NEW DELHI/KUPWARA: The Kunan-Poshpora villages came into the news in February 1991 when some soldiers were reportedly killed in a militant ambush. The village before that had never had a problem with the military. That would change in the intervening night of February 23-24, 1991.

An unspecified number of soldiers of the 4th Rajputana Rifles cordoned off the entire village in the name of conducting a “search operation”. All the men were asked to come out of their homes, and were taken away to another location for interrogation. Once the men were taken away, soldiers went inside every house, raped and abused women through the night. The victims of this mass rape ranged in age from 13 to 80 years. Their numbers remained a matter of conjecture as only 53 married women filed FIRs or police complaints and got themselves medically examined. The unmarried girls, also said to number more than 40, did not. It was much too shameful for them and would seriously impact on their future.

The men, young and old, were tortured to make them disclose the whereabouts of the militants involved in the ambush against the army. Third degree torture included the infamous “roller treatment” on their body and limbs, which has left some of them permanently afflicted, and electric shocks on their scalp and genitals. No report was filed for the initial two days by the traumatized villagers out of fear, and stigma.

District Magistrate, S.M Yasin, visited the village two days after the incident to investigate.According to his report, “the armed forces behaved like violent beasts.” He identified the soldiers as members of 4th Rajputana Rifles and said they rampaged through the village from 11:00 pm on February 23 until 9:00 am the next morning.

On March 17, a fact-finding delegation headed by Chief Justice Mufti Bahauddin Farooqi interviewed fifty-three women who had made allegations of rape and tried to determine why a police investigation into the incident had never taken place. Farooqi reportedly stated that he "had never seen a case in which normal investigative procedures were ignored as they were in this one."

The then Divisional Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah led a team comprising of a colonel from Army HQ, a commandant of the Border Security Force, the Deputy Commissioner of Kupwara district and the Superintendent of Police, Kupwara. After recording statements from 41 women, he concluded that there was sufficient cause for a more detailed enquiry and suggested as much in his report to the Governor. However his recommendations were deleted in the report published by the state government.

On April 7, 1991; the New York Times reported the Kunan-Poshpora rape incident under the headline, “India Moves against Kashmir Rebels.”

After much furore in the press the army initiated an investigation led by a Press Council of India committee led by BG Verghese and K Vikram Rao had visited Valley after the incident and gave a “clean chit to the soldiers”.

A police investigation ordered into the incident was never carried out because the Assistant Superintendent Dilbaugh Singh assigned to the case was transferred before he could start.

Fifteen or more of the women had to undergo hysterectomies following complications because of infection after the sexual violence on them.

Money was distributed to the victims by government official mere recently, not by cheque or to their bank accounts, but by cash. They were told it was for medical expenses. This was done apparently so that the government did not have to acknowledge that mass gang rapes had taken place.

In October 2011, the State Human Rights Commission gave directions for reopening the case after hearing pleas from the victims from the village. It recommended the formation of a special investigation team, monetary compensation of around Rs. 2,00,000 lakh to victims and prosecution of the head prosecutor who had ordered the case closed.

A PIL was filed seeking reopening of the case. The Jammu and Kashmir High Court recently disposed of the petition as a lower court was considering another application, but gave leave to the victims to approach the High Court again if they wished later. On June 18, 2013, the Judicial Magistrate Kupwara J. A. Geelani, while dismissing the conclusions made by the police in the recently filed closure report in the case of Kunan Poshpora mass rape of February23-24, 1991 returned the case file to the police, asking for “further investigation to unravel the identity of those who happen to be perpetrators”.

A section of the media, taking a cue from the security forces and the state government, has for two decades sought to project the Kunan Poshpursa crime as a conspiracy by militant groups to stigmatize the Indian armed forces. The state government, despite many of its officials and judge calling for further investigations, has remained in a state of denial over the years, with successive political parties in power ignoring the pleas of the people. No chief minister has ever visited the twin villages.

It has been a common narrative of governments at the centre that the rape of 23 women in Kunan Poshpora--26 years ago on this day to be precise-- did not take place. That it was a conspiracy hatched by militants and that the Rajputana Rifles did no wrong. That little girls were not attacked, that the soldiers did not enter the houses of the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora, that there was no gang rape.

These were the findings in 2013 of an independent team of political leaders, journalists and civil society activists visited Konan Poshpora on a fact finding mission organised by the Centre for Policy and Analysis. They held extensive interviews with the villagers, and in particular the women. The team comprised Mohammad Salim, Member of Parliament of the CPI-M, Bhalchandra Kango, Secretary, Communist Party of India, Maharashtra .E N Rammohan, Former Director General, Border Security Force Harsh Mander, former IAS, Convener, Aman Biradri, John Dayal, Member, National Integration Council, Journalist, Seema Mustafa, journalist. Sehba Farooqui,All India Democratic Women’s Association.

