Kunan-Poshpora: Defending a cover-up after 23 years

By S.M. Yasin

I was the first official witness of the “alleged” mass rape in Kunan-Poshpora by the Indian army in 1991 as I was the district magistrate of Kupwara then. And as such, I was recently invited to speak at a function organised by a group of women to show solidarity with the rape victims on the 23rd anniversary of Kunan-Poshpora.

There I repeated what I had written to the government 23 years ago, when I first visited the two villages.

My stating of the facts again has perhaps not gone well with the former chairman of the Press Council of India (PCI) B.G. Verghese, who was the first to give a clean chit to the soldiers after the crime. In his write-up ‘The many stories of Kunan-Poshpora’ (Indian Express, March 14), Verghese has tried to create confusion by raising many questions about my conduct as Kupwara DM.

On March 3 that year, I was informed by the chowkidar of the village about the mass rape at Kunan-Poshpora by the soldiers during a cordon and search operation. It was winter and Kashmir was under a thick blanket of snow. The official machinery was defunct and the roads had not been cleared. Only next morning, I walked down almost 10 km to reach Kunan-Poshpora. The village was in shock and trauma and 23 women stated before me that they were raped by the soldiers.

I immediately informed my boss (then divisional commissioner Wajahat Habibullah) about it on telephone and submitted a confidential, written report a day later. In my report, I had suggested that a proper inquiry be conducted and action taken as per the law.

On March 18, Habibullah visited Kunan-Poshpora. I accompanied him as the local officer in charge of the district. He talked to villagers and more women came forward. In his article, Verghese has argued that since the numbers varied, the story is a concoction and propaganda at the behest of militants.

Had Verghese stayed for a little more time in Kashmir during his investigation, he would have surely learned a bit about Kashmiri culture and how difficult, culturally and socially, it was for these women to come forward and say to a group of men that they had been gangraped by the armymen. It is a disgrace to suggest that these women would concoct such stories. In fact, the fact-finding team of retired Jammu and Kashmir chief justice, Mufti Bahaudin, and his team of highly reputed ex-bureaucrats and lawyers too concluded that the mass rape was committed by the soldiers.

Verghese has questioned the delay in my visiting Kupwara and in the medical examination of the victims. There was no delay on my part. I visited the villages the next day. Yes, why did it take the villagers several days to inform me? The village was in complete shock for several days, and hesitant in telling people what had happened to them and their women. The snow too had curtailed movement.

Medical examination? When I submitted a report to the divisional commissioner, I was expecting the government would order an inquiry as suggested by me. It did not happen. I was slowly sidelined to pave the way for a cover-up. So who would have conducted the medical examinations?

Verghese has gone a step further and lied blatantly by saying that he and another member of the PCI investigating team visited Konan, Trehgam and Kupwara “accompanied by the tehsildar, Trehgam” on June 8-9. For his information, there was no tehsildar in Trehgam. The village has been declared a tehsil headquarters only last month, and the tehsildar is yet to be posted there.

Verghese has suggested that I should be summoned by the army. If summoned, I would not hesitate to tell the truth, to tell what I saw as the first official witness of the incident.

During my speech at the function organised on Kunan-Poshpora anniversary in Srinagar, I said what I had submitted in my report to the divisional commissioner. Verghese came to my residence and was in a hurry. “DC sahib, yeh kya aaph nay likha hai. Koi rape nahin huwa hai. Yeh kya laga rakha hai? (DC sahib, what have you written? No rape has happened. What are you going on about?),” he told me. My response was simple: “Please don’t say this. I have submitted my report and it has happened.” He didn’t say anything further and left.

Yes, I was threatened, but by a senior army officer. “You should not have done this,” he told me. When I responded that your soldiers should not have done this, he left saying: “Dekhtay hain, aap bi yahan hain aur hum bhi… (Let’s see. You are here and so are we)”.

I began by using the word “alleged” about the mass rape; it is only because the judicial processes are yet to be completed. Personally, I have no doubt that the rapes were committed. I was a witness to the suffering of those women and I can neither lie to them nor to myself.

It is a shame that even after 23 years, Verghese has only sought to defend his cover-up. The only way forward in this case is to follow the laid down procedures of the law. How can a controversial clean chit by a journalists’ body from New Delhi replace a proper police investigation or a judicial inquiry into a crime of such proportion?

The writer is former District Magistrate, Kupwara. This article first appeared in the Indian Express