Unravelling a ‘mass rape’

On the night of February 23-24, 1991, a Battalion of the 4th Rajasthan Rifles 68th Brigade conducted a cordon-and-search operation in the adjacent Kunan-Poshpora villages in Kupwara of Jammu and Kashmir.

What happened after that has remained a subject of rage and fury, allegations and denials, claims and counter-claims. Villagers have alleged that army personnel raped anywhere between 23 to 100 women repeatedly through the night. If true, this would make it the single biggest instance of sexual violence by the state forces in India’s history. The Army has denied the accusation, calling it baseless and a malicious lie. The case has never been investigated to its logical conclusion through established process.

But a door for truth and justice may finally have opened up.

On June 18, responding to a closure petition by the police, filed 22 years after the case investigation was closed, the Kupwara judicial magistrate has directed further investigation “to unravel the identity of those who happened to be the perpetrators of the alleged crime”. The investigation is to be carried out by an officer not below the rank of an SSP, within three months.

The Hindu has accessed a series of case-related documents from 1991, including the District Magistrate’s report which called for investigation and led to the FIR registration two weeks after the incident; the then divisional commissioner Wajahat Habibullah’s full report, stating that the allegations of mass rape could not be sustained but acknowledging the anger of women and recommending investigation — the latter half, which recommended higher-level investigation, was deleted by the government at the time of making the report public; a Press Council of India report which gave the Army a clean chit; the prosecutor’s recommendation to close the case in October 1991; and the recent magistrate order. The Hindu also spoke to PCI team members who visited Kunan Poshpora, B G Verghese and K Vikram Rao; then DC Mr Habibullah; and members of a civil society team that recently visited Kunan Poshpora.

The Verghese defence

Veteran journalist B.G. Verghese continues to believe that the allegations are “bogus”.

Emphasising the context of “all-pervasive fear”, Mr. Verghese says that unlike the police, whose family members could be threatened, the Army could not be “blackmailed”. “So, the militant idea was to put the Army in a position of public shame and make people feel that the Army was a dangerous element itself. And this would make the Army reluctant to go into areas.”

The then Army Chief, General S.F. Rodrigues, whose father and Mr. Verghese had been colleagues, complained to the latter that there was a “propaganda war” against them. On the Army’s complaint, the Press Council of India (PCI) expanded the mandate of a pre-existing committee, led by Mr. Verghese, to look at the Army’s alleged human rights excesses.

In mid-June 1991, Mr. Verghese and another committee member, K. Vikram Rao, flew in an Air Force chopper to Kunan-Poshpora. They stayed in the quarters of the brigade alleged to have committed the offence and took along with them as interpreter someone from the local police-station, making it a ‘sponsored visit’. “You can call us government stooges because we took their hospitality. But the writing is ours,” says Mr .Verghese.

In its report, the PCI team calls the incident an “invention”, “totally unproven and completely untrue, a dirty trick to frame the Army and get it to lay off Kunan Poshpora”.

It questions why the incident was not reported for “ten days”, since the village was “not that remote”, and if it was a question of shame, how was it that the same women talked about it “tirelessly” later on. Reiterating a point made by Mr. Habibullah, it points to fluctuations in numbers, and highlights the fact that villagers had signed a No-Objection Certificate on the morning the operation concluded. Villagers have, however, testified that this was coerced, and in initial police investigations, the NOC submitted by the Army did not have names of witnesses and their signatures.

The committee felt that the “delayed medical examination” proved nothing; there was no medical report but only “women’s say so”, and a “torn hymen”, as in the case of three unmarried women, could be a result of “natural factors, injury, pre-marital sex or rape”.

A local police constable, Abdul Ghani, who was from the village and accompanied the Army column, claimed he had “seen nothing”, but “heard cries of women”. The committee found it suspicious that the same constable signed the NOC and reported nothing to his superiors.

The report examines the contradictions in the testimony of one Zarifa, who told interlocutors that she was pregnant during the rape and delivered a child with a broken arm three days later. But she told others that the child was born six days before the rape. Women and children from the same village were visiting the same military brigade for medical treatment, which made the committee feel that people did not fear the Army. K. Vikram Rao, too says the incident was “over-blown”. “Molestation may have happened. But charges of rape were definitely not true.” It was “bad luck” for 4 RR, which became a victim of “powerful Pakistani propaganda”.

More than a two decades later, the Verghese committee has come under renewed criticism. An initial investigation by the SHO had established the commission of an offence. The State Human Rights Commission in 2011 said personnel of the armed forces had “turned into beasts” and rapes happened. “Small groups of security forces personnel… had consumed liquor and then gagged the mouths of the victims and committed forced gang-rape.”

A recent civil society team visited the two villages documented the trauma. Former chief of the Border Security Force, E.N. Rammohan, who has served in Kashmir and was a part of the team, told The Hindu, “I am convinced there have been rapes, even if I can’t say how many. There has been a massive dereliction of duty by the district police and authorities.”

How could women, 22 years after the incident, be telling the same story, and revealing their darkest moments, if it was all “propaganda”? Mr. Verghese responds, “They are victims not because they were raped but portrayed as having been raped. They were promoted as rape victims, and the sentence of social stigma was passed onto them.”

Mr. Verghese added, however, “Look, I have no axe to grind. I was a co-founder of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties. I have been a strong critic of the government. You can call me an army stooge, a Christian saving a fellow Christian army chief, but the truth hurts.”

When asked why his team had not recommended further investigation, as Mr. Habibullah had done, Mr. Verghese said, “We were a fact-finding mission. Our job was not to make recommendations. Who were we to do it? I welcome further investigation, but those calling for it must see it to its logical conclusion and not leave it mid-air. Ask for an investigation to clear the episode, not create fear.”

Finding out the truth

Almost on the lines of what the PCI said, the Director, Prosecutions, in the police headquarters in Srinagar told the Kupwara police at the end of 1991 to close the investigations on the grounds that the statements “suffered from contradictions”; that the incident was not reported immediately; could have been “stage managed”; and that not identifying the accused had introduced a “fatal” lacuna.

However, in a scathing indictment, the Kupwara magistrate — who has reopened the investigation — has said that these “observations ought to have been reserved for trial court” for it was not for the prosecution to “convict, acquit or discharge” the accused, especially when the courts charge them even on “reasonable suspicion”. He has thrown the ball back into the court of the police on the issue of identification, questioning why the investigative agency had not unveiled the identity of [the] culprits despite have a “clear-cut nominal role of 125 suspects”.

The magistrate has also said that “circumstances” revealed an “unbreakable chain to put suspects on trial”; and that there was a “presumption in a gang-rape in favour of the victim”. This principle, a little more sensitivity, and commitment to finding out the truth needs to guide the police’s investigations, for, the villagers of Kunan-Poshpora, India’s armed forces, and citizens deserve to know what happened that fateful February night in snow-bound Kashmir.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 4:27:35 AM |

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