Autonomy under siege
7 January 2014
Three women in the militarised spaces of Kashmir describe traumatic accounts of sexual violence and their struggles to gain justice.
“What should I have told you then?” asked the young Kashmiri woman when activists pointed to gaps in her account of sexual violence perpetrated by a high-ranking police officer. Her poignant question encapsulates the gamut of issues related to sexual violence and militarisation. How does a woman recount her story and get acknowledgment of the brutal violation of her rights when gender-based violence has been an integral part of armed conflict throughout history? How does a woman elucidate on details of brutality when in society sexual matters are considered inappropriate for public discussion and there is a tendency to avoid thinking about such horrors? How does a woman challenge the might of the state when there is a hostile environment for victims and judicial institutions fail to provide safe spaces?
Furthermore, as Dr. Yakin Erturk, former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, points out in an article for Open Democracy, “militarised environments empower both public and private patriarchy”. Human rights advocates have also pointed out that militarisation facilitates censorship and secrecy, and the rhetoric of ‘national security’ that accompanies militarised environments is effectively employed to deny people the freedom of expression and avenues to pursue justice.
These observations resonate in Kashmir as well as other militarised regions like Chhattisgarh and parts of the Northeast where, besides extraordinary security legislation, the state actively fosters a climate of impunity. Worse still, the state seems to incentivise such crimes by bestowing honours on many of the accused personnel.
Alleged Perpetrators – Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir, released in 2012, is a comprehensive report that examines some 214 cases of human rights violations and the role of 500 “alleged perpetrators” – mostly army, paramilitary, and police personnel. The crimes include enforced disappearances, torture, custodial deaths and sexual violence. The International Peoples’ Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir (IPTK) and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) spearheaded the report in response to the structural impunity that prevails in the highly militarised spaces of J & K. Earlier, the APDP was involved in recording the presence of mass anonymous graves in Kashmir.
A defining feature of the human rights violations identified in the report is that in the name of countering militant violence the Indian state authorises security forces to carry out all kinds of operations, often without adherence to laws and norms. And, in a majority of cases, crimes are not officially documented or probed due to the “overwhelming reluctance to genuinely investigate or prosecute the armed forces. There may be the occasional willingness for compensation but not for justice.”
Last year the Jammu & Kashmir government actually announced a victim compensation chart classifying rape victims in different categories, which included rape of those in police custody. The emphasis on money rather than punitive action heightened concerns that this was merely an attempt to buy silence. The controversy assumed even more significance as the women of Kunan-Poshpora, assaulted by Indian security forces 22 years ago, charged the government of engaging in a cover-up and a determined bid to thwart justice.
In 1991, women in these twin villages filed a police complaint against personnel of the 4th Battalion of Rajasthan Rifles for sexually assaulting them on the night of 23 February during a cordon-and-search operation. At the time, there were widespread protests and demands for a probe by Justice Bahauddin, a former judge of the High Court. Curiously though, the probe was conducted by the Press Council of India represented by B G Verghese, who claimed in his report that the women’s complaint was an “invention”. In June of 2013 at a public gathering in Srinagar, the women asserted that Verghese had, in fact, not visited the villages at all but rather spent his time at the army camp.
Kunan-Poshpora is only the tip of the iceberg. The 2006 Kashmir: Violence and Health report by Médecins Sans Frontières notes that 11.6 percent of respondents had endured “a violation of their modesty [associated with an act of sexual violence that varies from rape to inappropriate touching] since 1989”, which is higher than in other conflict areas. Moreover, the report states that “Almost two-thirds of the people interviewed (63.9 percent) had heard over a similar period about cases of rape, while one in seven had witnessed rape.”
Three women from three different regions of Kashmir courageously shared their narratives of sexual assault and efforts to seek justice. The stories did not flow in a structured manner. There were gaps perhaps because of fears of facing stigma or reprisal, elements of denial and reluctance to dwell on painful memories. While cross-checking facts with human rights activists, I discovered the many layers in the understanding of these stories. In gathering the skeins together, I realised the tremendous burden of responsibility on the listener, and the need to respect reluctances, acknowledge women’s dignity and pain, and sensitively interpret the sounds of silence.
