The remote Kupwara village is a milestone in Kashmir’s tragedy. For the last more than two decades, the entire anger is directed towards the perpetrators of the heinous crime so is the resultant discourse. Mudasir Majeed collected the impressions of the victims and their families about the subsequent tragedies that Kashmiri society thrust upon the village by literally stigmatizing it.
In April 2009, when Mohamad Shafi, 23, of Kunan Poshpora was asked by his teacher at Degree College Kupwara to introduce himself on the first day of his first year in graduation, he stood up and spoke briefly. Little did Shafi know that his brief introduction would translate into a protracted grief which clearly would mean an end to his college life.
“In the crowded classroom, when I said I belong to Kunan village, it evoked curiosity in my teacher. He told me to meet him after the class is over. The students were all eyes towards me. I was somehow surprised because on first day of college if your teacher shows some interest in you, you are bound to feel excited. But no sooner than I had thought did fade the eagerness and excitement, as it was less about me but about the grim story attached to my village ”, Shafi tells me outside his mud-brick house In Kunan Kupwara.
When the class was over, Shafi tells me, he went to meet his teacher. “He asked me what had come about in 1991 in Kunan-Poshpora. He insisted that he wants to hear nitty-gritty of the mass rape story. I shivered for a while, even turned numb thinking how to tell him that my mother also became a victim of that ‘bestiality’ in the intervening night of 23-24 February 1991.
To save myself the burden of narrating the story, I thought only an act of lying can save me. I told him I was a child then, ‘I don’t know much about that night’. How would I tell him the tears never ceased to fall from my mother’s eyes since that appalling night? How would I tell him that my father’s paltry wages still go into her treatment? How could I tell him that I know everything about that night but lack the courage to tell”, Shafi says.
For some days it had continued. His classmates, he says, would annoy him every day by talking about it either jeeringly or sympathetically. “They would talk about it whenever they spotted me. Many would sympathize but some would talk spitefully. I didn’t want any sympathies, because sympathizing would have involved discussions on it. And discussion about it has been my old bête noire”, he narrates.
To avoid further hurt and evade annoying questions, Shafi decided not to study as a regular student. His journey of regular study in college lasted for a month. Afterwards, he completed his graduation in private mode. “Every person has a dream to be a college student, but my dreams were short-lived due to the stigma attached to my village”, he says.
There is not a single victim who has recovered from the trauma. Shafi’s claim that his ‘mother’s tears never ceased to fall since that day’ found the evidence when she herself talked to me. Anger and frustration unfolded as she spoke to me.
“Don’t we have a life? Why don’t ‘you people’ let us live? Every time ‘you’ come and make us explain what ‘they’ did and ‘how’ they did. Next day our children read in newspapers. They fear leaving houses. They fear going to schools and colleges. People mock at them”, Shafi‘s mother speaks in a gruff voice. Suddenly, she falls silent, breaks into a shrill, and sobs.
People here say that the mass rape story didn’t end the night it took place. It has ensured, they believe, a ripple effect in the entire village. “It affects and keeps affecting. This single incident is responsible for every suffering of this village”, says Mohammed Akbar, a victim’s son.
Akbar is a sulky man. He doesn’t want any villager to talk with media persons. When he saw me he phoned Kupwara police station, told the policeman on phone, “Some newspaperman has come and entered my uncle’s house without asking any family member for permission. I thought I should inform you. Should we talk to him?” The policeman replied in affirmative.
Akbar explains to me why has it become important for the people of his village to stay careful. “Recently Seema Mustafa along with some ex-parliamentarians visited our village. They had decided to assemble the victims in school ground. But it was Sunday. My house, being in proximity with school, was the immediate place they could think of as school was closed.
I couldn’t deny them the space. After listening to the stories of victims, they left. Immediately police arrived”, Akbar says.
Police had asked him, Akbar says, too many questions about why didn’t he inform them (police) prior to the visit of delegation from Delhi. He says that he was so depressed due to the questioning by police that he had to take medicine to calm himself down.
Akbar’s sulkiness seems to have developed from the failure of news reports to bear any results. “What have we got out of these reports? Shame! Or really any justice? Nothing is going to change. Journalists have been coming here since 1991. Every time our women are asked to narrate what happened that night. They are tired now but media isn’t. We don’t have expectations from anyone. Had anyone really been concerned then 23-Feb of every year would have been observed as ‘Black day’,” he says.
Some more voices join Akbar and they say in chorus, “if Separatists can give shut down calls over any killing, why can’t they call for Kashmir bandh every year on 23- February? Shouldn’t people in Kashmir bemoan on this day?”
When Kunan-Poshpora incident took place Akbar was studying in 12th class. Like Shafi his mother too was a victim. In early 90s his father would go to distant places, like Srinagar, in search of work and would return after many days. But after that ‘day’ everything changed in Akbar’s life. He had to give up the study. His father had to drop the idea of going to distant places again.
“I wanted to study, but two things compelled me to quit –the fear of taunts and the weak financial condition which ensued due to the incident”, says Akbar.
