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Kashmiri Women are Collateral Damage in one of the World’s Longest Conflicts

The decades-old conflict over Kashmir began when Great Britain facilitated the partition of a newly-independent India. Operating separately from both Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, Kashmir entered a treaty of accession with India in return for military assistance against Pakistani tribal armies in 1947. The treaty sparked the first of three wars between India and Pakistan, ending with a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations.

Lines were drawn to separate the region between what is now internationally recognized as ‘Indian-administered Kashmir’ and ‘Pakistan-administered Kashmir.’ With both countries claiming ownership over the region, Kashmir remains a disputed territory and a political and religious battleground. But what about the people of Kashmir, many of whom are innocent civilians caught in the middle of two powerful nuclear-armed states?

Both India and Pakistan have characterized the residents of Kashmir as pawns in their never-ending political and religious games of chess. Kashmiri women, in particular, bear the brunt of the conflict’s consequences. Among other things, they are subjected to sexual violence with little recourse for justice. The battle for national and religious superiority in the region only worsens the physical impact on women.

Sexual violence is far from a new phenomenon in Kashmir. Documented assaults, perpetrated by Hindus, Muslims, Indians, and Pakistanis alike, have persisted in the region for decades. In October 2020, a 21-year-old woman was abducted, beaten, and raped outside her aunt’s house in the Indian-administered Kulgam district. Earlier the same year, a 13-year-old girl was raped and impregnated by a man while sheltering from mortar shells in Pakistani-administered Athmuqam.

These assaults are difficult enough to prosecute given that sexual violence is so widespread in the region. The involvement of armed forces often exacerbates this issue. In 2009, a woman named Asiya, and her sister-in-law Neelofar, were found raped and murdered in Shopian, an Indian-administered district in Kashmir. More than 11 years after the attack, the “men in uniform” allegedly responsible for the attack have not been charged, tried, or convicted for the crimes.

A key measure that blocked justice for Asiya and Neelofar is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The AFSPA, enacted in 1958, gives members of the Indian army stationed in “the disturbed areas in [Jammu and Kashmir] certain special powers,” including what amounts to complete legal immunity. The Act prohibits any entity from prosecuting any member of the armed forces, “except with the previous sanction of the central government” of India. According to a 2018 report published by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in the 28 years since the AFSPA was codified, no officers have been prosecuted.

Predictably, the Indian government, reluctant to admit its soldiers were at fault, repeatedly undermined the Asiya and Neelofar case. For example, a report from India’s Central Bureau of Investigation listed the women’s cause of death as drowning in a canal despite the water only being ankle deep. The report was eventually accepted by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court and all further appeals were dismissed.

The AFSPA is also key to why one of the most notorious rape cases in this conflict’s history has gone unpunished. In February 1991, more than 300 Indian soldiers conducted a cordon-and-search operation in Kunan and Poshpora, two villages in Indian-administered Kashmir. These operations, where the men were dragged out of their homes and paraded in front of informers, were commonly used to root out militant supporters. In Kunan and Poshpora, however, the soldiers planned and executed a mass rape of Kashmiri women; they allegedly assaulted between 23 to 100 girls and women and tortured nearly 200 men.

As with other instances of sexual violence, India’s legal system proved to be more of an obstacle than an avenue for justice. The Kunan-Poshpora case was closed three separate times due to “conflicting statements.” When it was reopened for the fourth time, nearly 50 women came forward with allegations, the challenges persisted. The State Human Rights Commission confirmed the allegations against the Indian army and demanded compensation for the identified victims, but the compensations were never paid, and the case remains stuck in the court system.

The AFSPA presented an obstacle in this case as well. The Act permits officers to search property with no warrant, arrest anyone even suspected of criminal activity, and use deadly force “if he is of the opinion that it is necessary [for the] maintenance of public order”— all with impunity. The AFSPA essentially legalized all actions that took place in Kunan and Poshpora, from breaking into homes to raping women.

There is also documentation of sexual violence motivated by religious hatred both in Pakistan and India. Since the majority of Kashmir’s residents are Muslim, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist ideology has resulted in tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the region. This tension risks escaping the political sphere and serving as the stated motivation behind sexual violence against women. It can be used as justification by perpetrators, who engage in violence against women to further their agendas of religious superiority.

In January 1990, members of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, the group responsible for the exodus of thousands of Hindus from the Kashmir Valley, claimed responsibility for the gang-rape and torture of Girija Tickoo, a Hindu woman. Later that year, a Hindu nurse in Srinagar was abducted, gang-raped, tortured, and killed by Muslim members of a militant group for supposedly serving as an informant for Hindu officials.

Women often end up as collateral damage in religious conflicts, as proven in a case in 2018. Eight-year-old Asifa was kidnapped and held at a Hindu temple, where she was drugged and raped over several days, before being murdered. Eight men were accused, including a juvenile, a former government official, and several police officers involved in filing the complaint and putting together the search party. The attack was reportedly an attempt by Hindus to intimidate the Gujjar community, a nomadic Muslim tribe, into leaving the region. What began as perceived religious differences developed into a land dispute, then spiraled into violent hatred, with a young girl suffering the brunt of the impact.

Due to the nature of the conflict in Kashmir, religious tensions often underscore the violence. This has escalated so much so that women have simultaneously become weapons and targets in a conflict with no end in sight. With very few institutions available to prevent violence or even fight for justice, Kashmiri women are simultaneously ignored and abused by every side of this conflict—they remain the dispensable pawns, used and sacrificed by those in power, whether maharajas or maliks.