Asifa’s rape and murder throws spotlight on Jammu’s religious divide
The arrests of two Hindu men and a juvenile for the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl from the Bakerwal community, a nomadic Muslim tribe, has led to communal turmoil in the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir. In the last one month since the gruesome crime, politicians cutting across party lines have been quick to attribute religious motives. While Hindu groups have accused the police of bias, opposition parties have taken their protests to the legislature and even staged a walkout, alleging that Muslims in the Jammu region were being targeted. Separatist leaders such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani have also joined the hysteria, claiming that Jammu’s Muslim community is being subjected to severe harassment and demanding stringent action against those involved in the heinous crime.
Asifa’s mother, Naseema Bibi doesn’t get much of it though. The foster mother of Asifa Bano, the victim, is still to come to terms with what happened with her little girl. She looks lost as she reluctantly rolls out bread to feed her dogs in her house in Rasana village of Kathua district. She is around 40, and her pale, wrinkled face and watery eyes bear testimony to the pain she has lived through for more than a month since she lost her adopted daughter. Asifa, months away from turning eight, was allegedly sexually assaulted and murdered last month. Naseema had adopted Asifa from her sister-in-law when she had barely started crawling. “She was tortured for seven days before she was killed. If they (the perpetrators) had a problem with us, why did they kill the girl? What was her fault?” she asks. Asifa went missing on 10 January while rearing ponies, and her battered body wrapped in a torn purple kurta was found a week later. Local politicians have since made a beeline to Asifa’s house and her parents have been promised compensation and a job for one of their older sons. Preliminary reports have confirmed that Asifa was raped when she was kept confined in a shed for a week before being strangulated. Her swollen face has severe injury marks and blood discharge was found inside her private parts, proving assault. Days after Asifa’s body was found, the local Bakerwals gathered in thousands and blocked the national highway for over five hours to protest against the crime. Hindu leaders allege that the Bakerwals were mobilised by “outsiders” who instigated the otherwise “innocent” Bakerwals to shout anti-national slogans. Former Kootah panchayat leader Kant Kumar, who had been associated with the Congress, said he had heard that slogans such as ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ were raised during the protest. There was, however, no proof. “Then, a couple of weeks ago, we saw the word ‘Pakistan’ painted on one of our village roads. Who do you think would have done this?” Kumar, one of the main architects of the newly-formed Hindu Ekta Manch, added. Kumar is of the view that the Manch, which held a “peace march” last week carrying the Tricolour, has received a lot of bad publicity. The Manch has since been holding closed-door meetings every day to decide on its next course of action to fight what it calls the injustice meted out to the Hindus. “We only called for a fair probe as there is a lot of interference from the chief minister in the current probe. We want the CBI to handle this case,” Kumar says, referring to CM Mehbooba Mufti’s comment that the protests were “nothing short of desecration of the national flag”. Elaborating on why he and his comrades in the Manch think the probe is biased, Kumar says, “When the charges are yet to be proven, why did the chief minister tweet indicating those arrested are already the rapists?” “Also, Dipu (the main accused) had just been friends with the juvenile for three months. He was to get married by April.” “Isn’t it unlikely that he would plot something like this with the juvenile at this point?” Kumar asks. Union minister and Jitendra Singh has said there is no harm in handing over the investigation to the CBI if the locals demand so. Kathua is part of Singh’s Lok Sabha constituency, Udhampur. In the days leading to Asifa’s murder, prime suspect Dipu alias Deepak Khajuria (28), a special police officer, allegedly had multiple run-ins with the Bakerwals over their animals grazing in his fields. Jammu police crime branch officers investigating the murder are also working on the theory that Dipu may have planned the crime. They claim that Dipu has even confessed that he plotted the crime to “teach a lesson” to the Bakerwals in connection with an old dispute. Besides Dipu, the crime branch has arrested a juvenile and another SPO, Surinder Singh. Police say more arrests are likely. In Dipu’s village Damiyal, about 2 km from Rasana, people, however, find it hard to believe that he may have committed the crime. “He was of a very good character. Whether