By Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh
Reading Patricia Williams in Kashmir
Ever since I became involved in the case of the #HandwaraGirl, I have been haunted by Patricia William’s essay ‘Mirrors and Windows’, which I had first read in law school, over 12 years ago. In it, Williams, a black feminist law professor and diarist, reflects on the refracted optics of laughter and humiliation, of blackness and rape in America. Specifically, the 1987 ‘rape hoax’ of Tawana Brawley, where a 15-year-old girl from New York was found partially clothed and disoriented, half inside a garbage bag, with urine-soaked cotton stuffed into her mouth and ears, smeared with shit, with her hair shorn off, and the words ‘nigger’ and ‘KKK’ scrawled on her body.
Later, she appeared to say in a taped statement (she was dazed and spoke partly through gestures and notes), which was released to the media, that she had been raped by a New York policeman and two district officials. She was, after police investigations, accused of faking her own violation when officials stated that no physical evidence could be found that substantiated her version of what had happened. The New York State Attorney General stated before a grand jury, “no crime may have been committed” and the case was never sent to trial.
Patricia Williams differs. She writes that Brawley was “the victim of some unspeakable crime. No matter how she got there. No matter who did it to her — and even if she did it to herself.” She then goes on to talk about what followed after Brawley’s very public, racially surcharged and misogynistic discrediting in the press. She was whisked away from the public gaze by controversial civil rights’ leader Al Sharpton, as the men in charge — her buffoonish lawyers, her so-called civil rights saviours, publicly squabbled over who was responsible for her predicament, including a challenge to a boxing match on the sets of a talk show.
What had brought ‘Mirrors and Windows’ so insistently to my mind this year was a shard of a half-remembered line, a footnote citing a journalist, it turned out, which said “What first signalled to [her] that a Black girl was about to become a public victim was hearing the name of an alleged rape victim — given on a local radio news show. Since when does the press give the name of any rape victim, much less one who is underage? Obviously when the victim is black and thus not worthy of the same respect and protection that would be given a white child.”
Those misremembered lines came to me as I watched news channels in April giving constant airplay to a bare-faced illegality of a video of an adolescent sexual assault complainant in school uniform, appearing to say “I came out of a bathroom, and one of my friends snatched my bag and a crowd gathered and I came to the police station.” When what she was really saying/not saying, was “There was no soldier in the bathroom.” Her whole statement, like her blurred face on some of the videos, was an aporia. Nothing. It was TV only because we all knew what she wasn’t saying was supposed to mean. And we all knew that she was on all our TV screens, because she was Kashmiri, because no Indian girl would be put on television, saying/not saying nothing happened, and the not happening of this thing would not require videographic evidence, would not be accompanied by murder and mayhem — of course we all knew it had to be Kashmir. And we all knew that the video was viral, not just because the army had officially circulated it, but because of this unsayable but well-known thing, the public secret beating at the heart of it. The thing that just hadn’t happened.
We know what happened after. “The girl whose sexual assault complaint triggered protests leading to five deaths in North Kashmir”, is what she is called in press reports. But there’s a lot we don’t know about what happened between the happening-not happening of the thing and the killings of the five civilians in North Kashmir. And sometimes what we just don’t know gets in the way of what we do know. So let us take stock, as Williams does in her essay, of what we know for certain, from more than one source (1, 2, 3, 4 and 5), since the facts can be hard to piece together, since that other Very Kashmiri Thing, a ‘media clampdown’ had followed almost immediately after the video went viral. It is, still, far more than we will ever know of Tawana Brawley.
On 12th April, shortly after 2 pm, a female high school student went to a public bathroom, behind a military watch post in Handwara and overlooked by it. A soldier was seen entering it by shopkeepers across the street, and the girl immediately emerged and was crying and/or heard screaming. She was asked why she went there, and was assaulted by some high school boys, whom she already knew, one whom had been accompanying her. She continued to cry, and tried to get her bag back, possibly so she could leave. A crowd began to gather. The soldier in this melee made his way to the military bunker, in the town square, a couple of hundred metres away. A policeman in civvies, Mohammad Shafi Watali (the girl’s neighbour and relative) was part of the crowd. The girl was taken to the police station by him.
The by-now fairly large crowd moved its attention to the soldier who had been seen leaving the bathroom, surrounded the bunker at Main Chowk, and began protesting and attacking it with stones and brick-bats demanding he be brought before them. One soldier was sent down, but members of the crowd who had seen the soldier exiting the bathroom refused to accept it was him. They demanded that the right man be produced. The same soldier was sent down again, and the protestors continued agitating. Tear gas shelling started.
Meanwhile, Nayeem Qadir Bhat, 19, a boy from the locality who had gone home to fetch a camera for his journalist brother, was shot by a policeman Assistant Sub Inspector Mohammad Raffiq [subsequently suspended] in the alleyway near the school. Soldiers in the bunker opened fire at the crowd. Another boy, Mohammad Iqbal, 21, an eyewitness to the events at the bathroom from his shop across the street, and part of the crowd, was also killed. The bunkers near the bathroom and at the Main Chowk were set on fire by the crowd.
The girl’s father and aunt were summoned by the police around 1 am on the morning of 13th April, after being informed that she was in custody at the Handwara Police station, and they should take her home. When they arrived at the station, they were detained instead. Violent protests continued, and spread over the next day. as the bunker at Main Chowk in Handwara and the bathroom where the incident occurred were burnt. Even as this was happening, a video of the girl, presumably still in police custody, began circulating on social media and television, saying she was assaulted by local boys. I say presumably because no one, including the police, has stated she was anywhere other than in their custody, from the happening of the non-happening, to the High Court order releasing her on 12th May 2016.
Around 9.45 pm that night the army officially ‘authenticated’ and ‘released’ the video on its Druva Media WhatsApp group, run by the Northern Command. Three more Kashmiri civilians were killed by Indian armed forces (police/army) in neighbouring areas over the next two days, even as mobile Internet was shut down all over the valley, and Handwara, Baramulla, Kangan, Kupwara and other police districts in North Kashmir were placed under cordon and curfew. All civilians, including lawyers, human rights activists and journalists, were denied entry into town, at least until late night of 15th April, three days after the incident had occurred.
Until 17th April 2016, there was no official intimation of the exact whereabouts of the minor or her father, even to her mother, though her mother knew from the community (including Watali, their policeman relative) that they had been moved from Handwara police station. She and her other children left their home, and stayed at the home of close relatives, possibly fearing further police summons.
On 16th April, her mother filed an emergency habeas corpus petition in the High Court at Srinagar, with the help of local activists and Srinagar and Handwara-based lawyers, saying that she had not seen her daughter since the day she was taken into police custody. The High Court passed orders asking that she be produced before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Handwara, under the constitutional requirement to produce arrested persons before a magistrate within 24 hours, something the police had failed to do over the four days she had been in their custody. (The court treated her as an accused person in asking that she be produced before a magistrate, rather than a minor not accused of any crime, reportedly alleging sexual assault, whose whereabouts were not known.) Her mother tried to also address a press conference the next day, but this was sought to be stopped when the venue (the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society – JKCCS office, where I sometimes work out of) was barricaded by paramilitary and police forces, and the press denied entry.
