Interview: Essar Batool on Challenging the “State Narrative” on Kunan Poshpora, Accountability for Mass Rape and Torture
Essar Batool is a modern day role model to inspire women around the globe. She and her 4 female co-authors recently released “Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?” to coincide with Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day (23rd Feb). Twenty five years earlier on the evening of 23 February, 1991, locals residing in the twin villages of Kunan Poshpora were subjected to brutal rape and torture allegedly by a group of soldiers belonging to the 4th Rajputana Rifles as they conducted a cordon-and-search operation in the Kupwara district of Indian Occupied Kashmir.
This is Essar’s interview on her journey to document the experiences of those who suffered the abuse.
Please introduce yourself and tell readers where you are based?
EB: I am Essar Batool, a professional social worker from Indian Occupied Kashmir and a human rights activist. I am a petitioner in the case against Indian Armed Forces in Kunan Poshpora mass rape case of 1991 and a co-author of the book ‘Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?’ which discusses the case in detail. I work on development of expression and spaces among young women, and creating spaces for dialogue based on understanding of gender among youth and I also volunteer with Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society on documentation of human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. Currently I work as a freelance consultant and trainer in Kashmir. ”
When did you first hear about Kunan Poshpora, please explain what happened there?
EB: I don’t exactly remember when I first heard about Kunan Poshpora, it might have been when I was very young because it is a part of our lives, of our history. However, the first time I heard about it in all its horror was when I was in college and then later when we filed public interest litigation in the court to have the case reopened.
On the intervening night of 22nd and 23rd February 1991 the 4th Rajputana Rifle battalion of Indian armed forces laid a cordon in two villages of Kunan and poshpora in Kupwara district of Kashmir valley. That night the soldiers raped between 40 to 100 women aged 13 to 80 years and tortured men in storehouses of the village. Women were repeatedly gang raped and men severely tortured. For the next few days the villages were placed under cordon to avoid any legal process by the villagers or to allow the medical examination of the women.
How did you and your 4 other co-authors first become involved in exploring this tragedy?
EB: In 2012 the co author Samreena Mushtaq was working with Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, on documenting sexual violence cases in Kashmir, when she came across the Kunan Poshpora mass rape case, which had been ‘closed as untraced’ by the police. She called me up and asked me if I would like to be a part of the movement for the case. I said yes and so did two other co-authors. Munaza, is a lawyer and drafted the PIL. There we started the struggle that continues till this day.
How did you gain the trust of the victims?
EB: Unfortunately, the people of Kunan Poshpora have been treated for years as what I call ‘media fodder’, where people come to them, get their stories done, make false promises and leave. We first filed the PIL and after the first hearing went to the villagers who were happy that for the first time someone had taken a step for them and then approached them rather than doing it the other way round. With continuous interactions with them, we took their permission to bring forward their stories. It has been a two way street of gaining trust and respecting their choices, for they are the main stakeholders, the fighters and we merely are inspired by their struggle.
What was your aim in writing the book?
EB: Our aim in writing this book was to reconnect with our history, with memories of occupation that somehow have been pushed to the back of our minds by anniversaries of rapes and massacres. The aim is to produce a document that challenges the state narrative of falsehood and impunity and brings forward the narrative of the survivors. The aim of this book is to build narratives of the occupied people, of their struggle and resilience and to expose the Indian state’s role in providing impunity to its armed forces, using their institutions.
What practical issues did you face researching an incident that occurred 25 years ago?
EB: The book covers a lot of diverse issues, that not only deal with the incident of that night but also with the lives of the people post that incident and their present day situation. There were certain issues that we faced like people not remembering details clearly, because 25 years have passed and with age memory becomes fragile. Also 5 women have died in these 25 years which means 5 testimonies lost forever. Another challenge was to make the people recount and recollect memories that are traumatic for them and their families.
What reaction have you had from Kashmiris?
EB: The book has been very well accepted by Kashmiris and so far, we have mostly received messages that are congratulatory, positive and tell us that we inspire them. A lot of young people have come forward to contribute to the resistance movement after reading the book. With respect to the case we have had some cynics who have doubted our intentions and the outcome of the case.