The only source of income Akbar’s family had at that time ceased immediately after the incident took place. His father had felt that he might regret the idea of going to faraway places in search of means of earning. He says that a deep sense of insecurity overpowered every individual of the village. “There appeared a face of certainty in anticipations that recurrence of such an incident can’t be ignored. This was the intensity of fear instilled by that night in every person here”.
When the delegation of Indian civil society activists visited Kunan-Poshpora last month, the victims assembled and were asked to narrate what had come about with them. Raja Begum (name changed), a victim, was insisted by her 6-year-old granddaughter that she too wants to accompany her. The girl had listened to her grandmother while she was narrating her story.
“In the evening I was shocked and shattered when that child (granddaughter), who cannot talk properly, asked her grandmother ‘who had done it with her’. My wife had no answer, but to remain shut”, says Ghulam Ahmad Dar, Raja’s (name changed) husband.
He further adds, “This story passes on to generations now. It is affecting the psyche of our children. Whenever a reporter comes to talk to us, we don’t allow our children to be near. But they still stick around, hearing secretly what we tell reporters. Despite our efforts to sit tight-lipped about that incident before them (children), they still hear”.
Twenty two years have passed, but the taunt-shooting hasn’t stopped. “Recently army passed by our village. A woman from neighboring village, who was here for some work and was now on her way back to her home, met a woman of our village (Kunan) in the nearby paddy field. The woman from our village was very worried. She had spotted some army-men walking up the alley leading to our village. She asked the woman from neighboring village ‘why army was in our village’. She had replied ‘don’t worry they have come to visit their children after a long time, laughed and went away’, Akbar recalls.
In the aftermath of this incident what became the matter of extreme worry for the parents here was to find the grooms of choice for their daughters. Wherever they would forward the marriage proposal, rejection was the ready response. Thus it became imperative for every father here to look for the groom within the community.
“We had to persuade our daughters to tie the nuptial knot with the men who were almost twice or thrice their age. We were helpless. We had to get them married without considering the age of the men they were getting married to. Had we done a little digging into a groom’s life or just raised the question of age, our daughters would still have been unmarried”, says Ghulam Ahmad, a village elder.
In 2002 an activist, Dar says, frequented Kunan-Poshpora with some mass marriage proposal.
“One day the activist came with a bundle of documents and asked women (unmarried) for thumb impression. They obeyed. After some days he came again to us and explained his plan. He said he will bring volunteer grooms for the unmarried women of this village”, Dar says. However the mass marriage proposal never materialized.
The villagers had asked him that if he really was serious to help them, then he should help them in some other ways. “We told him that we don’t want our village to be a daily advertisement in newspapers. We could somehow look for grooms. But mass-marriage would have brought further disrepute to the village, because it would have extensively made to newspapers”, he says.
Two decades might seem enough for a suffering to mitigate, and a big time to break the will of people to fight for justice but, Kunan-Poshpora is a different story. “No money can heal this wound. We will never budge no matter what the circumstances are. Our fight will continue till justice is done”, says Raja’s husband Ghulam Ahmad Dar.
He also says that if no justice is done, “We know what do then. The victims then will deliver ‘justice’ to themselves in front of civil secretariat Srinagar. And government will be responsible then”.
The local support ceased in the immediate years after the incident occurred. Dar says, “When it happened, people from neighboring villages thronged our houses, promising they would support us till the justice is done. But not so much time had passed they forgot us and instead started making indecent remarks about our woman. Some even commented that it was better to stop pursuing this case because, they felt, it was giving a bad name to village. They were least concerned about our women”.
Dar has to spend 1500 rupees on her wife’s treatment monthly. So is the story of every victim here. The government granted thirty-nine lakh rupees recently as the treatment expenses. Out of forty victims, thirty-nine have received the money, but one victim, Raja begum, is yet to receive.
The people here had to sell their property at times because there was no money to buy medicines, Shafi says. He adds that the one lakh which was given to each family recently went in clearing the long pending debts. “But the thing is this one lakh added to our miseries. Today our own villagers mock at us by saying that we sold the chastity of our woman to army for money”, he laments.
There are only one to two government employees in the victimized families. The education too is at low. Mohammed Akbar says that to some extent it was possible for boys to study but girls suffered and continue to suffer educationally as well. Only 3% of girls have completed their graduation, he says.
The committee which includes the victimized families has started harboring hopes anew after it got in contact with J&K Civil Society members. There is extreme hatred for media in village. The people here have unanimously decided to not allow their women to speak before media. However J&K Civil Society seems to be the only credible voice which people of this village trust and have pinned all hopes on.
“After we met Parvez Imroz Sahab and Khuram Parvez, a hope has been rekindled. Imroz Sahab asked us for nothing except support. We have full faith in J&K civil Society. In Sha Allah, the day isn’t away when justice will be done”, says Ghulam Ahmad Dar.
Since 1991 six mass-rape victims have died. Last year when I came to this village to file the story for this newspaper, I met an old lady, Zeb da’ed (name changed). She was also a victim. Today when I knocked her house door, there was no one to respond, but a frail old man, who could make no movement, asleep and unmoved. When I asked a neighbor of her where she is? She replied, “She is no more. She died last year”.