That Night in Kunan Poshpora

bookOn February 23, 1991, women from the twin villages of Kunan Poshpora became victims of a mass rape by Indian armed forces. Following the outrage, the Indian government immediately started the process of denial and till now they refuse to acknowledge the crime. Twenty-four years later, five women who grew up hearing the stories of mass rape and torture came together and started the campaign to re-open the case. The result of the campaign was the book Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora, which came out in February 2016. The book records testimonies, stories of that cold night in February 1991 and the legal case. 

This excerpt from the book unearths the buried and lesser-known facts of the case, relying on the case diary submitted by J&K Police before Judicial Magistrate Kupwara, SHRC statements and decision, statements given by the survivors of mass rape and survivors of torture to a research team from Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and Support Group for Justice for Kunan Poshpora (SGKP) in August 2013, and the authors personal interactions with the victims.

Published with permission from Zubaan Books’ Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? authored by Samreen Mushtaq, Essar Batool, Natasha Rather, Ifrah Butt and Munaza Rashid.

Durri’s Story:

It’s a freezing February in Kashmir. Tonight is the 23rd of February, 1991. It’s a bright moonlit night; the earth in this corner of the world is covered by a blanket of snow. Deep enough to make you sink into it up to your knees. The windows of the houses are covered by a thick layer of frost, almost as if there were another sheet of glass on the first one. When you rub your hand on the glass it freezes. The cold wind that strikes your face for a second takes your breath away.

I live in the village of Kunan, in Kupwara District of Kashmir. This is my village; I am Durri. I was born here. I am friends with the mountains, the slopes, the trees, the birds, and the stream that always seems to be in a rush. I am a young girl, perhaps just like you. I love to see stars and to dream. Usually by this time I am in my bed cuddling my sister Fatima while the kangri — a Kashmiri fire pot — lies in the middle.

This is our private time, though there is not much privacy in my two-room house, with my younger brother Hussain dancing on our heads. He is the youngest and most adorable. We don’t have much by way of entertainment here except a radio, which is mostly used by my grandfather, “Bab”, I call him, to listen to the news and Kashmiri folk songs. That doesn’t mean we have a boring life, every night we sing wedding songs probably in preparation for my wedding. Tonight we have company as well, my friend
Amina who is from the neighbouring village of Poshpora has come to join us. Just as we begin singing my mother starts rebuking us, “Is this what you will do when you are married; learn some cooking and stitching now. Make us proud when you get married.” My father, contrary to this, loves our singing and giggling. I call my father “touth”, which in Kashmiri means one’s most favourite person. He is a constable in the Jammu and Kashmir Police. Most of the time he is not at home.

My grandfather dislikes my father’s profession because he lost his elder son, my uncle, to a bullet from an army gun. Awkward, isn’t it, losing a son to the bullet of security forces while your other son is a serving policeman. My uncle, Mohammad Iqbal, was one of those young people who thought that politically resisting the occupation of Kashmir by India had not borne any fruit, just fake promises from the time of Pandit Nehru and still counting. He was martyred in an encounter with the army in Srinagar. It might be strange for you to hear words like “occupation”, resistance”, “promises of Pandit Nehru” from a village girl like me, but all this is what my uncle told me. He was the one who answered my questions about blood and blasts on streets when others said I was too young to know all this. He told me Kashmir’s story not just starting from the Partition and the promises made by Pandit Nehru, but from the beginning of Dogra rule. Then, one day we were told he was no more. The last thing I remember about him was his coffin being carried by many locals, followed by people from five of the nearest villages. After that day I remember in each army cordon we were given special treatment, more terrible than those houses that were far from the resistance. My mother would stand with us in the lawn and let the army vandalize all they could. They would ask her to show them hidden weapons. She would cry and tell them we didn’t have any such thing. She would tell them about my father being a police officer, they would not care. All they thought of us was that we were a militant’s family, who had dared to resist the state. They would form cordons in the evenings or late in the night, or even early in morning, and this special treatment to my family would be repeated no matter what.

Somehow, I was used to it now. Yet tonight I have this strange feeling of worry. Intuitions are really scary at times. I don’t know the reason I should confess. Since I am being very honest to you, I should talk about my fear. Every night I sleep with this fear. My village is close to the Line of Control (LOC) and far from peace. Every night I recite Surah Fatiha. I have been doing this every night since I saw blood on a street in Kupwara on the way back from school and heard people chanting slogans: “Hum Kya Chahatai? Azadi” (What do we want? Freedom) way before my uncle was martyred. Yet till tonight I had no idea that the ones who call themselves our defenders and protectors could pierce our souls without using artillery. Not until now, when the lull of the night is broken by a knock on our door.

Every fiction has some facts, and every fact appears fictional if we study it hard enough. We can never know the complete truth about anything, no matter how hard we try. The fiction above is inspired by my meetings and conversations with the people of Kunan Poshpora, and my study of the statements given by the victims to “fact” finders, police and reporters. It was written as an answer to the questions that came up in my mind, to my overactive thoughts, which arose while dealing with documents and individual details till my head became dizzy. I tried to get answers through my study of the facts of that night but I could never get a complete answer. I was looking for answers to questions like, how would a girl from this village feel after becoming a victim of mass rape? But I realized that none of us can have an answer for this…

Police Investigations

Most people are not aware about the police investigations conducted into the mass rapes that took place in Kunan Poshpora on the night of 23rd–24th February 1991. These investigations provide enough ‘factual’ evidence to prove the points that have been made by the victims. The police documents consist of almost 200 pages of victims’ statements, maps of the village, the accused’s nominal roll provided by the army, and medical documents showing clear evidence of the rapes. Perhaps it is because the evidence was so strong that many successful attempts have been made to bury the case as well as the truth. The investigating officer was transferred just before he was going to conduct an identification parade of the implicated soldiers. Biased reports were published to clean the image of the army. Incomplete and wrong information was given as reply to a query under the Right to Information Act. Wrong information was also given to the State Human Rights Commission by the police – that a closure report in the case had been fi led in 1991 itself. Actually, the formal closure report was filed as late as March 2013, 22 years after the event, possibly after the authorities found out through their intelligence gathering that a PIL regarding the Kunan Poshpora case was under preparation by the Support Group!

