Memory is the most important strategy in Kashmir: Khurram Parvez, on thirty-one years since Kunan Poshpora

Human-rights activist Khurram Parvez in Srinagar, in 2015. The NIA arrested Parvez in late November 2021. Parvez’s organisations, the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, has worked extensively to document instances of sexual violence by the armed forces, enforced disappearances, and torture, in Kashmir. Umer Asif
23 February, 2022

The prominent Kashmiri human-rights defender Khurram Parvez is one of the founding members of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, which has documented numerous cases of state atrocities in Kashmir, including sexual violence and enforced disappearances. The independent journalist and University of Sussex scholar Shalini Nair, who is researching sexual violence in India, met Parvez in November 2021 at the JKCCS office in Srinagar. They discussed incidents of mass sexual violence, as well as political developments in Kashmir in recent years and assembly elections that were then underway. In particular, they discussed the Kunan Poshpora incident.

In February 1991, a group of soldiers and officers of the Indian Army stormed into the two villages of Kunan and Poshpora. By many villagers’ accounts, the soldiers raped over thirty women and brutally tortured the local men. Fifty Kashmiri women petitioners, in consultation with JKCCS, were instrumental in filing a public-interest litigation case before the Srinagar High Court in the Kunan Poshpora matter in 2013. The case is currently in the Supreme Court registry, awaiting hearing. Today, 23 February, is observed as Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day, in tribute to the sustained struggles and courage of the Kunan Poshpora mass-rape survivors.

Just a few weeks after the interview, the National Investigation Agency raided the JKCCS office and arrested Parvez, accusing him of criminal conspiracy and waging war against India. The NIA also charged him under various sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Several international organisations—including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others—have since demanded his immediate release. Parvez, who had been under judicial custody at Delhi’s Tihar jail after his arrest, was remanded to NIA custody on 21 February.

Edited excerpts from Shalini Nair and Khurram Parvez’s discussion have been published below.

Shalini Nair: In the course of your work on sexual violence in Kashmir, you have dealt with instances of predominantly military and state violence, the most widely known among which is the Kunan Poshpora case. What has been your experience of dealing with that and other such cases?
Khurram Parvez: There are many more cases which we have documented, and there are a few which we have also successfully been able to file in the courts. The problem in the context of sexual violence is manifold, if you compare [these incidents] to other human-rights violations. Getting these cases registered in the court is not easy. It’s not easy anywhere in the South Asian context, because of the manner in which the honour of women is construed in communities. People feel that these women have been dishonoured and, therefore, talking about it more and more is further dishonouring them. Besides the violation which has happened, you have to fight that mindset as well.

Also, unfortunately, here in Kashmir, because Kunan Poshpora and some other cases of the early 1990s continue to be unresolved and because nothing happened in the court of law in these cases, in cases that followed, women have [developed] an understanding that they [should not] register a protest or a court case because nothing will come of it. They say it only complicates the problem, because people get to know, then it’s talked about, and then there are issues of stigmatisation and other such problems, which their family members have to face. And these problems are not limited only to stigma. In the case of Kunan Poshpora and others, we’ve seen reprisals [against] the families of the women who talk about the sexual violence they’ve experienced.

SN: Reprisals from the state?
KP: Yes. From the state.

SN: Much of the struggle and resistance of these survivors have been detailed in the 2016 book Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? by a group of Kashmiri women authors including Natasha Rather, Essar Batool and others. In my interactions, some survivors told me that they want to carry on the struggle even after thirty years, but there were also men who spoke about the need to move on because of the stigma and the many ways in which the next generation is being affected by it.
KP: I think the women do have this pressure also from the community, [which feels] that speaking up is useless. We [at the JKCCS] have tried to have a community dialogue there for years, where we are trying to help men understand the problems they are now imposing on the women by behaving this way. A lot of young men do understand, but the men there generally say that women do not understand how their talking is not helping anyone and that, therefore, they should keep quiet. They hold that opinion because the [Kunan Poshpora] case has been stuck in the Supreme Court for the last six years, and we have not had a single hearing. It’s still with the registry. The Indian Army and government have complicated the case in such a way where every time there is a possibility of a hearing, there is a petition from someone or the other [that results in further delay].

