Shopian Rape Case Conundrum
By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal
Two women went to their orchard in the evening of May 29 last year in Shopian, Kashmir and went missing. They never returned. Their family and police personnel searched for them till the dead of the night along the trickle of a stream amidst a rocky stony bed that straddled the distance between their home and their orchard. But there were no clues of Asiya, 16 year old, and her sister-in-law, Neelofar, 24. The bodies of these two women were mysteriously found in the same stream Rambi Ara Nallah that was searched just hours before the ‘miraculous’ discovery of the bodies. There was public outrage in Shopian just after the bodies were discovered, people alleging that the two girls had been raped and murdered. People in Shopian said that security agencies were involved for reasons that the entire stream area where the bodies were found is encircled and virtually sealed by at least three major security camps. The events that followed, from tampering of evidence and floating of rumors to denial of justice, everything seemed to confirm these doubts. The grand finale ‘the findings of the CBI concluding that the two women drowned, and were not raped or murder, in striking contrast to the facts that proved otherwise, point out to not just a cover-up but also a massive conspiracy.
Shopian rapes and murders will be memorable for a long time to come, simply for what they signify. The heinous crimes that shocked and rocked the entire Valley, disrupting and changing the face of Shopian, will not only be remembered for the human tragedy that it is. They will also be remembered for the denial of justice, for cover-up, conspiracy and for the prevalence of pattern of impunity, making Shopian a part of the ugly fabric of human rights crisis in Jammu and Kashmir but also a test case which so badly symbolizes everything that is wrong with institutions of justice in Jammu and Kashmir.
In the last twenty years of armed conflict, cases of rapes, justice or any signs of it become totally elusive in the face of sweeping judgmental remarks by the officials. As it is, only a fragment of rape case complaints have been registered against the security forces. According to the statistics available with the Jammu and Kashmir police, there are not more than 10 such cases, a highly unpalatable figure in the face of just cases that have been highly publicized. Contrast this number with a 1994 United Nations publication which says that ‘during 1992 alone, 882 women were reportedly gang-raped by Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir’. The graph of rapes in Kashmir compared to other rights abuses is very low, but it is so because most of these are not reported. The victims do not come forward in most of the cases because of the social stigma. Besides, most of the ‘rapes’ occur in remote areas which have little access to media or the human rights groups. Kunanposhpora mass rapes of 1991 is just one case in point.
The Shopian case of 2009, though part of the same narrative of denial of justice, becomes significant for many reasons. It is one of the rare cases where the rape victims were brutally killed. It is also an unprecedented case where the public outrage against rapes has been channelized into a form of organized and peaceful protests as also a campaign for justice that has sustained for seven months despite so many pressures and strains. Thirdly, in the face of such a disciplined and strategically planned campaign, the official denial reinforced by one investigating agency after the other is not only shocking, it is demonstrative of how the agencies would go to any extent to ensure ‘hushing up of the case’ and how the political regimes would continue to ensure unlimited protection to them, all for the sake of pure illogic of ‘avoiding demoralizing of forces’, as if morale of the security personnel needs to be kept upbeat only to perpetrate atrocities on the innocent civilians.
Sequence of events and the cover up, first by the police in Shopian, followed by the Special Investigation Team and finally by the CBI reveal how Shopian becomes part of the larger picture in Kashmir, of the pattern of impunity enjoyed by the security forces and the unlimited authority of the security agencies and their upper hand in Jammu and Kashmir.
It is difficult to trivialize the tragedy in any way, particularly for the family members of the victims. The grief of loss of family members is multiplied by the manner in which the deaths took place, further compounded by the abject denial of justice. It is difficult for many in Shopian to come to terms with the trauma of the incident. How can one brush aside the brutal manner, in which a sixteen year old girl, brilliant in her studies, popular among her friends and pride of the family, was raped and killed. A tormented man Shakeel who shuttles between performing the triple roles of playing a double parent to his one and a half year old son, works as bread earner for his family and tirelessly pursues the case of rapes and murders of his wife and his sister inspires both awe and grief. It is difficult to even bear the hysterical shrieks of a two year old who not only still misses and asks about his mother but has begun to recognize crowds and ordinary scenes of wailing, weeping and narration with frenzied disdain. It is difficult to just turn ones back on the tragedy and dismiss off the incident as an aberration, not only for the manner in which it has totally destroyed one family or for how their trauma continues to haunt any visitor but also for the reason that facts that point out to pure denial of justice and conspiracies.
