The second time Sheema saw him, on a late afternoon, her heart started to beat faster - so much so that she could hear her chest throb. Her knees shook and she walked hurriedly. This was not her love for the man but disgust and fear.
“Laal kyun ho rahi ho? (why are you blushing?),” the army man asked her in a coarse voice. Stationed at a bunker a few hundred meters away from her home in south Kashmir, the tall, pale man stood in her way with his eyes fixed on her face.
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Sheema escaped that day but it was not the end of her miseries. The army man would pass lewd comments, take his tongue out or rub his chest whenever he saw her. Sheema skipped classes, made her father accompany her and had an influential elder intervene but all in vain. She now lives with her aunt away from her house to avoid the daily harassment. “To protect my honour, I had to leave my home,” Sheema says with dejection.
What Sheema experienced is not unique or an isolated event. On April 12, a teenage girl from Handwara Higher Secondary School was allegedly molested by an army official when she entered a public toilet in a market square outside her school. Army denies the allegation and has violently tried to quell subsequent protests; five people including an elderly woman have died as a result.
A video statement of the girl was also released, in which she claims a local boy - not an army man - abused her. The girl’s mother, however, told the media it was recorded under duress and a civil society association also claimed the girl was pressurised. Whatever the truth maybe in this case, sexual harassment and abuse of girls by Indian security forces is a reality the Kashmiri people live with.
An open secret
Hameeda Nayeem, an active member of the civil society in Kashmir and an academician at Kashmir University, says sexual harassment of women by Indian forces is rampant and widespread in the valley but most people feel helpless about it. In majority of the cases, she shares, the survivors do not report it to the police because of the fear of landing in more trouble or – in worst case scenario – be socially stigmatised. “This is the impact of militarisation; their presence is projected as a natural order and we are compelled to live in such a state,” Nayeem explains.
Human rights activist Essar Batool agrees. “Many times when travelling in a bus or taxi, army men stationed nearby stare at girls and pass comments and all a girl can do is to lower her head and ignore them,” she says.
“This happens with every girl in Kashmir; this has become a routine, a common practice now,” Batool stresses.
The presence of an armoured vehicle of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) near the Ghanta Ghar in Lal Chowk of Srinagar is frightening for many girls. Batool says the CRPF personnel catcall and sing loudly when girls pass by.
Former student of Women’s College on MA Road Saba says flying squad stationed outside her college gate to prevent eve-teasing would themselves indulge in it. “When we would come out of the building, the policemen stationed there would pass comments at us loudly giving the wrong impression to passers-by,” she says.
Rukhsana, a 22-year-old girl from Palhallan village of North Kashmir’s Baramulla district, faced something more distressing on a daily basis whenever she left for college.
On the Baramulla-Srinagar Highway, a road leads to Palhallan village which is known for its pro-freedom and anti-India protests. Many of its young men who had picked up arms to fight the Indian rule in Kashmir have been killed and are buried in a martyr’s graveyard located in the middle of the village. The graveyard has around a 100 graves for fighters most of which belong to Palhallan alone.
On the highway, Rukhsana waits for a taxi or a bus that ferries her to Baramulla College where she is currently pursuing her studies in Arts. But every day, she comes face to face with an army man stationed on the highway as he approaches her and tries to initiate a conversation. Unable to muster courage to scold him, Rukhsana chooses to ignore him and move away.
“One day, he blocked my way and asked me why I was not talking to him. I was scared and politely asked him to let me go and forced my way out of there. A few days later, he stopped me again and told me my name. I was shocked to hear that,” Rukhsana shares.
But what followed that late evening was even more frightening for her. She woke up to a call from an unknown number. Hesitantly, she answered the call only to find out that the person on the other end was the same army man who has been harassing her.
“He told me who he was and I quickly disconnected the call and switched off the phone. Next day, I applied for a new number. I never understood how and why he got my number but it was scary,” she shares.
Almost every day after that phone call, the army man kept his eyes on Rukhsana as long as she waited for her bus. Many times, Rukhsana saw him touching his groin while he stared at her from the other side of the road.
Abuse with impunity
Despite the stress and worry she went through, Rukhsana says she found no point in reporting the incident to police or any other authority because she knows justice is never served when an army man is accused. “They got away with rape charges and killings of thousands of men. What is the point of lodging a complaint against them for harassment?” she asks bluntly.
Another reason for not lodging any complaint against Indian forces for sexual harassment is that the girls don’t want to be dragged in courtrooms and police stations – something shunned in the Kashmiri society. Kashmir University’s Nayeem says that with laws such as Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts in place, it is very unlikely that survivors would ever get justice. “This is why they have no hope in inquiries and courts; also, the fear of army’s retaliation makes them more reluctant,” she states.
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Another reason is public disgrace. Nayeem says Kashmir is an evolving, conservative society and cases of sexual harassment by Indian forces are not reported because of the stigma attached to it. That, she says, is also a factor why there are no exact figures for cases of sexual harassment by Indian forces.
Almost five-mile from Kulgam district in south Kashmir, Safiya was allegedly molested by an Indian army man for a long period of time but she did not complain fearing that could create problems for her marriage. “Had I spoken about the abuse, I would get no marriage proposals… and my parents can’t have that,” Safiya shares.
The 26-year-old Kashmiri woman was abused and harassed on a regular basis by CRPF official near her village until two years ago. Her horror was to walk alone from the neighbouring village - where she taught children – to her house. It was on her way home that the CRPF man in civvies would stalk her whenever the roads were deserted and pass lewd remarks. “One day while he was stalking me, he walked past me and brushed me aside,” Safiya said.
On another afternoon, Safiya was walking home from the neighbouring village and the CRPF man in civvies was already present on the deserted road. At first, Safiya thought of returning to where she was coming from, but then she mustered courage and walked with hastened steps. As she walked past him, he got up and stalked her. Safiya could hear his heavy footsteps behind her. She was frightened, she couldn’t breathe properly but she continued to walk fast.
Near a curve, she heard him hissing but she did not look behind or stop. She heard the footsteps come closer quickly and suddenly he grabbed her by arm and started touching her body.
“That moment, I thought he will rape me. His eyes were red and he reeked of something foul, alcohol maybe. I shouted, pushed him away and ran,” Safiya says. She did not leave her home for several days after that.
Denial and cover-ups
Station House Officer of Kashmir’s lone women police station Gulshan Akhtar says that they have not received any complaints of sexual harassment by Indian forces so far. “I have not even heard of such a case,” the SHO says.
Parvez Imroz, a human rights activist and lawyer from Kashmir, says the onus lies on the civil society to find alternate ways to report such cases and bring the culprits to justice. “Around 95% of the cases go unnoticed and unreported and then the victims accept and live with rapes, sexual assaults and harassments by the Indian forces,” Imroz says.
The lawyer laments that the Indian forces enjoy complete impunity and moral accountability was missing. “Even if some cases of sexual violence and harassment do surface, there is no justice or accountability. The inquiries that are called for are a cruel joke, for we have seen that they end up acquitting the guilty,” Imroz shares.
*Names and exact addresses of abuse survivors have been changed to conceal their identity.
Qadri Inzamam and Muhammad Haziq are freelance journalists based in Indian Kashmir.