The road wound upwards, past torrential streams, meadows and pine trees. This was Gujjar country, home to seminomadic pastoral communities; their transient lifestyle meant that they remained along the peripheries of Kashmiri society.
Labelled as among those most loyal to India in Kashmir — which, in turn, signified that they were viewed with much suspicion, especially during the 1990s — the dominant impression even today is that the Gujjars have been cultivated by intelligence agencies to act as informers regarding militant activities. But reality is far more complex.
The conflict and occupation impacted their lifestyle and livelihood, and they were denied access to the higher meadows. They also had to bear the brunt of violence and the remote terrain meant their women were even more vulnerable to sexual violence. I got to understand the anguish of Gujjar women during my visit to south Kashmir in May 2013, when my friends and I attempted to locate a young woman called Pakeeza (name changed) who, eleven years earlier, had allegedly been a victim of sexual violence. A little after Sonarshbrar, when we finally left our car and climbed up a bridle path, we found a small mud dwelling.
Here, I joined Pakeeza who had been summoned from the higher meadows where she had been looking after sheep and goats. We sat with another woman in an inner room while the men waited outside. In the late afternoon, shadows lengthened, and as we talked the sense of isolation was almost complete.
We learnt that it was, perhaps, on one such afternoon in 2004 that two army personnel barged into the then 20-year-old’s home near Bunishpura. In her narrative, Pakeeza was unable to recall the exact date of the incident.
She could only confirm that it was the maize-harvesting season. This is indicative of how difficult it is to document incidents of violence within communities that record events not according to a western calendar, but by keeping track of nature’s cycles.
Pakeeza told us that she had been making tea for two of her husband’s relatives — believed to be militants — when they saw troops approaching and ran away.
The security personnel, dragged Pakeeza to another room in full view of some members of her husband’s family and allegedly sexually assaulted her. Pakeeza said she had no recollection of what ensued. In her words, she "lost consciousness".
Soon after, a security cordon was enforced around the area, making it difficult for Pakeeza to venture out and record the crime. She recounted that a few days later, a senior army officer had offered the family a sum of Rs 5,00,000 in exchange for silence; they were also assured that the perpetrators would be suspended.
This dangling of money was a cynical exercise in manipulation whereby a poor family’s sense of honour was commodified. It created marital discord. Pakeeza’s husband was made to believe that the "compensation" was paid to Pakeeza’s father. He also told activists that it was this suspicion that drove him to divorce Pakeeza.
In her story, Pakeeza told us that her husband was promised a job if he divorced her. He, in turn, became angry because he was never given one because Pakeeza had fled to Srinagar.
Pakeeza initially wanted to pursue the case in court but the Station House Officer (SHO) asked her to produce witnesses.
This wasn’t possible as all of them belonged to her former husband’s family. The rupture in familial ties and bitterness over the manner in which she had been divorced robbed her of the will to fight.
She consented to marry another person from the Gujjar family who, she said, knew she had been raped. Her husband, she said, does not bring up the topic.
Pakeeza’s layered narrative, brought out how rape, honour and compensation played out in patriarchal structures. On the one hand, there was the commodification of her own dignity when the family was made a compensatory offer, without any regard for their expectations of justice.
Then there was Pakeeza’s own understanding of rape, rooted in patriarchal notions, in the belief that she was, in some way, guilty — evident in the way she suddenly said, "Galti thee kyun ki militants hamaare thay. (We made a mistake, the militants were from our community.)"
While she did sense that rape was being used as a weapon of war, she was still to arrive at the realisation that there was no justification for the crime — that the violation of her autonomy and integrity was not acceptable and is an internationally recognised crime.
We had met Pakeeza thanks to the intervention of a Gujjar elder. Six months later, my friends and I took up his invitation of hospitality by camping in his field for the night.
Surrounded by the bleating of goats, we heard the Gujjar elder speak with sagacity about his community’s role in Kashmiri politics, and of how two of his young sons had joined the struggle for azadi and had been killed.
He added that he regretted the fact that many Kashmiris viewed the Gujjars as outsiders and questioned their loyalty — if the Gujjars had, on occasion, liaised with the army, Kashmiris, too, had become informers and Ikhwanis.
The next morning, as we ambled down the meadow, the Gujjar elder asked me to join his wife for a cup of tea. Pakeeza and a few other women were with her.
As I entered the house, I was told that the elder’s wife wanted to share something with me. However, she kept deflecting my questions and speaking, in general terms, of the intimidation of the troops in the 1990s.
