By Betwa Sharma MUMBAI, Maharashtra 03 Nov 2018
A married couple from Mumbai braved the dead of winter in Kashmir last year, anticipating a vacation with memories for a lifetime. They returned with a nightmare that continues to consume them, after a senior army officer allegedly repeatedly groped her at a New Year’s Party on 2 January, 2018, in the Officers’ Mess of a Rashtriya Rifles garrison stationed in Manasbal, 60 km from Srinagar.
As the sole civilians in the army camp, surrounded by army men who had been drinking all night, the couple say they locked themselves into their room as they feared for their lives.
“I was thinking that they will kill us and bury us and no one will know,” the 34-year-old woman, who lives in Mumbai and works as a freelance content writer, told HuffPost India. “The questions will be ‘what were you doing in an army garrison, are you spies, what are you doing here’?”
The driver who ferried them to the camp was a local Kashmiri, the woman said. “He would not dare say anything against the army. They will call him a terrorist and pick him up, break his hands and legs, what will he do?” she said.
Since then, the woman told HuffPost India, the army has closed ranks around the accused officer, Lieutenant Colonel M. Nagaraj.
Lt. Col. Nagaraj has sought to block the Jammu and Kashmir police’s inquiry into the incident, HuffPost India learnt from interviewing a Kashmiri policeman familiar with the case.
The army has humiliated and intimidated the woman and her husband under the guise of conducting a Court of Inquiry (COI) into the incident, the woman said.
Some of the questions asked of her in the COI, the woman said, included, “When you turned around, which butt did he grope first?”, while the accused, Lt.Col. Nagaraj claimed the woman had touched his penis. The woman insists she never did.
The ordeal, the woman and her husband said, had left them disillusioned and distraught.
“The army should have taken a stand when something so wrong had happened, instead of shielding their man,” the woman said.
The following account, pieced together from hundreds of pages of letters and email correspondence, and interviews with the J&K police, retired army officers, the couple, and serving army officers they confided in immediately after the incident, paints a disturbing picture of entitlement, ill-discipline, and misconduct by senior army officers.
That the incident occurred in Kashmir, where army personnel have been repeatedly accused of grave human rights violations including at least one incident of mass rape in Kunan Poshpora in 1991, points to a worrying absence of accountability amongst the force’s senior-most ranks deployed in the country’s most sensitive military theatres.
“The Chief of Army is talking big things. He says that we will not leave anyone and morals are everything for the army,” said the woman, referring to General Bipin Rawat’s remarks on the recent case of Major Leetul Gogoi, who was apprehended entering a hotel with a young Kashmiri woman.
“Bullshit. He is just talking crap,” she said. “Should I sit outside your house and give dharna in my pregnant state?”
HuffPost India emailed the Indian Army spokesperson 21 questions pertaining to the incident and the officers referred to in the events that followed. The spokesperson responded with a Whatsapp message and a winking emoji.
“Army is aware of the case and investigating the details. Army is extremely swift with its judicial process and that’s well known. When such serious allegations are levied, they warrant detailed investigations and since the incident is of a remote and CI affected area, the delays are unavoidable for many reasons.
However, I can assure you that the investigation is on, things are progressing and because it’s prejudice (sub judice), nothing more can be divulged. As far as the ethics being followed in the Army, we are unparalleled in upholding the values and courtesies and we take pride in respecting the women in every which way. Errors committed (if at all) by any Army man anywhere, anytime will be singled out and acted upon in a time-bound manner.”
The couple said they have not heard from the Indian Army since July even though they wrote to Gen. Rawat in September.
A trip to the Manasbal Garrison was not part of the couple’s itinerary when they planned their visit to Kashmir in December 2017.
But a day before they were scheduled to return, the woman’s husband, Deepak Singh, who works in the private sector, made inquiries about whether any fellow “Georgians” were posted in Kashmir. “Georgian” refers to the alumni of the King George Royal Indian Military School, which has branches in Bangalore, Ajmer, Chail, Belgaum and Dholpur.
The couple found Lt. Col. Nagaraj, posted at Manasbal, and he invited them to extend their vacation and stay at the army garrison.
When they arrived on 1 January, 2018, the couple said, Lt. Col. Nagaraj casually showed off a gun and declared, “This is what we use here to kill terrorists.” Later when he entered the couple’s guest room with his dog, the couple alleged, he said, “My dog is getting horny seeing a hot woman.”