They travelled to the villages from Kupwara along a single lane road that had been ravaged in the winter rains. At various stretches along the river, the road was just a stretch of rubble and pebbles as we entered the village set amidst walnut trees with a mountain range all but encircling the hamlets.The twin villagesKunan-Poshpora are home to about a thousand people. There are few, if any, civic facilities. A board announced a medical centre, but no medical or paramedical staff ever comes there. All institutional facilities are either at Kupwara, or in the state capital Srinagar, and so it has been for ever, villagers say. The team interviewed around 35 men and 35 women of the village, ranging in age from 18 to 70 years. They were farmers, students and unemployed youth. Among them were the two Sarpanches, or Panchayat heads, of Kunan and Poshpora.

The team recorded its findings. It stated categorically that it was difficult to accept the argument that the Kunan-Poshpora incident is a case of a mass conspiracy involving militants and the entire population of the twin villages.

Both men and women vividly remembered the violence and torture as if it had taken place just a day before. Both women and men broke down when narrating their trauma, the women crying inconsolably before the women members of the CPA team. Team members were struck by the intensity of their anguish.

It is clear that there has been no closure, specially for the women. Their wounds remain fresh. Many of them continue to suffer various ailments consequent to the violence. It is surprising that no one in authority has noted that more than a dozen of the women of just these two villages have had hysterectomies performed within a short period of their ordeal. This must be the only villages in the India with such a large incidence of this surgical procedure. This cannot be faked, nor can be part of any conspiracy.

The psychological trauma is even more than the physical one. Almost every woman we spoke to carries emotional scars and psychological stress which requires expert and sympathetic medical attention as soon as possible. While some of the women are now in their Sixties, many of them are still not 40, and have many years ahead of them. They need to be healed in body and mind.

The women face an additional and aggravated social crisis. While we have no information of post-1991 incidence of divorce of such women by their husbands, their narratives hint at considerable tension within the families, and in their society. There is evidence of they being ostracised. For the young women, the situation is far more grim. The unmarried rape victims were quietly married off to relatives or in distant villages as no one was willing to wed them in the area.

The two villages continue to suffer this ostracisation and the stigma. Young men repeatedly told us how they had to change schools and colleges because they were taunted by teachers, classmates and others as coming from “that village where your mothers and sisters were raped by the soldiers.” Even today, such taunts face people of Kunan and Poshpora when they go to Kupwara or beyond and are asked where they come from. Many young men and women have given up their studies entirely, while a few brave ones now study in institutions far away.

There is hardly any employment for the youth, other than as labour or working in their family farms, which are small holdings of paddy fields in the shadow of the surrounding mountains.

The village seems to have been ignored by officialdom. There is little to show by way of development. A room with a board of a health centre remains closed, with no medical personnel coming to work in the village.

Other than the cash once distributed almost clandestinely by a State Minister, people say there has been no government compensation paid either to the women victims of gang rape, or the men who were tortured.

The mandate of the CPA team was not to probe the actual incident -- which must be done by both civil and military investigating agencies -- but to assess the status and condition of the people 22 years after the incident. The team therefore did not seek to speak with civil and military authorities.

But it made the following recommendations:

1. The government must make a serious and urgent effort to ensure Truth and Reconciliation / Closure in these twin villages to help the people feel they have been given justice, and enable them to move on with their lives.

2. Towards this, the government must follow the instructions of the State Human Rights Commission and reopen the criminal investigations into the incidents of 23 and 24 February 1991 and the FIR 10/ 1991 registered in police station Treghan.

3. It will be necessary to have an empowered Special Investigating Team set up, which must be supervised by the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir to ensure non- interference.

4. The civil and military authorities must no longer remain in a state of denial but must vigorously pursue the course of justice which in turn will enhance their own credibility.

5. Those found guilty must be traced and punished. The case cannot be closed as being “untraced”, a practice hitherto followed by the Directorate of Prosecution before the courts.

6. The government must also prosecute those found responsible for the cover up of the incident in the last two decades.

7. Proper and adequate compensation must be paid to all victims, women and men. Government can follow the example of the Government of Punjab which paid compensation to the next of kin of the youth who were killed in the mass-murders and cremation cases during the militancy in the state.

8. Urgent and adequate arrangements must be made for proper physical and psychological treatment of all victims.

9. The village must get all benefits under the Panchayati raj and efforts must be made to improve connectivity, sanitation and health schemes. 10. Comprehensive schemes must be devised for the uplift of the youth of the village.