Finally, when I began leaving the room, she pulled me back and then, after ensuring that the other women were out of the room, pulled the pheran’s sleeve off her shoulder.
This simple gesture was her narrative. She had been disrobed and raped. I later learnt that she had recounted the event to me at her husband’s behest. His encouragement that she "speak out" reminded me that men sometimes take the lead in breaking silences.
In 2012–13, I set out to record cases of sexual violence linked to the conflict in Kashmir. The women courageously agreed to share their stories with me, even though I was a complete stranger.
I had, at first, set out with a sound recorder but soon realised that some of my interviewees felt more comfortable when it was switched off. I also realised that their stories would not flow in a neat, ordered manner, but with hesitation and pauses, as though, even in the telling, they were battling fears of stigma or reprisal, denial and reluctance.
I also noticed that they never alluded to the actual act of rape or violence, but brought it up in a vague manner. Most of them (like Pakeeza) simply said that they had lost consciousness or blanked out.
I tried to respect their reticence. I have come to see that accepting the sounds of silence is a way of acknowledging a woman’s dignity and pain.
Occasionally, I was puzzled by the lacunae in the telling of stories and seemingly contradictory bits of information. But it was a human rights activist who helped me understand these gaps and how so many women were still trying to come to terms with their trauma.
He said that once he had asked a victim to clarify an apparent inconsistency and she had responded with some bewilderment, "So what should I have told you? How should I tell my story?"
The innocence and poignancy of that question — what should a woman tell or not tell? — was a stark reminder of just how difficult it is for female survivors of sexual violence to recount their tales.
Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children; Freny Manecksha; Rupa Publications
How does she recall the nitty-gritty details of the violence inflicted on her and revisit dark memories when it is only natural for the mind to blur such moments or shut them out?
How many times is she expected to keep telling her story?
How does she grapple with, not only the violence of the act, but also the violence of a society that shames her, the victim?
How does she remain true to herself and her story, when sections of society have already stigmatised her — viewing her as "ruined", or having brought the crime upon herself?
How does she elucidate the sexual details when she comes from a society where such talk is considered inappropriate?
How does she receive the acknowledgment she needs for the brutal violation of her rights when gender-based violence has been an integral part of armed conflict throughout history?
Most pertinently, what expectations can she hold vis-à-vis justice when judicial institutions have often failed to offer witness protection and when laws like AFSPA provide a protective cover to offenders?
In Kashmir, as in Manipur and other parts of the northeast, where AFSPA is in force, security personnel cannot be prosecuted — not even for a crime as heinous as rape — without the sanction of the Central government.
Although, policemen are not officially covered under AFSPA, a blanket of impunity envelopes them, too.
"Alleged Perpetrators: Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir" is a comprehensive dossier brought out in 2012 that examines roughly 214 cases of human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, torture, custodial deaths and sexual violence, and the role of 500 "alleged perpetrators", largely from the Indian Army, Paramilitary and Police force. The document notes the overwhelming reluctance to investigate:
[...] in the name of countering militant violence the Indian state authorizes security forces to carry out all kinds of operations, often without adherence to laws and norms. [There is an] overwhelming reluctance to genuinely investigate or prosecute the armed forces for human rights violations. There may be the occasional willingness to order compensatory relief, but not to bring the perpetrators to justice.
In 2013, the J&K government actually announced a victim compensation chart for rape survivors, which classified rape victims under different categories, one of them being "raped in police custody".
Fortunately, the emphasis on compensation rather than punitive action came to be swiftly condemned.
In conflict zones, sexual violence is often a strategy of intimidation and is employed in flagrant disregard of international human rights norms.
Within Kashmir, when the perpetrators belong to the security forces, even filing a complaint comes with attendant problems — leaving the victims vulnerable to more violence both by perpetrators and by society.
Amira was called antinational; the man who assaulted Hameeda received a state honour; and Pakeeza, to her horror, found that the lure of compensation, which was never given was used to hush up the case and drive a wedge within her family.
Human rights activists — who often urge women to demand justice for sexual crimes — consequently face a Herculean challenge. Activist Khurram Parvez explained:
"Once, we tried to persuade a woman to file a complaint— she had been raped by a police officer in the presence of her jailed husband. The woman asked us if we could guarantee that she or her husband would not be killed while seeking justice. We couldn’t.
"Then there was the other question — one that we are always asked. Has a single person from security forces been sentenced? Has justice ever been delivered in this state when the crime has been perpetratred by military personnel? The answer, sadly, is “no”. Not a single man from the security forces over the last 20 years or more has been sentenced in Kashmir."