We know that it’s deliberate and the families of Kunan Poshpora also understand that it’s deliberate. But the men announced on the anniversary of the crime [in February 2020] that they are no [longer] interested in fighting this case in the court.

We explained to them that, okay, there is no outcome. But this is in itself an outcome, that we are exhausting all the remedies—from the local court to the State Human Rights Commission to the Indian Supreme Court. It has been futile from this perspective that we did not get justice. But it is very, very rich and useful experience for all of us as a community, as Kashmiris, because we have been able to expose the lies of the Indian state through this one case. Also, the women’s courage to speak up in public has helped in creating some amount of deterrence, because the government knows that if there are more cases like this the women are not going to stop. [The state] is now disciplining or pressurising [its] men to not engage in acts of rape like this, or even disappearances and many other things. So, speaking up by victims is always important.

SN: So there are reprisals but there are also many good things that come out of speaking up.
KP: We have observed in our work—not just with Kunan Poshpora but also with other victims of disappearances or torture—the more victims talk through lawyers or through media interviews, [the more] it helps create pressure on the government. The government does not want bad press. They are not concerned about providing justice, but they are trying to pressurise the armed forces to not commit these acts. Even if justice is not being done in past crimes, this newly created deterrence has helped.

The situation is so bad in Kashmir [in recent years] that the number of violence cases should have increased tremendously, but it is not increasing because the government knows that it gets reported and victims are still speaking up. Even if they [the government] have gagged the media from reporting it, when victims choose to speak, it gets reported elsewhere, in some alternate media groups in India and also internationally. When it gets published, they feel the heat of it. A lot of cases get reported in the United Nations, too. That is why I feel that speaking up, from Kunan Poshpora survivors to other cases, has been the most important act of courage, but also an act that has prevented other people from becoming victims. The Kunan Poshpora victims have ensured that not many more women would be victimised like them. They are conscious of this, but the men do not believe in it the way women do.

SN: Kunan Poshpora is the case of mass rape that is spoken about most often. Is it that there have been no other cases of mass rape since then or that people have not reported cases to the police?
KP: Mass rape cases maybe have been fewer. We documented 143 cases [of rape in the context of conflict] which were actually ongoing in State Human Rights Commission. But now the State Human Rights Commission has been disbanded [following the abrogation of Article 370, in 2019]. So, we are contemplating taking these cases either to the high court or to the National Human Rights Commission. These cases were reported in different ways, where FIRs were filed in some instances and not in others. We have collected these over the last thirty years—mostly all military violence, but there are a few cases where it’s unidentified gunmen.

[In an annexure to a letter to the SHRC dated February 2018, the JKCCS listed these 143 cases of rapes linked to the conflict in Kashmir and detailed how the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1990, accords impunity to the perpetrators of such sexual crimes. In most cases, the alleged perpetrators were listed as personnel from the Indian Army, the Jammu and Kashmir Police, the Central Reserve Police Force and the Border Security Force. In a few cases, the alleged perpetrators were listed as militants.]

SN: These documented cases include rapes by militants too?
KP: We have seen [in the course of the JKCCS’s work] that militants have their own kangaroo courts, where punishments were given by the militant organisations to their cadres if they were involved in cases of rape. When the militants punish someone, it’s not acceptable to us [the JKCCS], because it is not the court of law punishing them. Of course, we don’t agree with their checks and balances. But in comparison, seeing the impunity the state enjoys, the state is acting more like a mafia or a terrorist organisation in Kashmir.

That’s the problem. The state is governed by rules and laws, and non-state actors do not have rules and laws, but they have public pressure [from the supporters of the resistance movement in Kashmir] which helps militants remain accountable. But in India, people don’t pressurise the government to be accountable for crimes it is doing here [in Kashmir]. In fact, people instigate the government and celebrate violence. In India, the media is telling the government to use military might to control the population. And then you have the “fringe”—you would call it that, but it is the mainstream in India— which is asking for Kashmiri women to be raped if they come out on the streets [in protest].

