“Are you married?” asks one of the men sitting outside a government office in Kupwara, a remote village in Indian Kashmir. “No,” replies Ishaq*. The men – all married – continue to tease him but the 40-year-old stays tight-lipped about his choice to remain single. He couldn’t disclose to them that the sexual torture he had been subjected to in prison had left him suffering from erectile dysfunction.
Ishaq, who hails from Hathmula village in Kashmir’s Kupwara district which is north of the valley’s summer capital Srinagar, has been trying to settle down for five years but without any luck. He started sending marriage proposals back in 2010. One was even accepted by a girl who was working at the Srinagar Municipal Corporation at the time but three months later, she declined.
When I met Ishaq for the first time, he appeared to be well-built with an average height, and was on crutches due to partial paralysis of his lower limbs. He came dressed in a grey pheran (a traditional Kashmiri cloak worn during winters), a pair of loose khaki pants and polished black shoes.
Despite his disability, Ishaq could easily qualify as an eligible bachelor. To talk openly, he drove us on a three-wheel scooter to a nearby empty town hall, where we delved into his past, which has had a profound impact on his life.
Caught in the crossfire
A marginalised district due to its geographical location, Kupwara has witnessed horrendous incidents of human rights violations and grotesque war crimes committed by the Indian army. From incidents of gang rape in Konan-Poshpura villages in 1991 to the discovery of remains of 2,156 people in unmarked graves in dozens of villages in 2011, including those in Kupwara, lie countless stories of rape, torture, arson and killings. And behind these countless stories are men and women who have been unheard of or, worse, ignored.
In 1996, Ishaq was pursuing his bachelor’s degree in Science from Government Degree College Sopore in north Kashmir. On August 5 that year, instead of returning home from college, he went to his home in Haran Chowgal village because the Indian army would frequently conduct raids at his residence at night and beat up his family members. That night, he retired to bed and had barely slept for 15 minutes when the front door was knocked down by the Special Task Force (STF), a notorious counterinsurgency division of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, which enjoys complete impunity.
First, Ishaq’s elder uncle and other family members sleeping on the ground floor were beaten. “After they were done beating them, the STF came into our room and started beating us,” recalls Ishaq. “They beat us for a long time and I was bleeding profusely. Then I was dragged to another room where the STF men asked me where I had kept arms. I could not fathom why they would ask me this,” he adds. Ishaq recalled telling the STF that he had not hidden any arms and had no knowledge of what he was being accused of. He kept telling them he was a student, he shares; yet, they continued to use force on him.
One of the STF personnel, whose face was covered with a black scarf, accused Ishaq of being a commander of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), a Kashmiri separatist group fighting against the forcible occupation of Kashmir by India since 1989. “When I kept saying I was innocent, the STF man whose face was covered unmasked himself and asked me if I knew him,” he says. The man was Bashir Ahmad, a former militant who had dropped by Ishaq’s house along with other militants several times for food. Evidently, he had switched sides and was now working for the government forces, recalls Ishaq.
During the height of militancy in the 1990s, militants fighting against Indian rule would often knock on doors at night and ask for food, explains Ishaq. They would come in groups, armed, which is why many villagers, including his family, would not dare to deny them entry or food. In some cases, they were even hailed as heroes and liberators and would receive special attention, shares Ishaq. “Bashir Ahmad had come many times with other militants and had food at our house. And that is why he was trying to frame me as the HM commander,” Ishaq adds.
When Ishaq failed to convince the STF personnel, Ahmad dragged him towards one of the windows in the room, took out his pistol and shot him in the left flank. The bullet penetrated through Ishaq’s right flank and he fell to the ground, writhing in pain. He was then dragged down the stairs and on to the lawn and left there, recalls Ishaq. He saw his younger uncle lying face down on the grass right before falling unconscious.
After the STF left his uncle’s home that night, a unit of 21 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) of the Indian army arrived in a matter of minutes. He remembered being lifted on a ladder, bundled in an army vehicle and injected with a painkiller on the way. Instead of being taken to a hospital, Ishaq was transported to a nearby police station in Handwara where he was subjected to more torture, he says. Afterwards, he was taken to a hospital in Dragmulla where he blacked out and was later shifted to SMHS Hospital in Srinagar, where he regained consciousness after four days.
