By Maya Palit
It’s time to ask the question again: “Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?” An event scheduled for February 23rd, the 26th anniversary of the Kunan Poshpora mass rape in Kashmir, was meant to discuss the most horrific case of large-scale sexual assault in contemporary South Asian history. It was banned, and the official reason provided by the Srinagar police was that the event’s focus on the rape and torture carried out by Indian armed forces in February 1991 was likely to create ‘law and order problems’.
How outrageous would the Indian public find it if 25 years from now, it was banned from commemorating the Nirbhaya rape case? Prohibiting a discussion about an extremely significant incident of sexual violence that is burned into Kashmiri memory is appalling, to say the least, although certainly not a first in Kashmir. (Only last year there were several attempts at silencing debates around the assault on a young girl from Handwara.) Read the Kunan Poshpora Support Group’s statement here.
This is a series of questions and answers with Essar Batool, activist with the Kunan Pospora Campaign and support group, and co-author of Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora (2015) a book that exposed the incident’s lasting impact on Kashmiri women.
Q. What is the place of the Kunan Poshpora incident in the collective memory of Kashmiri women, particularly given the region is in the throes of violent militarisation?
A. Kashmir continues to be under the watch of over seven lakh soldiers of the Indian armed forces. There continue to be incidents where sexual violence has been used against both women and men. Kunan Poshpora has not been the first, or the last, or the only incident of sexual violence in Kashmir. It is merely representative of the large-scale sexual violence perpetrated by the Indian armed forces and also of the legal, political, and moral impunity that they enjoy.
The mass rape case is remembered by Kashmiri women as an assault on their person and their safety, it is remembered as the everyday threat that looms over every Kashmiri woman. It is seen as the violent manifestation of the subtle sexual violence every woman in Kashmir undergoes everyday in a militarised occupation.
But in our collective memory we also see it as an epitome of strength and resilience, of courage and inspiration. Women have relived the trauma to ensure the perpetrators know they can’t rest easy, so that other women in Kashmir don’t have to face what they did.
Q. Does it signify different things for different generations?
A. I would think so. Whereas the previous generation remembers it as a threat, and a reminder of the occupation, as a threat to their safety and honour, the younger generation has taken on a more positive feminist approach to it. The new generation no longer sees the women as victims who lost their honour, but as agencies and people against whom a violent crime was committed, and who still pursued the perpetrators at the risk of social stigma. For two different generations the women who suffered are mothers and daughters, victims and heroes, courageous survivors, and leaders of resistance.
Q. The Indian government’s consistent and unrelenting clampdown on issues surrounding Kashmir has created an atmosphere of fear. And now that the discussion of a grave incident of mass sexual violence has been prohibited, what is the way forward?
A. The answer would be different for Kashmir and India. In Kashmir, we continue to have discussions around sexual violence, and about occupation in general. In Kashmir, fear is a thing of the past. In India, though, the scenario is different, we have seen students being attacked for talking about Kashmir, the most recent being the Ramjas fiasco, and this is being done by what are known as ‘students’ bodies’. The way forward is to keep creating these spaces and resisting the shrinking of spaces for discussion.
Q. Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora, the book, went a long way in reminding people about the devastation wreaked by the incident. Do you think more initiatives like this, or the mobilisation of people through discussion groups online, would help in resisting the crackdown on discussions around Kunan Poshpora?
A. Yes, online spaces are always a great idea to resisting the denial of spaces. But we should not forget the importance of having real time spaces for discussions, as they are effective and more result-oriented. On another note, it is important that Indians talk about Kashmir and issues around Kashmir, for the good of their own country, rather than as a favour to Kashmiris. There could be so many learning groups and processes, as there already are in many places across India.