By Chasfeeda Shah
When J-K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tweeted ‘rest in Peace brave one’, after the death of Delhi gang rape victim succumbed at Singapore hospital, it was the concern of a human being for another. But in Kashmir, the tweet condoling the death of the 23-year-old student was not taken well. It was not the insensitivity of Kashmiris towards the plight of a victim girl that made them to criticize the Chief Minister. But it was Chief Minister’s own baggage that forced people to think that the comments are superficial, a publicity stunt. Because the wounds are so deep that Kashmir can’t forget Shopian, Kokernag, Badrapayeen, Pahlagam, Banihal, Handwara, Rafiabad or Kunan Poshpora.
It is true that Chief Minister would have been a student studying somewhere when soldiers of Raj Rifles raped at least 36 women, in front of their parents, husbands or the brothers and sisters, at Kunan Poshpora. But when Chief Minister got a chance to put balm on the wounded souls, he chose silence, he didn’t tweet one line to sympathize with the victims of his own state.
For past 20 years, Saleema Bano (name changed) is fighting a battle for justice. Then only 14 years old and married for just 11 days, Bano was one of the 36 women and girls – of Kunan Poshpora village – whose chastity was ravaged by the soldiers of Raj Rifles.
On a dark winter night in 1991, the soldiers of 4 Raj Rifles of Army’s 68 Brigade cordoned the Kunan Poshpora village of Kupwara. The soldiers forced the men out of their homes and confined to them in two houses of the village. They barged into the house and gang raped 36 women – in the age group of eight to 70. The mass rape of the women triggered massive outrage across Kashmir and the J-K Police, on the insistence of the then Deputy Commissioner Kupwara, registered a case in Police Station Trehgam. But just in eight months, the police closed the investigation into the case as “untraced”. The basis of closing the mass rape case was the opinion of the then Director Prosecution. “The statements of the witnesses were not only found stereotype but also suffer from serious discrepancies and contradictions,” the then Director Prosecution had opined. “The inability of the witnesses to identify the alleged accused has introduced a fatal and incurable lacuna in the prosecution story”. Though the opinion of the then Director Prosecution is with the Commission but the government has not disclosed his name even as the Commission asked for it several times.
A team of Press Council of India headed by the then chairman B G Verghese also visited the valley to investigate the allegations. The team, however, termed the charges against the army men as “well-concocted bundle of fabricated lies” and termed the Kashmir women as “shameless”. The Council report had generated anger in Kashmir.
This, however, didn’t deter Bano and some of the victims as they continued their fight for justice. But when they lost every hope of justice from the state government, they finally approached the State Human Rights Commission – 13 years after the case was closed by the J-K government. From 2004 to 2011, the Commission received six complaints – one of them by a villager Shareef-ud-din Sheikh (in 2007, he filed a composite complaint on behalf of 34 victims) who passed away before the SHRC could pronounce its judgment.
In their petitions, the victims alleged that on the night February 23, 1991, the army cordoned-off the Kunan Poshpora village in Kupwara. “That night, men were taken from their homes and assembled in an open field for interrogation overnight and women were gang raped in their houses by the soldiers without any consideration of their age,” the petition read.
The Human Rights Commission clubbed all the complaints and after seven years of trial, pronounced its decision. In its final judgment, the Division bench of the Commission – comprising of chairperson Justice (retd) Bashir-ud-din and Justice (retd) Javeed Kawoosa – has not only castigated the government and the J-K’s Police’s current Chief for their “callousness” and “casual” approach but has also shed light on several aspects hidden from the public knowledge.
And seven years later, the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) made a landmark decision on October 19. SHRC recommended the re-opening of the Kunan Poshpora mass rape case, asked the government to compensate the victims and prosecute the then Director Prosecution. The Commission has also slammed the “successive governments and district administrations” for being “guilty of callousness, negligent, insensitive and indifferent towards the victims as if nothing has happened in Kunan Poshpora”.