Even at the hospital, Ishaq was not spared, he says. The STF personnel paid him a visit four times during his one-month stay at the hospital to harass him, he recalls. Once they tried to take him away but the attendants and other patients in the hospital ward protested and forced them to return, he shares.
For four years, life came to a halt for Ishaq. He was mostly bed-ridden after being diagnosed with paraparesis, which is partial paralysis of the lower limbs and loss of sphincter control. The bullet wound also resulted in permanent erectile dysfunction. Ever since the incident, one of his brothers, Irshad Ahmad, went into depression and his mother, Haleema, suffering from trauma has not spoken to anyone in 19 years. “Both my brother and mother suffer from depression because of me, because I was shot,” Ishaq says.
In the FIR that was lodged by the Indian Army – a requirement whenever an operation is carried out – it was stated the joint team of Indian army’s RR, STF and the police had recovered ammunition from Ishaq’s maternal home, and while they were conducting the search they were fired upon by militants hiding in the neighbourhood and in the exchange of fire, Ishaq had been hit by a bullet. According to the police, this was collateral damage.
Sexual torture: A potent weapon
There have long been allegations of torture and arbitrary detention by Indian security forces during the conflict. An extensive Human Rights Watch report argues that sexual violence is an organised tactic, endorsed privately by military higher-ups in the Indian Army to procure information and disempower the enemy.
Thirty-one-year-old Raashid Bhat* from Dooru Islamabad in south Kashmir faced an ordeal similar to Ishaq’s. Even while recounting his tale of horror, he exercises great caution, pausing from time to time to scan the room to ensure no-one is eavesdropping. “Are you are from the police?” he asks apprehensively, when I ask him his name, but his trust issues are excusable considering his past trauma.
Bhat, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Arts and a master’s degree in Social Work, is currently receiving psychiatric treatment from the SMHS Hospital for his ‘invisible wounds’ inflicted by the police and Special Operation Group (SOG) during his time in prison. He complains of suffering from severe pain in both legs, insomnia, recurrent nightmares and stress. As he starts to narrate his horrifying ordeal, he grows uneasy in his chair.
In July 2013, the police arrested Bhat from his home in Dooru on charges of possession of arms. In a press conference, the police revealed that Bhat, along with his accomplices, was planning to open fire on the national highway. The Public Safety Act (PSA) was invoked against him, which states a person can be detained for two years without any trial. For one year, he remained in custody of Jammu and Kashmir Police and SOG. During this period, he was shifted frequently from one jail to another. First, he was lodged in the Joint Interrogation Centre (JIC), Islamabad, then in District Jail Islamabad and later shifted to Kot Bhalwal Jail, Jammu and Kashmir, for almost four months. He also spent 20 days in JIC Jammu and some time in Humhama Jail and JIC Srinagar.
During this period, Bhat was tortured by police and the SOG during interrogation sessions. They stretched his legs and rolled a roller over them which severely damaged his leg muscles. He was forced to strip and was subjected to sexual torture. Another method was electrical shocks to the genital area, and he was even forced to urinate on an electric heater, he shares. This not only impacted him psychologically but also affected his sexual health; urinating on an electric heater injured his urethra which led to erectile dysfunction.
Dr Wani Mohammad Saleem, who heads the Department of Urology at the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, says scalding of genitals by electric shocks can cause erectile dysfunction. “It is debatable whether this leads to impotency, but if the nature of torture is such that the whole area (genitals) is burnt and the urethra is narrowed, this can lead to impotency,” he explains. Dr Saleem adds that stress or depression can also cause erectile dysfunction. In most cases, victims of torture suffer from depression because of the sexual torture and harassment. This is said to be a cause of psychogenic erectile dysfunction.
