Keynote address given by Basharat Peer
First presented at the Jaipur Literature Festival, India
Basharat Peer Keynote text: “The Memory of a Censored Story”
The experience of censorship is as varied as the human experience itself. On an April morning in 2002 I was a young reporter working for an Indian news-portal and writing frequently about the war-torn Indian-controlled-Kashmir, where I grew up. Reporting from a place like Kashmir was a fraught exercise, walking through a minefield of words and their consequences. I found a mentor in an older Kashmiri reporter, who had already been witnessing and reporting the horrors of our land for more than a decade when I met him. He would sit behind one of those first generation PCs in a semi-dark newspaper room, and between sips of tea and puffs of cigarette smoke tell me the stories of Kashmir.
I owe him a large part of my political education, my sense of writing from the field. One afternoon in April 2002, I was in his office when the news came of a young Kashmiri girl being raped in a small village in the southern mountains of Kashmir by Indian paramilitary soldiers. A tense silence followed. I wanted to leave immediately for that village; it was an hour from my ancestral village in south Kashmir. I could take a cab and get there and write the story. My friend smoked another cigarette and sighed. His memories of reporting similar cases filled the room. “Justice is rare here. Hardly any soldier gets tried and punished in a court of law for such crimes,” he said. He had a wide range of contacts in the local civil service and police and by the evening he had enough details to file a report about the incident for his newspaper. Only later, I understood his reluctance to travel to her village. It was painful even in your detached role as a journalist; my friend had been to innumerable sites of atrocities.
But I was young and earnest and I was determined to visit her village. “Go in the morning,” he said. Travelling in the evening was dangerous in Kashmir; people stayed home after sunset. Nobody wanted to be mistaken to be a militant by the Indian troops and fired upon; nobody wanted to be detained at a check post. “Be careful with your story. It is not safe to be seen by the government as a reporter who is launching a human rights campaign against the troops.” I had a fair sense of that. Censorship in Kashmir could take the form of threatening phone calls, and in the worst cases, assassination and attempts at assassination.
One of the few reliable sources of information when the conflict in Kashmir was at its most intense in the early nineties was the BBC World Service. Yusuf Jameel, its much-respected correspondent, survived several assassination attempts. One afternoon in the early nineties, someone from the military dropped a packet at his office; his friend, Mushtaq Ali, a video journalist, opened the parcel. The bomb went off, killing Ali. The separatist militant sought to have the news to serve their purposes. In the very beginning, in 1989, as the war began in Kashmir, Mohammed Azam Inquilabi, a senior separatist who later became leader of a militant outfit, sent a bullet with a letter asking local editors to change “as the times have changed”. By the mid-nineties, counter-insurgents working for the Indian army led by a notorious brute named Kuka Parrey routinely kidnapped, threatened, and humiliated reporters and editors. In the past few years, as the insurgency in Kashmir has waned and been replaced by a series of mass protests, new forms of censorship have arrived. The most effective is the political economy of patronage; small, provincial newspapers depend a lot on the advertisements from the government, and the provision of advertisements is implicitly tied to sanitized reporting.
But lets return to that April day in 2002, when my friend advised me to be careful. I did not travel at night and left Srinagar early morning in a taxi for the raped girl’s village. We drove for three hours through scores of check posts, past military convoys rumbling down the roads, and up a dirt road into a tiny village of small cottages circled by high mountains. I interviewed the girl and her relatives, returned to Srinagar and wrote a report. I was still struggling to teach myself to write; yet by the standards of a newspaper, it wasn’t bad. The tone was a little harsh, but the piece was never printed. I never heard back from my editor. My friend laughed, “It happens all the time.”
Last month in the Indian capital, New Delhi, a 23-year-old student was gang raped in a moving bus. After a few weeks in multiple hospitals, she died while being treated in Singapore. The shock of the brutality brought thousands of protesters to the streets in Delhi. A bumbling government eventually responded with setting up a judicial commission to review India’s laws on sexual assault. The Commission headed by a former Supreme Court of India chief justice, Justice J S Verma made a series of important recommendations. One of the more important ones being repealing a law called Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which provides complete impunity to Indian soldiers and policemen posted in zones of conflict, like Kashmir and Manipur. Justice Verma has recommend appealing the AFSPA to exclude the soldiers and policemen from impunity regarding crimes of sexual assault in such zones of exception. We don’t know yet if the Indian parliament will accept the recommendation.
As the Commission deliberated, a lawyer friend, who was trying to write to the Verma Commission asked me about cases of sexual assault in Kashmir. I ran a search in my email and an old, censored, unpublished story—the account of that girl who was raped in Kashmir in April 2002—surfaced from a folder. I read it after 11 years and was carried back to a younger self, a darker time. A writer shall publish when he can and I can’t think of a better rebuke to the cultures of censorship that to share with you that story. I am inclined to reproduce it here in its original form, but will paraphrase it for the paucity of space.
The village of Kuller in Anantnag district of India-controlled-Kashmir is home to a few hundred families of semi-nomadic Gujjar shepherds. Indian troops routinely patrolled and searched the village, looking for separatist militants. The villagers, living in mud and brick cottages, farmed and raised cattle to eke out a living—often travelling to higher pastures in summers with their flocks of cattle. Zainab, a seventeen-year-old girl was home on that April 2002 morning. She had never been to school and was helping her mother with household chores. A group of soldiers from India’ Border Security Force stationed nearby passed through the village, questioning the villagers about militants. Her uncle Ghulam Hasan had returned to the village after an errand. He sat by a walnut tree in their courtyard and played with his three-year-old daughter. It was 11.00 in the morning. Yet another group of sixteen BSF men arrived. The group commander walked up to Hasan, and demanded his identity card. Hasan duly produced the card, following the imperative to prove his identity. “As I was showing my identity card, some money fell from my pocket and I bent to pick it up. The next moment the BSF officer started beating me up,” Hasan told me. The soldiers formed a circle around his house. His neighbours looked on helplessly; the BSF men pointed their guns towards them.
Hasan struggled to save his child from injury, as the officer hit him. His sister shouted and tried to rescue him. Her daughter, Zanib, who was inside the house, rushed out to help her uncle. As she stepped out of the door, three soldiers carrying assault rifles pushed her back and forced their way into the house. One of them hit her in the stomach with his gun; she fell on the floor. They bolted the door. “They raped me taking turns. Then I lost my senses,” Zainab told me after much effort.
Half an hour later, her family found her unconscious, bleeding. “She was lying unconscious on the floor. They had torn her clothes. She was bleeding from mouth,” her cousin, Abdullah, who witnessed the crime from the next house. Hasan carried her on his back through dirt roads to the nearest hospital. A police officer I met a few days later told me she had identified the perpetrators and they had been arrested. But they couldn’t be tried in a civil court, shielded as they were by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Zainab seemed to have shrunken, when I met her. When she slept, her nightmares woke her up. I remember her the intense sadness of her black eyes, the slow movement of her parched lips, and her last words to me, “If they are punished, it will deter others. Maybe some other woman would be saved.” I lost track of her. Zainab and her family had left her village out of shame and moved elsewhere. I don’t know what happened to those soldiers either. Eleven years later, I still feel the regret that I had failed to stop her story from being censored.
Basharat Peer is the author of Curfewed Night, an award-winning memoir of the Kashmir conflict.
Copyright: Basharat Peer, 2013.