How have you been treated by Indian authorities?
EB: So far there have been no threats per se to us, though we have been labeled as ‘agents’, ‘mala fide’ and suspicious by the counsel for Indian armed forces in the open court.
You recently launched your book, “Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?” please describe this event and what you achieved?
EB: The book is a living proof of the incidents that transpired that night, of the lives of the people post that incident, and also documents testimonies of people who remember and who have spoken about the incident time and again. Also in the book, features the recent legal struggle that we started in 2013. The book was first released at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January and on 23rd February, which is the 25th anniversary of the mass rape, in Srinagar. The event at Jaipur was attended by Indians and the book was very well received. In Srinagar the event was attended by activists, journalists, young men and women from rural and urban areas of Kashmir. Also present were the publishers of the book Zubaan publishers, and Urvashi Butalia, owner of Zubaan and a feminist author in India. What we achieved through the event is that we have made sure that the book reaches everyone and with it the story of truth about kunan poshpora.
How has the book helped the survivors of Kunan Poshpora?
EB: The book has been helpful in being a tool of carrying memories, truth and stories of the people of Kunan Poshpora to the people everywhere, whether it is in Kashmir, in India or outside India. Now because of the book people know about Kunan Poshpora, the survivors and their fight for the past 25 years. The book is also helping break the stereotype of women and men of the villages being just victims; it has brought around a new narrative of looking at the survivors as fighters and as inspiration, as epitome of resistance and resilience.
What do you hope readers will take-away from reading your book?
EB: We hope that the readers realize the importance of developing counter narratives to ones that contend the state narratives. I hope they realize that being close to truth is very important, and equally important is to reconnect with the past no matter how bitter it is or how easy it is to forget. For our non Kashmiri readers, we hope they will realize that truth needs to be accepted and propagated no matter what nation you belong to and that the State isn’t always what it seems. It is brutal in providing impunity to its executive arms in subjugating people. We hope the book educates people about an incident that has been probably the largest instance of sexual violence in whole of South Asia.
How will you continue your fight for truth and justice?
EB: We will continue both our legal and moral struggle alongside the survivors of Kunan Poshpora until it reaches a logical end. However the struggle won’t end there as we are not aiming only at justice for the people of Kunan Poshpora but also for countless other victims and survivors of sexual violence at the hands of the Indian armed forces. We will continue to document the truth and the narrative of the oppressed to counter the state narrative of falsehood and oppression. We will reach out as far as is possible to make the world aware of the situation of Kashmir. Kashmir faces more or less the same kind of occupational brutality as Palestine but the world doesn’t know about it. It is high time now that people know what is happening in Kashmir under the Indian occupation, the symbols of which are mass graves, enforced disappearances, half widows, orphans, custodial killings, rapes and torture.
What would be the best outcome for survivors of this tragedy?
EB: The best outcome for the survivors, according to them, is proper trial and punishment of those accused in the incident and the subsequent cover ups. In Kashmir no soldier of the Indian armed forces has ever been tried for any human rights violation. The persecution of Indian armed forces till now despite various inquiries has been zero. In such a scenario for the perpetrators to be tried and persecuted will be the best outcome for the survivors. They have fought the legal battle only because they want the perpetrators to feel hounded and accountable, they want that this crime should never be repeated and for that the impunity has to end. That will be the day the survivors of the mass rape and torture of kunan poshpora will finally rest.
“Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?– book release” (Video interview)
Carol Anne Grayson is an independent writer/researcher on global health/human rights/WOT and is Executive Producer of the Oscar nominated, Incident in New Baghdad. She is a Registered Mental Nurse with a Masters in Gender Culture and Development. Carol was awarded the ESRC, Michael Young Prize for Research 2009, and the COTT ‘Action = Life’ Human Rights Award’ for “upholding truth and justice”. She is also a survivor of US “collateral damage”
The article originally appeared at Carol Anne Grayson (Radical Sister) blog.