The following night, on 2 January, Nagaraj invited the couple to a New Year’s Party at the Officers’ Mess at the Garrison.
At around 1:00 am, the woman said, Nagaraj brushed against her breasts and groped her butt three times.
“First time when it happened, I just brushed it off. I just put it on myself that perhaps I’m not standing properly,” she said “I thought he is my host, he is arranging everything, he is being gentlemanly. Maybe I am mistaken. Our (women) first reaction is to think that we are wrong and that is our biggest mistake.”
“Second time, I just gave him the benefit of the doubt. My thought was army people can’t be wrong, but by the third time, I knew he was doing it intentionally,” she said.
The woman said that after she stormed out of the mess, another officer, Lt. Col. Anil Chaudhary, came out behind her, asked her to calm down and follow him back into the mess.
“When Anil Chaudhary said, ‘Madame, it’s cold, let’s go inside,’ do you think I wanted to go inside the same room where I had been molested? Did I have any other option?” she said. “It’s like you want to scream but someone has put a hand on your mouth.”
The army did not respond to HuffPost India’s detailed questions on this sequence of events.
The woman and her husband, she said, were suddenly aware of exactly where they were: In an isolated army base in Kashmir, at the mercy of men with guns, many of whom had been drinking heavily for several hours now.
“There is not a single woman in sight. I’m alone with my husband. I’m worried about our security,” she recalled. “I wanted to scream at the top of my voice, but I was in the middle of nowhere, and I was afraid what will I do if four men surround me and rip off my clothes. They will kill my husband. I had to suppress that rage within me,” she said.
They returned to their guest room, locked the door and stacked the dining table and the sofas against it.
“You relate things like, he is drunk, he is outraged, he showed us a gun, the bullets are this size, the walls are not even 12 inches,” said Singh, the woman’s husband, recalling the gun Nagaraj had showed them when they first arrived.
“He’s a Lieutenant Colonel. If he tells four jawans to go kick down the door, they will not even ask another question.” the woman said. “I even told Deepak, let’s go sit in the bathroom, if someone does spray us with bullets, it may not reach the bathroom.”
The couple went into the bathroom, and worriedly waited for the sun to rise.
The next morning, the couple reasoned that if they packed their bags and left immediately, they would lose their chance to file an official complaint.
“We contemplated that if we leave from here today then we have lost the battle,” Singh said.
“Call us stupid,” the woman said. “But we had faith that we would get justice from the army.”
When no one from the Army garrison reached out to the couple, Singh called a friend from military school, Pravin Kulkarni, for advice on how to proceed.
Kulkarni, their friend, contacted another fellow “Georgian”, a lieutenant colonel, stationed at another army base in Jammu and Kashmir, who advised the couple to contact the garrison’s commanding officer.
HuffPost India spoke to Kulkarni and the serving army officer. They both corroborated Singh’s account.
It emerged that none of the officers present in the mess the previous night had reported the incident to their higher-ups — a breach of army protocol.
The couple says that in the immediate aftermath of the incident, Lt. Col. Anil Chaudhary had reassured them that he was duty bound to report the matter to the commanding officer, the next day, but he never did.
“This is wrong. An incident of this nature needs to be reported immediately, there is nothing like kal batayenge,” the serving officer, Kulkarni’s friend, told HuffPost India on the condition of anonymity. “It does not matter night or day.”
Brigadier A.S. Randhawa, the garrison’s commanding officer was away, so the woman and her husband tried their best to track down the acting commanding officer, Colonel Vikramjeet Singh, but he was on patrol. The couple called the phone exchange of the Manasbal Garrison six to seven times before they were able to they were able to extract his cellphone number from the receptionist.
When they finally met Col. Singh at his residence at 5:00 pm that evening, almost 15 hours after the woman says she was molested, he asked them to write down the complaint and hand it to his wife because he had to go play a basketball match.
“Colonel Vikramjeet Singh has been awarded a Sena Medal. What has he got this Sena Medal for?” the woman said, adding she was upset that the matter was being treated so flippantly. “A lady comes to you to say, ‘Sir, this has happened to me and you say, I’m going to play a basketball game’.” ( Huffpost )