This chapter shall unearth the buried and lesser-known facts of the case, relying on the following documents: the case diary submitted by J&K Police before Judicial Magistrate Kupwara, SHRC statements and decision, statements given by the survivors of mass rape and survivors of torture to a research team from Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and Support Group for Justice for Kunan Poshpora (SGKP) in August 2013, and our personal interactions with the victims.

‘Cordon-and-Search’

This is 1991, and you are about to read a story of how to win a war without even a single round of artillery being used. Kupwara is a remote area, a district of India-administered Kashmir, very close to the international border. It shares a long border with Pakistan-administered Kashmir. In fact the distance from Srinagar to Kupwara is about 85 to 90km and from Kupwara to the border is 40 km. Across the mountains of Kupwara, lies Azad Kashmir or Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Kunan and Poshpora are reached by a winding 20 km road from Kupwara town. Most people visit the villages because they are curious about that one night. The shadow of that night in February still hangs over this place.

The story of the “intervening night of 23rd/24th February” according to police documents, begins with the planning of a cordon-and-search operation in the Army Headquarters of 4 Rajputana Rifles, 68 Mountain Brigade at Trehgam. A cordon and- search operation takes place when the army receives information of movement or perhaps a hideout of “antinational elements”, as they call them, through any of its local or intelligence sources. The area is ‘cordoned’, i.e. surrounded on all sides by soldiers, and then a door-to-door search is conducted to locate such elements. The army has vast powers under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Disturbed Areas Act, and can conduct cordon-and-search operations, which are military ‘counter insurgency’ operations, at any time of the day or night. In local language they are called “crackdowns”.

In the case of the Kunan-Poshpora crackdown, the army men from 4th Rajputana Rifles, 68 Mountain Brigade got official clearance for the operation and subsequently briefed the soldiers who were to be deployed at Trehgam Camp. The battalion left the army camp (Trehgam) at 9 p.m. in 4×4 army vehicles. The roads were covered by snow and it was a bright moonlit night. It took them one hour to reach the outskirts, and a little longer to reach the interiors of the villages. All possible escape routes were blocked and three ‘interrogation centers’ were established in houses and barns (kuthars) in the village.

According to army statements and a letter by the Investigating Officer to the army asking for the list of nominal roll of the soldiers involved in the Kunan-Poshpora operation, four companies were established for outer cordon and door-to-door search operations. The four companies included a total of 125 soldiers. These companies were commanded by Colonel KS Dalal. The Alpha and Delta Companies were deployed in the outer cordon, while Bravo and Charlie were responsible for search and interrogation. The nominal roll of soldiers suggests that there were 16 soldiers in the Alpha Company, 28 soldiers in Beta Company, 22 in Charlie and 32 in Delta;16 more are listed as soldiers from headquarters. The listing uses a code: A for Alpha, B for Bravo, C for Charlie, D for Delta and HQ for headquarters. Besides the Colonel, four Majors, two Lieutenants and two Captains have not been listed in any of these Companies. These Companies were headed by Major Mahesh Kumar Mathur, Major Hoshair Singh, Lt. Raghuraj and Major R. Khullar. This adds up to a total of 125 named personnel deployed, including 8 officers and a doctor. The villagers however have stated to us repeatedly that it felt like there were more men around than one battalion, in the village.

On the way to the village, a group of army men headed by Nayab Subedar Mool Chand approached Police Station Trehgam. Here, Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI) Mohammad Sultan was informed by Nayab Subedar Mool Chand about the cordon-and-search operation to be undertaken in Kunan and Poshpora. The Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI) directed that two police officials; Abdul Ghani (Belt no. 244 SG, Head Constable) and Bashir Ahmed (Belt no. 389) accompany the soldiers from 4th Rajputana Rifles, 68 Mountain Brigade, according to the required procedure. Both the police officers left the police station in uniform along with the army men, after entries were made in the concerned registers. The local police, along with the team headed by Nayab Subedar Mool Chand, reached the village at 11 p.m. while the rest of the soldiers had reached an hour before them. The local police are supposed to escort and assist the army in such search operations. Both the constables in their statements record that neither they nor the army contacted the Numberdar (local village revenue headman) on reaching the village.

Army Storms the Twin Villages

According to the police statements of victims/survivors, both men and women, and conversations with the members of Support Group for Justice for Kunan Poshpora (SGKP) and Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), the survivors state that the army knocked or simply stormed into their houses, breaking or kicking down the doors, at 11pm. Instead of searching for militants, the army forcibly separated the men from the women. In the usual procedure followed during cordon-and-search operations back in the 1990s throughout the valley, men would be separated from their family for a few hours; in certain cases they were taken away, never to return. The army would make announcements on the loudspeakers of mosques, commanding men to assemble in a playground or any such area of the locality. With the women left alone and vulnerable in their houses, the army would conduct door-to-door search for militants and weapons.

This cordon-and-search operation was a different one. Instead of making an announcement of the operation on loudspeakers, the soldiers, in search parties of 5-10 men, started assaulting the men; forcefully dragging them out of their houses and making the women stay inside. The light bulbs and lanterns were smashed and candles blown out.♦