MUMBAI, Maharashtra — 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.
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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 army should have taken a stand when something so wrong had happened, instead of shielding their man.
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.
The Chief of Army is talking big things. He says that we will not leave anyone and morals are everything for the army. Bullshit. He is just talking crap.
A Night of Terror
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.
It's like you want to scream but someone has put a hand on your mouth.
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.
"I wanted to scream at the top of my voice, but I was in the middle of nowhere..."
An urgent basketball game
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'."
A lady comes to you to say, 'Sir, this has happened to me and you say, I'm going to play a basketball game'.
The Army did not respond to HuffPost India's detailed questions on this sequence of events.
After her meeting with Col. Vikramjeet Singh, the complainant said, Lt. Col. Anil Chaudhary urged her to not pursue the matter as the accused was going through a difficult time in his personal life.
"Anil Chaudhary had the audacity to come to me and say let it go. I'm not the one who is wrong. Why should I hide?" she said.
Nagaraj, the accused, tried to make contact with her the woman said, possibly to apologise for his conduct. But his overtures only made the complainant feel unsafe. The accused also spoke with her husband, she said. "He was crying, saluting, apologizing," Singh said.
It was already dark by the time they finished writing out their complaint, and so they were forced to spend another night in the camp.
The following day, on January 4, the couple left for their home in Mumbai.
"I wanted to break things, I wanted to break the bottles, the bar counter, the table, the sofas, burn the place down," the woman said. "How could he do that to me? How could he touch me? He doesn't have the right to my body. It's not forgivable. I cannot forgive this."
How could he touch me? He doesn't have the right to my body. It's not forgivable. I cannot forgive this.
On 8 January, 2018, four days after returning to Mumbai, the couple sent a letter to Brig. Randhawa, the commanding officer at Manasbal, but they would not hear from him for over a month.
HuffPost India has reviewed correspondence between the couple and the army.
On 12 February, 2018, the woman wrote an email to senior police officials in Kashmir. Two days later, the Kashmir police registered a First Information Report (FIR), at the Safapora police station, over the phone. HuffPost India has a copy of the FIR.
HuffPost India spoke to a police officer familiar with the case, who, on the condition of anonymity, said that the accused's lawyer had tried to persuade the local police to drop the FIR since a Court of Inquiry (COI) had already been instituted. The police officer described the demand as "not proper."
"Once we register an FIR, it is not in our hands," the police officer said.
The police officer said that army personnel interviewed during the course of the criminal investigation said that no incident of sexual harassment had occurred at the army base.
A charge sheet has been filed against Lt. Col. Nagaraj, the accused, in a local court in Kashmir.
Back to Manasbal
On 20 February, the woman received a letter from Randhawa, briefly stating that the army was looking into the matter.
On 6 March, she wrote letters to the Prime Minister's Office, Defense Minister, Chief Of Army Staff Bipin Rawat, National Security Advisor, the National Women's Commission and the Maharashtra State Commission Of India, demanding action against the accused.
"As a civilian, I have always found the media very prejudiced, showing only ill doings of defense services," she wrote in her letter to Gen. Rawat. "But when it happened to me, I am utterly shocked and at a loss of words, with a feeling of disgust, where a man in olive green uniform can touch my private parts without my permission," she wrote.
As a civilian, I have always found the media very prejudiced, showing only ill doings of defense services. But when it happened to me...
On 14 March, the complainant received a call from an officer, Colonel Mukund Gururaj, that a COI had been set up, ten days later, from 23 to 25 March, 2018, and she would have to travel to Kashmir.
The complainant and her husband paid almost Rs.80,000 to book airline tickets and a hotel room for three days at short notice. The couple says they had to pay for the stay in monthly installments.
They have not been reimbursed by the army.
The COI was set up in Manasbal Garrison. The complainant said that it was traumatic for her to return to the place where she had been sexually harassed.
No one from the army informed her traveling to Kashmir was unnecessary and the COI could have been set up via video conferencing.
"Imagine my situation. I had to enter the garrison where I was molested. This was just to intimidate us," the woman said.
Imagine my situation. I had to enter the garrison where I was molested. This was just to intimidate us.
A sham Court Of Inquiry
The COI was not conducted on 23 March, the first of the three-day hearing, because the army did not have a woman officer present at the hearing.
When a woman officer arrived, from another army base in Kashmir, it was clear that she hadn't been briefed on the case.
The woman said the panel, of Col. Mukund Gururaj, Col. Kamal Thapa and Major Chetan Chhabra, couldn't control Lt. Col. Nagarajan, the accused, who frequently raised his voice and shouted.
"He was just flaring up. The presiding officer is telling to keep quiet and warning him off disciplinary action, but nothing is happening, he was flaring up, flaring up and flaring up," she said.
There was no women's toilet, and when a toilet was located in another building, it had no water or soap or electricity; each of these things added up to make the woman feel alone and alienated.
The accused, the complainant said, objected to her husband, a witness in the case, sitting in the COI. The complainant insisted her husband be present.