The trauma of torture
Torture is not a punishable offence under the Ranbir Penal Code or the Indian Penal Code. Instead, the allegations of torture are registered as ‘voluntarily causing hurt’. Although India is a signatory to the United Nations Prevention of Torture Bill it has not ratified the bill as yet. Even the Prevention of Torture Bill 2010 which was passed in Lok Sabha lapsed in 2014 as it did not meet the standard required under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
Parvez Imroz, Kashmir’s noted human rights lawyer, says since India does not consider torture a crime which it has made brutal use of in Kashmir. “Every person who is detained by the Indian forces in Kashmir is tortured. And the methods of torture are myriad. There is no limit to the extent to which they can go while torturing detainees,” adds Imroz.
According to Imroz, in most cases, sexual torture is done for sadistic pleasure. “There are a number of cases where detainees were sodomised,” he says. Moreover, torture that renders one sexually dysfunctional is carried out not only to inflict pain, but to prevent social formation as well, especially in the case of freedom fighters to prevent them from procreating and later training their children to forward their mission.
Abdul Ghaffar*, a pro-freedom political activist from Budgam, who was arrested in March 1995 at the age of 30 and subjected to brutal sexual torture, says, “They did it so that I could not marry and have children. They wanted to destroy our future.” Ghaffar was kept in a small cell with 12 other prisoners at the Joint Interrogation Centre in Budgam and revealed the same techniques of torture used on Bhat. “I never tell anyone what they (police) did to me in prison. This is something which cannot be shared with anyone. People only taunt and no one will help,” he shares.
Imroz is also the founder of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS) that has been documenting and revealing the gross human violations perpetrated in Kashmir by Indian forces. In a 540-page report titled Structures of Violence, JKCCS has documented the extra-judicial killings of 1,080 persons, enforced disappearances of 172 persons and a number of cases of torture and sexual abuse.
One out of every six persons in Kashmir has been tortured. But cases of torture are not registered most of the time, informs Imroz. “When torture victims return home alive, their families feel content that their kin is alive. As such they do not risk filing a case against the perpetrators, fearing that their [loved ones] might be killed or tortured again,” says Imroz. “As a rough estimate, there have been almost 200,000 torture victims since 1990 and most of them have gone unreported,” he shares.
Victims of sexual torture do not come forward to report the violence because there is a social stigma attached to it. In most cases, they live with the torment without telling anyone what they were subjected to, explains JKCCS founder Imroz. Thousands of torture victims have died as a result, he says. “Those who have been tortured do not live a normal life again. When they die of the ailments caused by torture, nobody reports it,” he shares.
For instance, Bhat’s health continued to deteriorate after he was released from prison. He has recurring nightmares and flashbacks of the torture he underwent. Due to his mental instability, he was laid off by the NGO he worked for and later found a job as a teacher at a local private school, but his monthly salary of Rs1,200 is insufficient to support his family. According to Bhat, he is likely to remain single forever. He has taken to smoking now, puffing 10-15 cigarettes every day and has to cope with suicidal thoughts as well, he shares.
A report by the International Peoples’ Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons has identified more than 900 individuals whom it blames for a range of human rights abuses carried out by Indian security forces between 1990 and 2014. These include 150 officers of the rank of major or above.
When asked to comment on the practice of torture in prisons, Inspector General of Police, Jammu and Kashmir, Syed Javid Mujtaba Geelani, says prisoners who are interrogated are frequently monitored by doctors, but he refused to comment on prisoners being subjected to sexual torture.
The silence continues
On December 3, 2015, while the world celebrated Disability Day, Kashmiris observed Black Day. Ishaq, who has been participating in protests for the rights of differently-abled persons since 13 years now, travelled from Kupwara to Srinagar to stage a protest against the government for not fulfilling their demands, which included electricity subsidies, free water supply, medical facilities, training for skill-oriented jobs and reservation of three per cent reservation for differently-abled people in all government jobs.
As a large group of handicapped protesters gathered at the Press Enclave in the heart of Srinagar, Lal Chowk, the police came and baton-charged the crowd, bundled them into police vehicles and ferried them to different police stations across the city. Ishaq was also detained in Srinagar’s Kothi Bagh Police Station for an entire day.
Mass arrests in Indian Kashmir has become an everyday reality and the use of torture to procure information is widespread. Despite copious documentation of this heinous crime, accountability remains elusive.
*Names of victims have been changed to protect their identity.
Qadri Inzamam is an independent journalist based in Indian Kashmir. He tweets @Qadri_inzamam