She had however given a pre-recorded press interview, in which she stated that she did not know where her husband, daughter or sister were, that she had heard from witnesses outside the bathroom that her daughter had been assaulted, and that she strongly believed that her daughter had made her videographed statement under duress. On the same day, her daughter, by now being referred to as the “Handwara minor”, was brought to the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate by police from an undisclosed location, and she recorded a statement reiterating what she had said in the video circulated by the Army. Her father also filed an application for ‘police protection’, which was granted.
Later, they independently described what had happened at the court, (her father at a press conference on 2nd May 2016 and the girl herself at a press conference on 16th May 2016) and disputed the voluntariness and veracity of the statement and application. They were taken by police to the home of a relative at Zachaldara, an isolated hamlet 7 km from Handwara, whose only access road is through an army camp. She and her father tried to leave the house and come home to Handwara, when they were detained by police and sent back. Her mother was finally allowed to meet her late on the night of 17th April, four days from the day she had last seen her, after prolonged negotiations with police. The Handwara girl’s seized phones were returned to her on 18th April 2016, and thereafter she communicated with Nayeema Mehjoor, State Women’s Commissioner, and with her lawyers, but her family was not allowed to attend court hearings. She remained in police “protection” until exactly a month later, when she was released after further High Court orders on 12th May 2016 .
The Internet curfew was also lifted by 18th April, but admins of all WhatsApp groups in North Kashmir were asked to register with district officials. Many young men from Handwara, including the boys accused of slapping her, were arrested and 28 separate FIRs filed on charges of molestation (for slapping her), rioting, and incitement to violence (spreading rumours). FIRs were also filed against the boys killed in armed forces firing.
In Tawana Brawley’s case, her family was racially vilified, victim-blamed and slut-shamed after her case was declared unprosecutable. The media carnival eventually lapsed into silence, only interrupted by intermittent missives from the abyss she had been disappeared into — “she wants to be a model” … “she is depressed”. What remained, for Williams, were three photographic after-images of Brawley. The first, her abject, semi conscious, and half-clothed body strapped to an ambulance gurney during her journey to the hospital; the second, shadowy and passive behind her male ‘protectors’ with their mouths wide open at a press conference; the third, a candid shot recorded in a comedy club (after her release from hospital, but before her ‘disappearance’) head thrown back, laughing at a joke about her rape-faking, promiscuous self, nested in an allusion to her drug-addicted father (“Tawana Brawley should have Just said No to herself.” Haw-haw).
I have three images of the girl from Handwara, myself.
First. In uniform, face blurred, framed by a hijab on a TV screen alongside pictures of the Handwara Main Chowk bunker on fire, and scrolling tickers of ‘Kashmir in flames’ and ‘Girl denies Army man molested her.’
Second, a view from behind her at a press conference, organised at the JKCCS. She is veiled in a full niqab and a black abaya, her crying father at her side, her mother, head wrapped in a dupatta, bent double, looking like a strangely inhuman bundle of clothing. Microphones, cameras, and raised mobile phones are pointed at her. I hear cameras clicking and feel the heat from so many sweaty masculine bodies, the thrusting and jostling of too many people in a space much too small for them. A manspreading journalist sits on the chair closest to her, his two smartphones between his splayed thighs, pointing at his family jewels. (He remains like this through the press conference. He is so close that the profile of this face juts into all the videos shot that day. Almost every woman in the room, other than the girl and her mother, comments on it later.) The girl struggles to find a moment of quiet in which to begin speaking. She says, in English, in a voice that sounds to me like that of a young schoolteacher calling an unruly classroom to order, “Silence please!”. A ripple of surprise flows through the room.
Third. After the press conference, in the back room of the office, when she flops down on the sofa next to me, unclips her niqab to reveal a flushed face, and asks me where the bathroom is.
A Girl’s Search for a Bathroom
The toilet where the assault occurred had a military post overlooking it. It is located in an alley, lined with shops, at the corner of one of the radial roads, at Handwara Main chowk. It has become the subject of some intrepid investigative journalism. An article in the Kashhmir Narrator, profiling the five civilians killed by armed forces, described it thus:
The worn out walls of the toilet would be somewhere around five feet and four inches high. Before the killings [after which the bunker and bathroom were burnt and demolished], it was corked with a corrugated sheet of tin and a few pieces of decayed wood. It is situated right behind a line of shops, hidden from public gaze. The toilet is a reeking garbage thing. You have to cover your nose when you go near to it. Before the killings, above the line of shops was a one-man military bunker. Right across the road was another concrete bunker where more that two army men would guard the Indian flag hoisted on a long aluminum pole.[…] The toilet had been put up for the use of army men only. And don’t forget that: only for army men. It was nearer to the army man above the shops. Nobody else would use this toilet, a local shopkeeper told me.
There are around 20 washrooms in the girl’s school. Her home is just half the distance than what it could take her to reach the toilet in question. When you leave the main gate of the school, you either turn left or the right. If you turn left and walk some 50 yards you will have the girl’s home and maybe her own family toilet. If you turn right and walk some 30 yards and then turn little right again behind the line of shops you will find the toilet in question, used “specifically” by the army men. However, if you are in the market and you need to go to a washroom, you will still have the option to use a decent washroom in a toilet complex that is probably run by the local municipality. It has two cubicles for both the sexes and is some 40 yards away from the toilet in question. It is nearer to the school and the main road than the toilet where the alleged incident of ‘molestation’ happened. It is not sandwiched between the rear of the shops and high walled veterinary office like the toilet in question. It was this toilet, meant only for army men, that the girl had tried to use, according to her own testimony in a video clip apparently filmed and shared by the police.
The burning question clearly is, why did she go to that positively indecent, militarised toilet knowing it was so dangerous? Her reason, in her words before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, and in her only public statement to the press outside of police custody, is that she went to the facilities nearest to a shop called Information Hub, a photocopy store where she happened to be, that lay directly across the street from it, when she needed to go. She had stopped by this store on her way back from school, because she had left her mobile phones there in the custody of a friendly shop owner as many girls from her school did, phones being banned at her school, as they are in many schools. (In conversation with her community, I learnt that the school’s No Phone policy was enforced by students, volunteers under the Indian Government’s National Service Scheme (NSS), who were empowered to inform school authorities, and confiscate “illegal phones”. This is a disciplinary practice adopted across many high schools in Kashmir, I’m told).
As for the toilets at her school, first, they were further away. Moreover, she has said they were closed after school hours. High school students in Handwara have told me that this toilet closure policy was enforced at her school, after girls were found to have been stashing their (contraband) cell phones in the bathrooms, and picking them up after or between classes. That a girl’s high school should have a No-Loafing After Hours on School Premises policy, and that toilets and even gates should be closed in order to ensure compliance, does not sound unusual to me. I know we had a similar policy at the all girls’ school I went to, where the school compound was more or less out of bounds after hours, unless one had a specific reason (sports practice or similar) to be there; and the annual fete, the one day in the school year when boys (accompanied by families) were allowed into the cloistered school grounds, was a source of high excitement among the students, and apoplectic anxiety among teachers. And this in an age well before the moral well-being of our girl children was presumed to be mortally endangered by cell phones. Even having a nunnery in the back gardens rather than an army post overlooking the back compound wall, as the Handwara Government Higher Secondary Girls School does.
