The cost of conflict: Violence against women in Kashmir

The New Arab

August 14, 2018

The cost of conflict: Violence against women in KashmirOpen in fullscreen

Umar Lateef Misgar

Comment: In Indian-controlled Kashmir, impunity is the norm, even in cases of mass rape, writes Umar Lateef Misgar. Tags: Kashmir, gender-based violence, India, rape, women, resistance
Systematic rape, sexual abuse and other forms of gender-based violence are often deployed as weapons of war against insurgent populations to dismantle their will to fight.

The case in Kashmir has been no different. Both women and men in the region have faced rape and other forms of sexual violence in the past three decades.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), rape as a weapon of war began to be deployed as soon as the armed insurgency began gaining momentum in the early 1990s. The HRW report goes on to add that it is impossible to point out the exact number of conflict-related rapes that have been committed in Kashmir, owing to a multitude of factors including deliberate obstacles created by the Indian government into impartial investigations of these crimes.

Moreover, the fear of reprisals and stigma for the survivors of sexual violence in Kashmir leads to many instances of such violations going unreported.

In her extensive research on the subject, Seema Kazi, a senior fellow at India’s Centre for Women’s Development Studies, maintains that the mere presence of a high concentration – around 700,000 – Indian military personnel across the region is highly corrosive and predatory for the daily lives of women.

Various rebel groups operating in the region have also been accused of perpetrating sexual violence, including rape. During the almost 30 years of anti-India armed insurgency, two horrific cases of rape have been attributed to the rebel groups.

In April 1990, rebels belonging to the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front abducted a female nurse from the hospital where she worked, on the suspicion of being an informer for the Indian army. Four days later, the mutilated body of 27-year-old Sarla Bhat was found abandoned on the roadside in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital city. Medical investigation confirmed that Sarla had been raped before being shot dead.

Also, on March 30 1992, suspected armed rebels barged into a residential house of a retired lorry driver Sohanlal in Srinagar’s Kralkhud locality and killed his wife Bimla and daughter Archana after raping them.

Structural abuse

Besides direct violence of sexual nature, the local populace is also exposed to crimes such as sex-trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors.

In 2006, an elaborate sex-trafficking scandal came into light in which around 100 Kashmiri women and girls were forced into prostitution and pornography by the region’s state bureaucrats and political leaders.

Relating rape to the loss of ‘honour’ is still a widespread practice within the Kashmiri society
In another horrific incident, an eight-year-old girl belonging to the marginalised, mostly Muslim, ethnic group of Gujjars was recently held captive for days, repeatedly raped and eventually killed allegedly by eight Hindu men in the Kathua district of Kashmir.

Enabled by the prevailing anti-minority attitudes of India’s ruling Hindu-nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), according to some observers, the intention of perpetrators was to stoke fear among the Gujjar community and force them to migrate away from Kathua.

When the incident came into light, local BJP leaders took organised a rally in support of the suspected rapists, demanding that they be released without questioning. The leaders were later expelled from the party.

Impunity

The Indian forces enjoy practical impunity even when it comes to the crimes such as rape and sexual abuse. Out of the reported cases of rape and sexual abuse, only a few have been brought to investigation, and not a single one has ever resulted in criminal prosecution.

The culture of impunity is so endemic and deep-rooted that the high-ranking officials in the Indian army are often seen justifying rape and sexual abuse under the pretext of “stressful conditions that military personnel face” in Kashmir.

Kashmiri women are among the worst sufferers of sexual violence in the world.

Over 17000 people, mostly women have committed suicide in the last 20 years.

Indian forces have killed over 100,000 Kashmiris since 1989 and many thousands more have been tortured. #SilencedNoMore

Impunity is a norm even in the cases of mass rape. On the night of February 23, 1991, the Indian army launched a search operation in the villages of Kunan and Poshpora located in northern Kashmir’s Kupwara district.

The soldiers of 4th Rajputana Rifles contingent of Indian army ordered the men of two villages to assemble in a nearby field and then went on a rampage, barging into homes and reportedly raping as many as 150 girls and women during the night.

While activists later called it the “single largest case of mass sexual violence in independent India”, not a single army officer has been prosecuted for this atrocious crime. Many survivors of the mass rapes in Kunan and Poshpora have filed multiple petitions in local courts, but justice continues to elude them.

Social fissures

While interviewing survivors of rape by state forces, I recently came across one woman who repeatedly expressed a desire to die. Facing intense social rejection, the woman claimed that she had even tried to commit suicide by consuming a poisonous substance.

Relating rape to the loss of ‘honour’ is still a widespread practice within the Kashmiri society. Owing to continued conflict, the region is devoid of mechanisms that could provide psychosocial support or rehabilitation to the survivors of rape: They often harbour feelings of guilt, shame and post-traumatic stress.

Conservative social structures ensure that the survivors of rape, sexual abuse and harassment do not often report their ordeals or discuss them even with their family members or acquaintances.

Read more: Is India trying to build ‘Israeli-style settlements’ in Kashmir?

The conflict also contributes to compounding misogynist attitudes across Kashmir. In recent years, Indian forces have killed or detained hundreds of armed rebels with increased frequency by engaging them in firefights within residential areas.

While the former use highly sophisticated surveillance mechanisms to intercept the rebels, the official statements in the aftermath of gunfights consistently allude to local, human intelligence being the source that gave away rebel positions.

This has consequently led to an environment of suspicion within local communities. People often accuse each other, particularly women, of working as informers for the Indian army and paramilitaries.

The situation was demonstrated during a recent incident when a female photojournalist Masrat Zahra shared her picture on Facebook.

The picture, clicked by a colleague of hers, shows Zahra covering a gunfight between armed rebels and Indian forces in Southern Kashmir. A few army personnel were also captured in the frame.

As soon as Zahra uploaded the picture, it was re-shared from different accounts with distorted captions labeling her as an informer for the army. Although the media community in Kashmir came to her support and refuted the slander, the young photojournalist nonetheless had to face intense online abuse.

Lack of solidarity

In mainland India, the state-sponsored crimes against Kashmiris including rape and other gender-based violence seldom evoke any substantial protest.

The complaints of extensive human rights abuses are often dismissed as separatist propaganda and calls for their investigation are deemed to be “demoralising” for the Indian army and paramilitary forces. When it comes to Kashmir, the stance of India’s so called liberal intellectuals is premised on either hyper nationalism or plain apathy.

Resistance

In terms of organising marches and intellectual resistance to this violence, Kashmiri women have never held back. The survivors of rape have formed multiple support groups and collectives to demand justice for the crimes perpetrated against them. Also, each year across Kashmir and many parts of the world, on 23 February – the day on which these ghastly mass-rapes were perpetrated – is commemorated as Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day.

The need to create mechanisms for accountability of these crimes is long overdue. Additionally, the archaic social practices that regularly put the blame of rape and sexual violence on survivors demand no less than a revolution, so that women can always count on their communities for support and eventual rehabilitation.

Umar Lateef Misgar is a political analyst focusing on Kashmir and the Middle East. His work has appeared in The Independent, Truthout.org, London School of Economics Human Rights Centre blog, and elsewhere.