Wande Magazine: Tell us about your experience of pursuing this case in and outside the court?
Samreen Mushtaq: It was in February 2013 when we decided to file the Public Interest Litigation and the challenges we faced were daunting and varied. It was not easy to convince women to sign the petition against Indian army. Some of the petitioners were government employees and they feared being dismissed from their service if they became part of the campaign, while some others feared for their lives and few of the petitioners were worried if this would impact their careers.
I had discussed the case with my family. One of my aunts, who is retired now, was interested in signing the petition but she was apprehensive that her pension might be stopped if she signed the petition. The process of having fifty petitioners to sign the petition took almost two months. It was daunting in that way.
Once the petition was filed, most of the petitioners would attend the court hearings in Jammu Kashmir High Court. Only when the case was disposed off in the High Court, the number of petitioners attending the hearing dwindled. The case hearings would now happen at Kupwara district court and we had to go all the way to Kupwara to attend these hearings. This was the time when my family started being apprehensive and were persuading me to not go to Kupwara to attend the hearings, as they felt it was unsafe. But I went ahead and attended the court hearings in Kupwara.
It was tiring to go there but what was more tiring was to hear the bundle of lies from Indian army and not getting any results. What inspired us at that time was the courage of the women of Kunan Poshpora which didn’t let us get disheartened. I realised it was too early to get fatigued. The Army was doing the same thing as it has been denying for the past twenty five years: denying and delaying. The survivors, however, were adamant and they were ready to record their statements despite knowing that they will face problems because of this. Seeing their courage pegged us on.
WM: What has it been like for you interacting with the survivors?
SM: The women of Kunan Poshpora obviously do not like to continuously talk about rape and revisit their trauma. They feel ‘used’ by media organizations and others who, as they say, “have made us tell the same stories, again and again; made fame and money out of it, while we haven’t got any justice. We have got nothing but a bad name.” It was often difficult to start conversations with the women, because they start experiencing blackouts, migraines, hypertension whenever the conversation is about that night.
WM: Did you at any time feel any guilt that you are making them relive the horror they have been through?
SM: Yes, I did. During my interactions with the women of Kunan Poshpora, I learned how even one night of horror can so deeply impact people’s lives. I learned that almost all of them suffer from classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) like recurring migraines, blackouts, dizzy spells, forgetfulness and short-term memory loss, hypertension etc. It surely wasn't easy for them to recount that night of horror but these women, fortunately, also realise the importance of documenting the incident. They would attend court hearings, speak in seminars and give statements to police. This made my initial guilt dissipate because what needed to be done was more important in the establishing the truth of that incident.
WM: How would you comment on how our society has been treating these women?
SM: People of Kunan Poshpora feel that they have been constantly ostracized and looked down by our society. When we met a mass rape survivor for the first time, she asked us to switch off our mobile phone so that nobody could click any pictures of her. What happened after the rapes, of how the society treated them has also affected them deeply. The larger Kashmiri society, in my view, has been treating them negatively as victims.
How the society has been treating them can also be seen from how after we filed the PIL, a group of petitioners went to Kunan Poshpora to inform them about the case. They were hesitant at first. They started the conversation by saying that many journalists, activists and photographers had come to the village in the past 22 years, but people have made fame and money out of their tragedy and left. This is how they perceived the response of the society towards them and their tragedy and I believe it be true. People remember their rape, but do we remember their resistance?
WM: What do these women mean to you—victims who will remain so for the rest of their lives, women of courage who have fought back and continue to do so, symbol of suffering and resistance or what?
SM: Women of Kunan Poshpora are undoubtedly symbol of resistance. Despite state’s continuous attempts to bury the case, these women have been fighting state oppression in the form of denial and humiliation since the morning of that fateful night. One of the survivors told me that the reason that they wanted to file the case was because they did not want the Indian army to do it again. They have said, “We knew that if we remained silent, they would do it again, if not in our village then somewhere else.”
WM: What have been your personal fears while covering this case? Any incidents where you felt scared?
SM: To be completely honest, I was not scared. The determination to fight against the lies of the state and its oppression is too strong to be let affected by fears of any kind.
WM: What has been the reaction from your family towards your getting involved in this case?
SM: In the beginning, my family was apprehensive about my involvement in the case and my frequent visits to Kupwara court and Kunan Poshpora. They considered it unsafe. They also thought, just like how so many Kashmiris think that it was futile to demand justice from the state. While we were not expecting any justice from the state, we were more interested in developing a culture of resistance in Kashmir where people will raise their voice against state oppression, which these women from Kunan Poshpora had already shown.
WM: How has your interaction with these women changed you?
SM: The women of Kunan Poshpora are very brave. They are the living martyrs of Kashmir. They didn’t quit the case even after 25 years of intimidation, threat and humiliation. They have raised their voice loud enough to reach researchers and journalists and ensured the documentation of the case. All of them are ready even today to record their statements again. Women of Kunan Poshpora are source of inspiration for all of us. They are the symbol of resilience. The people of Kunan and Poshpora have not been silent victims. Most people wrongly believe that the Kunan Poshpora mass rape and torture case was reopened in 2013, when 50 women petitioners filed a PIL in the High Court. There seems to be wrong assumption that between the mass rapes and the reopening of the case, there was only silence from the villagers all these years. That is not true. Despite facing such violence and being under trauma, the women of Kunan Poshpora began the process of documenting this criminal act on record right after the day the incident took place.