I’ve seen this for many years. People who were our family friends, the kind of violent mindset they have about Muslims and Kashmiris is unimaginable. I’m talking about twenty years ago, when it was about Congress and secular India. But most people who even voted for Congress had very wild ideas, for example, about how Muslims should behave. Earlier, [the lack of public calls for violence against Kashmiris or Muslims] was a facade we had in India, and that facade was deliberately allowed to remain there because the government believed in having it. Now, the government believes in not having the facade, so it has been removed.

SN: What are your reasons for seeking justice from the very state that is the aggressor in Kunan Poshpora and other such cases? What kind of justice do you expect in such a context? Is it more of a strategic move?
KP: A lot of Kashmiris criticise us for going to the courts. But it’s not just strategic but also practical. But if you don’t go to court, where else do you go? The strategic reason is that we do it because this is the only way by which we can build our memory of these cases. Otherwise, the BJP government will say that Kunan Poshpora never happened. The BJP is quite capable of saying that no one died in Kashmir, no one was raped, no one disappeared. It will say it. So how do you build that memory?

We were quite conscious that this will happen in India, because that was the tactic on the ground in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990. We have seen so many instances where the police and the government have lied on public television. For example, the Gawkadal massacre took place on 21 January 1990. The government said some people instigated violence, the protesters fired on the police, and police retaliated. This was a lie. That lie was being told to us even when we [Kashmiris] witnessed everything in our presence. Around fifty people were killed. They [the government] said only five people died. That was what was reported in the newspapers.

All of this has to be institutionally memorialised. How do you do that? You cannot do it on your own. You have to approach the court because, by going to court, documentation happens. If you see, most of [the JKCCS] reports are based on RTIs and on the court cases which have been submitted in the past. Memory is the most important strategy.

The other thing is if we ever are able to have international access for humanitarian intervention, if we approach the United Nations, it will require us to actually exhaust local remedies. We cannot tell the international community that India does not want to give justice unless we have gone to the court. If courts provide justice, that would be best. But if they don’t, at some point of time, after thirty or forty years, all our failures in individual cases will become our strength to speak of how, institutionally, India is responsible for denying justice in Jammu and Kashmir.

SN: How many cases have you filed?
KP: Hundreds. We document the cases done by other lawyers as well. We have not won a single case. One of our friends in Chile, the human-rights lawyer Roberto Garreton, and I were once discussing our [respective] situations. They [Chileans] have moved on—there has been transition, they have a democratic government, they punished and prosecuted the then dictator [Augusto] Pinochet. He said to me once, “You know, I was in your condition many years ago. I was losing every other case.”

But he told me, “It’s not your failure.” He said, “For 40 years, I lost all the cases, and people would call me a lawyer who was a failure. But after Pinochet was arrested, the European courts asked us to provide evidence against him. All the cases where I was forcibly failed actually worked as the evidence against him. So, all of this, all these files of my failure were taken to these courts.” And that is how Pinochet was prosecuted. So, for us [Kashmiris] also, after fifty or sixty years, all this documentation will lead to the accountability of the Indian government.

A lot of people say that these people [the victims and perpetrators] would have died by then, but, for example, take what happened with the Jews [referring to the trials of Nazi criminals in the aftermath of the Holocaust and Germany’s public apologies since].

I’m very confident there will be a time when we will ask Indians to apologise publicly. Exactly the way Armenians are asking the Turkish government to apologise [for the genocide of Armenians]. Similarly, there will be a time when Indians will not hold their heads high because of what India has done in Kashmir, but it is not possible without documentation and without engaging with the courts. I don’t think the mindset of the Indian people is always going to remain the same. It will change. It’s exactly the way a lot of British writers are now acknowledging how the British government did wrongs. They are the ones who are writing more vociferously on all the wrongs committed by the British government in the then British India. It’s just a matter of time—all of it needs to get documented and then, at some appropriate time, people will talk about it.

There are many other values [of documentation and court cases] also. We have seen that communities which struggle, which speak up, they also evolve. Communities which have decided to submit, do not. We’ve seen that resistance helps in the evolution of the society, educationally and in terms of the political consciousness of the people. If you compare Kashmir with the Bhagalpur or the Nellie massacre survivors [referring to anti-Muslim violence in 1989 and 1983, respectively], you will see sharp differences. Here, at least there is no submission.