I have chosen to name some of the “alleged perpetrators” because I agree with the authors of the Alleged Perpetrators report that “despite a culture of systemic impunity that exonerates perpetrators, it is individuals who commit violations, and they must first and foremost bear responsibility for their acts… Only when the specificity of each act of violation is uncovered can institutions be stopped from providing the violators a cover of impunity.”
(All names of women and their relatives have been changed)
She wears a burqa when she ventures out of her home in Kupwara district because she is scared of unwelcome attention. A strikingly beautiful young woman, she is wary of people who make snide comments and view her as ‘spoiled goods’. As a human rights worker says, she has suffered two-fold zulm (injustice) – violence inflicted by the state as well as by society.
She met me in Srinagar without her veil and spoke softly but calmly. There was just one interruption, a zalzala (earthquake) which violently shook the room. “I was 16-years old on July 3, 2004 when police picked me up from school in connection with a murder case in which my cousin [a surrendered militant] was a suspect. The principal told me to come back later.”
At the police post, two women constables – Parveena and Haleema – beat her, demanding to know her cousin’s whereabouts. A little later District Superintendent of Police Altaf Ahmad Khan came in telling them he would extract the statement from her and asked them to leave the room. He then made sexual advances, promising to release her if she acquiesced. When she spat at him in disgust he brought in a heavy roller and applied pressure on her legs. This torture was followed by horrendous sexual violence.
Hameeda does not recall these memories in detail. She simply says “I don’t know what happened. I can only remember the policeman bearing down on me, kicking me in the groin and I passed out. My next conscious recollection is of seeing my torn uniform and huge bruises on my chest.” She also makes mention of heavy bleeding from her vagina.
From the medical reports and treatment she underwent in the hospital for her ruptured innards and terrible injuries to her sexual organs, it can be surmised that she was violated in a gruesome way – either penile penetration or with a baton, or both.
Her parents who rushed to the police station begged for her release. “My father took the cap from his head, placed it on the officer’s feet and pleaded with him before he let me go.”
Her injuries required hospitalisation for almost three months, and even today she is on medication. Despite several attempts, Hameeda and her family have not been able to file a First Information Report (FIR). Instead the police filed a case against her and her cousin and came to the house in civilian clothes issuing threats. This resulted in Hameeda being severed from her community support network. “Relatives told my mother I was no longer acceptable. People would come up to my father feigning sympathy and make indecent proposals about me.”
In her narrative, Hameeda repeatedly used phrases that revealed her burden of guilt for the mental anguish her parents subsequently underwent and the heart problems experienced by her father. An attempt to pick up the threads of life through a marriage proved disastrous. Hameeda says her husband was tortured by the police and cites it as the reason why he mocked her for being unable to bear a child.
Activists described her husband as a sadist with police links and said that he abused her sexually. She refers to this brutality in general terms, “Patta nahi kya kya karta tha, He inflicted all kinds of things on me.” After enduring seven months of the nightmarish marriage, she gave him a large amount of money to secure a divorce.
In 2004, she had approached the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), who responded only after three years. The commission members admitted she had been subjected to the “worst type of human rights violations” but did not graphically spell this out. However, they did produce an indictment of DSP Altaf Ahmad, which gives scope for further action through the court. She was awarded INR 75,000 as relief for her torture and assault, but now stands at the crossroads of her future.
Hameeda is torn between a desire to press for further monetary assistance and marry again, as her parents have been urging, or fighting for justice through a plea in the High Court. Significantly, the police officer who assaulted her was awarded a medal even though he has been implicated in other human rights violations as well. A recent attempt to post him as part of a UN Peacekeeping Force evoked huge outrage in the Valley.
Hameeda’s tangled emotions were evident. She spoke of social isolation – “Kissi se bhi baat karna achha nahi lagta, I don’t feel like talking to anyone” – feelings of having lost honour in the eyes of her parents (“agar mein unke nazaron mein nahi girti”), and concerns about the poverty and safety of her family who live in remote terrain. Her medical condition and health problems continue to be a source of anxiety. She had some confusion about whether she was ‘technically’ raped or not and if she can bear children in the future.
Later in the day, I attended a session she had with young professional women who have formed support groups for rape survivors. One of Hameeda’s daunting worries was whether her marriage prospects would be hampered if she decided to fight on. She remained an interested participant in the discussion on izzat (honour) that followed. The participants discussed whether marriage would bring her izzat if she did not believe she possessed it. Wouldn’t a fight for justice also bring her izzat?
