The way the male folk of Kunan Poshpora have taken a lead in fighting the case, it shows men are an equal part of the women’s struggle: Natasha Rather

© Sameer Saran
The book Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora was released in Kashmir last year on 23rd February; the day which is now commemorated as Women’s Resistance Day in Kashmir. This year, the state authorities banned the press conference and a public event called by the Support Group for Women of Kunan Poshpora, thus disallowing any public conversation on sexual violence in Kashmir. Wande Magazine produces here an interview with Natasha Rather, one of the co-authors of the book. The interview was conducted last year in March after the release of the book in Srinagar. The aim here is to keep the conversation going on about sexual violence and responses of society and state towards rape and other forms of sexual violence.

Wande Magazine: How difficult has it been for you to deal with a case where you are pitted against such strong and repressive state machinery?

Natasha Rather: In a place like Kashmir, it’s always very difficult. Especially when dealing with a case like Kunan Poshpora, a rape case that has been in limelight and at the same time people of Kunan Poshpora have not let people forget about it. This case is an embarrassment for the Indian Army and they would obviously want to do everything to not have people talk about it but the fact that we came out and talked about it was an affront to them.

The first challenge that we faced was when we filed the Public Interest Litigation. We were initially asked to submit our identity cards. Giving out your identity cards’ to state authorities is not easy in a place like Kashmir; we know what can happen here. Lot of people backtracked at that point of time and only the fifty of us were left. And we knew some of us will be under their scanner; there were police visits to homes, they were trying to find out who these women were and who were they working for, totally failing to understand that these were just regular girls who just want to make a difference and do something that would help the people of Kashmir, help the cause of justice. We also wanted to fight for the rights of the women of Kunan Poshpora who were fighting and suffering. It obviously didn’t go down well with the authorities and it’s been a difficult journey. The Indian army always wants to hide things; it always wants to falsify things.

Obviously there were many other attempts to cower us down. For instance, when we used to go to the court hearings, the attorney there would always talk down to us as if we were some little girls.

It was challenging to go to Kupwara during the winter months in Kashmir when it’s dark by the time it is 4 in the afternoon. All of this was quite challenging.

The Indian army also was creating an environment to make things difficult for people who were supporting the people of Kunan Poshpora. But the fact that there were so many difficulties and challenges was one of the most motivating factors for me personally.

WM: Tell us about your interactions with the women of Kunan Poshpora?

NR: When we used to visit Kunan Poshpora, we wouldn’t always meet the women. So I would meet the women when they would come down to Srinagar and sometimes in Kunan Poshpora. It’s been a very surprising experience. Before I met these women I thought they would not talk and shy away from talking to strangers but it was not like that. These women were so confident about what they were saying and so proud of being a part of the struggle. It was a very surprising experience for me. I was pleasantly surprised to see women of Kunan Poshpora like that.

Even though I don’t adhere to patriarchal values and principles but I belong to this society and I thought these are women who belong to a very, very far off area. It’s not an area you would visit every day. Kupwara and Kunan Poshpora are not the kind of places you visit every day, it’s not accessible. People from there wouldn’t come down to Srinagar also. These women have very little exposure and it’s obvious that I thought that these women belong to that sort of a background; they wouldn’t talk about what had happened to them. They would still shy away from talking about it. They wouldn’t want to come out into the public and show their faces and accept that this had happened to them and they were fighting about it. I also had the same mindset. I never expected these women to be so confident. I never expected these women to talk about it.

I remember I had this conversation with one woman from Kunan Poshpora in Srinagar and I asked her what do you think about this PIL these girls have filed and are you happy that somebody is taking this up and she was like, “You know I am very happy and surprised that these young, unmarried girls can talk about such a thing and that they are fighting for us. It only gives us more confidence to see these women – we don’t even know who they are – but that they are fighting for something that happened to us way back.” That really struck me and I think that really changed my whole perception about of how I used to look at women of Kunan Poshpora.

WM: Tell us about the impact this case has had on you as a person and as a woman?

NR: When I started to work on the case and also the book I think it brought me closer to so many more realities: how things were being dealt with in Kashmir. When I was researching about the case and also about sexual violence incidents in Kashmir, I also started to read about the history of Kashmir, including the distorted versions of history written by many people. And you know how to differentiate between the right version and not the very correct version. One was that. The second thing was reading a lot about impunity and how it’s being wielded in Kashmir by the Indian army and even by the police forces and how people are being impacted by it.

Working on this has broadened my perspective and my horizon on how I would see things happening in Kashmir. Even when somebody asks me about the latest JNU fiasco and I think I have a different perspective on how it should be. I think it was something that was bound to happen. People now in India have started to ask questions of Indian state on how they have been dealing with regions like Kashmir and North East. This is perhaps only a harbinger of what is about to happen in Kashmir; that there will be people who will question, who are not really part of the armed struggle per se but there are people who will get up and question, who will research, read and then write about it and the Indian state is obviously going to have a tough time answering those questions.

