While campaigning for Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections is on full force, there is an area where a group of voters have decided to boycott the democratic exercise not because they support the separatists leaders, but because they have been demanding justice for what they allege is one of the worst cases of human rights abuse and mass gangrape by the Indian Army.
Ever since Pakistan started to openly support, train, arm and finance terror groups in Jammu and Kashmir with the aim of snatching the state particularly the Valley from India, the region has become one of the most militarised areas of the world. With a huge presence of the Indian Army and Central paramilitary forces on one side and armed-to-the-teeth terrorists on the other, the common Kashmiri has simply become a pawn in the power game.
As terror groups gained strength and became deadlier, the armed forces too became more aggressive. With a clear mandate to crack down on terror groups and eliminate those wielding the gun and terrorizing people, the armed forces have also faced allegations of crossing the threshold, targeting innocent people, committing human rights violations and excesses leading to massive anger, resentment and hostility among the common and innocent people.
One such case that has almost irreparably scarred the psyche of Kashmir is the allegation against Army soldiers of committing mass gangrape during a cordon and search operation in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora in Kupwara district of north Kashmir way back in 1991. According to the villagers of Kunan and Poshpora, soldiers of 4th Rajputana Rifles swooped down on their villages on the night of February 23, 1991, cordoned off the entire area, called out all the men, including boys as young as 10 years, pushed them towards the fields and also took some of them inside three houses in Kunan village which were turned into interrogation centres.
The women, young girls and small children left behind in their homes had no idea that their nightmare had only begun. According to the villagers, who have been fighting a case in the Kupwara court for almost 24 years now with no justice in sight, the soldiers then barged into their homes to target women and girls.
The Kunan Poshpora Coordination Committee, which was formed by the victims and their family members to pursue the case, alleges that the soldiers did not even spare girls as young as 12 while the oldest victim of the mass gangrape was a 90-year-old woman. Awaiting justice, she died a few years ago aged almost 105.
The petitioners claim that the troops raped several women although while filing the case they did not include the names of unmarried victims fearing for their future and keeping in mind the difficulties they were likely to face in getting married. The exact number of women who were raped that night is still not clear but ranges from 40 to as high as 100.
Not all villagers reported about the mass gangrape, fearing retribution from the Army, which has till now maintained innocence of its troops and called the allegations baseless and fabricated. Many were also wary of being ostracised by their relatives as rape is seen as loss of honour.
Ghulam Ahmed Dar, who heads the Kunan Poshpora Coordination Committee and was in his mid 40s when the atrocities took place, claims that the men were beaten up and tortured by the officers and a few soldiers of the raiding unit while the rest of the troops fanned out into the two villages raping their women and bringing dishonour to their village.
According to Dar, when the men returned to their homes next morning, they found their women cowering under beds and in cattle sheds while some of them were even found in the fields. All of them had their clothes torn, with many of them bleeding profusely from the brutal sexual assault. He also went on to claim that one of the victims died after five days due to excessive bleeding. Till date five victims have lost their lives even as the case has lingered on in a Kupwara court for over 24 years with the Army, Centre and state government denying that such an incident ever took place in Kunan and Poshpora.
Another Kunan Poshpora Coordination Committee member Javed Ahmad Shah alleged that they were pressured several times by the Army and local police to withdraw the case. But he maintained that he and other villagers would not rest till they get justice even it meant going all the way to the Supreme Court of India. Shah, who was not even born when the incident took place, says he is now representing his family after his grandfather and father became too old and could travel to Kupwara or Srinagar to pursue the case.
Shah dropped out of school after class 8 as at that time Kunan did not have any high school which was in the next village. The villagers said that their children are taunted and humiliated when they go to other villages or Kupwara. “People taunt us and say ‘dekho Army ka baccha aaya hai’ (See the son of Armyman has come). All of us faced the same thing. So it was better that we dropped out of school,” said a bitter Shah.
Kunan and Poshpora come under Kupwara constituency and the second village has now been divided into two – Poshpora and Poshpora A. There are over 2000 voters in the area but over 500 of them which include the gang rape victims and their family members have been boycotting elections since the incident took place demanding justice and punishment to the alleged perpetrators.
Shah said they would sit outside the polling booths on December 2 with black flags against the mass gang rape incident and seek answers from the government and the Army for brushing aside their allegations under the carpet.