How does one react when a man who hushed up a brutal case of mass rape calls the testimonies of the victims as “at best a gross exaggeration but more probably a massive hoax”?
A tiny, far-flung village in Kashmir called Kunan is assaulted by Indian soldiers during the night of 23 February, 1991. The assault is part of a ‘cordon and search’ operation. After the ordeal is over, villagers say the soldiers had sexually assaulted the women of the village. News reaches the international press. Local bureaucrats and government officials make reports, and the army is given a clean chit.
But the tiny, far-flung village begins to attract further international attention. Indian government flies a Press Council of India (PCI) team to Kashmir, headed by a BG Verghese, to make a report. The PCI team writes another report and calls the villagers part of an anti-India “psy-war,” and their claims as an attempt to defame the legendary and virtuous Indian army. The case is hushed up. The tiny village is silenced. But much of the budding Kashmiri press is convinced that the PCI team did not even visit the village, either because Verghese was already convinced that the villagers’ claims were false tout court, or based on the Indian army’s denials he accepted the allegations as a prima facie caseof slander.
Then, videos of victims’ testimonies surface. But the Indian army has moved on. The ‘independent’ PCI has let them off the hook. Counter-insurgency heats up. The case is relegated to the back-burner. Except in Kashmir’s collective memory.
Twenty three years later, one of the Kashmiri bureaucrats who had made the first government report has retired. He decides that he has nothing to fear any more, or, perhaps, he wants to unburden himself of the lies he wrote, or was forced to write, before he died. He tells the press in Kashmir that the Indian army had wrung out the report from him, and later the PCI team’s leader, Verghese, had pressured him too. No one is surprised. Already, another bureaucrat, Wajahat Habibullah, is facing fire for his ignominious role in the entire episode. He is also retired, but he has carved a different post-retirement space for himself, as one more hackneyed voice on India’s 24/7 opinion TV.
And then, Verghese, the lynchpin in the cover-up, writes a short, clumsy self-defense in Indian Express. He is unrepentant. Here is what he writes:
The PCI team found the Konan story to be, at best, a gross exaggeration but more probably a massive hoax, an act of psy-war to keep the army, newly inducted to deal with militant-jihadi-azadi uprising, at bay. There were contradictions galore. Nothing added up. The medical examination was only conducted three to four weeks later on March 15 and 21 when 32 women were examined. Why this inordinate delay? The evidence cited was anecdotal, not medical. No medico-legal report was filed as required.
Nothing adds up for Verghese. The ‘inordinate’ delay in medical exams. The anecdotal evidence. No medico-legal report. It is all, of course, a fault of Kunan’s women. …Or is it? No, it is a psy-war, of course. Psy-war? Psychological Warfare–a military strategy to attack the values, beliefs, emotions, reasoning, and behavior of the enemy. This is a word found in counter-insurgency manuals of the world’s biggest armies– a product of hundreds of years of military strategizing. In Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Jacques Ellul describes psychological warfare as:
a common peace time policy practice between nations as a form of indirect aggression in place of military aggression. This type of propaganda drains the public opinion of an opposing regime by stripping away its power on public opinion. This form of aggression is hard to defend against because no international court of justice is capable of protecting against psychological aggression since it cannot be legally adjudicated. The only defense is using the same means of psychological warfare.
So, if the charge of sexual assault was a psy-war to keep the Indian army at bay, then the Kashmiri women from that tiny, far-flung village must be adept military strategists. However, Verghese, doubting the veracity of the video testimonies (and the absurdity of his own argument), says the women were groomed:
After being made aware of these many contradictions, blatant procedural and legal lapses, wilful inaction and lack of follow-up, we were later handed a video cassette in Delhi by a leading human rights activist obtained from unknown sources that recounted the entire Konan episode in graphic detail by 25 women, all well-groomed…
While he has refused to take the testimonies of dozens of women seriously, the half-baked Sherlock instead goes on to analyze the video itself, and in the process raises doubts and asks questions that he himself should try to answer, that is if he could really see what he is saying:
The foliage on the trees suggested the film was made sometime in April, five to eight weeks after the event. Who would make such a staged video, and why? Which “rape victim” in conservative rural Kashmir would recount and relive such a horror story in public for a world audience? The press council has the cassette.
Wouldn’t such a video logically be made after the event. What is so suggestive about the time the video was made? And, aren’t all video testimonials ‘staged videos’? How does one expect to catch a natural video in these circumstances? May be set up spy cams and catch the victims talking about their experiences over breakfast at their homes, when they least suspect? And, indeed, “which” rape victims in conservative rural Kashmir would recount and relive such a horror story in public for a world audience? May be those rape victims, Verghese, who have actually experienced it, no? And, if you believe villages in Kashmir are ‘conservative’, should that not have prompted you to trust the women’s testimonies even more? If women from conservative rural Kashmir can recount such horror stories, would that not indicate that indeed the horror must have been enormous for these women to publicly speak about it. Instead of accepting such a possibility, Verghese blames the women of Kunan for their suffering:
Now it is said nobody wants to be married into Konan Poshpora on account of the social shame it attracts. Tragically, the village has punished itself while the militants exploit their predicament.
By this logic, no rape victim should ever speak about her agony!
Verghese’s article is remarkable for its utter lack of self-introspection or self-doubt. His words drip with sarcasm for Kashmiri rights (whose expression he repeatedly calls a ‘harangue’), contempt for victims of mass rape, and jaundiced wise-cracks. To the Kashmiri bureaucrat, who has decided to speak about the arm-twisting and threats he faced twenty three years earlier, Verghese says this:
As DC, he reported “hearing something” about Konan on March 3-4. He visited it a couple of days later and concluded that 23 women had been brutally gangraped. Why did he not go sooner? Heavy snow?
How soon would have been sooner? And, yes, in parts where Kunan is located, it does snow heavy. This is not to defend the ex-bureaucrat, who should have given up his job if he felt he could not do it honestly, but your own miserable cover-up, Verghese, when you had all the resources available to do a thorough investigation, cannot be washed away by others’ incapabilities.
It is clear that Verghese’s desire (or instructions from the government) to protect Indian army came in the way of an objective investigation. Even today, when his report and Indian government’s position has fallen to pieces, he continues to display his craven loyalty:
Despite the terrible “atrocity” committed by 4 Raj Rif, women and children from Konan never stopped attending the unit’s weekly medical camp in Trehgam. We met some of them during our visit in June. They said it was only here and not in the government health facilities that they got real care. This too says something.
Yes, it does. But more than what it says about the women and children, who are sometimes forced to take help from these military camps, because the government has abjectly abandoned them, the statement says a lot about the writer himself. It says that Verghese was instrumental in denying justice to dozens of victims of a violent crime. That, in his belief, to protect India’s national interest, it was important to protect the image of rapists. That Indian interests would be served if rapists went unpunished.
Verghese will earn laurels from his fellow nationalists, and may even have a street in New Delhi named after his name, but his role in the cover-up has landed him in a permanent hall of shame– in the eyes of Kashmiris, of the international community, and all those in India and elsewhere who believe in justice.