SN: Be it in the past or now, whenever men are detained and interrogated in custody, state law-enforcement agencies use various techniques which are forms of sexual assault, even if we may not call it that. A 2019 JKCCS report documented sexualised torture of detainees, including being stripped naked; electrocuted in their genitals; having foreign objects like rods, petrol, chilli powder, needles inserted into rectums; and sodomy. Indian law acknowledges in-custody rapes of women, but not others. There is very little mainstream media reporting on these cases and often men themselves find it difficult to speak up.
KP: A lot of people have talked to us about sexual violence against men during detention. One of the reasons it’s not reported is also that misogyny is so common in South Asia that these victimised people also feel that, if they talk about this, they would be looked down upon by the society. “How could this happen to a man”—there is such hyper-masculinity, they feel they should not be identified with a crime where they could appear weak.

The other reason is that nothing has happened in the court cases, even if people have spoken. [During the research for the report], we were really finding it difficult to persuade men we know were sexually abused to speak to us about that experience. They speak about third-degree torture but when we asked them if it was sexualised, they would be uncomfortable talking about it. For example, I know a lot of people [who have been detained or arrested since the 1990s], a rod was inserted in [their] rectum. Many have had complications also because of this. They talk about everything but not that specific thing. In one case, a person talked about it because he developed a medical complication. He was hospitalised and he had a urine bag for 14 years that he had to carry along. He had multiple surgeries. So, this one man was able to talk about it because it was so obvious that he could not hide it. But mostly, victims would tell us, “Let’s not talk about it anymore.”

For these men, the acknowledgement is also going to be very painful. So, they are more interested that the structures of violence are actually removed. Many of them are really so terrified about the experiences in the detention. I know many of them have had mental-health issues because of the sexual violence which they faced.

For instance, it’s a very normal routine that while entering jail, you will be stripped naked. This happens in many jails across J&K, especially in Jammu. It’s the most humiliating thing. I remember when I was jailed in 2016, an old man going before me submitted [to the strip search]. When my turn came, I shouted at [the prison security] and I said I will not allow this to happen. I agreed to remove my artificial limb, but did not remove my trousers. They said, “Then you can’t go in,” and I said, “Of course, I don’t want go in.” Finally, I was allowed to go in. I reported this to the jailer. After that, for the two and a half months that I was there, [the strip search] was stopped. But it was resumed again because, they said, it is part of the standard operating procedure. They said people can hide certain things like SIM cards in their underpants. But it’s illogical. I told them, “[SIM] cards are otherwise available inside the jails. You can pay money to a policeman, or you will get a smartphone inside. So, what is this nonsense?”

SN: What does justice mean in these contexts? Self-determination is the justice Kashmiris have been asking for, but when it comes to sexual violence by the state, particularly, what is justice?
KP: It’s a political argument when some people say that self-determination would be justice. It’s one kind of justice. But I don’t think that those who have been wronged, those who have been violated by the state—whether women or men—will ever think of self-determination as a remedy for the crimes they have suffered. This will not be perceived as closure.

This has happened in many other conflicts as well—for example, with the Japanese, during the Second World War. Did the “comfort women” [referring to women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military] keep quiet after their lands were liberated? They kept shouting about [the crimes they faced], they’re still talking about it. For them, closure would be when the state acknowledges that this was a crime, when the state pays reparations, when the perpetrators who were involved in this are held accountable. That is what I think most of the victims would always want.

And it is not only for Kashmir, it’s good for any country which is involved in these crimes. If you allow unaccountable structures to persist for years, injustice becomes an infectious disease. The government and the people of India thought that this is something we are allowing to happen in some hills in Kashmir and in the Northeast, so it will not affect them. It started affecting mainland India, and it’s now affecting people in Delhi also. Look at the way these anti-CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act] protesters were dealt with.