So I think working on this case has really broadened my perspective on Kashmir and the impunity that exists here.

WM: Rape in our society always leads to automatic stigmatization of the women subjected to it. Did you find the same thing happening in this case?

NR: To be very honest, initially I don’t know what the situation back in 1991 was. I know that people who had not seen Kunan Poshpora had treated these women problematically; that these women have had to face issues in terms of their marriage and the children have had to face issues in the schools and colleges. The kids there used to be pointed out as children belonging to Kunan Poshpora and not as individuals from someplace called Kupwara, as somebody else would be.

But if you look at this from a different perspective, the way the male folk of Kunan Poshpora have taken a lead in fighting the case, I think it shows otherwise: it shows men are an equal part of the women’s struggle.

WM: Are you saying that the way the men of these villages have taken up the case against the state doesn’t necessarily stigmatise the women?

NR: Yes. See what happens. In a patriarchal society like ours why don’t rapes get reported, because you know the moment you are going report the rape, everybody is going to know and then what happens to the women, the honour and dignity of your family? Everything goes for a toss. And you know this was a rape by Indian Army, not by just some common person. So when you go and report something like this, you obviously know that it’s going to create a lot of hype. That this is going to be reported far and wide and that people are going to know about it. This is not a regular thing that happened. This was a mass rape. So many women were raped; so many women’s lives would go for a toss after this was reported. Usually what happens is that men whose women have been raped, they wouldn’t want the whole world to know, they wouldn’t opt for doing something like this. In 1991, one could not have really expected that men folk coming out and talking about it.

There have been so many rapes by the Indian army also which haven’t been reported. There are many, many, many cases. We are working on that. There are other cases of rape back in nineties which have also been reported but this case has stood out because people from that village have not maintained silence about it. People coming out and speaking about it, struggling to even get the medical reports, getting the women tested. I think even fighting for those little things; I think it says otherwise about the men of Kunan Poshpora.

I don’t know if I should say that they are not patriarchal, that’s something that doesn’t leave men, and it’s so much part of our collective unconscious; that’s how we have been brought up and that’s how we know things to be. But I think the way the men of Kunan Poshpora fought along with the women and I think they are the ones who motivated the women to come out and speak about it. I think that really talks a lot about how they have not acted typically in that mould.

WM: When you were talking to these men, when the men speak about their women: the women who had been raped in that village, do they talk about shame? How do they define it?

NR: I think they don’t really talk in the sense that their women have been shamed but they do use the word ‘behurmati’ which actually means somebody violating your self-respect and dignity. They do use that word, but there is sense of anger to it, there is a sense of anger that their struggle has not lead to any justice. That is the sense I get when I have talked and spoken to people of Kunan Poshpora and not necessarily of shame. There is a lot of angst against the Indian state, against the Indian army but not necessarily of shame and dishonour.

They have a very different understanding. There have been so many medical camps in the village. You will hear of medical camps run by Indian army in Kunan Poshpora all the time. Also, it’s not very usual in rural areas to have macadamized roads, to have proper roads. But if you go to Kunan Poshpora, you will see there are macadamized roads, proper roads. You will see good roads in the villages but not in the by lanes. To have the macadamized by lanes is not a normal feature. And we know why the government is doing all of that. But you know, the people of Kunan Poshpora are able to see through all of that and they understand why things are happening and they go and say this to army fearlessly, not intimidated by what happened to them years back.

I wouldn’t say I have met all the men. There must be men who must be feeling a sense of shame like there were these young boys of the twin villages who were taunted in schools and colleges but they are now grown up men. But these young men now – they are the part of the struggle equally; they are not really ashamed of what happened to them. They know that they have struggled against. They see it as a sacrifice of their village.

I think the stigmatization has happened from the larger society, not from the men from the villages. I would say a lot of people do talk about Kunan Poshpora and say things like bohat galat huva, it was na-insaafi (injustice) and we need to fight for it but I don’t know how many of those men would go and marry somebody from Kunan Poshpora. How many of these people who back in 1991 made statements, if you go through the records and statements – how many of these men went ahead and married women from Kunan Poshpora when they were being stigmatised, when nobody was ready to marry them. It’s very sad that the larger society, otherwise they would show a lot of sympathy for these people, but when it’s about going and doing something concrete about them they would backtrack and they would be part of the other group which actually stigmatizes these women.

WM: The natural response and the language we use when a woman in our society is raped is behurmati. Is there a word for rape in Kashmiri language?

NR: Actually there isn’t. I don’t know if there is, we have to look for it. But when we were researching and wanted to look up for a Kashmiri translation for the word rape, or Urdu translation for it, we really couldn’t come up with any such word. All we can think of is behurmati. And how the Bollywood teaches us what rape is: izzat loot li kissi ne.

There is actually no word for rape in Kashmiri. It also tells us about the kind of society that we are: we don’t really want to talk about it and men don’t want to acknowledge that this thing ever happens. Like people don’t acknowledge incest, they don’t acknowledge rape. It’s almost the same thing.

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