Tucked into the hills of southern Kashmir’s Anantnag district, Lisser-Czawalgam is no different from any of the other villages that dot the landscape of this picturesque region. A shrine, a graveyard and modestly built houses populate the silent hamlet.
It was a cool summer afternoon when we drove into the village and reluctantly knocked at the house of Mubina Gani. A frail, middle-aged lady emerged from a dimly lit corridor and welcomed us in. “You are no different than my own children. Let us talk inside,” she said, showing us to the living room.
Twenty-eight years ago, on May 18, 1990, Mubina, then 25, of nearby Mohripura village, was set to get married. Her hands hennaed, hair scented and wearing an orange-pink dress, she was ready to begin her new life with Abdul Rashid Malik, a farmer by profession.
But, as has happened with infinite others in Indian-controlled Kashmir, Mubina’s dream was snuffed out by personnel of the Border Security Force (BSF).
As armed insurgency raged across the valley, Indian armed forces operated under a carte blanche. Undeclared curfews and checkpoints were a norm. “We had received curfew passes beforehand from the local administration,” said Malik, now in his 50s. He, along with many of his friends and relatives, left by bus at 8:00 in the evening for the wedding in Mohripura.
After dining and celebrating for a few hours, the procession, along with the bride and few of her relatives, boarded the same bus and left Mohripura and headed back towards Lizzer-Czawalgam. Barely three kilometres into their journey, the vehicle was intercepted by a BSF patrol and ordered to halt. “They first scolded the driver and told him to dim the lights,” recalled Malik. “While my brother tried to show them the curfew pass, they shot the driver.”
What happened afterwards can only be explained as an act of collective punishment, enabled by the systematic legal impunity that the Indian armed forces enjoy in Kashmir. “The BSF personnel indiscriminately opened fire on the bus with a machine gun,” said Mubina. “All of us ducked for cover but couldn’t escape the bullets,” she added.
Around 10 passengers in the bus were hit, including the newlyweds. The bride and groom sustained seven gunshot wounds in total. Fragments still remain lodged inside their bodies to this day. One of Malik’s cousins, Assadullah Malik, was killed on the spot while five others were critically injured. However, the ordeal was far from over.
After the guns fell silent, while blood was still oozing from her wounds, Mubina, along with her pregnant aunt, were carried to the nearby fields and gang raped. The bride was raped by at least four BSF personnel. “No one else can comprehend the torture that was inflicted on my body and soul during that night,” Mubina told us, her eyes swelling up. “I spent at least a month recuperating in the hospital.”
All the while, the passengers in the bus lay injured in pools of blood, screaming. But the bride’s nightmare didn’t end there: she was then taken away and kept under detention for at least 48 hours, says Mubina.
The horrific crime spurred such fear across southern Kashmir that for decades wedding ceremonies were only held in broad daylight. Though a complaint regarding the incident was lodged at a local police station and an official inquiry confirmed that rape had occurred, none of the perpetrators were convicted. “Our statements were recorded multiple times but no one was punished,” Malik said in a resigned tone.
Systematic legal impunity for the armed forces, even with respect to crimes of a sexual nature, is a norm in Indian-controlled Kashmir. According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, the use of rape as a weapon of war by Indian forces started in the early 1990s as soon as the government adopted a heavy counterinsurgency approach to crush the popular armed rebellion against Indian rule in the region.
The report further adds that despite substantial evidence that Indian army and paramilitary forces were engaged in widespread rape, few of the incidents were ever investigated by the authorities. Out of the miniscule number of investigations that were undertaken, none resulted in a criminal prosecution.
As recently as 2009, 17-year-old Asiya Jan and her sister-in-law Neelofar Jan were raped and murdered in Shopian district. While medical evidence established that rape had indeed occurred, the authorities refuted the claims and maintained that their death was the result of drowning in a river whose waters run no more than a few inches deep.
“The unwillingness and lack of investigation in cases of sexual violence committed by armed forces only goes on to show that Kashmiris as a people exist outside the paradigm of what constitutes justice in the Indian legal system, further justifying their demand for freedom from India,” says Irfan Mehraj, a researcher at the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a group that investigates human rights abuses in the region.
Rehabilitation mechanisms to help survivors of sexual abuse cope with psychological trauma also remain undeveloped in Kashmir. Mubina has never been able to procure any specialised help from professional counselors. “At the time of the incident all the injured were provided compensation of 5,000 Indian rupees [74 dollars] each,” Mubina revealed.
In fact, state officials often use compensation as a red herring to quell any demands for impartial investigations into human rights abuses committed by the Indian armed forces.
Also, in traditionally conservative societies like Kashmir, survivors of sexual violence are often subject to social stigma. They harbour feelings of worthlessness and shame, as well as post-traumatic stress. “Since the incident occurred, people have never accepted me as an ordinary human being,” Mubina whispered. “Once, during some dispute with one of our neighbours, the latter raked up this ordeal to rebuke me. I felt lifeless.”
Discussions and consequently, social understanding, around sexual crimes remain limited. Linking rape to the loss of ‘honour’ is a pervasive practice. “Rape in Kashmir has been beyond a doubt used as a weapon of war against both women and men,” said Ather Zia, a Kashmiri anthropologist at the University of Colorado. “It will take no less than a revolutionary change in the mindset of people, who themselves are brutalised from daily killings and harassment, to rethink how to rehabilitate the survivors of sexual assault back into the society. We have to create tools to make our own people aware that sexual assault survivors need not suffer again at the hands of society after suffering at the hands of state terrorism for no fault of theirs,” she added.
Until that happens, Mubina and many others like her are bound to suffer the dual violence of the heavily militarised state as well as archaic social structures. “If it wasn’t for the hope of seeing my children succeed through life, I would have died a long time ago,” said Mubina, now a mother of three.
Umar Lateef Misgar is a contributing reporter at The New Arab. Twitter @Kaashur. Aamir Ali is an independent journalist from Kashmir.