The time was ripe to kill the girl, Sanji Ram told his juvenile nephew on a cold January evening, according to a police report.
The ritual had been performed and Asifa, an eight-year-old Muslim nomad girl, was taken to a culvert in front of a temple where she had been kept in captivity, and sedated, for four days in Rasana village of Kathua district in Indian-administered Kashmir.
But, before she was strangulated and her head hit twice with a stone “to make sure” she was dead, Deepak Khajuria, a special police officer, made a demand. He wanted to rape the girl before she was killed.
“As such”, the police investigation noted, “once again the little girl was gang-raped” by the accused police officer and then by the juvenile.
For the next three months, the rape and murder of Asifa seemed to be just another case of sexual violence that is rampant in India but rare in Indian-administered Kashmir, until the barbarity and the plot came to fore in a 16-page charge sheet presented by the crime branch – a local investigating agency.
The investigation revealed that the rape and murder were systematic, preplanned and rooted in religious hatred harboured by Sanji Ram, a Hindu, against the Muslim nomadic community of Bakarwals.
The nomad girl
Asifa, the nomad girl, loved to take horses for grazing to the forest near her home in Rasana, a quiet village in Kathua district of Indian-administered Kashmir.
The reason Asifa was picked as a target by Sanji Ram, who knew she “often comes to the forest”, was simple; they wanted to drive the Muslim community out, according to the investigation.
In captivity inside a temple, Asifa was drugged and raped, according to the police investigation. The police report described Asifa as an “innocent budding flower, a child of only eight years of age, who being a small kid became a soft target”.
The crime, however, was rooted in a sinister conspiracy and Asifa’s rape and killing were the means to an end – create fear among the Muslim nomadic Bakarwal community and force them to leave.
RafeezaBano, Asifa’s 55-year-old mother, recalls the horror she saw on her dead daughter’s body. “There were scars on her cheeks,” she told Al Jazeera at their camp in Udhampur.
“Her lips had turned black and her eyes had bulged out. It was a scary scene for a mother to see,” she said. “She was my youngest child. It was horrific. She had faced a lot of barbarity.”
The mother now fears for her two surviving daughters, one of them aged 13. “They did this with an eight-year-old girl, imagine what they can do with a 13-year-old,” she said.
The tough life of a nomad had cast its shadow on Mohammad Akhtar and he looks older than his 45 years. He now lives with a more damning burden – the elusive justice for his daughter, Asifa.
On a hill in Udhampur district, nearly 150km north of Rasana, the family camps under the open sky with their herd of goats and horses. The journey is part of the annual migration of this nomadic community in search of grazing pastures.
“Her face was full of scratches and bites,” Akhtar told Al Jazeera, describing the marks of torment on Asifa. “I never knew they would do this to a child, her milk teeth were yet to fall out,” he said.
Akhtar is Asifa’s biological father as the girl was raised by her maternal uncle, Mohammad Yusuf, who adopted her when she was a toddler after he lost his three children in an accident.
“After she was killed it created more fear than before. We now take our daughters along all the time, all in our community became protective towards our daughters,” he said.
Akhtar said the family also faced threats in the aftermath of the incident.
“They said if our men are given the death sentence, we will kill you one by one. After Asifa’s body was found, Hindu people came to us and threatened us,” he said.
Gazala, Asifa’s aunt who lived in nearby Samba district, says she now fears for her two daughters, age nine and four.
“I fear for them. They would run after the horses, they were free to play but now we are very worried. We had not seen anything as gruesome,” she said.
Asifa’s rape and killing have forced an early migration of Bakarwals, a nomadic tribe with a rudimentary lifestyle that earns a living out of herding goats, sheep and horses to mountainous pastures. The incident instilled fear in their community, which is unprotected during its lengthy migratory journeys.
Manega, Asifa’s elder sister, was still in shock when she talked to Al Jazeera in Udhampur about her sister’s death.
