In this series, Women In Power, we feature women who have done groundbreaking work in the field of gender, sexuality, women’s rights and the likes to get an insight into their lives and their work. More and more people are joining the feminist movement and working on gender and we wish to bring them in the limelight, one life at a time.
Essar is a professional social worker and a human rights activist from Indian occupied Kashmir. She is a petitioner in the case against Indian Armed Forces in Kunan Poshpora mass rape case of 1991 and co-author of the book ‘Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?’ which discusses the case in detail. She also work on development of expression and spaces among young women, and creating spaces for dialogue based on understanding of gender among youth and volunteers with Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) on documentation of human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. Currently, she is working as a freelance consultant and trainer in Kashmir, and is part of support groups that work for victims of sexual violence by the Indian armed forces.
I caught Essar candid on her work, her book, the PIL, Kunan Poshpora and feminism in Kashmir.
1. You wear so many hats, from writer to activist, social worker and trainer, what is a typical day like for you?
My typical day would be divided in juggling between my job, home and writing. That was very true when we were researching and writing for the book. It would be job during the day, home in the evening and then writing the chapters during night. Those were the toughest days of my life I think in terms of balancing extremes. On other days such as now, when I have left my job and volunteer with JKCCS for documentation of human rights, it is full of encounters with ugly truths and lot of pain. Sometimes at the end of the day I feel numb from all the information that I have, that is there in the open but is too common to be noticed. Then every day of my life is spent in experiencing and resisting, in whatever way I can, both patriarchy and the Indian occupation. As a woman who has seen how brave and courageous Kashmiri women are and what they go through, my day is usually a piece of cake.
2. What is your first memory of Kunan Poshpora?
My first memory of Kunan Poshpora is very hazy. If I remember correctly I read about it in a newspaper in my teen years, and of course the news report talked about the outline of what happened in the two villages in 1991. I was 4 years old when the incident took place so I heard of it as a remembrance. I remember being horrified, I mean back then rape to me was something I read about secretly, because of the taboo attached to it and here was an incident of mass rape. But as is the case in any militarily occupied territory, Kunan Poshpora got buried in my memory, there were many more incidents happening that needed space in my memory.
3. How did you file the PIL? What is its current status?
We got together after Samreena called me and Munaza drafted a PIL along with legal team of JKCCS. We started getting friends together for the PIL, we talked to women and asked them if they would like to be a part of the litigation. Initially we got 100 women to be a part of the petition but then the High court asked us to submit identity proofs and that is when the number went down from 100 women to only 50. This was because of the fear of reprisal and surveillance by the state and some women were not ready for that. The 50 women that made it to the final list included women from diverse educational, social and geographical backgrounds in Kashmir. The PIL was dismissed as being premature even after two decades of the incident having happened and because by then the case had gathered a lot of media attention in Srinagar, the Indian army forced the case back to Kupwara sessions court, to tire the support group and survivors and to discourage media from covering it. We went for all the hearings, travelling from Srinagar to Kupwara, about 200 kms and protested outside the court after every hearing. These hearings were replete with efforts by Indian army to dissuade us and survivors, with the counsel for the Indian armed forces using the names of survivors in court, interrogating us about our motives and calling us women, ‘malafide and suspicious agents’.
In 2014 the High Court ordered re-investigation of the case and also directed the government to pay the survivors; both the Indian army and the state challenged the order in Supreme Court of India. As of now the case is still before the registry and not the bench and the notices to respondents are yet to be served. The delay by the Indian state continues.
4. How did you and your co-authors get involved in writing a book about the horrific night in Kunan Poshpora?
Samreena Mushtaq, a co-author of the book was working as a volunteer with the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, which is a federation of organizations working on documentation and highlighting human rights violation by the Indian state through Indian armed forces in Kashmir. She was going through cases of sexual violence in Kashmir when she came across the file that mentioned the case of mass rape and torture of Kunan Poshpora being ‘closed as untraced’. This intrigued her and she, along with the legal team at JKCCS thought of having this case reopened by women. She called me and asked, ‘Do you remember Kunan Poshpora?’, and I did. The case was back in my memory. We asked this question to many other women and that is where the name of the book comes from. We decided to file a PIL and Munaza, another co-author drafted the PIL with Advocate Parvez Imroz of JKCCS. Once the case got going and came back into public memory we realized that this case needed to be documented and that is where Zubaan, the publishers of this book collaborated with us. We wrote the book under their project, ‘Sexual violence and Impunity in South Asia’. Five of us from the 50 women who signed the petition decided to go ahead with researching and writing the book, which would contain evidences of the mass rape, the cover ups and the memories of the incident. We came together to create a documented evidence of the mass rape and torture case, that belied the Indian State version and also exposed their instruments and processes of cover ups in this case.