Pertinently, the re-opening of the Kunan-Poshpora case and the first public address on 22 June in Srinagar by the villagers, both men and women, demonstrated distinct shifts in attitude toward and the understanding of such rapes and the notion of izzat. The use of rape as a weapon in Kunan-Poshpora had left the men as “dumbstruck as the women” according to Ather Zia, a young Kashmiri anthropologist and writer on gender and militarisation. “In fact looking at the burdened stances of men it seemed they carried a far greater weight than the women. The men were doubly assaulted. They had their honour taken away through their women and then they were shorn of manliness in that they could not protect them. Silence became a way of reclaiming their everyday life. But now they are out of torpor.”
Zia explained that by coming to the forefront and challenging traditional notions of honour, these women demonstrated how well they understood the political connotations of rape and how they linked their predicament to the Kashmiri cause. She recounted an interview with a woman who said that they were not accorded the same status as martyrs even though they suffered for the same reasons.
“Women’s sexuality is the most visible and most taboo thing in society. Kashmir is no exception. I think at this stage, after the ownership of Kunan-Poshpora was taken on by the people, especially the group of 55 young women who filed the petition to reopen the case and form a support group, it is changing. Once the recognition of rape as a political weapon gets reinforced I see that a lot of other people will come forward, but that will take time and some mechanism will have to be put in place to make that happen in an institutional way,” says Zia.
“Do you know the home of Ghulam who went missing?” asked my two friends as we sought directions in Reshpora, Anantnag district.“You mean the one who was abducted and killed by the army. In Kashmir, the ‘missing’ never come home,” replied the man.
With this sombre precursor of reality we proceeded into a house where the ‘missing’ man’s family agreed to share with us a very chilling account of all that they had lost.
The story was told in Kashmiri by Ghulam’s daughter Amira and her son Abdul, now in his 20s. A young boy then, he still vividly recalls the wintry night of 2 January 1997 when an army official came to the house, smashed the bulbs with a stick and engulfed the family in a vortex of savagery.
“Major Arora of the 5th Rashtriya Rifles came around 8 pm demanding to meet my father who, he alleged, had been secretly meeting my husband, a former Hizbul Mujahideen militant. We asked him to return in the morning but he refused,” says Amira.
Married to a prominent militant, Amira tried to sever links with him after he deserted her. She filed for divorce when he took a second wife. She emphasised that three days before being assaulted she had gone to the military officials at the camp and begged them to stop harassing the family.
“But troops landed at our doorstep, slapped my mother and then attacked my grandfather. His head hit the floor. Perhaps he was already dead when they dragged him away by the feet,” recalled Abdul. In the dark, the personnel jumped on the defenceless women and young children.
Amira said she eventually managed to run away with her young son and hide in one of the public bathing spaces but that her 14-year-old sister Aneesa was sexually assaulted. She did not give any other details except that after about two hours, they saw a soldier come out of the house carrying the young girl in his arms, and then try to cover her with clothes.
The next day, Amira requested the mukadam (village headman) to tell the Major to return her father’s body. But she was advised to run away. The family did, however, manage to file an FIR two days later on 5 January.
Meanwhile the troops had broken down the house, seized thirty sheep and burnt down some of the willow trees that were in the fields. Amira, her mother, younger sister and her son were forced to hide in Srinagar for several months. Villagers were warned not to cultivate their fields at that time.
Amira persisted in her efforts to seek justice. Although the SHRC recommended an appropriate punishment for Major Arora and granted ex gratia relief, the police sanction for prosecution was denied under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The Ministry of Defence, in response to a Right to Information petition, said sanction was denied because there was no prima facie evidence against any personnel of the 5th Rashtriya Rifles.
The defence ministry also claimed that Amira was the wife of a Hizbul Mujahideen militant and had been forced by ‘anti-national elements’ to lodge a false allegation to malign the image of Indian forces. As legal activists have pointed out, this argument is neither grounded in law or logic. Further analysis of the case in Alleged Perpetrators shows that the police’s lack of comprehensive investigations and inability to investigate all the crimes – not just the charges of rape – weakened the case.
