The Himalayan mountains know best what happened on the cold dark night of February 23, 1991, deep in the Kashmir valley. But is it because what these mountains had seen occurred nearly three decades ago, in two nondescript villages, that India and the rest of the world today choose ignorance and indifference?
Kunan and Poshpora in the India-administered Kashmir valley were raided that night by more than 300 personnel of the Indian army. As many as 150 girls and women were raped that night; nearly 200 men were tortured. Barns became torture chambers. The next morning, as one can well imagine, was marked by immense horror and paralyzing pain.
And yet, justice is elusive over all these years, as the Indian army has continued to exercise barbarism and has enjoyed complete impunity, thanks to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The controversial law lets Indian Army personnel enter any premise at any time in the Valley, without a search warrant, and use lethal force, if they deem it necessary. The Indian state has continuously shirked responsibility for abuses at the hands of the Army. Human rights groups have repeatedly condemned extrajudicial killings by Indian forces.
Countering the cry for “azaadi”—freedom for Kashmir—which is contested by both India and Pakistan, has resulted in the region becoming one of the most militarized areas on the planet. The spike in militancy in the 1990s was what brought in the army to the Valley, and the white expanses of snow were stained with blood for nearly two decades. Thousands of men have since disappeared; thousands of women have been raped; thousands have died in extrajudicial killings and torture at army camps where they were illegally detained. But it is the Kunan-Poshpora rapes of 1991 that epitomize the intensity of this oppression, with the Indian Army holding down Kashmir and its people, against their will and by force.
Only 40 of the women who were raped stepped forward to seek justice; the majority of the others were advised by their village elders against doing so as they were unmarried, and they wouldn’t be able to find grooms. Marriage, they deemed, was necessary toward moving on in life. When the authors of Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? wrote their book — right after Indians came to the streets to protest the brutal gang-rape of Jyoti Singh in December 2012 — five of the women who were raped by army personnel had died. Many of the men who had suffered torture, including beatings and electric shocks to their genitalia — had also died.
The struggle for justice began with getting local police to register complaints. Along the way, the women have had to demand an investigation, and witness the closure of their cases for a lack of evidence. A case has been awaiting a hearing in the Indian Supreme Court for the last three years. The women have patiently and repeatedly recounted what happened that night to anyone and everyone who has reached out to them, but it is only the Indian state that chooses to disbelieve them.
In his book, Ethnography of Social Trauma in Jammu and Kashmir, TM Shah details another of incident’s account by one 60-year-old widow, Fauzia:
Soldiers enter the house, put the gun at the temple of my father and tie up the younger men. They demand food and after consuming it, they hold the hand of the most beautiful daughter in front of the parents and brothers and take her to another room and rape her throughout the night. They separate men folk outside and molest and rape women inside…. We have to obey; otherwise they either kill our men on flimsy grounds or beat them to pulp or do something like that.
A researcher, who has been meeting the survivors of Kunan-Poshpora, pondered after one of her visits to the twin villages:
What was it like, I found myself imagining, to be squatting in your own snowy barn yard, drowning in your tin bucket, broken and blubbering on your hard granary floor, blinded by chillies from your own store? Or most unimaginably of all, to be Abdul Wani. To return from an overnight business trip to Srinagar and find your front door broken, your two sons in bed electrocuted, your wife and three daughters raped, and your family’s barn turned into the village torture chamber?
What, then, of justice? Organizations like the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) have been meticulously noting the testimonies of people from across Kashmir, and have been nudging the Indian state toward dealing with the violent oppression of the Indian Army.
Beyond a prolonged legal battle between courts and street demonstrators and human rights organizations is an attempt by Kashmiri women and those in solidarity across the world to etch this date — February 23 — in history. In recent times, hundreds of Kashmiri youth have been blinded by pellet guns. The memory of Burhan Wani — who rose to prominence, as the rich young man who joined Hizbul Mujahideen to avenge the humiliation suffered at the hands of the Indian Army, and whose killing brought 50,000 to the streets — continues to stir in the streets of Kashmir.
The women of Kashmir continue to resist the occupation of their land — and their bodies — in their everyday lives. Every home in Kashmir has a tale of the price that has been paid in the quest for azaadi. Since 2014, the women of Kashmir have deemed February 23 as Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day, towards keeping alive the memory of what happened in Kunan Poshpora, and subsequently, in many other incidents of rape and murder of Kashmiri women. Rape continues to be a weapon of intimidation in conflict zones around the world, leaving a trail of communities buried in shame.
But remembering that winter night decades ago isn’t easy either for the survivors, because the summer sun has to be sought for survival. What definitely isn’t an option is forgetting: Indian society equally mocks and takes pride in its ability to keep issues alive for just a fortnight, before a new scandal or tragedy makes headlines. But the women of Kashmir would rather have Kunan-Poshpora etched in the history books, which continue to only extol the virtues of India’s men in uniform.