Finally, we come to the question of why she didn’t go home. Perhaps — I speculate here, since she herself has never spoken of it — it was simply because she didn’t want to go home just yet? She had picked up her phones, she didn’t want to trudge back to the school where the toilets were likely to be closed anyway, and where mobile phones were banned. She thought she’d pop into the nearest loo, do her thing, then hang around the chowk for a bit, have a laugh with her friends, maybe get a quick after-school snack. As teenagers of all genders (like to) do everywhere, in any town, in any country. As high school students will. It’s the kind of adolescent socialising that no cell phone ban, no curfew (whether imposed by family, school or military), no high walled school compound, no moralising sermons, not even four bunkers full of soldiers in their town square, can entirely eradicate or should. Hell, even an impending holocaust in Nazi Amsterdam didn’t.
That one should have to go into this explanation at all, is what bothers me. What has occasioned this forensic examination of the antecedents, and the decency of the ‘bathroom at hand’, and her motivations in her visit to it? Is this how complaints of assaults are routinely dealt with by the press? Imagine for a second, a Kashmiri boy goes to a bathroom with an army watch post behind and overlooking it on his way back from school, and is reportedly assaulted. Would the question at all arise about why he went to the bathroom? And what kind of bathroom it was? What kind of public discourse would we hear, if indeed such speculations arose?
Why did the boy go to that bathroom?
(a) He needed to take a leak. (He should’ve used the roadsides like everyone else)
(b) Look at the militarisation! Even our toilets are occupied
(c) He was asserting his right to a public convenience and his resistance against an occupation. What a hero.
And then we have our girl, going to the same bathroom
And the responses:
—Why didn’t she just hold it in and just go home/back to school/to the decent bathroom helpfully located at the chowk?
—Why did she have more than one phone?
—Dappaan (it is said), she had an affair with an army man. What a slut.
Bathrooms, like girls, have reputations. A miasma of filth, sleaze and danger clings to them. They are seen as panic-ridden sites of illicit, transgressive or criminalised sexual encounters, criminality and contamination. The basic right to access a safe, hygienic, and private space to relieve themselves, is denied to women everywhere. Many sexual assaults take place when women go to faraway fields to relieve themselves under cover of darkness, as this is the only time they can do so privately, making married women’s right to shouch (defecation) in private, a main plank of the Indian government’s audio-visual campaign about the need to build shouchalays, starring Vidya Balan. Public restrooms, and the lack thereof, are very much part of the material infrastructure and built architecture of how cities and spaces control women’s movements. So yes, indecent women, and indecent bathrooms, have long and tangled histories.
But what I want to know is, which came first in this case? The indecency of the bathroom or the indecency of the girl? Is she the wrong sort of girl because she went to the wrong bathroom for the wrong sort of reasons? Or is she a bad girl because she lied on the video in the police station? Or before the Chief Judicial Magistrate? Would she still be a good girl, if she hadn’t lied then? A virtuous victim of a predator with a gun? Is she a bad girl because the boys died in vain? Because the moment she ‘lied’ to the police (according to her to stop the violence from spreading, to stop her family from being attacked which the police told her was being planned), the boys stopped being martyrs to her honour — the honour of pure, imperiled Kashmiri womanhood? And by the time she was out of the protective stranglehold of policemen, and Women’s Commissioners, and by the time the family had clawed its way through the legal process, and had her released her from police’s protective custody, it was too late? Much too late, because the damage had been done, the blood had been spilt and having had the sacrificial bodies piled upon the altar of her lies, she had lost her virtue, and she could only and always have been the wrong sort of girl?
Which begs the question, what if she was indeed such an indecent girl, who went to the toilet (let us leave the toilet’s moral proclivities aside for the moment) because even bad girls may have reason to use a bathroom — to adjust a hijab, to take an emergency leak, to remove an itchy under-shirt, to change a sanitary napkin. What if she went in there (heaven forbid!) to have a rendezvous with a special friend outside of the gaze of bazaar or chowk? Even (don’t say the words) with a ‘military uncle’? Can she not still have been assaulted by the same man, or another soldier who had seen her enter it from his military post, within whose direct line of sight it was located?
Why are we asking what sort of girl visits an indecent kind of bathroom, instead of asking, why are there soldiers in and looking over bathrooms, in the heart of towns, behind school yards, across the street from shops? Between the toilets at her school, (the back wall of which is over looked by an army post), the mobile shop which is across the street from another army watch post, and the bathroom at the chowk, in which the central bunker, (now demolished) stood, there was always going to be a soldier within metres of her using a public convenience. This is the real obscenity, the absolute savage indecency in all of this. There’s so much danger lurking in every dark bathroom, so many military eyes and guns, silently watching our every move in Kashmir, that it makes us forget indecent bathrooms don’t assault girls (good or bad), indecent men do. That while women may or may not be dirty, the war certainly is.
Videotape, Sex and So Many Lies
Male voice (off screen): I’ve told you…You are like my daughter, tell me what happened clearly and truthfully
Girl: Sir… Sir…After school let off I went there [indicates with hand]. I gave my bag to my friend. When I came back I got my bag back from my “friend” [said in English]. A boy snatched the bag away and slapped me
Male voice (off screen): Civil ladkay? [that is, a civilian boy not in military or police uniform]
Girl: Yes. He was in school uniform. He said, “Have all Kashmiris died?” I was shocked. I said, “What do you mean by saying ‘Are all Kashmiris dead’?” When this happened, a lot of people gathered around. They said come with us to the police station. There was a police uncle there as well.
Male voice [off screen]: Did he bring you here?
Girl: No. I said “I will go by myself. Let go off my bag and I will go.” I didn’t see anyone there. [Repeats] I didn’t see anyone there.
Hilal baaiya [(‘baaiya’ —‘brother’ in Koshur) Hilal Ahmed subsequently arrested for the assault] was also there, he slapped me and asked me “What were you doing there?” I said, “Hilal baaiya, you come to my home, You know everything about my family. Do you also think I’m like that?” He abused me. I think they had already decided… They said a lot of other things…[Phone rings in background] He accompanied me to the police station. He came inside too and still wouldn’t return my bag. It was only after Shafi uncle [policeman Mohd Shafi Watali] intervened that he returned my bag. Shafi uncle told him to leave. He was instigating other boys.
At the end of the video, male voice off screen: Chalo, Shabaash! [That’s the way. Well done!]
That’s a transcript, translated by Koshur-speaking Kashmiri friends, of what the first video of the Handwara girl contains. I believe it was illegally recorded, and circulated and is legally inadmissible and criminally prosecutable. But because it has become so much a part of what we know (or pretend not to know) because it is offered as proof of much, because her subsequent magistrate’s statement so hinges on it so that it is often only described as ‘reiterating it’, because her subsequent statement to the press is described so often described as a ‘U-Turn’ from it, I quote from it to point out one single, singular fact about it. What I have quoted above is the only assault she speaks of. What she does not say, what she never said publicly until her release from police custody, what she was kept in custody to presumably stop her from publicly saying, is what happened ‘there’, the bathroom she had just left, before her bag was snatched.
