When will the villagers of Kunan Poshpora in Kashmir, who were subjected to mass sexual violence by soldiers 22 years ago, get justice?

he night of February 23, 1991, in the snow-bound villages Kunan Poshpora in Kupwara district of Kashmir, families were indoors, warming themselves with kangris or under quilts. The quiet of the night was shattered by sudden loud knocking on their doors. The army had arrived for another “crackdown” to flush out terrorists who they suspected were hiding in their village.

Militancy was at its peak in the valley, and it was routine for security forces to surround villages and pull men out of their houses for questioning. That night they were taken into two of the houses which were converted into interrogation torture chambers. Men were laid face down on logs, their face immersed in pots of chilli powder, and they were administered electric shocks.

Unknown to the men, bands of soldiers had entered each of their homes, where they brutally raped by turns girls and women from the ages of eight to 80, even as screaming children watched in horror. One woman recalls that — while she was still conscious — eight drunken men took turns in raping her. Another testifies that her four-year-old daughter was so traumatised seeing her mother gang-raped that she jumped out from her window, leaving her permanently disabled. Next morning, the men were instructed not to return home until the army contingent left. When they did, they found their houses ransacked, the women in their homes naked and bleeding, often unconscious, surrounded by devastated children.

Two days later, they gathered courage to file their complaint in the police station, but were refused. Only after they demonstrated outside his office, District Magistrate S.M. Yasin visited their village. He reported later that the soldiers “behaved like violent beasts”. Under his pressure, the police registered an FIR on March 18, 1991. But a month later, the Director Prosecution concluded that the case prepared by the police was “unfit for launching criminal prosecution”. Another month later, on October 21, the criminal case was closed without trial as the perpetrators were “untraced”.

For a desolate 11 years, nothing moved in what is probably the largest single case of mass sexual violence in independent India. The State was under a prolonged spell of President’s rule. Subsequently a succession of elected governments came and went, but no Chief Minister found time to reach out to the forgotten stricken people of Kunan Poshpora, nor any of the State’s senior political leaders.

In 2004, the impoverished villagers, mostly small farmers and farm workers, pooled money to file an application for belated justice in the State Human Rights Commission. The Commission recorded statements of many of the survivors (although the villagers took the precaution from the start of only asking only married women to complain, not unmarried girls, so that this would not block their chances of marriage later). It took another seven years for the Commission to finally conclude, on October 16, 2011, that personnel of the 4 Rajputana Rifles, 68 Mountain Brigade, had raped women of Kunan Poshpora on the night of February 23-24, 1991. It ordered the State government to pay the affected persons at least two lakh rupees each, and recommended that the criminal case be reopened and reinvestigated by a Special Investigation Team headed by an officer not below the rank of an SSP, and that the investigation be taken to its logical end in a time-bound period.

Even this did not stir the State government to move, despite a brief storm in the Assembly. Finally the MLA who represents their village, who was also the Law Minister, called a few older men from the village to meet the Chief Minister. He also distributed cash of one lakh rupees to 39 women. But the criminal case was still not reopened. Finally, a group of University students helped women of Kunan Poshpora petition the Supreme Court in March 2013, seeking implementation of the order of the State Human Rights Commission.

In June 2013, Seema Mustafa, senior journalist, invited a delegation for the Centre for Policy Analysis to visit the survivors. The team included Sehba Farooqui, AIDWA, Mohammad Salim, CPI-M, Bhalchandra, CPI, EN Rammohan, retired police officer, John Dayal, human rights activist and me. As we heard the men and women who gathered to meet us, it was evident that their wounds were unhealed, their agony unabated. It was as though the outrage occurred not 22 years earlier, but just yesterday.

Many women wept wordlessly. An old man whose aged mother was raped and who became permanently disabled by the torture he suffered that night, cried out: “When one woman was raped in Delhi, all of India lit candles in her memory for 15 days. But where is justice for us?” Young men spoke of the stigma as they grew and their classmates would ask whether their mothers or sisters were raped. Women spoke of 15 hysterectomies, the difficulties in getting their daughters wed, and the way memories of that night corroded their marriages and their lives.

Despite the orders of the High Court, the police filed another closure report before the Kupwara Sessions Court recommending the case again be closed without trial, in May 2013, claiming again that the perpetrators could not be traced. On June 10, 2013, a protest petition was filed on behalf of the survivors, alleging mala fide by the police because despite written information regarding involvement of 125 personnel of 4 Rajputana Rifles, the police had not questioned them, neither was an identification parade conducted. Just days after our visit, on June 18, 2013, District Judge Geelani rejected the police recommendation for closure, and asked the police to “unravel the identity of… the perpetrators”.

“Without justice, what is the point of living?” a village headman lamented to us. “Twenty-two years have passed since that terrible night. A hundred girls and women in Kunan Poshpora were gang-raped by soldiers of the Indian army. Until today, not a single person has been punished. How can we live?”

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