Whilst narrating the atrocities, Amira dwelt on the anguish of her younger sister’s sexual assault but did not fill the gaps about her own horrors. There was a marked reticence over some of the dark events of that night. It was her son Abdul who dropped hints about the violence that was inflicted on his mother. “Women in the village sometimes hurl an insult or taunt her,’’ he said. At which point Amira asserted, “But we were victims. It was perpetrated on us.”
Abandoned by her husband, branded by the state as a militant’s wife and therefore one whose story is suspect, Amira’s silence is understandable. Her young son, though, succinctly sums up expectations of justice and adherence to international norms of human rights in conflict. The state is under obligation to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.
“There were gunmen from our side. There were gunmen on their side. Why did innocent civilians have to be picked on and bear the brunt?” he asked. “When they come as tourists and visitors here, do we harm the women and children?”
The road winds upwards along rushing torrents, meadows and pine trees. This is Gujjar country, home to semi-nomadic pastoral communities.
Somewhere after Sonarshbrar we leave the car and climb up a bridle path that leads to a small mud dwelling. Pakeeza is summoned from the higher meadows where she is tending to sheep and goats. Shadows lengthen in the late afternoon and heighten the feeling of isolation as we talk in a dark room.
It was on one such afternoon in 2004, during the maize harvesting season, that two army personnel barged into 20-year-old Pakeeza’s home near Bunishpura where she was making tea. Two men, related to her husband and believed to be militants, managed to run away. Army men then jumped on her and dragged her to another room where she was sexually assaulted.
Like the other women, Pakeeza does not dwell on the rape itself except to say that she fell unconscious afterwards. She is bitter, though, about the cover-up exercise and how the ordeal affected subsequent events in her life. A security cordon was enforced around the area, making it difficult to venture out. Some days later, a senior army officer came offering her INR 5 lakh if she refrained from pursuing a legal case. She was also told that the perpetrators had been suspended.
This compensation was a cynical manipulation to appease a poor family’s sense of honour, and ended up creating marital discord. The husband, in his version told to an activist, claimed it was the father who had been paid off with the money, and this suspicion drove him to divorce Pakeeza.
In her version, Pakeeza says her ex-husband was lured by the offer of a job in return for divorcing her, but that he was never given the job because she left home and went to Srinagar. She, in turn, could no longer pursue her case legally because the station house officer (SHO) wanted her to produce witnesses – all of whom belonged to her ex-husband’s family. The inability to procure legal guidance, the manner in which family ties were ruptured, and the feeling that she had been bought off, robbed her of the will to continue fighting. She was married to another person from the Gujjar community by her parents and then left the hamlet. Her second husband, she says, has accepted all that happened to her and does not bring up the past.
Pakeeza’s narrative is a demonstration of how notions of rape, honour and compensation play out in patriarchal structures. The offer of compensation was dangled before two men and the woman’s honour was commodified without any regard for her own expectations of justice. Pakeeza’s understanding of her rape was rooted in patriarchal notions and a lack of political awareness that leads her to think she bears some of the blame. “Galti thee kyun ki militants hamaare thay, We made a mistake, the militants were from our community,” she said in the middle of her story.
She did not recognise the rape as a total violation of her autonomy and integrity but placed it within the discourse that treats violence as the consequence of associating with militants and going against the state. Unlike Abdul who spoke out against the state’s use of brutal sexual violence as a weapon of war, she had difficulty grasping that gender-based violence during conflict is a gross violation of human rights and a serious war crime.
All three narratives illustrate how in militarised spaces sexual violence has become a strategy of intimidation and is used in flagrant disregard of international human rights norms. Considering the perpetrators were those belonging to the security forces, the possibility of even filing a complaint was beset with problems. Indeed, the very act of doing so left the victims vulnerable to even more violence – both by perpetrators and by society. The rhetoric of being anti-national was effectively used to thwart Amira’s bid for justice. In Hameeda’s case the perpetrator actually received a state honour. Pakeeza, to her horror, found that the lure of compensation, which was perhaps not even given, was used to hush up the case and drive a wedge within the family.
These cases also illustrate the herculean task faced by human rights activists when they urge women to demand justice for sexual crimes. As Khurram Parvez, who was part of the team that compiled the Alleged Perpetrators report, puts it, “We were once asked by a woman as to whether any offender belonging to the security personnel had ever been punished. The answer was, sadly ‘no.’ Not a single person over the last twenty years or more has been sentenced.”
~ Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.
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