The conspiracy and cover-up took place right from the very first few moments of the incident when the two victims were found missing sometime after 6.00 in the evening. Shakeel, brother of Asiya and husband of Neelofar, started looking for them at around 8.00 P.M. After he approached the police station, a police team also joined him and his neighbors. A constable Yasin was constantly talking to someone on the phone while they searched, mostly in the nallah lighted by the big floodlights of the three camps forming a triangle around the nallah ‘police Lines and CRPF camp adjacent to each other and the Army RR camp a little distance away. But they found nothing till 2.30 A.M. in the intervening night of May 29 and 30. The bodies were found at 6.30 A.M. in the same nallah; Neelofar’s from the point where they had been standing the night before, Shakeel has informed.
Who could have placed the bodies at a spot that is so densely militarized with three security agencies maintaining round the clock vigil in the area between those four hours? The incidents that followed, in retrospect seem to be more an outcome of a pre-meditated plan than being a case of mishandled situation. Facts corroborate this theory. SHO Shopian was the first one to sight Neelofar’s body at 6.30 A.M. immediately knew from a distance that this was a dead body. There is Neelofar’s dead body, he is said to have announced to Shakeel. How did he know she was ‘dead’? The search party had come to the site with ambulance. Some staffers at Shopian hospital say that they already knew at 6.30 A.M. that two dead bodies were being brought to the hospital, even though the second body of Asiya was found much later. Who told them?
Clearly, there are visible signs of the police destroying the initial evidence at the spots where the bodies were found, rather than investigating the case fairly. The bodies were allowed to be moved without being photographed as should have been the norm in a criminal case. Traces of evidence were totally wiped off instead of being recorded. Forensic experts opine that in investigations the availability of the forensic evidence like bodily fluid, stains, finger prints and other evidence at the spot of the crime are of vital importance. Unfortunately, these were fudged by policemen right in the very beginning. Obviously, this major cover-up was not done for a commoner civilian. The tampering of evidence by Shopian policemen and the trail of conspiracies that percolate from the top are a solid indication of involvement of someone higher up, probably men in uniform.
There is no reason to believe that tampering of evidence from the spot was not born out of sheer laziness. Even the Jan Commission of Inquiry itself has admitted that all this was part of a deliberate design, though the Commission has not been able to shed much light on why the cops chose to do so. However, he did recommend their prosecution. The fact is that despite these recommendations, it took the court’s intervention to get the cops arrested. The executive head of the state, first ‘misled into believing the drowning theory’ and later forced to dole out assurances about justice in Shopian, probably didn’t have much control over things. It could neither get the cops arrested in the first place, nor use its political initiative to get the SIT to do its job of investigating the detained policemen, who apparently never got interrogated. Not even by the CBI, which does talk in its report about conducting a lie detector test on the cops but found nothing against them.
This is interesting. If doctors and lawyers, along with two civilians have been charge-sheeted for what the CBI says ‘fudging and fabricating evidence’, there is no case against any of the men in uniform, not even Mohd. Yasin, against whom the CBI lodges a complaint for being the source of rumours to mislead investigations. Yasin is the same person, Shakeel maintains, was talking to on the phone during the night searches. During the searches, Yasin was constantly informing him about the search operations and calling him Sir, sir¦ on the phone? But the phone was never examined to trace the calls? And more importantly, the name of constable Yasin did not figure anywhere, whether it is the SIT probe, Jan Commission probe or the suspensions ordered by the home department of the state government. His name only appears in the CBI report that too for ‘spreading rumors”. But there is no chargesheet against him. As for the other policemen accused of tampering evidence in the case, they have miraculously passed the lie detector test and so need to be let off. It is interesting how the premier investigating agency of India conducts itself so ‘unscientifically’ and in absolute contravention of the basic legal parameters.
The thirteen people accused by the CBI have at some point of time been active in seeking justice for the two Shopian rape and murder victims, or have given some evidence about the incidence of either the rape or murder. The five Shopian lawyers and the two civilians charge sheeted were active along with the Majlis-e-Mushwarat Shopian (MMS) that has been campaigning for justice in Shopian. While the CBI probe has nailed some of the activists seeking justice, the media has been liberally used to distort campaign for justice as a politicised event. Though the separatists and parties like PDP have also been talking on and off about Shopian, the fact remains that MMS and Shopian Bar Association have had a distinct role. They have been agitating and campaigning peacefully, and have been co-operating with all investigating agencies from Day 1. Their statements from time to time and the by and large peaceful protests in Shopian are illustrative of their peaceful and apolitical strategy; and the manner in which they have sustained so long is unparalleled in the last twenty years of conflict in Kashmir.