The government has invested in the Hindu radicalisation of the armed forces and the bureaucracy which is operating in J&K. The radicalisation has only helped the BJP, not India. The radicalisation was also happening in the Congress era. They felt that they are doing it to contain Kashmir and Northeast and other places, and it will not affect them. It affected Congress first. In a few years, even if the BJP loses, the RSS will be the reality of India’s political future. The saner elements within the BJP also don’t realise that it’s a threat for them also, because this kind of militant extremism is a self-destructive mechanism.

Look at Yati Narsinghanand [an extremist leader notorious for calling for violence against Muslims]—look at the way he speaks about even the BJP. They don’t think of the BJP as Hindu enough. If this trend goes on, there is going to be competition amongst the forces. Competing fascist narratives are now an unfortunate reality in India. They thought that this was something which they were doing in a laboratory in Kashmir. Par laboratory mein se bahar nikal gaya monster, ab woh chal raha hai har jagah. [But the monster has escaped the laboratory and is walking around everywhere.] That’s why I feel that self-determination will not solve all problems.

SN: After August 2019, when the Indian government revoked Article 370, there were many moderate voices in India who critiqued the manner in which the revocation of the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir occurred. They, however, held that the way it was done was wrong, not what was done itself.
KP: Here in Kashmir, a lot of people are happy the BJP is in power in Delhi [as it is perceived to help the resistance cause.] It’s sort of a sadistic sentiment. I hate it when people say it. Why do we want people to suffer? If it is bad for us, it is bad for them.

How can we feel at peace with all the suffering that is ongoing [under the BJP]? Indian Muslims are paying the price and will continue to pay the price. It is now spilling over to the Sikhs, and then I’m sure you will see the escalation of violence against Adivasis and Dalits. They will be hunted again and again.

If the BJP loses the Uttar Pradesh election, it will result in more violence across India, because the problem is that the BJP has not been able to deliver on anything. I think they will go for violence in Kashmir, against Muslims, and maybe much more. I hope we are all proven wrong. I hope the BJP leaders act like statesmen, like saner people. Unfortunately, there was a time when there was a huge constituency of eminent dissenting voices across India. They were not affiliated to political parties necessarily. It was not just the opposition. Those individuals who used to speak up as voices of rationality, would speak up at different points of time against the governments then. Now everyone has been silenced.

There’s that narrative here [of the BJP’s wins being good for the Kashmiri cause], and there is also this understanding that the worst thing that the Indian state could have done against us is the abrogation of Article 370. What can it do beyond this? It cannot harm us more than it has already. [The abrogation] has made Indian [state] in Kashmir very vulnerable because now there is no pretense even that they want democracy, equality, accountability. All the veils have been removed.

SN: For Kashmiris, the veils have been lifted, but the Indian government believes that democracy has been brought to Kashmir finally.
KP: Can Indians allow a similar kind of democracy to be implemented in, for example, Maharashtra? Can [the central government] remove the [state] government because the government is not behaving as per your whims? And let’s make Maharashtra into five union territories because it’s such a big state. Will anyone allow that? People will come out on the street there.

Here, people did not want to come out on the streets because they felt that this is the best thing they could do to help the [Kashmiri] cause. [By removing Article 370], the Indian state is keeping the cause alive at a very low cost. A lot of people here say, “Theek hai, hum logon ko kya karna hai? [What do we have to do with it?] India will keep the pot boiling here for its votes there.”

SN: Regarding votes, in the lead up to the Uttar Pradesh election, there was a sense in Kashmir that the situation might get worse in the coming days.
KP: The pot is boiling here, and it will remain like this. In the past, the go-to place was Hurriyat [referring to the Hurriyat Conference, a historically pro-independence political front in Kashmir]. If militants were doing something wrong, the government would arm-twist Hurriyat and get them to do certain things [to control the situation].

Now, there is no Hurriyat, so who would they go to? Recently [in 2021], there were these killings of Kashmiri Pandits and also some Bihari labourers. In the past, if there was the smallest provocation, we would go to get Geelani, Yasin Malik and others [referring to the recently deceased Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the head of the Hurriyat, and other Hurriyat leaders]. They would talk about it publicly and address the issues and things would be resolved. Now, there are no arm-twisting possibilities, because there is no structured leadership. That is what has made militancy more relevant now, unfortunately—that’s our fear.

This interview has been edited and condensed.