5. Was it difficult interviewing the survivors? How did you and your co-authors break the ice?
We filed the PIL first, before approaching the survivors, which is really different to what had been happening till then. People would go and do stories on the villagers but nothing happened for them and this created a huge trust deficit between them and the outsiders. When we approached them after filing a PIL to have the case reopened, we had their trust and confidence, and in their own words, ‘this was the first time someone had taken an action before coming to them’. From there they were an essential part of our sustained campaign, of court hearings and commemoration of the ‘Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day’ on 23rd February (which is the anniversary of the mass rape and torture). We had their full support and permission to write the book so that the reality of the Indian state reaches people far and wide.
Yet despite their support, it was difficult to interview them. We were asking questions that they had been asked numerous times, we were asking them to revisit that two decade old trauma, to go through those memories again. It involved a lot of pain, a lot of struggle and tremendous courage but they narrated their stories all over again to us. As researchers we struggled equally with the thought of invoking memories that were traumatic but more than those stories of trauma their stories of courage and resilience overawed us.
6. You recently launched the book in major Indian cities. How has the reception been, especially from young Kashmiris and Indians and Indian authorities. Have you faced any challenges?
We have been to Jaipur, Delhi and Banaglore so far and the response has been very warm people have come forward to know about the case and in continuation about how sexual violence is used by the Indian armed forces in Kashmir. The Indian authorties have had nothing to say about the book, but I think a reaction on their part would mean an acknowledgement of sorts so they have ignored the book publicly. Young kashmiris, very unsurprisingly have been very vocal about their support for the book and the need to continue documentation as a part of building narratives of the people. We have young women telling us that the book has given them an inspiration to be more vocal and participative in building narratives.
We haven’t faced any challenges so far, and Indians have been very receptive of the facts that we have presented. They have questioned the role of Indian State in Kashmir and have gone publicly to say that they support Kashmiris in their demands for self-determination. There were a couple of instances where we got the usual statements of Indian army being ‘sexually deprived’ and hence the rapes and in Bangalore there was a gentleman who actually trashed Kashmiris but the audience booed him down. We receive messages from Indians almost daily appreciating our work and wanting to know more. Overall it has been a great experience having the book launched in Indian cities where people have started questioning the structures of Indian state and the Indian armed forces.
7. The book published by Zubaan is in English. Do you also plan to translate the book into Kashmiri so that it is accessible to a larger audience?
We have been thinking about translating it into either Kashmiri or Urdu, and we will do it with Zubaan in some time but the book right now is catering to a fairly large population that reads mostly in English. A n Urdu version would have a greater outreach though.
8. You also conduct workshops with the youth on leadership and community development. Can you tell us more?
I have worked in the humanitarian sector for four years and my focus has been on working with youth. It is very well known that in Kashmir, expression for youth is cracked down on to the extent that even the students union in Kashmir University is banned. Also the use of education system to crush criticism and questioning often leads to youth not participating or questioning authority. In such a scenario it is important that the concept of leadership among youth be introduced and developed to create spaces where youth take over leadership at individual and community levels. This also gives us an opportunity to talk about gender and women’s leadership as an accepted process. Participation of youth as leaders in their communities means a much more informed structure in place or parallel to the traditional structures. I have also worked with youth from both rural and urban areas to enhance knowledge and experience sharing and extensively on gender sensitization that helps young men and women understand social constructs and questions. The whole idea is to break that notion of ‘questioning is bad’. Resistance is at its best when we have people who question and criticize.
9. Why do you think it is important for women to use media and technology to amplify their voices?
We don’t have many spaces in our patriarchal societies where women can claim to have stakes, or put forth their opinions freely. Also there are women who claim these spaces but cannot move out of a certain limit. It becomes important to use media and technology and whatever other means there are to reach out to people, to claim our spaces wherever we can. The world needs to hear women for they have been shut down too long and only if women dominate these platforms that are limited to men’s opinions, will there be a rational, balanced narrative.
10. Lastly, what would your message be to young feminists in Kashmir and India?
To Kashmiri women: We are coming out slowly and participating in writing the narratives that counter the narratives of the state, and Indian armed forces, patriarchal inherently in their nature. There needs to be an equal participation of women in the process of standing up against the state, writing our own stories and in leading revolutions. Fear is what the occupier/oppressor thrives on and once you overcome fear you transfer the burden of fear to the occupier and become powerful.
To Indian feminists: It is high time that as feminists you accept that India occupies Kashmir and that it has used sexual violence as one of its main weapons to strengthen this occupation and break both individuals and communities. You have to understand how bodies of women are used to propagate fear, reprisal and occupation. As feminists, targeting women through a highly patriarchal institution, the Indian army by the Indian state should be of greater import than of belonging to an idea of a nation. Truth is right in front of you, naked and powerful; it is time to acknowledge it.
Also read: Book Review: Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?
All images courtesy Essar Batool