The other six people charge sheeted are doctors who conducted the first and second post-mortems, one which ruled out drowning and the other that confirmed sexual assault. From selective media leaks, the second post mortem findings had also been distorted through the ‘vaginal swab slide fudging’ version of CBI, which still needs to be authenticated. Dr. Nighat, whose ‘confessions’ about swapping vaginal swab slides started appearing sensationally in media sometime back, recently told a New York Times reporter that there was no wrong-doing or even admission of wrong-doing by her. Interestingly, the CBI report is too ambiguous about her ‘confession’ and does not at any point maintain that she made that confession before the CBI. It simply states that she kept changing statements (not specifying before whom or the time period). It also states that she told two doctors that no vaginal swabs had been prepared. The media leaks were obvious attempts to malign the reputation of Dr Nighat, who had earlier confirmed sexual assault, just a day before the exhumation began and the CBI’s team of doctors from AIIMS came up with its own story of ‘intact hymen’. The design was obvious ‘to make the AIIMS doctors’ story sound credible in comparison to Dr. Nighat’s story by now totally botched up through media leaks.
As for the version of the AIIMS doctors, it can easily be challenged. First, an intact hymen does not prove virginity and thus does not rule out rape or sexual assault, experts from across the globe have pointed out. Second, the hymen is such a thin membrane that there is no probability of it remaining intact three months after the bodies are buried. The bodies or Asiya and Neelofar were exhumed exactly four months after they were buried.
As for the drowning theory, it is nothing but a blatant lie based on no scientific explanation. The water level in Rambi Ara nallah is never more than ankle deep and there has never been any history of drowning there. The water is just a trickle but there are reports that the flow of water was a little higher than normal, but still sluggish, and it is impossible for anyone to drown unless somebody is actually forcibly holding them down in that wee bit of water. The body of Neelofar was found at exactly the same spot that police and family of the two women searched in the dead of the night in an area that is well lit by the flashlights of at least two of the three security camps. Asiya’s body was found a kilometer or so away closer to the army camp. Interestingly, despite the posts overlooking the stream and manned by security men of the army, CRPF and the police round the clock, nobody sighted these two women drowning, between 2.30 A.M. and 6.30 A.M. even though there was a massive search operation going on in the area till 2.30 A.M. How come two women drowned one after the other without being noticed amidst the flash lights of the encircling security camps? Certainly if they drowning in that trickle of water, they must have struggled, trying to catch hold the weeds and rocks around or even screamed. But nobody noticed. And why did they decide to drown only after 2.30 in the night? Where were they hiding before that? There is much that the CBI needs to explain.
It becomes clear that the CBI came with a pre-meditated mind to save the skin of the police and perhaps some other men in uniform. Why did the State’s agencies go through such a tiring ordeal to concoct a story? The possible explanation is ‘to save the skin of men in uniform and try and sound credible. Apparently it was not a case of saving a few favorites; it was a bid to get the neck of the guilty men out some way or the other, by buying time and finally getting the CBI to finish up the business. Everything perfectly fits into the larger canvas of granting impunity to men in uniform for brazen violation of human rights.
Home minister P. Chidambaram’s dismissal of rejection of the CBI report on the Shopian rapes and murders as ‘bizarre’ and unjustified further adds credence to this fact. The CBI which has been criticized for its concocted stories elsewhere in India is being treated like a holy cow in Kashmir even without going through the contents of the report. Shopian may not be the first case where security forces are being defended despite the promise of zero tolerance of human rights violations. It simply adds up to a list of thousands of un-investigated cases. But Shopian becomes different for the outrage it has sparked, for the organized peaceful and democratic campaign for justice that has unnerved the central agencies like never before.
Justice in Shopian could have been ideal example of confidence building measure in run up to the proposed dialogue; the case is just the reverse ‘muffle the voices of justice seekers. There can be only two plausible explanations. One that provoking people in Kashmir into an outrage would make the task of wriggling out of talks easier for the Centre. Second, that the Centre while going ahead with talks does not want to create any embarrassment for security agencies and only wants to ensure that their slate is clean to give New Delhi that added advantage. Additionally, the security agencies have an upper hand when it comes to taking decisions on Jammu and Kashmir.
This was well reflected on Friday when union minister of defense A.K. Antony in Delhi maintained that in view of the improved security situation in Jammu and Kashmir had withdrawn 30,000 troops. His statement was countered by the army which maintained that the shifting out of troops was a normal part of relocation and re-adjustment and there was no withdrawal.
Anuradha Bhain is the executive editor of Kashmir Times and a human rights activist. She is also a member of the Independent Women’s Initiative for Justice in Shopian that is conducting a case watch of the Shopian crimes and the investigations.