Videos as both media and evidentiary objects, (and sometimes the line between the two is far from obvious) have a way of closing in the frame, reordering our sense of causation and chronology, organising discrete events in a narrative sequence — compressing some, distancing others, erasing some altogether. This video, for instance, appeared to foreclose the possibility of more than one assault having occurred, one inside the bathroom and one outside, because she spoke of one and remained silent about the other. This, despite the fact that she was clearly referring to something having occurred prior, that her angry (male) companions knew about, which caused them to slap her, and take away her bag from her so she could not leave. This also despite several reported eye-witness accounts saying that a soldier had been seen exiting the bathroom with her.
The frame closed around the (translated) content of her words alone, her ‘confessional statement’ as it was sometimes called, and nothing we had known outside of the frame of the video would henceforth be as relevant or authoritative in deciding the truth of what happened to her. The well-documented cause of the protests around the bunker, in early and local news, becomes in the next day’s national news reports attributable to a ‘wild rumour’ (as opposed, I suppose, to an Army-authenticated and released, but otherwise unsourced viral video, in which she speaks in Koshur which most news outlets do not bother to have independently translated).
She was from this day forth almost universally pronounced an enigma, clouded in a mystery, shrouded in conspiracy theories trapped in a ‘war of narratives’ that is Kashmir. Yet another, unfathomably complex, Very Kashmiri Enigma whose Truth May Never Be Known.
Almost as soon as the video began circulating, Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Kafila wrote: “If it is indeed true that she was not molested by a soldier but by someone else then the incident needs to be looked at in another light.” That is to say, if she had been assaulted by Kashmiri boys, it could not mean she had also been assaulted by a soldier. An appeal by “concerned Kashmiris” urged that “Proper punishment (be) meted out to the culprits — the boys who beat up the Handwara girl and incited violence or the armed personnel who molested her (unlikely, but for fairness sake, not impossible).”
As if assaults are an either/or true/false proposition. As if, if you are assaulted once, you are somehow rendered magically immune to being assaulted again by other people thereafter, which we know for a fact isn’t true. As if the repeated revictimisation of survivors of sexual abuse and violence were an unheard of, rather than a well-documented and universally observable phenomenon. As if it were so utterly and completely unimaginable that a young woman should go to a bathroom beneath a bunker, that she should be assaulted first by a soldier, and then blamed and accosted by her friends for putting herself voluntarily or involuntarily in that situation, in other words for being the ‘that’ sort of girl. And that she should whilst in police custody, omit to the mention the first of these in any direct way.
The next morning, the newspapers and television channels were awash with readings and translations of what she hadn’t really said. What she had, in fact, actually glossed over in her narrative, which jumped straight from getting off from school, giving her bag to her friend while she went to the bathroom, and being assaulted by boys in school uniform (one of whom she knew well), who snatched her bag after she came out. Indian Express ran with the headline ‘Handwara firing: Girl denies molestation by Army man’ – The report reproduces (more or less verbatim but without attribution) a translation of her statement, as helpfully appended to the video released and authenticated by Col. Arun of the Indian Army admin of the Northern Command’s media WhatsApp group Druva Media the previous night (more on this, later). Zee News states “In the footage, the girl is seen completely rejecting the reports of being molested by any soldier.” Perhaps learning from experience, Zee Media takes no responsibility regarding the veracity of the video (or, apparently, its translation). Only NDTV manages to get it right when it says, “in the statement recorded on a mobile phone, the girl does not talk about molestation by any soldier.”
But if I had to pick, the clincher is surely The Times of India, which in a report tells us that the “guileless and modestly dressed minor was seen denying allegations of molestation and illicit relationship [with the army]. It was not clear before whom the girl was recording her statement and who shot and uploaded it on YouTube.” The reporter apparently has unmediated access to her “guileless” state of mind, just from her modestly dressed appearance. Yet, the video, shot as it is a full frontal close-up of her face and upper torso with few background cues, does not permit the reporter to speculate on where the girl might be, though she is heard to say “Sir” several times, and refers to being brought “here” by a “police uncle”. This is after all, speculative, contextual information, that cannot be verified.
But such journalistic and evidentiary standards do not stop another The Times of India report from completely misrepresenting a line in the girl’s testimony. The girl is quoted as saying, “There was no soldier there (near or in the washroom),” instead of the far more ambiguous “I didn’t see anyone there”. This line then gets reproduced in reports in the Huffington Post and DNA, who both borrow this translation. A line that no other translation of what she says on the video mentions — not even the one helpfully appended to the official WhatsApp release of the video by Col. Arun of the Northern command, Indian Army. A line that none of the several Kashmiris I asked, who independently listened to it just to make sure, heard her say. In fact she does not say the word army, military, fauji or any equivalent resembling it, at all.
So where did this idea that she had flat out denied being molested on the video, this entrenched binary that either she is ‘lying’ on the video, or she and her family were ‘lying’ thereafter (when they claimed she was also assaulted by a soldier in the bathroom), that she is in either case a liar, the cause of so much public confusion, originate from? Did journalists just make this stuff up?
The line in The Times of India, which most directly says there was no soldier in the bathroom, is in double quotes but the translation is unattributed in the story, which is bylined Salim Pandit. On contacting a Senior Assistant Editor at The Times of India — Aarti Tikoo Singh who was also covering the Handwara story — I was told it is the reporter’s own, based on the video.
Here’s what else I’ve been able to find out about the circulation of the video, and its mistranslations.
We know that from the moment she left the fracas outside the bathroom, she was in the ‘protective custody’ of police. By about 8 pm that night, the video was going viral. North Kashmir’s Deputy Inspector General of Police, Uttam Chand, said he did not know who had shot the video but said it would be part of the police investigation. Inspector General of Police (Kashmir) SJ Gilani denied the police released the video, and stated that it was shot by unnamed media persons in Handwara police station. The girl later said, at a public press conference held on 16th May 2016 at the JKCCS office, that it was filmed by Suptd. of Police, Handwara Ghulam Jeelani on his mobile phone.
Around 9.45 pm that night, the group administrator identified as Col. Arun released it on Druva Media, the Indian Army Northern Command’s official media liason WhatsApp group (created 27th January 2015) which comprises of military officers and accredited journalists. The video was initially released without blurring the face. The message accompanying it by Col. Arun said, “Request all to give maximum coverage and please remember to blur the face of the girl. That’s the norm.”
A Kashmiri woman journalist objected, asking why the Army had not themselves obscured her identity, saying it was a “clear violation of norms, ethics, everything, besides a huge threat to the girl’s security.” Col. Arun replied, saying “We haven’t released the video ourselves. The video is shared in media groups by members if [sic] media community. I only confirmed the video is authentic. We are aware of the sensitivities involved. That’s why I requested all to blur the girl’s face.” He thereafter resent the video, this time with the face blurred. The accompanying message, began with the words “The video of the girl denying any molestation attempt by any army person.” It then contained a short summary of the ‘facts’, reproduced verbatim here and in many other news reports without attribution. The message ended with “We are releasing the video after blurring the face of the girl to protect her identity. I request all to give maximum publicity to the facts of the case.”
