Breaking Silences: The Rape of Gujjar Women

gujjar women
Cover Picture by Rupa Publications

The brutal rape and murder of an eight-year-old Gujjar girl in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir by a Special Police Officer (SPO) of JK Police, apparently with the motive of striking fear within the minority Gujjar community, sent shockwaves in Kashmir. It brought back the notion of how rape has been used as a weapon of war in Kashmir by armed forces not just against Kashmiri speaking Muslim population of the valley who have rebelled against India but also against marginalized and disempowered communities like Gujjars and Bakerwals – who, not without irony, have been accused of being loyal to India by the majority community. This excerpt from journalist Freny Manecksha’s book Behold I Shine breaks silence on rape among the Gujjar women at the hands of Indian armed forces and how similar patterns of fear, coercion and impunity are employed to silence the victims.

The extract from Behold I Shine by Freny Manecksha has been published with permission from Rupa Publications. 

THE ROAD WOUND UPWARDS, past torrential streams, meadows and pine trees. This was Gujjar country, home to semi-nomadic pastoral communities; their transient lifestyle meant that they remained along the peripheries of Kashmiri society. Labelled as among those most loyal to India in Kashmir—which, in turn, signified that they were viewed with much suspicion, especially during the 1990s—the dominant impression even today is that the Gujjars have been cultivated by intelligence agencies to act as informers regarding militant activities. But the reality is far more complex. The conflict and occupation impacted their lifestyle and livelihood, and they were denied access to the higher meadows. They also had to bear the brunt of violence and the remote terrain meant their women were even more vulnerable to sexual violence.

I got to understand the anguish of Gujjar women during my visit to south Kashmir in May 2013, when my friends and I attempted to locate a young woman called Pakeeza (name changed) who, eleven years earlier, had allegedly been a victim of sexual violence. A little after Sonarshbrar, when we finally left our car and climbed up a bridle path, we found a small mud dwelling.

Here, I joined Pakeeza who had been summoned from the higher meadows where she had been looking after sheep and goats. We sat with another woman in an inner room while the men waited outside. In the late afternoon, shadows lengthened, and as we talked the sense of isolation was almost complete.

We learnt that it was, perhaps, on one such afternoon in 2004 that two army personnel barged into the then twenty-year-old’s home near Bunishpura. In her narrative, Pakeeza was unable to recall the exact date of the incident. She could only confirm that it was the maize-harvesting season. This is indicative of how difficult it is to document incidents of violence within communities that record events not according to a western calendar, but by keeping track of nature’s cycles.

Pakeeza told us that she had been making tea for two of her husband’s relatives—believed to be militants—when they saw troops approaching and ran away. The security personnel dragged Pakeeza to another room in full view of some members of her husband’s family and allegedly sexually assaulted her. Pakeeza said she had no recollection of what ensued. In her words, she ‘lost consciousness’.

Soon after, a security cordon was enforced around the area, making it difficult for Pakeeza to venture out and record the crime. She recounted that a few days later, a senior army officer had offered the family a sum of  Rupees 5,00,000 in exchange for silence; they were also assured that the perpetrators would be suspended.

This  dangling  of  money  was  a  cynical  exercise in manipulation whereby a poor family’s sense of honour was commodified. It created marital discord. Pakeeza’s husband was made to believe that the ‘compensation’ was paid to Pakeeza’s father. He also told activists that it was this suspicion that drove him to divorce Pakeeza.

In her story, Pakeeza told us that her husband was promised a job if he divorced her. He, in turn, became angry because he was never given one because Pakeeza had fled to Srinagar.

Pakeeza initially wanted to pursue the case in court but the Station House Officer (SHO) asked her to produce witnesses. This wasn’t possible as all of them belonged to her former husband’s family. The rupture in familial ties and bitterness over the manner in which she had been divorced robbed her of the will to fight. She consented to marry another person from the Gujjar family who, she said, knew she had been raped. Her husband, she said, does not bring up the topic.

Pakeeza’s layered narrative, brought out how rape, honour and compensation played out in patriarchal structures. On the one hand, there was the commodification of her own dignity when the family was made a compensatory offer, without any regard for their expectations of justice. Then there was Pakeeza’s own understanding of rape, rooted in patriarchal notions, in the belief that she was, in some way, guilty—evident in the way she suddenly said, ‘Galti thee kyun ki militants hamaare thay.’ (‘We made a mistake, the militants were from our community.’) While she did sense that rape was being used as a weapon of war, she was still to arrive at the realization that there was no justification for the crime—that the violation of her autonomy and integrity was not acceptable and is an internationally recognized crime.

We had met Pakeeza thanks to the intervention of a Gujjar elder. Six months later, my friends and I took up his invitation of hospitality by camping in his field for the night. Surrounded by the bleating of goats, we heard the Gujjar elder speak with sagacity about his community’s role in Kashmiri politics, and of how two of his young sons had joined the struggle for azadi and had been killed. He added that he regretted the fact that many Kashmiris viewed the Gujjars as outsiders and questioned their loyalty—if the Gujjars had, on occasion, liaised with the army, Kashmiris, too, had become informers and Ikhwanis.

The next morning, as we ambled down the meadow, the Gujjar elder asked me to join his wife for a cup of tea. Pakeeza and a few other women were with her. As I entered the house, I was told that the elder’s wife wanted to share something with me. However, she kept deflecting my questions and speaking, in general terms, of the intimidation of the troops in the nineties. Finally, when I began leaving the room, she pulled me back and then, after ensuring that the other women were out of the room, pulled the pheran’s sleeve off her shoulder.

This simple gesture was her narrative. She had been disrobed and raped.

I later learnt that she had recounted the event to me at her husband’s behest. His encouragement that she ‘speak out’ reminded me that men sometimes take the lead in breaking silences.♦

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