The Commission, in its final judgment, quoted a confidential letter written by the then Deputy Commissioner Kupwara to the then Divisional Commissioner Kashmir that became the basis of registering an FIR in this case. “That the army personnel had turned violent beasts. In the morning when the men folk were released they were shocked to see that the army personnel had gang raped their daughters, wives and sisters etc and had forcibly taken no objection certificate from the locals,” the judgment quoted the letter. “I feel ashamed to put in black and white what kind of atrocities and their magnitude was brought to my notice on the spot”.
The Commission had put the blame squarely on J-K Police and its officers saying “prima facie it appears that all the officers from top to bottom were in hurry and wanted to scuttle the investigation of the case and they have succeeded in their evil design but in a very bad and crude way”.
“The DGP initially wanted to adopt the same two line report in which the police chief of the state has tried to brush aside this serious matter with just a casual approach by reporting that after the enquiries, the investigation stands closed as “untraced” for want of evidence and was not found fit for launching prosecution against the accused,” the judgment reads. “Later on however, the DGP came forward with a little bit of truth and tried to open the close doors of investigation and affirmed that during the intervening night of 23/24 Feb 1991, army personnel cordoned village Kunan Poshpora. The men folk were dragged put of their homes and confined into two houses while as the ladies of the village were questioned / interrogated. The report further reads that it has been alleged that the army personnel after consuming liquor raped 23 ladies irrespective of their age and marital status in which connection FIR No 10 of 1991 was registered with police station Trehgam. Police chief has shown magnanimity by reporting that the medial report of Mst Seema Begum (name changed) has proved the allegations to the extent of torture and rape to be correct but has conspicuously remained mum regarding the other victims and has concluded the report by submitting that as no identification parade of the army personnel was conducted the investigation of the case was closed as ‘untraced’”.
The Commission had also referred to the medical report saying the medical examination and expert opinion has confirmed the rape of 31 women and girls. “We have been able to lay our hands on the medical opinion tendered by Block Medical Officer Kralpora with regard to 31 ladies. It has been clearly opined by the expert that the ladies have been subjected to rape and the offence has been committed upon them multiple times and it was against their will as the victims bore signs of abrasions and contusion on their different parts of the body,” the judgment said. “Thereby, though the DGP has tried to push the collective crime committed by army personnel under the carpet in a very presentable and sophisticated way but the medical examination and the opinion sought from the Block Medical Officer Kralpora clearly evidences the fact that the offence of gang rape was committed on the persons of unfortunate victims”.
The Division bench had also raised many questions for the police to answer. “Can for God’s sake the police chief of the state answer simple question as to why in such a serious and heinous case the identification parade was not held? Who was responsible for this intentional dereliction of duty and what action the DGP J&K has taken against the erring officers/officials?”
Justice (retd) Bashir-ud-din and Justice (retd) Kawoosa had no doubt about the authenticity of the allegations by the victims. “Actually security forces had come with the intention to ravish the chastity of all the women folk of the village Kunan Poshpora and has not cordoned the village in order to flush out any militant(s),” their judgment said. “The security forces didn’t even take notice of the presence of minor children who were only crying and witnessing their gory and shameful act”.
The Commission had recommended to the government to re-open the case, initiate proceeding against the then Director Prosecution and compensate all the victims. “It is recommended that the case shall be re-opened and re-investigated through a Special Investigating Team headed by an officer not below the rank of SSP,” the Commission recommended. “(The then) Director Prosecution has deliberately played a pivotal role in this whole incident whereby due to his intentional omission/commissions and negligent approach he has deterred the investigation agency from taking due action as warranted under law. Accordingly, it is recommended that proceedings for prosecution be initiated against him and such other officer(s) who had approved his childish opinion”.
Bano and other women saw the SHRC judgment as the beginning of their battle for justice and hoped that the young Chief Minister will re-open the case. But Chief Minister didn’t act. In fact, he didn’t even speak a word for the victims were not the college students of New Delhi but the hapless villagers of Kashmir. He didn’t even comment whether the government will accept or reject the SHRC recommendations.
That’s why Omar’s concern on Delhi gang rape weren’t taken well in Kashmir.