In 1991 as many as 100 women were raped in one night by Indian forces in the Kashmir Valley. Nearly three decades later, there has been no justice - and the sexual violence faced by men simmers in silence.
The night of February 23 in 1991 changed the lives forever for those living in Kunan village and its neighbouring hamlet Poshpora.
Deep within the Indian-administered Kashmir Valley, as many as 100 girls and women were raped, nearly 100 men were tortured, and countless houses looted. The exact number of the victims has yet to be confirmed definitively.
The perpetrators? No less than 300 men from the Indian army, who were deployed to contain militancy in the valley and conduct raids on houses. The Indian army is given a free hand to indulge in such excesses thanks to a draconian law, that continues to exist, making Kashmir one of the most – and by some accounts, the most – militarised areas on the planet.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is an extension of a British colonial ordinance that lets the army enter any premises at any time, without a search warrant, and gives it the right to use lethal force and ‘shoot to kill.’ The Indian state has employed a range of strategies to shirk any responsibility for abuses committed. Human rights groups have repeatedly condemned extrajudicial killings by Indian forces.
The cry for "azaadi" or freedom for Kashmir – an area contested by both India and Pakistan – has meant disappearances of thousands of men, and a similar number of sexual assaults on women in Indian-administered Kashmir.
In 2011, special investigators from the Jammu and Kashmir Human Rights Commission found more than 2,000 corpses buried in unmarked graves.
‘Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?’ is an obvious question and the title of a book, given that justice has been elusive for the women of Kunan Poshpora. About forty have stepped forward to seek justice; a collective decision to let the unmarried women step forward who had been raped by the “outsiders”, lest they are unable to find grooms, in a traditionally patriarchal society.
Over the years, survivors have struggled to find justice at every avenue, including the Supreme Court of India. Getting a police complaint registered wasn’t easy, let alone pushing for an investigation, followed by the closure of the case for want of evidence. The case has been awaiting a hearing in the Indian Supreme Court for the last three years, on an appeal filed by the accused army officers, and the state government.
Sexual assault is used as a tool of intimidation in conflict zones around the world. However, it leaves a different scar each for men and women.
When women are raped, it is perceived as breaking the “honour” of the community. When men are raped, it is a personal assault on their individual masculinity. In either case, a violent idea of patriarchy is perpetrated, which leaves an impact that is devastating under the patriarchal gaze of society’s idea of a person raped: whether woman or man.
There are countless incidents of the torture of men in Kashmir.
Papa II was a notorious army camp, where men were made to strip naked and stand together for hours. Army personnel gave electric shocks to their genitals, while verbally mocking them about their “loss of manhood”.
Shazia Ahad, who researches torture and abuse at the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), says that most of those who wouldn't come out alive were those who didn’t survive the torture within the first few hours since their “abduction” –there would be no paperwork about the time of their arrest, and hence such men would be deemed as “disappeared” On the other hand, men who speak of this torture state that there are other things that were done to them which they cannot speak about.
There is such a strong and prevalent stigma against what the men suffer that the police report in the aftermath of the mass rapes in Kunan and Poshpora did not even record the violence on men. It is not part of the official list of crimes that occurred that night.
“They did what they do,” was what one man said to a researcher. Wood, water, wires, portable DC batteries were some of the tools used to inflict pain. Some men crawled home, others lay immobile. Most of the residents were left to deal with a singular image the morning on February 24: men electrocuted, women raped, and a barn turned into a torture chamber.
The toxic mix of a patriarchal sense of masculinity which is amplified by the presence of the men in uniform in Kashmir renders a toxic impression of dominance. Everyday humiliation at the hands of the army – and the local police – takes the form of attempts to discipline men, in attempt to leave them feeling emasculated. At the same time, a man unable to protect his family or provide for their well-being can be demoralising in the face of institutions that fail to be avenues for redressal.
However, while those detained in the 90s were men in their 20s, today, young boys accused of stone pelting are being detained. Some of them are minors, and are not allowed to speak in court about any torture being meted out to them.
Even after being released, they remain under constant surveillance and hence aren’t able to speak up. Nasrulla Khan, who was detained and allegedly tortured by the army in August 2017, developed renal failure, while Manzoor Ahmad Khan, who was also detained, is still missing.
But what then of the idea of azaadi? The physical, sexual, psychological assault on men still does not deter them from the quest for a free Kashmir. In fact, it might just be the opposite. The assault on one man would push another man within his family to take to arms, in retaliation.
This was the case with Burhan Wani, who joined Hizbul Mujahideen at the young age of 15, to avenge the humiliation meted out to him and his brother. His death at the hands of Indian forces in July 2016 led to massive protests, and over 50,000 congregated on the streets for his funeral.
At the same time, others have continued to non-violently and intellectually pursue azaadi, notwithstanding a tortured father or brother at home, or one who may have disappeared.
As February 23 has come to be recognised as a day of Kashmiri Women’s Resistance, it is noteworthy to remember the assaulted women – five of whom have since died – but also the scores of men for whom speaking aloud about their sexual assaults continues to be difficult.
At a time when almost every sphere, right from Hollywood to humanitarian aid workers, are waking up to the reality of sexual assaults, it is about time that the women and men from across Kashmir who have been screaming in torture chambers, or silently muttering #MeToo, are heard.
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