The next message also by Col. Arun said, “The video with the girl’s face blurred is officially released by the Army. That should leave little doubt on the authenticity of the clip. Thanks.” Thereafter he posted a more detailed, line-by-line translation of the video reproduced here. This translation omitted the last “Chalo, Shabaash!” The next day Lt. Col. NN Joshi, Spokesperson, Ministry of Defence, confirmed the official release of the video, and stated that it showed there was no molestation. The Hoot reported that “Lt. Col NN Joshi also said he was unaware as to how the video was released on social media. Asked how the Army released the video officially, he said they had got it authenticated by the ‘relevant quarters’. ‘That’s our own procedure,’ he said without explaining further.” NDTV reported Lt. Col. Joshi also citing the video as proof that there was an unspecified “intention to malign” the force.
Handwara was a war zone even as the video was recorded. Apologists for the video have said “one may assume [it] was done to clear the air of rumours and prevent violence.” NDTV reported that the Army did this in order to “assuage Handwara”. In other words, the screams for freedom, the stones hitting tin, the bunker and the bathroom on fire, the glass shattering, the tear gas shelling, the gunshots. All of which was taking place within 200 metres of the police station, and well within the girl’s hearing. According to the statement she made at the press conference on 16th May, after her release, besides being slapped, verbally abused and spat at, she was told “This is your fault” by policemen, and that the crowd would attack and burn down her house.
Let that sink in.
You are a 16-year-old school girl. You have first been grabbed by a soldier in a bathroom, then you have been publicly assaulted by your friends for being the wrong sort of girl. Then you have been taken to a police station, without being allowed to talk to your parents. There, you have been humiliated, and told this is all your fault by police, and it is in your power to make it stop, by simply saying on video what happened after you left the bathroom. Not lying exactly, but omitting the most incendiary, most incriminating detail. What would you do?
In Kashmir, even among people who could follow what she was saying, the video staged a similar either/or narrative shift. From being the girl whose virtue at the hands of Indian oppressors the town’s boys had died protecting, she became someone else. A liar at best, and at worst an ungrateful army whore, someone who by only blaming Kashmiri men for assaulting her, betrayed the martyrs who had died for her sake. People asked why so much energy was being devoted to her release — were not the killings more significant as human rights violations? Even though she, for the first four days, was effectively ‘disappeared’, missing, last seen in the police station, with no official intimation to her mother as to her whereabouts. And every Kashmiri parent knows the terror of what those words mean, in a context where 8,000 such disappearances have taken place since the military operations against the armed insurgency began in 1990, and there exists more than one association of parents of disappeared persons.
Videos, particularly videos of women who complain of sexual violence, have a way of obsessing us. Turning us into bodily detectives, where we scrutinise every tremor in the voice, every facet of demeanour, every tic, tear, smile, every hitch of a piece of clothing as a clue. No detail is too trivial to be devoid of meaning.
The only reason that this particular woman’s body is on screen is sex, to enable us to decide, what the law likes to call ‘the vexed issue of consent.’ This happens to every survivor who stands in a witness box during her sexual assault legal trial, so much so that rape cases are metaphorically described as having two accused: the rapist and the victim. The viral video replaces the in-camera courtroom with a large, and largely anonymous public. The woman on video is an immediately available body of evidence, to give us, the viewer-investigator-judge-doubting-husband ‘ocular proof’, direct eyewitness access to the objective truth of what has happened. Is she a victim or a lying whore? A virginal schoolgirl or just faking it? The sexual assault video statement as ‘confession’ and testimony returns us uncomfortably to the etymology of the word pornography, ‘the visual depiction of prostitutes’, and to the idea that a woman with a sexual encounter in her past is a whore, based on the generalised belief that she must have either asked for, or deserved whatever sexual thing is supposed to have occurred. Since in the case of indecent girls, as the Kashmir Narrator editorial puts it, it is “immaterial if such sexual liaisons, are voluntary, coerced, or under duress.” A view which also underwrites the forensic investigations into the Tehelka sexual assault surveillance video, undertaken by Manu Joseph.
As human rights and women’s rights activists, those of us who were closely associated with the case had many conversations and some pretty furious disagreements about what might be the best, least damaging, most humane way for the Handwara girl to speak once she was released from police protection. The question of not mirroring the violence of a forensic video as a form was particularly important to me. Staying silent was not an option, in light of all the misrepresentations and slut-shaming that had occurred. She needed to clarify at least once, in her own words, what had happened, outside of police custody. This was important, not just to put her own version on record, but so that she could transition more easily back into her school, where her classmates — most of whom knew the boys she had named as having assaulted her and the boys who were killed — were still grieving and outraged.
Legally, the options were few and bleak. A statement before the Magistrate under Section 164, CrPC (which she had given under duress), though of little substantive value, is pretty near unretractable, until trial. Because of the requirement of sanction for prosecution of armed forces (under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act) and the fact that the Government of India has not in a single case, ever given sanction for the civilian prosecution of a soldier in Kashmir, there did not seem much chance of this case getting to that stage soon, or any time. A complaint with the request to immediately file a First Information Report on her assault, custodial violence and the forced video was sent to the police, but in terms of the community, this held little real meaning, given the complete and banal lawlessness that characterises legal procedures in Kashmir.
A written statement by her, a pre-recorded video, or only allowing audio at the press conference were all discussed, but the family felt that these could not compete with the virality, power and immediacy of the first video. Her parents were unlettered, and a press conference was accessible to them as a process in which they could understand and participate in what was going on, in a way that no written statement could be. They were very keen that she address the media and the public, in as direct a way as possible. They asked that the she not face any follow-up questions after she made her statement. Questions would be handled by her parents, who would be seated with her throughout. The press conference was to be held at the office of JKCCS, (a rather small space) because after the experience of police action against the previous press conference called by her mother, this was the only venue we as her lawyers and activists, felt was somewhat controlled and secure, against unlawful intrusions or ‘raids’.
As I watched the clamorous mass of journalists from a back room, I couldn’t shake off my sense of disquiet. (Even now I find it hard to write this, for fear that this will be the only thing that people will hear, that these words will be used against me, and even worse, against her) I couldn’t get shake off the feeling that she was putting herself through this to absolve herself of the burden of deaths laid on her conscience. As I heard her speak from a doorway behind her, she sounded overwrought and strained. Not because she was lying, but because she really, sincerely believed that she was to blame, and she was trying so hard to handle it like a trooper. And it was heartbreaking to watch.
She spoke for almost twenty-five minutes at the press conference, in elaborate detail about what had happened to her, not just two but three sets of assaults (a soldier who grabbed her, her neighbourhood boys who confronted her, and the policeman who dragged her crying to the police station). She said that she went to the public toilet after picking up her mobile phones at a shop close by. It was shortly after 2 pm, and the bathrooms at her school were closed. After she had used the bathroom, and as she was leaving it, an army man grabbed her hand. She managed to get free, screamed, and ran out of the alleyway in which it was located, crying.
There were two-three boys standing outside and one of them was her neighbor (‘humsaaya’). He came to her and slapped her, while she continued crying. She asked to be taken home, and her neighbour agreed. Many people, including a local policeman who she knew Mohammad Shafi Watali, (Shafi uncle or Maulvi sa’ab) had gathered by this time, watching the confrontation. The policeman grabbed her by her hand, and began to drag her to the police station.
