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The girl, her family and the accused

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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 Family

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.

The accused

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 Fear

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.

(Courtesy: Aljazeera)


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Opinion

War or peace?

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Dr Akmal Hussain

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi on Sunday, April 7, in a press briefing in Multan, announced that the government had “reliable” information that India was planning another attack on Pakistan. He revealed that during a meeting of the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security, the three service chiefs had indicated that they were ready with plans of multiple strikes against Pakistan across a wide front and were awaiting a “political nod”, which was duly given by PM Modi during the meeting.
After the political boomerang of the failed Balakot strike, simple statistical theory would suggest to the military mind that the larger the number of strikes next time the higher the probability of at least one succeeding. The chances of partial success would increase if the air attack is across a wide front: the defending air force would have to spread itself thin and so the number of intercepting aircraft that could be fielded against any one group of attackers would be reduced.
Such a military adventure by India would not simply be a repeat strike after Balakot. It would be a precipitous escalation, fraught with the risk of full-scale conventional war that could quickly lead to a catastrophic nuclear exchange. When India suffered a setback in the Balakot engagement, they reportedly readied themselves for a missile strike against three Pakistani cities on the night of February 27.
There is no technology in existence that can determine whether or not incoming missiles have a nuclear payload. So Pakistan’s declaration that they would launch triple the number of missiles in retaliation, as soon as Indian missiles left their launch pads, carried the grim possibility of a nuclear war in the Subcontinent. If we had come so close to Armageddon soon after even a single abortive strike, imagine how much greater would be the risk of escalation to the nuclear level during a full-scale conventional war.
At present, and in the foreseeable future, two aspects of the structure of the India-Pakistan relationship create a hair trigger that can quickly and repeatedly bring the two countries to flashpoint. First, a popular freedom movement in Kashmir that, despite their protracted coercion, Indian security forces have been unable to suppress. It has instead produced a pantheon of martyrs and a new generation of militant youths willing to sacrifice themselves for freedom. Under these circumstances the internal dynamics of the Kashmiri movement can generate acts of violent rebellion against Indian troops at any time.
Second, on the other side of the border for many years non-state groups of militant extremists who have off and on received patronage continue to exist. The toxic mix of these two elements creates an environment in which spectacular acts of violence by Kashmiri youth could be blamed on “Pakistan-based terrorists” by India. This could intensify tensions, precipitating another military conflict. The past cannot be taken as a guide to say how it will end, whether in peace or nuclear war.
Given the firepower of modern conventional weaponry, significant loss of territory can occur during the initial onslaught that could escalate to the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. Once nuclear weapons are used on enemy troops, all-out nuclear war would follow. The recent history of India-Pakistan military conflict however has shown that even before a full-scale conventional war, a limited, localised battle can bring the two sides to the nuclear precipice.
For example, during the Kargil conflict in 1999 when the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Washington to ask the then US president Clinton to help end the conflict, he was shown satellite pictures of nuclear weapons being loaded onto F16s as evidence for a shocked PM of how close the two countries were to a nuclear war. Then again during the first two days of the February 2019 conflict involving limited Air Force engagements, nuclear missiles were reportedly readied on the night of February 27 for use by both sides.
So far these confrontations have induced timely intercession by the international community and peoples of the Subcontinent have survived by the skin of their teeth. But what a future confrontation will bring, whether we live or die in a nuclear war is inherently uncertain. Its probability cannot be estimated.
Some take comfort in the fact that seven confrontations in the past did not result in full-scale war as international pressure to defuse tensions worked. However, this 100 percent success in preventing war in the past cannot be used as a basis for saying it will not occur the next time around. This is because in society as much as in the relationship between states the averages of the past do not necessarily hold into the future. This is unlike natural phenomena where averages of the past as expressed in natural laws do hold into the future.
For example, take the law of gravity: if you had dropped an object and it fell to the ground yesterday, there is a high probability that it would fall again if you dropped it tomorrow. But in society, probability estimates which are essentially based on projecting the past into the future are not possible in principle. The pattern of social phenomena and human behaviour observed in the past can in the future be shattered by unique events or a combination of unique events.
As the preceding discussion argues, even a limited conventional conflict following a terrorist incident can quickly escalate to the nuclear threshold. It is vital, therefore, for the two countries supported by the world community to address the explosive structure of a situation that leads to repeated military confrontation.
Millions of citizens in both countries are mired in poverty, illiteracy and disease. Thousands of children are dying at birth every day; of those who survive birth, thousands die before they are five years old. Of the children who live beyond five years, millions are suffering from malnutrition, their bodies stunted, their brains dulled. Millions of children roam the streets and alleys, deprived of quality education, abandoned by society and state and living without hope. Instead of halting this massacre of innocents together, the two states are marching in lockstep to a nuclear catastrophe.
It is time for the leaderships of both India and Pakistan to reflect on the irrationality and inhumanity of using proxy wars or ‘surgical strikes’ as a means of achieving national security. The power of a nation lies not in following the course of mutual annihilation but pursuing the path of peace for the welfare of its citizens. The leaderships of the two countries should dip their cupped hands into their shared civilisational well-springs. Imbibe the sense of compassion and human solidarity to care for our children rather than killing them.

