On 8 March 2016, celebrated internationally as Women’s Day, Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union, gave a speech in the university’s campus. Close to end of his speech, Kumar also asserted that he would not stay silent on the issue of human rights violations. “While we have a lot of respect for the soldiers in the armed forces,” he said, “we will still say that rape of women is committed by security forces in Kashmir.” Though the audience greeted his statement with applause, several politicians and sections of the media reprimanded Kumar for saying this. The Bharatiya Janata Party Yuva Morcha (the youth wing of the BJP) filed a complaint against Kumar for uttering “poisonous words against the Indian army.” This sentiment was echoed by an anchor at the Zee News channel, who accused Kumar of “speaking like a separatist.”
Among the critics of Kumar was also the journalist Shekhar Gupta. In a tweet, Gupta said that Kumar was “losing it,” and that by saying that the army rapes women in Kashmir, he was employing the “stereotypes of the rough 90s.” Gupta then asked Kumar to “read newspapers Comrade.” In doing so, he betrayed not only ignorance and prejudice, but also shed light on an attitude often adopted by much of India’s supposed intelligentsia: it is so enamoured by the valour and gallantry associated with the armed forces that it fails to acknowledge, or even hear of, any crimes committed by their members. In conflict areas such as Kashmir, the Indian armed forces have used severe forms of intimidation—torture, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, kidnapping and rape—to curb resistance. Of all the tactics in their arsenal, army personnel have often turned to sexual violence as the most convenient form of retribution for rebellion. In these areas, rape is a potent weapon used to discourage resistance and humiliate the population. The intelligentsia and much of the rest of the population of India, have, through their blind spot, propagated a system of impunity that saves the armed forces from ever having to answer for their crimes. For us, as Kashmiri women, Gupta’s statement is illustrative of a long line of violent attempts that aim to protect the image of the Indian state.
The rapes committed by members of the Indian armed forces are well documented through independent investigations of national and international enquiries by agencies, such as Asia Watch, the Asia wing of the international organisation Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, a non-profit organisation. Although several rapes committed by the members of the armed forces are not reported in areas such as Kashmir due to the fear of reprisals and the associated stigma, there are reported cases that prove this a reality even today.
On 30 May 2009, the bodies of 22-year-old Neelofer Jan and her 17-year-old sister-in-law Asiya Jan were found in a stream in the Shopian district in Kashmir, not far from the Central Reserved Police Force (CRPF) camp in the region. Neelofer and Asiya’s family alleged that they had been abducted, raped and murdered by the members of the security forces. Later that day, the police released a press statement stating that no marks were found on the bodies. However, two hours later, the police withdrew this statement. The incident sparked violent protests across the Kashmir valley, which were to last 47 days.
In one of its August 2009 issues, the bi-monthly magazine Frontline carried a story titled, ‘A Flawed Inquiry.’ In it, the magazine recounted the investigation. On 1 June, Omar Abdullah, the then chief minister of the state, appointed a one-man commission headed by the retired Justice Muzaffar Jan to look into the matter. Four days later, under pressure from its alliance partners, the Congress, the state government asked the police to register an FIR. Jan’s report, which was released on 10 July, confirmed that the women had been raped, that the location at which the bodies were found suggested that the perpetrator was likely not a civilian, and that not enough evidence was left behind to name a perpetrator. However, the report contained an annexure that seemed to suggest that Neelofer and Asiya’s family were involved in their murder. Two days after the report was published, Justice Jan distanced himself from it, saying that the police had tampered with his report and added the annexure despite his rejection of it. As protests continued in the state, the police and the government vehemently denied these claims. A few months later, the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Little came of the CBI enquiry. No one was ever held responsible for the crime.
The Shopian case made is only one example of the lack of retribution for sexual violence in Kashmir. According to documents released by WikiLeaks, in 2005, the International Committee of the Red Cross informed United States diplomats based in New Delhi that of the 1,298 detainees of the Indian forces it interviewed in Kashmir, 304 reported torture of a sexual nature. It is important to mention here that men in conflict zones, too, have routinely been subject to sexualized forms of torture, across contexts and situations.