there were Shivratri celebrations or a wedding in someone’s family, Dipu was the first to help out,” says Madan Khajuria, Dipu’s uncle. “We are shocked at the way this case was manipulated by the police at the behest of influential leaders,” he adds. Khajuria alleged Dipu was framed in the case because he had been “instrumental in stopping many cattle smuggling cases as an SPO”. “Our entire family has been in shock. The culprit should be punished, but no innocent should be framed like this,” he says. Meanwhile, the arrests of the three suspects continue to be exploited in one way or the other by fringe groups in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region. On 18 February, for instance, a dozen saffron-clad people gathered at Jammu city’s iconic Ved Mandir to propagate their idea of a ‘Jansankhya Niyantran Kanoon’ or a population control law. Controversial journalist Suresh Chavhanke – who heads the Sudarshan TV channel and a fringe Hindu group called Rashtra Nirman Sangathan – was at the forefront. The event was part of a Bharat Bachao Rathyatra, which starts from Jammu and is slated to travel across the country, with Meerut being the next destination. “It is important to control population, but it’s crucial to control the imbalance in population,” Chavhanke said. “The imbalance is that despite giving out Pakistan on the basis of religion, the increase of mini Pakistans in India is imbalance and should be stopped,” the former RSS worker told a crowd of 300 people amid heavy applause and chants of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. Chavhanke, 45, is known for his hate speeches and was arrested last year for inciting communal hatred and allegedly promoting religious enmity through one of his shows. “We must not be worried if there are two or three riots anywhere in the country, since it is important to save the country,” says Chavhanke, challenging Mehbooba Mufti to stop him if she can. He also emphasised that Jammu was a conscious choice to start the rally given its demography. Bakerwal families are widely scattered among the Hindu-dominated Hiranagar tehsil of Kathua district. The tehsil has a population of 8,294 spread across 197 villages, of which Rasana has about 597 people. Much of the population of Rasana is Brahmin. Asifa’s father Yusouf had built a concrete house more than 10 years ago on a 12 kanal plot that he had bought from the locals. The Bakerwals say they have largely lived peacefully alongside the Hindu settlements and there have only been minor skirmishes over their animals entering farms belonging to Hindu families. Asifa’s murder has now scared the Bakerwals. Yusouf’s friend Basheer, who stays in the adjoining village, says the Bakerwal families have stopped sending their women and children out of their homes. They are also worried after they heard that they will be socially boycotted by the local Hindus, which the latter refuted. The communal polarisation caused by the crime has also opened up old faultlines over population shifts and settlements. The Bakerwals and the Gujjars, who are also a nomadic community, generally live in the forests and move to makeshift camps in Jammu and its adjoining districts during the winter months. However, in the past 10 years, many of them have started building pucca houses – some of them on land bought from Hindu families while some have built houses on forest land without formal paperwork. In the absence of land records with local municipal bodies and the state government, some Hindus have started calling the Gujjars and the Bakerwals “land grabbers”. For instance, in a recent land dispute between Rajputs and Gujjars in Jammu’s Samba district, several Rajput women sat together on the roads shouting slogans of “Gujjar haye haye” and “Pakistan murdabad”. Speaking to ThePrint, J&K tribal affairs minister Zulfiqar Choudhary said the state government is in the process of bringing a legislation on the lines of the central Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, to guarantee Gujjar and Bakerwal tribes their rights. “A state policy on tribals on the lines of the national policy will soon come into force, which will prevent forceful displacement of tribals from forest villages and provide them with basic educational, medical and infrastructural amenities,” the minister said. Some observers say that the religious divide and the politics around it in the Jammu region has become so overbearing that even a crime as horrific as Asifa’s rape and murder has not been immune to the strong sentiments linked to Jammu and Kashmir’s violent separatist movement. “The indifference of the Hindu majority community in Jammu towards the tragedy of Asifa could also be seen in the context of the overall politics of the Kashmir conflict,” says Zafar Choudhary, editor of The Dispatch and author of ‘Kashmir Conflict and Muslims of Jammu’. “Not all tragedies in the region are seen as collective human tragedies,” he says. (Courtesy: theprint.in)