A PIL seeking reinvestigation into the 22-year-old Kunan Poshpora mass rape case was turned down by the J&K High Court. While the petitioners have been left disappointed, the fight for bringing justice to the victims of twin villages has taken a new turn, Saima Bhat reports.
Every year on February 23, Uzma Qureshi, a post graduate student at University of Kashmir, used to see headlines in daily newspapers about Kunan Poshpora mass rape case. In the beginning, as she was quite young, she could not understand what really had transpired that night in Kunan and Poshpora villages in frontier district of Kupwara.
As the days passed and Uzma got absorbed in her daily life, the memory of Kunan Poshpora gradually faded out till another February 23 used to come and the stories of miscarriage of justice meted out to the victims of twin villages in north Kashmir were repeated in newspaper pages.
This year, as a part of her internship, Uzma discussed the case with the members of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and her friends whether anything could be done to bring justice to the victims of 22-year-old mass rape case.
“My seniors gave me a go-ahead. They said we can file a PIL and we decided to go for it. We started working for it under the guidance of Advocate Parvez Imroz,” says Uzma.
The PIL was filed before J&K High Court on April 29 against the Chief Secretary of J&K, Commissioner, Home Department, J&K, Defence ministry, New Delhi, Commanding Officer of 4 Rajputana Rifles, Deputy Commissioner, Kupwara, Senior SP Kupwara, SHO Trehgam police station, Wajahat Habibullah – then Divisional Commissioner, K Vikram Rao – then President of Indian Federation of Working Journalism, Boobli George Verghese, the in-charge of then Committee framed to investigate the matter.
The PIL reads ‘Uzma Qureshi and others Vs State’. For Uzma, it was a proud moment that she stood for justice for the women of Kunan Poshpora who have lost hope in all the institutions of the state.
“The issue was highlighted at international level but nothing really has changed on ground. But this is a different situation now. In this case, 50 girls are standing behind the victims,” she says.
Taking a lead from Damini Gangrape Case which took place in Delhi on December 16 last year, 50 Kashmiri women from different backgrounds joined hands and filed a Public Interest Litigation asking the court to reinvestigate the Kunan Poshpora mass rape case where at least 40 women were raped allegedly by the troops of Army’s 4 Rajputana Rifles in 1991. Five of the victims have died.
An FIR No 10/1991 was filed at Trehgam Police Station after the incident was reported. On October 21, 1991, the case was closed as ‘untraced’. In 2004, the State Human Rights Commission [SHRC] took up the case. In 2011, SHRC passed an order on October 19 recommending that the case be reopened for investigation. It also told the state that the survivors should be compensated and the Director of Prosecutions and other government and administrative officers responsible for ‘scuttling the investigations’ must be be criminally prosecuted.
But after more than a half year, nothing has changed for the victims who have only received Rs 1 lakh in cash as compensation shortly after the SHRC order. Although the PIL filed by Uzma and others has not been admitted by the Division Bench of High Court, it has not shattered their hopes of justice.
“It is not going to shatter our desire of getting justice if High Court won’t accept the PIL. Instead, it will prove that Kashmir is not a place where one can get justice. We will fight till our last breath,” the petitioners unanimously told Kashmir Life at JKCCS office in Srinagar.
“The High Court on May 14, 2013 passed a decision that returns the matter to the state, but keeps open the possibility of hearing the PIL in the future,” reads the High Court judgment of Chief Justice MM Kumar and Justice Ali Mohammad Magrey. The court ordered that since the matter was already being heard by Kupwara district magistrate, the setting up of another enquiry was not feasible.
Samreen Mushtaq, a social worker who works at JKCCS says there is an urgent need to amend laws so that culprits can be brought to book, “If Delhi government could change the laws for the safety of women in the backdrop of Damini rape case, why it is not happening in Kashmir. If the protests in Delhi could amend the criminal laws, we could also try to bring justice to the victims of Kunan Poshpora village,” she says.
Samreen is coordinating between 50 petitioners of whom eleven are representing the petition. For her, it has been a very difficult job to get likeminded together and motivate them to file a petition of which many are students, housewives, teachers, doctors. Some of the petitioners were not even born when the incident happened on the intervening night of February 23 and 24 in 1991.
Samreen says the list of petitioners would have been longer had some women not stepped back at the last moment as they were asked for identity cards for verification. But for the eleven representatives named in the petition, justice for Kunan Poshpora victims has become a priority. Not all of them have informed their parents that they are pleading the Kunan Poshpora case. Of those who have, their parents are lending them full support.
“Some days back, my neighbor asked me whether I was also a part of the PIL. I got confused. I didn’t know how that woman was going to react. I replied with a nod. For a second, I stood mum but when she appreciated it, I was elated and started sharing the case details,” says Ifrah, an undergraduate student and the youngest of the representatives. Her mother is a petitioner in the case.
“In past, it would have been never possible to come in front and report a case to the court. It is a changed society now and we were able to come forward. We have stood against the state but we are not afraid of it,” says Beenish, an English graduate from Srinagar.
After filling the PIL, the petitioners visited Kunan and Poshpora on May 5 this year where they met the victims and listened to their ordeal which strengthened their resolve to get justice for them. Till then they had learnt about the case from newspapers, “The stories that used to come in newspapers were just one side of the case. We were in front of the victims without any gate keepers,” Ifrah says.
It was during their interaction with the victims at Kunan Poshpora that the petitioners realized how the institution of justice has been let down. “Those women don’t laugh or smile. I think they have forgotten how to smile. They are expressionless. The scars of that night are still fresh in their minds. Even the roads leading to the village drape a different look; there is poignancy in the air. That day I decided to fight for them till my last breath”, says Nazima, a social science student at University of Kashmir.
“When one crosses through those lanes, it feels as if the lanes are crying as to why they haven’t been given justice,” Uzma says.
“The dropout rate has increased in the twin village of Kunan Poshpora. The dropouts told us that their batch mates insulted them by saying that they were ‘the progeny of army personnel’. That is the reason why they left schools. It wrenched out our hearts,” Uzaifa , another petitioner says.
The visit has changed the lives of young petitioners and ignited their passions to fight for other women who are waiting for justice. “The Kunan Poshpora mass rape was not the trauma of one year or so but it is being passed from one generation to other in the villages. We live in a fabricated world where we only talk, leaving behind practicality. There we got to know unveiled stories and not the fabricated stories,” coordinator Samreen says.
At Kunan Poshpora, the ordeal of victims is far from over. One of the victims is suffering from rectum cancer, “She said it was because of the rape. Justice delayed is justice denied but when changes can be done in the laws in India, why not here? We just want to know how state can remain silent on such issues,” says another petitioner Foziya.
Some people have even made fortunes by ‘selling’ the ordeal of Kunan Poshpora victims, “One person from a nearby village even collected money in the name of Kunan Poshpora victims during Hajj pilgrimage,” Foziya quoted a victim as saying.
For the petitioners, it is just the beginning of a larger battle. They are going to document the rapes committed throughout the Kashmir valley since 1989. For the moment, they will visit Kupwara on May 24 when the Kunan Poshpora mass rape case comes up for hearing.
On April 25 and May 2 this year, the villagers of Kunan and Poshpora were summoned to the Court of Judicial Magistrate in Kupwara for recording their statements.
It seems the road ahead for the petitioners is dark and desolated!