At the police station, she was slapped, threatened and abused, and was told to record the video omitting the detail of the army man in the bathroom. Supt. of Police Ghulam Jeelani recorded the video, after specifically assuring her that he would not circulate it. Around 11 pm, another policeman threatened her saying, “Because of you there have been many killings. Do you realise it?” She was alone until her father and aunt arrived late that night. In that time, she was made to repeat her statement to several different police personnel, all of whom were abusive. Her phones were taken away. The Handwara girl and her father were coerced into signing on several sheets of blank paper.
Thereafter, they were repeatedly shifted around for three days. On the fourth day, they were taken to the Magistrate’s court. She was given detailed instructions on what questions she would be asked, and what her responses should be. She went before the Magistrate unaccompanied by her father (her legal guardian as a minor), and her statement was recorded in the presence of three male court staff and a police escort. She followed the police instructions, though she told the Magistrate that she had been brought there from a relative’s place, but she did not say where exactly it was (a fact also reflected in the Court attested copy of the statement). Thereafter they were not allowed to leave police custody despite several attempts to do so, including on one occasion where she felt ill and wanted to visit the hospital.
At one point towards the end of her address, she said, “I will fight for justice. When they [the state] gambled with my honour, and martyred my brothers who fought for me, why should I not fight? My brothers, who have died for me, did not die in vain[…] I will fight for them, and for my self. What is my suffering compared to theirs?” The girl in front of me disappeared, and I could only see her as an embodiment of that old, blood-stained credo that all our nations are forged on — that women have honour, which men must fight to protect, or die trying. She was enacting her ‘loyalty to the spilled blood’ knowing that many people, both Kashmiri and Indian, would still think she’s a liar, a killer and a whore, no matter how hard she tried. And it’s just too much, much, too much for a 16-year-old. They’re much too young for this war, these girls, these boys. They have seen nothing but this. I felt so old. It was too much for me. I couldn’t watch. I went to the back room.
The Muzzle of a Gun Staring at the Space between Your Eyes
Hours after the press conference, at which the Handwara girl spoke for the first time after her release from custody, Col. Arun circulated a poster. It was a diptych: the first panel showed a screenshot of the Handwara girl from her first video, facing the camera, her face unblurred, and the second was a picture of her in niqab at the press conference. Above it, the text in Devanagari script (which the Kashmiri journalists on the media group could not read, but those from Jammu, as well as the Indian Army officers on the group certainly could), said, “Tajjub hai ki ab burqa kyon??? Kahi sach par purdeh ka purdah toh nahin?” (It’s a wonder why there’s a need for a burqa now??? Could it be a cover for a cover-up?)This after the Army specifically said that it had blurred the identity of the victim, in a video it authenticated. The trope of the deceitful or hilarious purdah clad female impersonator is not just the stuff of colonial criminology, Hindi film comedy or rightwing trollery. Ladies and gentlemen, I place for your delectation — the Islamaphobic rape-hoax joke as military intelligence counter insurgency strategy (haw-haw).
The Indian armed forces (The Army or BSF, or CRPF or Rashtriya Rifles, by whatsoever name called) sexually assaults Kashmiri women routinely, as a matter of operational procedure, as it does ‘enemy women’ (by whatsoever name called — Maoist/ Bangladeshi/ Sri Lankan-Tamil/ Manipuri/ Kashmiri, so many enemy women to rape) everywhere it operates. This is no big secret. Military policy of routine rape denial wherever they operate is also no secret, for instance in the recent suicide of a teenager in West Bengal after an alleged sexual assault by a Border Security Forces jawan, where officials stated, even before an inquiry was initiated “that none of our jawans are involved.”
The power of the apparatus of impunity in Kashmir is made real not by guns and exceptional laws alone, but more routinely through bureaucratic deniability, official prevarications, judicial disinterest, and through ‘psy-ops’ or covert ‘perception management’ operations carried out by a massive multi-layered and multi agency community, ground and satellite based counter-intelligence, information gathering and surveillance grid. So many secretive agencies with so many acronyms operate in Kashmir that I am fairly certain the Indian Home Minister, Defence Minister or Kashmir Affairs Minister could not collectively name them all. The Indian state deploys the full might of this state apparatus to immediately shut down the slightest imputation of a sexual crime against its soldiers in Kashmir. The full range of weapons in its arsenal range from military cordons and curfews and civilian killings to stop protests against sexual violence, to maddening levels of legal obfuscation and delay, to slander, rumours, intimidation and victim blaming. This is true not just of Handwara, but has been true in Kunan Poshpora (1991-to present day), Shopian (2009), Manzgam (2011) and certainly many others that have lost this almost unwinnable war against erasure. Deny, Destroy evidence, Discredit victims. This is a standard military operating procedure with regard to sexual assault complaints in Kashmir. Code Red. All systems Go Go Go (or whatever they say in real life). Operation STFU SLUT has now commenced.
The continuum of militarised sexual violence and misogyny in Kashmir ranges from the spectacular and macabre, gang and mass rapes, and rape and killings of women, to the domesticated tragedies of the marriage of a woman to Ikhwan accused of killing seven members of her immediate family (Structures of Violence, Page 96). It is a Kashmiri man repeatedly raped by an HIV positive Indian military officer, becoming infected, then stigmatised for being ‘homosexual’, then unknowingly passing on HIV to his pregnant wife and infant, who dies. It is such minutiae as school girls not being allowed by school authorities to do ‘drill’ or march past in their own playing field which is overlooked by a military post, or go up to the school gates to get an ice cream at recess opposite a bunker, because of constant, leering, and lewd commentary by soldiers. It is the hidden damage from hundreds of microcosmic acts of public shaming, as when soldiers force your mohalla moulvi sa’ab at gun point to read out secret teenaged love letters from a local militant boy discovered from a hiding place, or deliberately rifle through lingerie drawers during crack-downs, and lay out your underclothes and sanitary napkins on the bed so you know they’ve been through them. It encompasses the genocide minded ‘emasculation’ of men, to destroy their ‘nasl’ (descent) through various kinds of routinised torture directed at their sexual organs. It is the routinised rape of women associated, through blood or marriage, with Kashmiri rebel fighters. It is the multiple rapes and killing of a teenager, whose brother can no longer remember her face, because there are no photographs of her and he was only seven when it happened [Informative Missive, August 2015]. It is the classmates, friends, and community members saying of a sexual assault complainant saying that she is ‘wrong sort of girl’, and they don’t want her at their school. It is children of the villages of Kunan and Poshpora, whose mothers were raped, dropping out of school, because they were bullied so mercilessly. It is the fact that the Jammu and Kashmir Police is the single largest formal sector employer in the region, and everyone has a ‘police uncle’ or policeman neighbour. For women from the garrisoned frontier towns and fields of North Kashmir, such as Uri, Handwara and Kupwara where the intimate stranglehold of the military and intelligence grid is particularly strong, it is the doubled risk they run, being coercively incorporated into militarised networks of economic dependency, prostitution, sexual favours or forced pornography, whilst also being accused of having “dark and dangerous” “sex and spying relations”.
