Kunan-Poshpora, Kashmir
Kunan-Poshpora, Kashmir helplinetoday.wordpress.com

Human rights group Amnesty International and other activists have renewed calls on the Indian government to investigate a series of mass rapes allegedly committed by Indian soldiers against Kashmiri women more than two decades ago. In late February 1991, as accounts assert, Indian troops raped at least two dozen (or as many as one-hundred) girls and women in the neighboring towns of Kunan and Poshpora in the Kupwara region of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), a state long claimed by both India and Pakistan and torn apart by sectarian violence and insurgency.

The army personnel, reportedly a battalion of the 4th Rajasthan Rifles 68th Brigade, arrived from a nearby military camp and were ostensibly searching for insurgents and militants. Detaining the men of the villages outside their homes, the soldiers allegedly entered the residents and sexually assaulted scores of females. (The men under detention were also allegedly tortured). After more than 22 years, the case remains in limbo.

“Previous investigations into the [rape] allegations have been ineffective,” Amnesty said in a statement. “The J&K police declared that the case was ‘untraceable’ and stopped investigations in October 1991. To date, investigations have remained inconclusive.” The Indian military has repeatedly denied these accusations and no one has ever faced charges or criminal prosecution for these alleged crimes. Many Indian army and government officials as well as media have since blasted the rape allegations as either bogus or ‘pro-Pakistani’ propaganda.

"Molestation may have happened, but charges of rape were definitely not true," said Press Council of India (PCI) member K. Vikram Rao, according to The Hindu newspaper. Indeed, PCI, which the Indian army once invited to investigate the rape allegations, dismissed the accusations as a “massive hoax orchestrated by [anti-Indian] militant groups and their sympathizers.”

In June 2013, however, a judicial magistrate in Kupwara ordered a new probe "to unravel the identity of those who happened to be the perpetrators of the alleged crime" within three months. Now, more officials believe the rapes did indeed occur and should be prosecuted. A former chief of the Indian Border Security Force, E.N. Rammohan, who served in Kashmir, 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."

However, after more than 20 years of waiting for justice, local villagers are almost bereft of hope. A 57-year-old woman, now a grandmother, described her ordeal on that winter night long ago. “I had my infant baby, whom I was still breastfeeding, in my arms,” she told the Calcutta Telegraph newspaper. “My four daughters were also in the room. They [the soldiers] threw the baby to one side and dragged my two elder daughters to an adjoining room. They violated us through the whole night.” She added that she later filed a complaint with the local police for herself, but “didn’t report the rapes of my daughters, thinking who would marry them? I wish I had died that day.”

Aside from the trauma of enduring rape, the victims and survivors must deal with the 'stigma' attached to their ordeal – in this extremely conservative area, the victims of rape become “soiled” in the minds of other villagers. As a result, many female victims and their relatives were deemed “unsuitable” for marriage. “My sister was raped,” a local male villager named Ghulam Ahmed Dar told the Telegraph. “We had to marry her off to a man more than double her age. Many other girls too had to make such compromises. We still face problems in getting suitable grooms for them.” Even male relatives of the alleged victims have faced similar stigmatization, including an inability to finish school due to harassment and ridicule from classmates.

But with renewed focus on endemic abuse and violence against Indian women, prompted by the huge media coverage of the gang-rape and subsequent death of a Delhi medical student last year, some in Kashmir are hoping for a new attitude from Indian state officials. One woman in Kunan-Poshpora referred to the enormous publicity generated by that gang-rape and compared it to the 1991 incident in Kashmir. “When the poor young girl in Delhi was raped, you changed the law,” she complained to Frontline India. “Here [in Kashmir], when our women were raped by men in uniform for an entire night, you have only intervened to give them [the accused rapists] a clean [slate]. Is this justice?”

Another villager, a man named Ghulam Ahmed Dar, lamented the lack of interest in Kashmir's problems by India's civil society. “We want the accused soldiers tried under Indian law, the same law under which the accused in the Delhi rape and murder case are being tried,” he told the Telegraph. “Her [the Delhi rape victim’s] suffering shocked us deeply but equally shocking for us is the silence of India’s civil society [about Kunan-Poshpora].”

Five of the alleged victims have since died, some from injuries suffered in the assaults. “They raped my mother-in-law, who was around 70 years old, her two daughters-in-law including me, and her granddaughter-in-law,” said one woman. “There were cries from everywhere. My mother-in-law died heartbroken a few years ago.”

Reflecting the frustration of the Kashmir villages, Amnesty said it urges authorities in J&K to “conduct a thorough, impartial and effective investigation meeting international standards into the alleged rapes, and where sufficient admissible evidence is found, prosecute the suspects in a competent, independent and impartial civilian court.”