“I saw her dead body,” she said. “I now fear a lot. We don’t play, we don’t go out alone. Asifa’s killing has shattered us,” Manega, 13, said.
A retired government official, his son who came from another city to “satisfy his lust”, the juvenile nephew and his close friend, and the special police officer were all part of the conspiracy and crime to kidnap, rape and killing of the eight-year-old girl, according to the police report. Three police officers were involved in destroying the evidence.
The incident, which initially appeared to draw a reluctant outrage, however, snowballed into a major crisis for India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) as the horrifying details and motives of the rape and killing came into public domain.
Human rights groups have repeatedly claimed that religious minority groups, particularly Muslims, face increasing “demonisation by hardline Hindu groups, pro-government media and some state officials” in India, and the frequency of such incidents appears to be increasing.
In a recent Amnesty International report, the London-based human rights group noted that dozens of “hate crimes against Muslims took place across the country”.
“At least 10 Muslim men were lynched and many injured by vigilante cow protection groups, many of which seemed to operate with the support of members of the ruling BharatiyaJanata Party,” it said.
While the outrage over Asifa’s rape and murder was muted – even missing – during the initial weeks, the eight accused men found a crusading force of lawyers and ministers from BJP in their support, some of whom insisted the police investigators were Muslims and had a bias towards the accused – all of whom Hindus.
In the second week of April, nearly three months since Asifa’s body was found in the forested foothill, a group of Hindu lawyers attempted to block police investigators from entering a court premise where they had gone to file the charges against the accused.
“It is shocking that the lawyers in Kathua so blatantly tried to obstruct justice in this case,” MeenakshiGanguly, South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, said in her report last week.
“For the local lawyers and other BJP supporters, the Hindu suspects and the Muslim victim were grounds for blocking prosecution of the case,” Ganguly said.
As the pressure mounted on BJP, which administers Indian administered Kashmir in an alliance based government, its two ministers – who had attended a rally in favour of the accused – resigned.
“The investigation was completed within 90 days which makes it clear that there was no intervention or attempt to block the investigation,” BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav told reporters in the city of Jammu, 60km from here.
The fact that it took three months and the exposure of horrific details for the outrage to build against the rape and killing of the girl, who was just eight-years-old, has already instilled fear among the Muslim nomads.
Bakarwals, a poor tribe of nomads, tread across mountains during their biannual migrations from the meadows of Kashmir valley to the hilly forests of Jammu, where some pockets are dominated by ultra-nationalist Hindu groups.
Muhammad Yusuf, 45, Asifa’s uncle who had adopted her when she was a toddler, abandoned Rasana village with his herd of sheep, goats and horses soon after the girl’s body was found. The routine migration was still weeks away, but the new-found fear forced it earlier.
“We left home earlier than usual due to fear. There is a fear among all the Muslim families in Rasana and most of them have left now,” Yusuf said. “We are afraid to go back,” he said.
In the village, where Asifa was raped and killed and, later, not allowed to be buried, Yusuf said Hindus were always hostile towards Muslims. “Sometimes, they would object to our grazing of horses, sometimes they would block the water supply,” he said.
ZafarChowdhary, author and political analyst based in Jammu, told Al Jazeera that there is a feeling among the Hindus in the state’s Jammu region that Muslims are involved in making demographic changes.
“There is unrest and distrust among the communities in the region particularly on the question of identity in the state,” he said.
The family members of accused in the village have launched a hunger strike demanding that the investigations be done by the federal investigative agency.
INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI
By Shabbir Aariz
This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,
“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..
OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….
ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY
(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..
burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.
His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….
YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.
His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.
John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.
As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,
“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..
HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.
Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.
John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.
(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])
Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer
By Naveed Hussain
I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.
I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.
“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.
Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.
Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.
But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.
Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.
For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.
I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.
Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”
Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.
Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.
Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”
Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.
Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest
By Asheesh Mamgain
If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.
“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”
“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.
Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.
Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.
“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”
So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.
The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.
“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.
“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”
There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.
“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”
Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.
Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”
More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”
A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.
Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.
Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.
But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”