The presiding officers, the complainant recalled, were at a loss as to how to proceed. They even called for the army rule book from the library and then phoned a judicial officer, who was stationed at Awantipora, for advice, the woman said.
"We had already wasted one day. The officers were not prepared. They had no clue what to do. They never had a sense of inquiry. It was all an eyewash," she said.
The officers were not prepared. They had no clue what to do.
When the video recording was switched off, the woman said, Col. Mukund Gururaj, the presiding officer, handed a copy of her statement, which had her home address, to the accused. This, the complainant believes, jeopardized her safety.
The army conducted four more hearings of the COI, with Brigadier Pravin Kumar, Colonel Nishant Rathi, Major Iti Srivastava and Captain Indu Dutta presiding, on 11 April, 24 April, 9 June and 17 June.
While these hearings were conducted via video conference in Mumbai, they followed a similar pattern of intimidation and humiliation.
In one instance, the woman was face to face with the accused, and he was allowed to question her — a breach of protocol as questions were to be routed through the panel. "You promised me this guy would not ask me any questions then why is he asking me any questions," she said.
In other instance, the proceeding lasted from 10:00 am to 1:30 am, the next day.
Army officers tried to blame her for the incident, claiming she was drunk at the time. Some of the questions and statements appeared intended solely to unsettle and embarrass her, rather than establish the truth.
"Were you smoking on 2 January?"
"When you turned around, which butt did he grope first?"
"How many more times did he squeeze your butt? "
"It took three wrongs touches for you to know that he is molesting you."
"The Indian army runs on alcohol. At every party, they will ask, 'Sir, what will you have?' Then, why do you judge women? 'How drunk were you, how many drinks were you down'," the woman said. "They will make you so uncomfortable that you will cry."
Why do you judge women? 'How drunk were you, how many drinks were you down'.
The woman, now pregnant and frequently nauseated, said she struggled to sit through these long interrogation sessions, where she had only limited access to a bathroom. "Being pregnant, I'm not being able to go to the washroom. Forget lying down anywhere. Physically, I was exhausted," she said.
On the fourth hearing, the accused allegedly asked her husband, "Did your wife tell you she touched my penis?"
The army did not respond to HuffPost India's detailed questions on this sequence of events.
The couple realised that the proceedings were a farce to tire them out.
"They will stress you out so emotionally and physically," the woman said. "I just said I'm leaving, I don't want any justice. Just leave me."
I just said I'm leaving, I don't want any justice. Just leave me.
In the third week of June, the woman's gynecologist advised her "bed rest" due to early complications in her pregnancy.
HuffPost India spoke with the woman's gynecologist, who, on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that her patient had "severe complications" in her early pregnancy and was indeed advised bed rest.
The army however, said they would postpone the hearing only if she had her doctor's prescription attested by a government officer.
The woman said she feared the army would hand over her gynecologist's address to the accused, so asked the army to send a representative to her house to cross-check the prescription from the gynecologist, advising bedrest.
Instead an army representative called her home phone, and when her maid picked up, the representative began asking the maid personal questions about the maid and her husband, and asked for their phone numbers.
That's when the couple decided to withdraw from the process.
"They made it emotionally, physically and financially very uncomfortable for us in every aspect that we felt we had to leave it," she said. "I couldn't go through that physical and mental strain. I couldn't."
The army did not respond to HuffPost India's detailed questions on this sequence of events.
They made it emotionally, physically and financially very uncomfortable for us in every aspect that we felt we had to leave it.
Throughout the inquiry, the army shared all evidence, statements and documents provided by the woman — and even her residential address, with Lt. Col. Nagaraj, the accused.
Yet, they refused to share any information at all with the woman, including the statement of the accused.
A retired colonel, who has conducted several COIs, told HuffPost India there is no army rule which prohibits the handing over of the above-mentioned documents and video recordings to the complainant.
The retired colonel expressed shock and disappointment over the army's treatment of a pregnant civilian allegedly molested by a senior army officer.
Yet, so strong is the code of silence with the force, he declined to speak on record.
"It is absolutely a breach of trust, a breach of faith, a breach of propriety, and a breach of honour," the colonel said. "The very act of not sharing the evidence shows the court has not been transparent in delivering justice."
It is absolutely a breach of trust, a breach of faith, a breach of propriety, and a breach of honour.
The colonel said that COIs were only a preliminary stage in an investigation and did not last more than a couple of hearings.
"Once you have given the statement, when you have been cross-examined, and thereafter you are making a plea that you cannot appear for the COI, the court should have taken due cognizance of the fact and excused you from appearing in the inquiry," he said.
The colonel added, "Prolonging it for such a long time, inconveniencing the people involved, gives out ulterior motive of delaying and denying justice."
Yet these tactics appear to have worked.
"What they do is embarrass you so much that you exit on your own," said the woman's husband. "Whether they are a brigadier, a captain or a woman or whatever age. Let's close the chapter and forget about it."
"My voice is not being heard," the woman said.
Lt. Col. M. Nagaraj, the accused, is still stationed at the Manasbal Garrison.
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