The Day of Siege

On a tense Saturday morning of 16 April, no different from the mornings that preceded the week – five Kashmiris have been killed by Indian armed forces during protests against the alleged sexual assault of a minor girl at the hands of an Indian army trooper, outside a public toilet in Handwara town of north Kashmir – we at Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) were preparing for an important press conference about the illegal and wrongful detention of the minor girl by police in Handwara. The day had started early for us. To avoid being stopped by police and paramilitary barricades installed all over the city, most of us were in office by 7 am.

We spent the day under complete lockdown laid down by the Jammu Kashmir Police (JKP) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) at the office where we work as researchers. At 10:30am in the morning, around fifty personnel of the armed forces led by the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), gheraoed the office, barricading all the roads leading to it with barbed wire, ‘Rakshak’ vehicles, discarded ply boards, hawkers’ raedis, even roadside detritus was put to use with great alacrity.

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Amongst the lot, several CRPF personnel were dressed in protective gear, bedecked head-to-toe in rubber padding over their chests, arms, sporting protective helmets, armed with stun-guns and lathis. Armed personnel were placed half-a-kilometre from the office in all directions where passersby where diverted to other routes. From inside the office, we felt like we were inside a ‘reality’ show, perhaps even what we know to be the site of a televised ‘encounter’, of the kind Indian media channels splash all over what is supposed to be the 9pm news.

What followed during the next few hours can only be described as a siege. As if Kashmir wasn’t already under siege for the past few days of undeclared curfew, the state police and paramilitary swooped down on our office and prevented mediapersons from entering our office at the Bund, Amira Kadal – where the press conference, organized by JKCCS at the behest of the mother of the victim of alleged sexual assault by personnel of the 21 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) in Handwara was scheduled to be held. With no declaration of intent, the police barricaded all the ways leading to our office, barred us from venturing out to talk to the media persons gathered outside to cover the press conference.

The DSP informed Khurram Parvez, program coordinator at JKCCS that the press conference was not to be held as it posed a ‘threat’ to ‘law and order’. Our communication with the outside world was already under suspension following State’s shutdown of mobile internet services, and now a nervous state was disallowing a press conference where the mother of the Handwara alleged sexual assault victim was slated to talk. Police personnel prevented media persons gathered outside for the press conference from speaking to the mother of the victim in person. After some time, they too were forced to leave. Finally, police personnel locked the doors of the office leaving us in a prison of sorts.

Why did the government not allow a press conference on the Handwara alleged sexual assault victim– which they effectively were trying to nip in the bud through the release of a controversial video? The siege at our office was meant to curtail dissemination of any information which will undermine or question the government’s managing of the alleged sexual assault case – in which they have wrongly detained the victim, her father and aunt in what they call ‘protective custody’ and have also shot and released a controversial video of the victim, clearly violating the Supreme Court guidelines which calls for the protection of identity of a victim of sexual assault.

The brute lockdown of a civil-liberties in a legal case does not exist in vacuum for every village, town and city in the largest militarized zone in the world is inundated by the structures signifying imprisonment- camps, bunkers, pickets, ‘stop and search’ posts, trucks, even barricades of barbed wire. In fact, ‘lockdown’, aided by laws such as the Public Safety Act (PSA), seems to have acquired permanence in memory that goes beyond the immediate purpose for which it exists.

Such a lockdown is part of a larger pattern of illegal detentions, undeclared curfews, internet blockades through which the State seeks to imprison not only physically those who seek to contest the occupation of Kashmir but also clamp down on narratives which highlight the brutal violence with which such occupation is enacted every day. In such a paradigm, an allegation of sexual assault against personnel of the armed forces invites ‘protective custody’ for the girl (the irony of whose ‘protection’ is sought is lost on no one). Rather, the words of a mother urging that the widely-circulated video of her sixteen-year-old taken in illegal police detention, absolving the army personnel of sexual assault be viewed in context of circumstances in which they were taken pose a ‘threat’, a ‘law and order’ problem. In contrast to this, the personnel of the armed forces who have shot dead five protestors, all under the age of twenty-five, in the five days since April 12, 2016 are free to carry on their lives and duties as they deem fit.

What’s also interesting to note here is the invocation of the term ‘protective custody’ by the police to justify its detention of the girl. The press conference was going to raise the question of the illegality of such custody and how it is being used to not only hold someone, a minor against her own will and that of her family but also to use her for making statements without any supervision, for the benefit of the state. However, the practice of illegal detention of a victim or witnesses in response to an allegation of sexual assault against the armed forces is hardly new. In 2009, in the case of the alleged rape and murder of Asiya and Neelofar in Shopian by personnel of the armed forces, two key eye-witnesses were illegally detained for a total of two months. They later changed their statements before the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Shopian taken as part of the investigation of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in favour of the alleged perpetrators. In fact, the only persons chargesheeted in the case were five lawyers from Shopian, part of a fact finding committee of the Shopian District Bar investigating the case, for the offense of maligning the image of the armed forces.

The police siege on our office wasn’t unprecedented, it has happened before – two years ago, the state disallowed, at the last minute, historian Mridu Rai’s talk, organized by JKCCS, in a Srinagar hotel – but it was somewhat symptomatic of the nervous nature of state government in Kashmir. It showed the government’s vulnerabilities in dealing with the Handwara sexual assault issue, which has come as a big jolt to Mehbooba Mufti’s newly formed coalition government. The siege was purposively aimed to prevent the dissemination of a counter-narrative against what the state agencies have orchestrated. The state kept a siege on our office because it doesn’t want to allow for the family’s narrative to develop which basically has called the controversial video taken under custody as a slur to the family. The family has, in statements to the media, dismissed the said video as being wrought under duress.

The day long police crackdown on our office also gave us a small glimpse into the experience of being detained against one’s will inside a place where one normally moves about freely. It is not only that individual freedom is curtailed but rather that the ability to free movement as an individual is a pre-condition for being able to associate with others in any context. This ability for free movement lies at the heart of any other civil liberty, for inside a prison-like situation freedom of speech for example, remains effectively suspended. The detention was perhaps a microcosmic example of how the state stunts the development of free politics by holding pro-freedom leaders against their will through house arrest or preventive detention. Masarat Alam, the chairperson of the Muslim League has been held in preventive detention under the Public Safety Act (PSA) on and off for over twenty years. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the chairperson of the Hurriyat Conference (G) has been under continuous house arrest since 2010. This undoubtedly has impacted the planning, strategy and reach of a free politics in Kashmir.

The tactics of the state belie its insecurities in dealing with sexual assault by the armed forces, for an allegation of sexual assault contests the insistent trope of “brave jawan” in public perception in a way even the damndest case of torture, extra-judicial killing, ‘fake encounter’ or enforced disappearance, even one corroborated by concrete legal facts may not. A case of sexual assault against the armed forces invariably poses inconvenient questions for which there may not be easy answers couched in the rubric of duty. The fact remains that the Handwara sexual assault case has not been investigated yet and what we know of the case so far is clouded by the narrative built by the state agencies through a controversial video taken in questionable circumstances. It perhaps also tells us of how often the state exploits the faultlines of Kashmiri society and the vulnerabilities of the victims to shield its forces from prosecution. The Handwara alleged sexual assault case is one such case in what is undoubtedly a pattern of many.

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Mahum Shabir and Irfan Mehraj are researchers with Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society

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