(An Indian Army court did find six of its personnel guilty for the Machil killings on September 6, 2015 and sentenced them to life but the accused were not tried in a civil court.)
It’s not surprising then that only a few victims of sexual violence come forward with their stories.
Kashmir’s noted human rights lawyer Parvez Imroz, who has been fighting for the reopening of a probe into the KunanPoshpora mass rapes, told me the major deterrents to the filing of such cases were the way gender-related allegations were difficult to talk about in a patriarchal society.
Also that several gross violations had taken place in rural areas where there is limited access to the media and human rights groups and finally investigations have a poor track record of getting completed.
While AFSPA requires sanction from the Centre to prosecute perpetrators of a crime if they belong to Army ranks, there is no such limitation while conducting investigations.
And yet, Imroz reminded me "that 90 per cent of FIRs have not even been filed, and only in two per cent of the cases have investigations been completed".
Even if investigations are completed, the cases remain stuck in the court for years awaiting sanction from the Centre to prosecute under AFSPA.
"People are exhausted fighting cases for over fifteen to 20 years. Many are ill or have died. The next generation does not wish to continue because seeking justice is seen as chasing a mirage. That is a serious challenge before human rights activists and lawyers."
Yet, narratives of unyielding hope do appear — as in March 2013, when 50 young women came forward and filed a PIL (public interest litigation), demanding a reinvestigation into the Kunan-Poshpora case.
Although, the PIL itself was dismissed on the technicality that the police had not actually closed the case, it did help bring the spotlight back on to the episode, with the judicial magistrate of Kupwara directing further investigation.
What also followed such legal activism was the formation of a support group for the Kunan-Poshpora survivors. At a public meeting in Srinagar, they spoke out, and the breaking of silence after decades, according to Ather Zia, was a way of taking ownership of the event and recognizing rape as a political weapon.
Zia adds, "Once this gets reinforced I see a lot of women coming forward. This will take time, of course, and mechanisms will have to be put in place to make things flow in an institutional manner — but yes, I foresee a change."
Ifrah Butt, one of the young women who pushed for the PIL and later joined the support group, spoke to me about how the idea was born, and why young women, like her, felt morally obliged to demand justice.
"The night of 23–24 February 1991 — referred to as a ‘Black Day’ — could not possibly be forgotten; it remained at the back of our minds. But somehow we did not speak out. Then, as a few of us began thinking of the legal and social ramifications, we saw that this was as much about a group of women suffering, as it was about a land under occupation. This was a struggle, not only for the victims, but for Kashmir. It was time for us to do our bit," said Ifrah.
This realisation came to be echoed by Uzma Qureishi, a student of social work and also one of the petitioners:
"All of us are victims of a certain tyranny. In my particular case, I was once stopped by the forces whilst returning from tuition classes. I was asked to produce my identity card. It hurt and angered me — that I had to prove my identity in my own homeland to the outsiders. This strengthened my resolve to demonstrate solidarity with the women of Kunan-Poshpora."
These women were linking sexual violence with the overall repression. They were also inspiring an older generation. Ifrah recalled that before the PIL could be admitted the women needed to provide their identity cards.
"I was sitting at home with a bunch of identity cards when my mother asked me what I was doing. I explained everything — our efforts, our demands — and my mother told me to add her name to the PIL. She also wanted to be a part of the struggle."
Another important outcome was that discussing sexual violence gained legitimacy in a society that, otherwise, viewed such talk as strictly taboo. Ifrah said that at first she could not even use the word "rape" in front of her father.
"But now he tells others that I work with rape survivors. My relatives have accepted the idea that unmarried girls can fight for the rights of those sexually assaulted or meet them during field trips and become friends."
A similar episode is narrated by activist and social worker Essar Batool. Her family was not only apprehensive when she backed the PIL, but there was consternation because the word "rape" as part of normal parlance was simply not acceptable.
Years ago when Essar’s 12-year-old brother had asked what "balatkar" (the Hindi word for rape) meant after watching a film on television, her father had mumbled it "was a very bad thing".
Now, Essar was using the banned syllable and with impunity! But as she explained to her parents her reasons for backing the PIL, this time the term "rape" was being employed in its true connotation as a crime and "as something detached from shame and loss of honour".
(Excerpted with the permission of Rupa Publications India from the book Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children by Freny Manecksha.)
Also read: How conflict affects Kashmiri women