Watch, which later became part of Human Rights Watch, and Physicians for Human Rights provide a detailed account of the rape in Kunan Poshpora and highlight the callousness and inherent biases of the ensuing pseudo-investigation. As the groups write, the village headman and other village leaders of Kunan Poshpora said that they reported the mass rape to army officials on February 27, 1991, four days after the incident. But officials, they said, denied the charges and took no further action. A police investigation was eventually ordered, but never commenced. The police officer assigned to conduct it was on leave at the time and was then transferred by his superiors.

The rights groups also highlight cover-ups by investigating agencies. When an NGO’s committee was sent to interview alleged victims in the village more than three months after the incident occurred, they concluded that the charge of rape was “baseless.” Authorities reviewing the evidence discredited the alleged victims, labeling their claims a “massive hoax” orchestrated by militants and their international allies aimed at “reinscribing Kashmir on the international agenda as a human rights issue.”

HRW and PHR are clear about how they interpret that statement. India’s government, they write, seemed “far more concerned about countering domestic and international criticism than about uncovering the truth.” And in general, they declare, “military courts in India have proved incompetent in dealing with cases of serious human rights abuses and have functioned instead to cover up evidence and protect the officers involved.”

And so it may not come as a surprise that, when it came to the recent legal action in the Kunan Poshpora case, the high court took a mere 19 days to quash the litigation. Not only did the court ignore the State Human Rights Commission’s recommendation in 2011 to reopen and reinvestigate the case, with compensation recommended for the victims and prosecution suggested for those who had sought closure of the case—it also expediently closed its eyes to documentation of the rape at the time. As The New York Times reported in 1991, the district magistrate in Kupwara recorded the incident, writing that soldiers “gang-raped 23 ladies” and “behaved like violent beasts.” The court also ignored that the divisional commissioner in charge when the mass rape allegedly took place had, at the time, recommended an investigation.

As an older, infamous case, Kunan Poshpora sheds light on more recent ones. In 2011, in the Manzgam area of Kulgam district, army personnel allegedly abducted, raped, and tortured a young woman. Many news outlets in the region reported on the story. Eyewitnesses said that police enforced an undeclared curfew, and that a contingent of troops and police were deployed to stop protesters from demonstrating. And activists say that investigative agencies have made it virtually impossible for media and human rights activists to speak with the victim.

As the Times of India reported in 2011, the case took “a new turn” when the victim’s husband and mother-in-law suddenly “claimed before police that she suffered from mental illness and was at her home” on the day she says she was raped. But sources close to the victim say that she is working in the field, not mentally ill, and that her family is under pressure from the army to keep silent. A reporter at monthly online magazine The Kashmir Walla who visited her home said that nearly 40 police officers were stationed there to prevent people from entering.  

In an interview, Parvez Imroz, a prominent human rights lawyer in Kashmir, said that the lack of accountability for military crimes in cases like these has discouraged civilians from reporting rape. Imroz explained that civilians “have time and again seen how even in the most ‘high profile’ cases like Kunan Poshpora…the criminal justice system has denied justice to the victims and their families.”

The people of Jammu and Kashmir, he said, “have no hope left.”

More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Sexualized violence, Rape, Asia, War



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