The Bar Council of India’s ‘fact-finding’ report on Kathua rape-murder case has brought home the memories of Press Council of India’s report on Kunan Poshpora mass rapes. Between the twin ‘probes’, lies the pattern of disinformation campaign unleashed to shield the perpetrators.
Kashmir was grappling with another seething summer in June 1991 when New Delhi on Indian army’s insistence sent a team of Press Council of India (PCI) led by journalist Boobli George Verghese, aka BG Verghese to the valley.
Among the first few people Verghese then met was the ousted Kupwara magistrate — whose fact-finding report had earlier left state and its military set-up red-faced: SM Yasin.
It was more than three months after the mass rapes at Kunan Poshpora that the PCI team started interviewing the victims. The team curtly claimed that contradictions in the victims’ testimony rendered their allegations of rape “baseless”.
“I was not surprised when Verghese—enjoying army boarding and lodging, and moving around in a military convoy in the Valley then—reached at such a shameless conclusion,” SM Yasin said on the sidelines of Kunan Poshpora anniversary function in Srinagar in 2014. “During our 10-minute long meeting then, I could realise how Verghese had come to probe with a particular bent of mind.”
In other words, Yasin said, Verghese had been appointed to give a clean chit to the troops.
Early that year, in a snowbound-rebellious valley, the shocking news had come from the godforsaken land called Kunan Poshpora where growing militarisation was hardly leaking any information down to Srinagar. On March 5, 1991, the mournful villagers had arrived in the office of the then Kupwara district magistrate SM Yasin to narrate their nightmare.
Later, the magistrate who had grown a snow-white beard by 2014 would recall it as one of the most devastating news, ever reaching his office.
Two days later, he was making desperate moves through snow—which at certain places would run over his head—to step inside the village where the crime had taken place.
At Kunan Poshpora, Yasin was greeted with shrieks and sobs. It pained him to recall how the outraged women—from a pre-teen girl to a septuagenarian grandmother—lined up to show him their torn trousers and other bodily marks of the night assault.
In his final report, Yasin wrote that around 100 army men had “behaved like wild beasts” in the intervening night of Feb 22-23, while subjecting women to mass rapes.
But army officers denied his “wrongful” report. With the result, Yasin was transferred to Auqaf in Jammu.
Then, on March 17 that year, Mufti Baha-ud-Din Farooqi, then Chief Justice of the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir, led a fact-finding mission to Kunan Poshpora and interviewed 53 women who claimed to have been raped by the Indian army’s 4 Rajputana Rifles.
By then, the state had already resorted to a ‘cover-up’. As Justice Farooqi found out, a police investigation into the event had never commenced because the officer assigned to the case, Assistant Superintendent Dilbaugh Singh, was on leave. In July that year, Singh was transferred to another station without ever having started the investigation. Otherwise a probationary officer, Singh soon got promoted to the rank of an SP. The then SHO Trehgam was also transferred on similar grounds.
All this made Justice Farooqi to state, “In my 43 years on the bench, I had never seen a case in which normal investigative procedures were ignored as they were in this one”.
Amid outcry, Kunan Poshpora received another official visitor on March 18: Wajahat Habibullah, then divisional commissioner. “While the veracity of the complaint is highly doubtful,” Habibullah said in his report, “it still needs to be determined why such complaint was made at all.”
He termed the villagers as simple folk… helpful and even careful of security of the Army’s officers.
“[But] I found many of the village women genuinely angry,” he said. “It is recommended that the level of investigation be upgraded to that of a gazetted police officer.”
By then, the Indian army was already requesting the PCI to investigate the incident. When the Verghese-led team finally visited Kunan Poshpora in June that year, he reported as per the script.
When the team was told how one of the women—pregnant at the time of the incident and kicked during the rapes—had given birth to a child with a fractured arm just four days afterwards, the PCI team claimed that the fetus had been injured during delivery. The team even overlooked the wounds on the outraged women’s chests and abdomens. They didn’t even pay heed to the medical report, stating that the hymens of three of the unmarried women had been torn.
“The medical findings are typical among villagers,” the PCI said, before concluding that the charges against the army were, “a well-concocted bundle of fabricated lies” and a “massive hoax orchestrated by militant groups and their sympathizers and mentors in Kashmir and abroad…for re-inscribing Kashmir on the international agenda as a human rights issue”.
27 years later, another rape incident making it to global front pages and being widely condemned is being dismissed on the similar lines. Earlier fringe and now mainstream Hindutva supporters in Jammu are denouncing the justice campaign for the eight-year-old Muslim nomad girl—raped and murdered—from Rasana Kathua as a Kashmiri separatist-led campaign. In this growing Hindutva movement, even Mehbooba Mufti has become a “Jehadi“!
But before the fanatical passions would alarmingly surface in Jammu, the crime was devised as a tool to drive out the tribal Muslims from the Hindu-dominated belt in Kathua. As J&K Police’s Crime Branch wing took over the investigations and cracked the whip on the accused and their sympathisers, men in uniform were also found among the eight accused.
Soon some Hindutva elements of Kathua and Jammu ganged up under the banner of the pro-rapist outfit called the Hindu Ekta Manch and started rallying in support of the rapists, while demanding a CBI probe in the case.
By the time the CB sleuths were done with their probe, they met with a stiff resistance from the Kathua Bar that attempted to block the charge-sheet into the case. The chilling details of the crime triggered a shuddering reaction across, also involving the Supreme Court.
The Indian apex court slammed the lawyers for obstructing the legal process in the case, following which the Bar Council of India (BCI) deputed a “fact-finding” team to Jammu for submitting report on the matter to the Supreme Court.
The BCI’s “fact-finding” report ended up giving a clean chit to Jammu Bar and its affiliate Kathua Bar, even after their pro-rapist agitations. The team justified the CBI probe demand — otherwise a war cry of the pro-rapist leaders and campaigners.
The BCI’s hasty probe also turned down the threats to the victim family’s lawyer Deepika Singh Rajawat, besides alleging that the media had “misrepresented” the reports.
Amid all this, the J&K Police said they were snubbed by the five-member BCI team. The snub has further created a doubt on the intentions of the so-called “fact-finding” exercise and has raised some questions: Who were the people the BCI team met in such haste? Did they meet anyone from the victim’s family and their legal team? Why wasn’t the Crime Branch taken on board?
While the BCI’s report has already cast aspersions on the entire case, many see it going the Kunan Poshpora way. Despite the barking evidences, Indian authorities had dismissed all of the allegations of mass rape as “groundless”.
“In 1991 Kunan Poshpora mass rape cover up began with the report of Press Council of India,” Khurram Parvez, the rights defender, while reacting over the BCI’s report, says. “In 2018 Kathua minor’s rape & murder and the successive obstruction of justice by lawyers of Kathua Bar is being defended by Bar Council of India. Cycles of impunity…”
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