Those who think that rapes committed by the Army personnel are part of stereotype that Kashmiris harbour and propagate need to revisit the facts. Rape is used as a tactic of reprisal in most militarised zones in India. In 2013, 70 cases of sexual violence were registered against Indian Armed forces. On 10 July 2004, a Manipuri woman, Thangjam Manorama Devi, was picked up from her home by members of the 17 Assam Rifles regiment that were posted in the state, for allegedly working for a militant organisation. She was raped and shot in the genitals repeatedly, and her bullet-riddled body was found in nearby fields on the next day. This incident sparked protests across Manipur, many of which were widely covered by the media. Such was the fury against the Indian army that a group of women stripped naked and marched to the Army Headquarters, daring the army personnel rape them “as they had raped Manorama.” In 2005, following a legal process the Assam Rifles opposed at every step, the high court was forced to rule that it did not have any administrative control over the forces as they had been deployed under the AFSPA, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which prevented anyone but the central government from ruling on acts committed “in the line of duty.” In Chhattisgarh’s Basaguda block of Bijapur district, between 19 and 24 October 2015, paramilitary personnel looted homes, molested and raped several women. The district collector of the region filed an FIR based on the charges by the victims and admitted that this was a serious issue but not without saying that the allegations were “hard to believe.” Over the past few years, reports coming out of Chhattisgarh have been full of cases of extrajudicial killings and mass sexual violence by the police and paramilitary forces of the region. These examples from the recent past should have been enough to silence all those who believe that soldiers no longer commit rape.
In her book, Gender and Militarization in Kashmir, the academic and writer Seema Kazi presents an excerpt of an interview conducted in 2005 with the lieutenant colonel VK Batra at the 15 Corps headquarters in Srinagar, about allegations of rape against Indian Army. In the interview, Batra attempts to justify the actions of the army by saying that the “Jawans operate under very stressful conditions”—a statement that appears to implicitly confirm that the personnel from the army are committing such rapes. Batra’s defense of the jawans is part of a larger culture within the army, where crimes committed by those serving in it are considered as collateral. This attitude is part of a larger theme of masculinity that rules the army paradigm, and which is used to justify the actions of the soldiers. The image of a young, male soldier, a “jawan,” serving the nation in a hostile land far away from home, strikes at the heart of the Indian population, insulating soldiers from any blame. The word “jawan,” which literally translates to “young,” is used in the Indian subcontinent to indicate both a mixture of virility and naivety. The “jawani” or youth of those accused of rape is frequently used to protect them from punishment. Their supposed “hot-bloodedness” is cited as an excuse for their behaviour, no matter how extreme. These patriarchal overtones, which allow people to commit brutal acts, become far more dangerous when combined with the system of impunity that the Indian armed forces operate under. It is somehow not enough that Indian armed forces can get away with such actions “in the line of duty.” They are also given a system that reveres them for their sacrifices, and lobbyists that reduce any allegations against them to mere stereotypes.
As an institution, the army has done little to correct the injustice perpetrated by its soldiers. Not a single member of the Indian army has ever been prosecuted for any human rights violations. Even court-martials are more disciplinary than punitive, as the 2004 case of Major Rahman illustrated. Rahman was accused and found guilty of raping a 30-year-old woman and her eight-year-old daughter in the Bader Payeen village in Handwara, but was only suspended from service. These facts lead to a complete lack of faith in the Indian institutions, and a collective memory of injustice and betrayal among the people of Kashmir.
What careless statements made by the likes of Gupta do, is only further trivialise these acts. The crimes committed by the army personnel are lost in the din of the respect they receive for their service. Even if what Gupta seemed to suggest in his tweet—that army personnel do not commit rapes in Kashmir any longer—were true, that does not mean that this is not a matter of great concern. Such statements are doubly harmful in a culture in which rape is stigmatised and reporting of such crimes, discouraged.
Gupta’s statement puts him in the same league as the journalist BG Verghese, who was instrumental in quashing accusations against the Indian army in the 1991 Kunan Poshpora mass rape and torture case, when close to 80 women were raped by the Fourth Rajputana Rifles of the Indian army during a cordon and search operation. Verghese, who was a member of the Press Council of India team constituted to investigate the matter, called the charges “a massive hoax,” in his report, even though the villagers we met during our reporting maintain that he never visited the village.
For journalists such as Gupta as well as the elite intelligentsia, who often extol the virtues of truthful journalism, invoking the trope of brave soldiers in Kashmir is a convenient way of proving their patriotism. In his speech, Kumar spoke of how rape is used an instrument of oppression not just in India, but across the world. His remarks, no matter how strongly denied, are borne out by facts. It is unfortunate that Gupta, who is a member of both the media and Indian elite, has turned a blind eye to the truth. It is time that this intelligentsia, much of which has not lived in an occupied territory, make themselves morally accountable for blaming and shaming women and men who speak the truth amidst intimidation, humiliation and reprisal for their actions.
Essar Batool and Natasha Rather are professional social workers, petitioners in the re-investigation of Kunan-Poshpora mass rape case. They are co-authors of the book, Do You Remember Kunan-Poshpora?.