Munaza Rashid, one of the authors of Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?, describes it so:
In 1996, when I was in second grade, on our way back from school our school bus was stopped near the Police Colony, Bemina. Army men surrounded our school bus and told our driver to get off. There were five kids in the bus, all about seven or eight years old. All of us were scared and concerned that the ‘army uncles’ were angry. They told our driver they would not let him go forward, and began checking our bus. I clearly remember our bus driver pleading, that we were his responsibility and he could not leave us there. The army men were reluctant in allowing him to walk with us, to our homes. This was a ‘crack down’ the whole area was cordoned off and a search operation was going on. We grabbed our bags and jumped off the bus. The driver told us to hold each other’s hand, to walk fast, and not talk to army men on the way. If any army man calls you, don’t go to him. If you feel afraid, just scream were his final words of warning to us. I could not understand the reason for the fuss. Trust me, we would not have been as terrified, but for his instructions. Just as we began walking holding each others hand, a few yards away from starting point of cordon, an army man shouted at us, Walk fast! Some one’s grandmother is waiting on the street. She is creating a big scene. All my friend’s faces turn towards me, and they said, Must be Munaza’s grandmother. My cheeks burnt with embarrassment. My grandmother always did this. She became hysterically worried about every family member, especially when the army was around. I never understood her fears then.
It was only when she was about 14 years old, and read an article about Kunan Poshpora, that Rashid says she finally understood the fears behind the bus driver’s instructions to her, or the scene her grandmother created on the street that day. The rising panicky hysteria, the claustrophobia of it all as girls get older. A militarised place closing in on ‘our’ women, then on our adolescents, then on our school children, on school campuses, on mobile phones, on bathrooms, because ‘their men’ are everywhere. Because it is so damn dangerous to be a Kashmiri woman, and so damn easy to be the wrong kind of girl, in the wrong kind of place at the wrong time. What does it feel like to live under and try to talk back to the everyday and terrorising sexualised militarisation as Kashmiri women? Essar Batool uses the metaphor of a gun as gaze. She writes in Do you remember Kunan Poshpora? that it’s like “talk(ing) back to someone, the muzzle of whose gun is staring at the tiny space between your eyes.”
Seeing like an Azadi–lovin’ Indian Feminist
The militarisation of Kashmir is enabled by a vituperative, deceit-filled, and completely hegemonic Indian media discourse where things can simply not be called by their rightful name, by anybody, left, right or centre. This discourse separates us, the liberal, secular, pluralist Indians from them, the communal, sectarian, patriarchal, Pakistan-desiring Kashmiri Muslims.
Historian and columnist Mukul Kesavan says:
The Indian citizen outside the valley has three options. He can support self-determination in Kashmir knowing that it might mean either a sectarian Muslim statelet or more territory for a larger sectarian state, Pakistan. He can endorse the military occupation because, in the larger scheme of things, Kashmiri Muslim suffering is the price that must be paid for the greater good of a pluralist India. Or he can press for the abolition of AFSPA, the demilitarization of Kashmir and the Northeast and the institution of a process by which atrocities by the security forces, especially in the period between 1989 and 1996 are investigated and the guilty punished. If the Indian republic wants to demonstrate its good faith, to make some reparation for the history of State violence there, this is the absolute minimum that it must do. If it claims the allegiance of the people in these areas, it must treat them as rights-bearing citizens, not mutinous subjects.
As a passport-carrying Indian citizen (though inside the valley, and not a he) I hereby propose a radical fourth solution, one that Kesavan mentions in his title, ‘A Daily Plebiscite’ but nowhere else in his piece.
How about we simply “support self-determination in Kashmir” without concerning ourselves (based either on our prescient and presumed ‘knowledge’ of the future, or on any other clairvoyant feats geo-political punditry) what kind of ‘statelet’ or ‘territory’ Kashmiris (some of whom live across the Line of Control in Azad Kashmir, and Gilgit and Baltistan, with whom we have little or no contact) may politically desire? How about we don’t attempt to ‘claim’ their allegiance to India in anyway (whether it is by acknowledging or putting a price on their sufferings because of us, or indeed on our sufferings because of them)? Instead, how about we begin by prevailing upon the government that occupies it in our name, and has built nuclear bombs on our lands in order to sustain this occupation, to get their guns and their spooks, and their mine fields and their airfields, and their parliamentary elections, in other words their whole dirty, divisive, massive war machinery out of here, and begin a process of political negotiations? How about we insist that these negotiations are based on a simple one-point agenda, of holding a plebiscite in the near future, something that was promised, also in our name many years ago? How about we agree to let the name, cartography, demographic composition and political constitution (including the questions of minority and gendered citizenship) of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, including areas presently administered by our government, Pakistan and China, emerge out of multiple, multi-lateral, and multi-party, international and internal conversations in which democratic representatives of all Kashmiri state subjects participate. Something acceded to by all other parties, but our government is presently simply not prepared to do? Yes, it’s complicated and it might be painful. Decolonisation is. But it can be done.
Within the classification provided by Kesavan, where we as Indians already ‘know’ that the outcome of an exercise of right to self determination will be a Muslim, sectarian theocracy, anyone advocating the human rights of Kashmiris, particularly their Right to Self Determination — in keeping with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights — becomes a suspect. Lawyers with valid powers of attorney, fighting for setting the Handwaragirl at liberty, through a court of law, can be legitimately referred to as “certain groups” (in contrast to Indian “Human Rights activists”) from an organisation “known for its separatist views”, (where ‘separatist’ is a dog-whistle for Islamist, for Pakistani, for terrorist sympathiser) demanding she be released into “their custody”. Journalists who had tried to meet the girl in police custody were unable to, her lawyers were only granted access after High Court orders, a press conference called by her mother was ‘banned’. Yet, media discussion of every representation her advocates make (based on court and official documents) qualified by a ‘claimed’ and ‘alleged’ including at a second press conference held again at their office, drips with distrust masquerading as journalistic neutrality. Even when a downright untrue translation is never properly verified, or fact checked. Liberal publications, who I doubt very much would provide editorial space to ‘concerned’ citizens from Chhatisgarh accusing human rights defenders in an active armed conflict of having ‘Maoist tendencies’ if they were for instance ideologically communist, can do so when it comes to the ‘communalised’, Pakistan-backed, ‘separatist’ resistance movement which has everything to do with Islam, and therefore nothing, it appears, to do with political enfranchisement — the right to a referendum, not a separation from the Indian Union, which most Kashmiris do not believe they were ever legally integrated into.
Once this reductionism that a desire for freedom from India’s military rule necessarily equals ‘Islamic’ separatism is established, the political belief in self-determination as a human and feminist right can merge seamlessly into ‘radical’ ‘jihadi’ ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, which shades into communalism, patriarchy and all manner of social violence. This is presumed to mean that the lives of Kashmiri women, minorities, and non Kashmiri Hindus are under threat from Kashmiri men, who they must be ‘saved’ and protected from, often by transporting them the hell outta there. Meanwhile Kashmiri Resistance leaders, (who happen to be believing Muslims, and variously advocate Kashmiri unification with Pakistan or Independence) who have been incarcerated as political prisoners for years in illegal almost constant house arrest, or preventive detention because they command such large popular followings, can be referred to as ‘self-styled’ leaders, and Pakistan funded ‘instigators’. It can be urged by National Security experts during mass uprisings like Handwara that “If need be, SAS Geelani and his ilk should be physically isolated and prevented from accessing any communication resources such as mobile phones.” The semantic slippage between labeled a ‘separatist’ for being in favour of self determination, or an ISIS supporter for questioning India’s policies regarding Kashmir is very slim indeed, as Al Jazeera journalist Mehdi Hassan learnt, though ideological distances between the parties doing the labeling may well be vast.
