By Jahnavi Reddy
At book launch of Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? on May 23, at the end of the conversation between two of the book’s five authors, Essar Batool and Natasha Rather with journalist Rohini Mohan, a middle-aged gentleman raised his hand to ask the authors, “Kashmir is not a new problem. It’s been going on since 1947. I want to know, what is the fundamental problem in Kashmir? It is not the Army. It is not the Government of India. You drive away Pandits from there. You fight among yourselves. But, fundamentally in any society, it’s the power within the people that matters. I don’t think external people can do anything about that. What is it that you are doing internally?”
Batool replied “The biggest problem with Kashmir is narratives like yours. As you told us, you came in late, and you did not even listen to what we were saying. You ask what the problem is. It would be very stupid of me to answer this question, not because I don’t think it’s a valid question, but because I seriously think you lack a lot of information on Kashmir. Please come visit us if you have time and we would love to discuss this with some Kashmiri friends.”
It was to counter narratives like these, and to voice stories documented by insiders about the pervasive violence and injustice in Kashmir that Batool, Rather and three more women decided to write a book on the Kunan Poshpora incident. Natasha Rather is a researcher and development sector professional from Kashmir. Essar Batool is also a social worker from Kashmir, and a human rights activist. The other three authors are Munaza Rashid, Ifrah Butt and Samreena Mushtaq. All the authors are young women from Kashmir involved in human rights activism in the region.
On the night of February 23, 1991, troops from the 4th Rajputana Rifles of the Indian army raped and tortured the women and men of two villages, Kunan and Poshpora, in Kupwara district, during an anti-insurgency search and interrogation operation, as the village residents were suspected to be militant sympathisers. According to accounts taken for this book, nearly 31 women were raped that night. Since the mass rape happened 25 years ago, the numbers may even be higher.
Twenty-one years later, in 2012, during the widespread movement against sexual violence across India, one of the authors of the book, Samreena Mushtaq, called her friend Essar Batool and asked her “Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?” The authors say that they realised that it was one of the incidents that had been overlooked, similar to several daily massacres, disappearances and extrajudicial killings that happen in India occupied Kashmir on a regular basis. These women wanted to bring this incident back to public memory, to stop such incidents from recurring and to provide a platform for dissent for survivors of such attacks through legal institutions.
When more than 100 women filed a PIL in March 2013 to re-investigate the case, they were asked to provide their IDs for the PIL to be accepted. Yet, nearly 50 women (including the authors of this book) persisted, and the PIL was filed. The authors then visited the villages, to find out the stories of the survivors, and to make sure people heard them through this book.
The re-opened case was eventually moved back to Kupwara sessions court, nearly 100km away from Srinagar, to deter the petitioners from following it. The survivors and the petitioners from various human rights organisations were accused of lying and maligning the army. The petitioners were called ‘suspicious agents who needed to be investigated’. The case has now moved to the Supreme Court.
Batool says that the Indian Armed Forces has managed to keep up the image of being a hallowed force, of being infallible, and of not being able to do anything wrong, enjoying the impunity given by the state. The authors say that they don’t expect justice as a result of this book, considering the impunity that the Indian army has and the number of crimes and massacres in Kashmir that have failed to receive justice, but the PIL and the book are meant to tell the state and the people that they will not forget these war crimes.
At the launch, after the man tried to tell the authors that it wasn’t the fault of the Indian Army or the Government of India, several voices in the crowd began to mutter in disagreement, nodding their heads side to side or face-palming. An audience member immediately stood up and said “Thank you for coming to the occupying territory. It takes a lot of courage. I want you to take back that a lot of people here are also in solidarity with you, and do not agree with the state that does this to you. I would also like to condemn the question that was asked right before I spoke. I think it is an offensive question to ask to people who have been occupied for a long time.” This was followed by enthusiastic applause. The authors say that they hope to create a space for dialogue around violence in Kashmir through such platforms, as a middle ground between the more common narratives of militant separatism and nationalistic jingoism.