After 23 years, the first official to report Kunan mass rapes recounts the “wild beast” act

Bilal Handoo

SRINAGAR

SM Yasin. Photo: Bilal Bahadur
SM Yasin. Photo: Bilal Bahadur

The erstwhile District Magistrate Kupwara revealed on 23rd anniversary of Kunan tragedy that he received life threats and was subsequently transferred for reporting that accused army men behaved like “wild beasts”. More than 50 women were gang raped in the northern village of Kunan in district Kupwara in the intervening night of Feb 22-23, 1991.

SM Yasin was speaking in a seminar ‘Kashmiris Women’s Resistance Day’, for the first time in two decades, organized by J&K coalition of civil society (J&KCCS) on Sunday.

“I was the first government servant to reach the spot and report to the government. After my report of the grave incident, then a governor (I won’t name him) quizzed me whether Army really behaved like wild beasts,” Yasin told the jam-packed audience. “I replied that Army, in fact, behaved worse than beasts.”

While narrating the incident, he said some “murmurs” had reached his ears which soon swung him into action. That day, he said, Kunan was snowbound. “I took a local SHO with me and reached the spot,” he continued. “And once I reached there, I was moved when I saw women of all age groups crying and wailing over what had been done to them.”

Later, he continued, while preparing the report, the details of the mass rape narrated by victims shocked him. “I prepared the report on immediate basis and pushed it forward,” he said.

He said his persistent effort to push for justice for the victims later earned him “life threats” and saw him transferred to Auqaf in Jammu and then, as Agrarian commissioner. “But let me inform you all, what happened in Kunan in 1991 is the biggest stigma on the face of Indian democracy,” he stressed.

Before Yasin, one of the rape victims narrated her ordeal. “I was newly-wed bride then,” she, in broken voice, said. “The incident is akin to Karbala for us. The incident shattered me to the core.”

In a sobbing tone, she told audience that she often thwarts question by her son who enquires about the incident. “Most of his questions remain unanswered.”

The case which is in its 23 year now, is yet to see dawn of justice. The victims made their first public appearance last year recounting the ‘ordeal’ in the intervening night of Feb 22-23 (at approx) 11:00 pm when army the 4 Rajputana Rifles regiment of Indian Army cordoned off the village to conduct a search operation. “The soldiers raped a large number of village women overnight till 9:00 am the next day,” one of victims was quoted as saying. “Five among the raped women are already dead.”

The rape incident was reported to army officials on February 27, “but the officials denied the charges and refused to take any further action,” Ali Mohammad, relative of one of the rape victims said. However, army officials claim that no report was ever made.

Relatives of rape victims alleged that up to 100 women “were gang-raped without any consideration of their age, marriage status, pregnancy etc”. The victims included a 13 year old and an 80 year grandmother.

The case got fresh lease of life last year when a local court in Kupwara ordered police to further investigate the alleged mass rape case.

Earlier the victims of the incident had filed a protest petition in the court against the police’s closure report in the case.

“Despite having information on file regarding the involvement of 125 personnel of 4 Rajputana Rifles, the police had not questioned them and neither was an identification parade conducted,” the petition reads.

On March 5, 1991 villagers complained to Kupwara District Magistrate SM Yasin, who visited the village on March 7 to investigate. The investigation formed a report. And it is this report, in which he had stated that the soldiers “behaved like wild beasts.”

Following the District Magistrate’s report, increased publicity of the incident led to strong denials from Indian military officials. On March 17, Mufti Baha-ud-Din Farooqi, then Chief Justice of High Court of Jammu and Kashmir, led a fact-finding mission to Kunan Poshpora.

“Over the course of his investigation, he interviewed fifty-three women who claimed to have been raped by the soldiers, and tried to determine why a police investigation into the incident had never taken place,” Khurram Parvaiz, convener CCS said.

According to Farooqi’s report, villagers claimed that a police investigation into the event had never commenced because the officer to whom the case was assigned, Assistant Superintendent Dilbaugh Singh, was on leave.

Farooqi had later stated, “in my 43 years on the bench I have never seen a case in which normal investigative procedures were ignored as they were in this one.” Just a few months later, in July, 1991, Dilbaugh Singh was transferred to another station without ever having started the investigation!

And then on March 18, 1991 the then Divisional Commissioner of the region, Wajahat Habibullah visited the village, and filed a confidential report, parts of which were later released to the public. “While the veracity of the complaint is highly doubtful, it still needs to be determined why such complaint was made at all… I found many of the village women genuinely angry … It is recommended that the level of investigation be upgraded to that of a gazetted police officer,” he had concluded.

In response to criticism of the government’s handling of the investigation, the army requested the Press Council of India to investigate the incident.

The investigative team visited Kunan Poshpora in June that year, more than three months after the alleged assault. Upon interviewing a number of victims, the team claimed that contradictions in their testimony rendered their allegations of rape “baseless.”

The team interviewed hospital officials who stated that one of the women who had been pregnant at the time of the incident had given birth to a child with a fractured arm just 4 days afterwards. The victim had informed the hospital staff that she had been kicked during the mass rape; a paediatrician who visited the village as part of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Basic Rights Committee, confirmed her story.

The Press Council team led by B G Varghese claimed that the foetus of the pregnant lady had been injured during delivery. Medical examinations conducted on 32 of the women between March 15 and 21, nearly one month after the incident, confirmed that the women had wounds on their chests and abdomens, and that the hymens of three of the unmarried women had been torn.

The team claimed that “such a delayed medical examination proves nothing” and that the medical findings were “typical” among villagers. Ultimately, the team concluded that the charges against the army were, “well-concocted bundle of fabricated lies”.

In stark contrast of the purported allegations of abuses, these investigations concluded the allegations themselves are “grossly exaggerated or invented”.

The Press Council’s dismissal of the entire Kunan Poshpora allegation and the manner in which it carried out its investigation have been widely criticized.

“The committee’s eagerness to dismiss any evidence that might contradict the government’s version of events is deeply disturbing. The committee has revealed itself to be far more concerned about countering domestic and international criticism than about uncovering the truth,” Human Rights Watch noted.

Asia Watch, in its 1991 report, stated: “The Press Council investigation fall far short of the measures necessary to establish the facts in the incident and determine culpability.”

The United States Department of State, in its 1992 report on international human rights, rejected the Indian government’s conclusion, and determined that there was “was credible evidence to support charges that an elite army unit engaged in mass rape in the Kashmiri village of Kunan-Poshpora.”

Following the release of the Press Council’s report, Indian authorities dismissed all of the allegations of mass rape as groundless. No further investigations were conducted.

In October 2011, however, the State Human Rights Commission asked the present state government to reinvestigate the mass rape case and compensate the victims. They also called for proceedings to be taken against the then Director of Prosecutions who had sought closure of the mass rape case and not investigation.

Speaking on the occasion, one of members of Support Group of Kunan victims said: “When we filed a petition in High Court, we were asked on what basis we were filing the petition,” she told audience. “We replied: if petition can be filed on dog menace in state then why not about the lingering justice of mass rape.”

She, however, said that seeking justice in two decade old case wasn’t a ‘cakewalk’.

“We used to have 100 girls in our group which reduced t0 50 once state pressure was enforced on us—we were warned that we would be denied our passports, government jobs and other things if we continued with our struggle,” she said.

Quite candidly, the young girl, added: “This is never ending process till justice is done.”

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