In this war, every Kashmiri one interacts with can always be ’splained to and called to task by Indian liberals to answer for, apologise or condemn the acts of some Kashmiris, in order to establish that they do not in fact personally countenance targeted religious violence, misogyny or the violent annihilation of the Indian state.
A case in point is the social media death and rape threats, and fatwa issued by the Indian state-appointed self-proclaimed Grand Mufti of the ‘Supreme Court of the Islamic Shariet’, against Pragaash, an all girl rock band in Kashmir, scheduled to perform at a rock show in February 2013. This concert was a show sponsored by the CRPF (the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force) titled ‘Battle of the Bands’ with the tagline ‘Louder than the War!’ (no, really). The school the band belonged to was the Delhi Public School which has a history of making students ‘compulsorily’ participate in such militarised cultural activities and a self-avowed “total commitment to the cause of Integration of Jammu & Kashmir state with the rest of India”. I am not justifying the Grand Mufti’s threats, just providing context.
Though one of the outraged liberal commentators on the issue, Shuddhabrata Sengupta mentions the ‘clownishness’ of the Grand Mufti issuing the fatwa and that the show was sponsored by CRPF, he only raises the latter to state that as minors, no question of the band’s consensual participation in the show should be raised, by Kashmiris refusing to join in his outraging. Not one pundit I have read ventured the opinion that the Kashmiri opposition to the band may not have been entirely or only Islamic, illiberal, or patriarchal, but may stem from their intense anger at and hatred of the constant and relentless cultural and physical appropriation of their children, their so-called Grand Muftis, their campuses, their gardens, their lands, rivers, natural disasters, their kashmiriyat, their poets, their tourism, their history: in fact, every infernal thing about their existence, by the counter-insurgency doctrine of using Kashmiri “hearts as a weapon” against their lives. And the Indian liberal tone-deafness to what this war is really about.
Our biggest newspapers can, in furtherance of this war effort, and aided by illegal videos, publish incorrect transcripts and misogynistic interpretations helpfully supplied by the Indian Army, (an institution to which the alleged perpetrator of the assault belongs, and one with a well-known and perennial rape denial problem), put words in a sexual assault complainant’s mouth, add lines that she never spoke to a transcript of her illegally recorded testimony, and turn her coerced silence about a military sexual assault into an active denial. Her well-documented and fierce struggle to escape the clutches of the police, (including the filing of five separate official petitions to have the ‘police protection’ removed) can be ignored and her continuance in custody can justified by all our national institutions including police, press and Judiciary as being for her ‘own protection’ from the violence of Kashmiri society. Factually dubious articles in our largest newspapers can be authored by people who publicly identify as ‘liberal, secular Kashmiris whose voices mostly go unnoticed and unheard by the mainstream Indian media and in Kashmir’ without any trace of irony. No questions need arise, as to their own vested interests, ideological beliefs, political motivations or privileged access, when covering human rights abuses and war crimes by the Indian state in Kashmir. It’s fascinating how this never gets old. Twenty-five years ago the celebrated liberal boss of a celebrity liberal newsman, who now dismisses rapes in Kashmir as stuff that only happened in the “rough nineties”, accused women from a “border village” in Kupwara on the “militant route” of faking their own rapes in a “militant hoax” in 1991, and then went on to do it again in 2013.
In furtherance of this war effort, Kashmiri women singing their desire for azaadi, saying out it out loud and clear, that they believe both in their own emancipation and in the emancipation from military rule of their country, who refuse to be frightened or intimidated into silence, can be ignored. In fact, Kashmiri women voicing any kind of protest against Indian state violence can simply be cropped out of images. For example, this picture of a protest by the Handwara Solidarity Group held on 19th April in Srinagar appeared in Greater Kashmir, the largest circulating English newspaper in Kashmir. In the picture are 11 Kashmiris and two non-Kashmiris. The same protest as it appeared in The Times of India, India’s largest English newspaper, had the Kashmiri women cropped out, leaving just myself, and my Sri Lankan Tamil friend in the photo.
The only kind of Kashmiri protestors are violent stone throwing, bunker burning mobs of rioters, not a handful of assertive young women standing their ground under the gaze of scores of policemen. It just doesn’t work with the script.
Such acts of dissension can be appropriated and wrongly attributed, by the Press Trust of India, to the All-India Students’ Association, Jawaharlal Nehru University, whose celebrity student union president, Kanhaiya Kumar has vocally proclaimed his belief in azadi in, rather than from India. The error in the PTI report, which is syndicated to and reprinted in many Indian papers, was pointed out to the journalist who wrote it by Essar Batool a member of the Handwaragirl solidarity group organising the protest. Rather than apologising, let alone issuing a retraction, he basically told her to buzz off.
Kashmiri women who have an affinity to any national identity that is not Indian (Pakistani, independent Kashmiri), or any Kashmiri woman who speaks against Indian state violence, must be reduced to being victims, not voices: widowed, raped, silenced witnesses of their own oppressions, spectators at their own protests, indoctrinated burqa clad ventriloquist dummies at press conferences they have called, worthy of being ‘saved’ and ‘rescued’ but unworthy of being listened to.
In this war, the only kind of good Kashmiri rape victim is a dead one — everyone else is a slut and a liar. Sometimes even their corpses are made into liars, after their hearts and minds are long done for. After the Neelofar and Asiya gang rape-killings in Shopian in 2009, the Central Bureau of Investigations fudged DNA samples, and filed cases against lawyers, family members and health officials who have publicly stated that they had been raped, and accused them of tampering with evidence. In an added twist, the Kashmiri health official who examined their bodies was accused in the CBI charge-sheet of substituting her own vaginal swabs for those of the victims. Since it is not seemly to call women who they are suspected to have raped and killed, sluts outright (though they tried this too), the Indian state decides to sexually vilify the doctor. Really any live Kashmiri woman, with a heartbeat and a vagina, will do.
I think we can’t really hear what Kashmiri women are saying, because we are afraid of what we’ll hear once we start listening. That we Indian, feminist, liberal, secular, pluralist, anti-national (by whatsoever name called) are complicit, in Kashmir with the Indian state and statist media’s slut-shaming, victim blaming, liar calling, rape denying, Islamophobic ways, every time we see her as a symptom of a problem with no name, a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, shrouded in a war of narratives. Because it should be simple really. A Kashmiri girl went to a bathroom. There was a soldier directly overlooking it, with a gun. And that is the real problem. It is called military occupation.
Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh is a human rights lawyer, activist and researcher based in Srinagar, Indian Administered Kashmir. Her partner is part of the legal team litigating on behalf of the Handwara girl and her family, and she has been actively involved in the campaign for her release. You can find her on Twitter at @shrimoyee_n.