The recent debates on Indian nationalism and anti-nationalism spurred by the belligerent ring-wing after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power have only served to distract the masses from what is going on in different parts of India. The doctored videos that played a pivotal role in the arrest of the students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi have finally exposed the corporate-state-media nexus.
The JNU arrests are not an aberration. Neither is mass outrage. Those who have been standing up to dissent have paid a huge price for several years. Criminalisation of dissent has always been an integral part of this democracy, with structural violence at its core. Over the years, we have witnessed many upright citizens being charged under unconstitutional laws all over the country, not just the disturbed areas.
From the jailed Delhi University Professor GN Saibaba, to Dr Binayak Sen, Manipur’s Irom Sharmila to Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag; the journalists jailed in Chhattisgarh, from tribal leader Soni Sori and cultural activist Hem Mishra; to the youth of Kashmir who are charged under the draconian Public Safety Act – all have borne the brunt of dissent against the state for many years.
Almost a decade ago, I remember the muscles in my shoulders stiffen as I mentally prepared myself to interview the women of Kunan and Poshpora villages in north Kashmir. The long drive there was distracting – the untouched beauty of the land made it hard to believe that gut-wrenching horrors were carried out there on a mass scale. India’s best-kept secrets are sprinkled all over the landscape, which is ironically referred to as Paradise.
As we walked on the muddied path that smelled fresh from the incessant drizzle, I recall thinking I should leave my shoes outside the house of the family we were going to visit to avoid sullying the floor. The mind comes up with the most mundane stuff in order to avoid trauma. While trudging up the trail that seemed to be longer than it was, we chanced upon an old lady who was standing in her courtyard. She was 105 years old, they said, adding she was one of the 56 women raped by the soldiers of the Indian Army, 17 years ago on a cold day in February.
Hastily, she waved us away saying that she had told her story to many people over the years and that had not helped her get justice. She saw no point in talking to us. We walked on. I was led by two local journalists to a home of a family that survived that horrible night when a battalion of Indian soldiers encircled the village at night and brutalised both men and women, all in the name of “protecting the national interests”.
A mother and a daughter-in-law of the household were raped, while their father was tortured in the snow outside, I was told. We were ushered into a spacious room and the ladies of the house laid out tea and biscuits for us. As we all sat there, the village head was quickly summoned. Our translators directed questions to him out of courtesy and respect for the aggrieved family. Euphemisms and innuendos came to our rescue. There could be no ambiguities. I had to file my report to a mainstream national newspaper where I worked back in Bombay.
I had decided to visit the village on a day when protesters took to the streets after Al-Aqsa mosque in Palestine was vandalised by the Israeli forces. Had they forgotten the Kunan-Poshpora survivors? It was also the day Kunan-Poshpora changed forever 17 years ago.
As we progressed with our questions, delicately formed and delivered in hushed tones, tears began to flow. First, it was the women, then the men. We spoke about everything that happened that hellish night… the panic, the screams, cries for mercy, wails of pain, the blood, broken bones and depression and stress-related illnesses that would plague the survivors for decades to come.
It wasn’t just the women who were targeted in this time of war. The men were dragged out of their homes in the snow. “They threw buckets of water on us right here, in several feet of snow that night. Then they beat us with their rifle butts. There were so many of them – over 1,000. Women were screaming for all the houses,” said the village head, pointing to a spot outside our window.
A heavily pregnant lady was not spared. Days later she delivered a child with a broken arm. The women talk about how they’ve never been well since then, about how no one would want to give their daughters in marriage to these two villages because of the stigma of rape, about how they’d become social outcasts by a community steeped in violence that further deepened gender biases. Intermittently, they would politely ask us to sip our tea and offer us biscuits, between muffled sobs. We couldn’t. The lumps in our throats wouldn’t let us.
Their stories, their immaculate memories, the gaps in their stories that were caused by extreme trauma that the Indian government exploited and labeled the incident “Pakistan’s conspiracy against India”, the miniscule details, the irrelevant details – all made me hang my head in shame. Indian’s army had raped these women and they were offering us tea and biscuits on that cold, rainy day. For 17 years, the villagers had been hoping for justice but there was none. Time stood still for all of us.
Finally, leading us to our car after the interview, the village head, an old man, wiped his tears and squeezed my hand. “You are like my child. I am old. We have waited for justice for so long. Tell us you will bring us justice,” he said. At my bravest best, I retorted, “I cannot promise you anything but I will do everything in my power to tell the truth and put your story out.” Here, I got my first lesson in hope. It never dies. The harder the circumstances, the stronger it burns.
Not a word was said in the car during the long winding journey back to Srinagar. I was disturbed and so I didn’t want to file the report right away. I was waiting to settle down in my head. Back in office a week later, I started writing. I finished it in one go. I wanted to wait and not pass it on to the editors. For some reason, I wasn’t ready to let it go.
Later that evening, I got a call from the PRO of the Ministry of Defence in Delhi. The lieutenant general on the line asked me if I was doing a story on the villages. I said I was. He asked me how old I was and then said I was as old as his daughter. Then he denied that mass rapes had occurred, stating it was a conspiracy by Pakistan to defame the Indian army. I asked him if I could quote him in my report. He insisted that I meet the defence PRO in my city so he could brief me. I said I had no time and he wouldn’t have a different statement to make from his boss.
Finally, he asked, “Puraney zakhm kyu khured rahey ho? (why are you bringing up old wounds?)” I replied that justice had not been done and the guilty were not booked. Pushing my luck, I asked to see the files of the incident and he told me that the files were destroyed, as it had been 17 years. In the end, I explained that I was doing my job and that he should do his and hung up as his tone changed.
I felt my story would be dropped if I waited anymore, so I put the file in the editor’s folder for editing. A few hours and many whispers later, the story was allotted to a sub-editor. Since he sat on the next desk, I was eager to monitor the process. He said it was against the army and he wouldn’t use it. So I went and complained to the chief editor who prevailed upon him. By the end of the day, he watered down the story and was not afraid to show his displeasure.
“Why don’t you go back to Iran if you hate India country so much?” he asked from his seat. I’m a Zoroastrian by faith and I’ve never been to Iran. I said it had nothing to do with India and that it was a question of justice. A heated debate followed and most of the sub-editors took his side, saying what I was doing was anti-national and hence, pro-Pakistan.
I tried reasoning, “If this happened to your family, you would want justice, right?” But hate is blind to common sense. Finally, the report came out. It was toned down. Unfortunately, it has been taken down from the newspaper website since then. I got a few calls from concerned citizens in the next few days, asking how they could help and how ashamed they were. I asked them to file RTIs (right to information requests).
I have interviewed lots of survivors of rape at the hands of the security forces and non-state actors or mercenaries. I stumbled on the same sadness after interviewing tribal leader and school teacher Soni Sori in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. Her quest for justice followed. It was amazing to see her document cases of mass rapes in the region and ask the powers that be for accountability. Her own story of surviving sexual torture was inspiring beyond words. To ask the perpetrators for justice is brave beyond any measure.
As the media indulges in time-consuming debates on nationalism and anti-nationalism, those hungry for justice stand tall before an intricate web of state machinery, fortified with militarism that is engineered to obliterate a people’s identity, culture, land and natural resources and way of life – all for a spurt in the GDP in the interest of the nation.
Dilnaz Boga is a Bombay-based journalist and a PhD student.