Years ago, a friend’s daughter switched to a premier school in Delhi in Class X. On her first day at the school, the Class X teacher asked the students to write their impressions, in a few paragraphs, of the morning assembly which they had attended.
The teacher then had the students read out their composition to the class. Each student’s version differed from that of the other, largely in their emphasis, possibly influenced by their respective powers of observation as well as their likes and dislikes.
No one, obviously, contested the occurrence of the morning assembly. Once each version had been read out, and the differences between the narratives noted, the teacher drew a parallel for them. She said, “This is what history is all about. There is no single truth. There are always multiple versions of an event.”
This incident comes to mind as one reads the news reports about the alleged molestation of a teenager in Handwara, Kashmir. Alas, here are no multiple versions, but just two, reflecting, not too surprisingly, two broad narratives which have been extant in the Valley for now nearly 25 years.
The two narratives reflect the schism in the Valley. One narrative is of the people, said to be partial to leaders clubbed as separatists, who are accused of spinning every untoward event to their advantage. Their version, it is said, often has the endorsement of civil society groups, which consequently too is seen to be prejudiced.
The other version is of the state, broadly the troika of the government, the Army and the J&K Police. Its narratives of events are often the mirror opposite of that of the people and civil society groups.
Between the two narratives there exists a wide gulf. The two narratives are akin to two mountain ranges flanking a valley. It is in this swathe bullets whistle and bodies fall, and anger and hatred echo.
It is because of human casualties that we who are outside Kashmir encounter the challenge: Whose version do we believe in Kashmir – the state’s or the people’s and their leaders?
Since both narratives lay claim to be true, the previous question can be refined thus: whose truth do we believe in Kashmir? This is inherent to the two contradictory narratives regarding the episode in which a Kashmir teenager was molested in Handwara recently.
There is the state’s narrative which says the teenager was molested by Kashmiri youths, but, either to conceal their shame or for reasons political, a vicious rumour was spread that a security personnel was the culprit. Soon, the forever simmering anger of Kashmiris boiled over into street protests and stone-throwing, provoking police to open fire in which five persons perished.
The people’s narrative insists it was the security personnel who molested the girl, and that the talk of locals having been the culprits is just the State’s ruse to deflect blame from itself.
This narrative, thus, holds the state guilty on three counts – its personnel molested the Kashmiri girl, in itself a reflection of the stifling condition in which people there live; to protect him, it is blaming the locals, thereby insulting them collectively; it then compounded its mistake by killing five Kashmiris.
In normal circumstances, media would have accepted the victim’s deposition and gone to town against the accused, as is customary in all gender-related cases. But Kashmir is not normal; another standard has to be presumably applied, therefore.
The extent to which Kashmir’s is a battle between two narratives is palpable from the state’s response to the victim. It took her in its protection. Not protection, but custody, argue the opponents of the state, only for winning the battle of narratives.
When the video-recording of the victim, in which she said she hadn’t been molested by a security personnel but local youths, was leaked, the gulf between the two narratives only further widened. For the Kashmiris, her video-recording has no credibility as they assume she was pressured to make the statement exonerating the security personnel.
But she is in our protective custody, said the DIG, North Kashmir, where Handwara is located, reported The Indian Express. Undeniably the state bungled, for the IGP Kashmir said to the same paper that she wasn’t in their custody and was free to meet anyone. However, when The Times of India sought a meeting with the girl, the DIG denied permission and said she was in police protection following “violence and threat to their lives.”
The gulf between the two narratives became unbridgeable as the victim’s mother, with the help of the Jammu-Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, petitioned the High Court, which has asked the police to explain why she and two other family members have been “detained.” The petition will now come up for hearing on 20 April.
Now assume the victim does indeed depose before the High Court. Nothing is likely to persuade the Kashmiris that she, if she were to indict the locals, did not act under police pressure, as she has been in their custody, protective or otherwise, for an inordinately long time.
Should she identify her assailant as the security personnel, the state will claim she acted under popular pressure, as she has to live in Handwara, and thought it judicious to accept the version of separatist leaders. Newspaper reports have already quoted sources saying her mother petitioned the court at the behest of separatist leaders who were quick to reach out to her.
Truth, therefore, is likely to slip through the abyss separating the two narratives in the Valley.
The Handwara incident isn’t the first of its kind. In the infamous Kunan-Poshpura case, in which 40 Kashmiri women were said to have been raped by soldiers in 1991, there were contradictory narratives, too. The Army denied the mass rape took place, as did some fact-finding teams, including one led by the late editor BG Verghese.
In 2013, however, the Kupwara district court ruled, after 22 years, that the investigation into the Kunan-Poshpura mass rape should be speeded up and completed in three months. But the case still remains entangled in court battles.
The history class of my friend’s daughter didn’t encounter the challenge as we do over incidents in Kashmir. None of the students of her class denied the conduct of the morning assembly, nor who presided over it. The events in Kashmir are of another order. These pertain to whether or not rapes took place, as in Kunan-Poshpura, or over the identity of the assailants, as in Handwara.
The two contradictory narratives in the Valley only testify to the gulf between them, indicative of the divide between the state and the people. This is a consequence of the deep alienation of the people and the mutual suspicion between them and the state.
Kashmir can’t have normalcy, and for this reason neither can India, until a way is found to have a common narrative, not on the big political questions, but on occurrences which are best described as unconscionable. The state can’t possibly win confidences when permission to prosecute Army officers for alleged crimes has seldom been granted over the last 25 years.
The hot April wind of Delhi howls the question: so which of the two narratives on Handwara is right? I just know that another victim – the one who was molested – is likely to slip through the abyss between the two narratives, scarred for the rest of her life.
(The writer is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, was set against the backdrop of the Babri Masjid demolition.)