 
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Rubbing salt on the wounds:

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Aleem Faizee

Another assault on the people of Malegaon – this is how a shopkeeper in Malegaon reacted to the news of the BJP fielding Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur from Bhopal against Congress’ Digvijaya Singh in this Lok Sabha election.
It’s like rubbing salt on our wounds, another Malegaon resident said.
For the people in Malegaon, the announcement of Pragya Thakur’s candidature has brought back the ghastly memories of 29 September 2008, when the city was rocked by a bomb blast. Thakur is facing trial in the case.
On the night of the blast, it was about 9.40 pm and people were about to finish Salaat-ut-Taraweeh – special night prayers offered during the month of Ramadan – when they heard a loud sound of explosion. At first, they thought it could be a cylinder blast accident. But it soon emerged that it was a bomb blast.
The blast spot was just metres away from the Ladies Fashion Market at Anjuman Chowk where a huge crowd of women and children were busy shopping for Eid al Fitr. There was chaos near Bhikku Chowk – the site of the blast. People carried the bleeding victims, more than a hundred, to hospitals using whatever means they could find.
The blast claimed six lives. One of them was 5-year-old Farheen Shaikh who was out to buy some snacks and was on her way back home to have Ramadan dinner with her grandmother.
Among the injured was Abdullah Jamaluddin Ansari of Shakeel Transport. The 75-year-old man, during initial investigation, had said he had noticed the LML Freedom motorcycle, which was later traced to Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and led to her arrest, parked in front of his office since afternoon that day. He had also informed the police chowki, a stone’s throw away from the blast site, but claimed that no action was taken.
Javed Ansari, owner of a photocopier shop, was also injured in the Malegaon blast. It took him over three years to recover and resume work.
But for these blast victims, life has never been the same since that September night.
While Javed Ansari and the family of Farheen Shaikh left the locality after the blast, Shakeel Transport’s Abdullah Ansari died last year. Following the blast, Ansari often looked at the wall clock in his shop, which had stopped working at 9.37 pm – the time of the blast – and waited for justice.
One doesn’t know how he would have reacted to the news of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and contesting the Lok Sabha election.
By fielding Sadhvi Pragya, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants people to believe that she and other accused arrested in various blast cases were ‘framed in fabricated cases’ and that ‘saffron terror’ is a myth.
But while doing so the, BJP has undermined the fact that Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur still remains a key accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case. As per court papers, the first evidence that led to her arrest was the LML Freedom motorcycle that was registered in her name and was used to plant the bomb. There are also some audio tapes and visuals too. Based on these evidences, the Bombay trial court judge had observed that there was enough ground to establish Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur’s role in the blast.
Ironically, while nominating Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur as the party candidate, the BJP did not think about the kind of message this would send to all the world leaders with whom Narendra Modi has often taken up the issue of terrorism.
The people of Malegaon, who had been hearing about the pressure on some officers and public prosecutor Rohini Salian ‘to go soft’ in the case, have almost lost all hope of getting justice. Wife of Mumbai ATS chief Hemant Karkare – the officer who initially investigated the case – had turned down then-Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s monetary compensation after 26/11 attacks.
Therefore, the BJP’s decision to field Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur in this election is neither shocking nor surprising for most people in Malegaon. But it is painful, especially for the blast victims and their families.

 
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Majboot Sarkars Overrated?

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Amir

Prior to the 1990s, coalition governments in Indian politics were considered to be an aberration and not particularly desirable. The lack of coalitions in India was clearly tied to the one-party preponderance of the Congress. So, when the party sensed defeat in the 1989 Lok Sabha election, it tried to remind voters of how shambolic the 1977 Janata government had been.
The VP Singh-led National Front government formed in 1989 was perhaps the strangest political entity that people had witnessed in Indian politics. Propped up by the Left parties on one side, and the right-wing BJP that provided support with its 86 seats on the other – the government proved to be short lived.
The grand old party then supported the Chandrashekhar Singh government for four months, after which it decided to withdraw support and elections in 1991 brought back a Congress-led coalition government in the country. With that, the era of coalition politics was well and truly upon us.
Coalition governments were the new normal in Indian politics and would continue to be so until 2014, when the Narendra Modi-led government became the first in three decades since 1984, to win a clear majority.
In 1996, there was a short-lived Vajpayee-led BJP government for 13 days, followed by the rather soporific one led by HD Deve Gowda that lasted until 1997. After that, IK Gujral led the United Front coalition government that lasted from April 1997 to March 1998.
By then, the political scenario of the country was beginning to look a bit like a game of musical chairs. However, things stabilised with Atal Bihari Vajpayee returning in 1998, hanging on for a year and then getting re-elected in 1999 to finally last a whole term.
After that, with a full decade of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance leading the way, Indian politics developed a version of the two party system, rather, a two coalition system. Numerous political parties have coalesced around BJP and the Congress in the form of the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance, respectively.
Congress governments in coalition have brought about some of the most momentous and far-reaching changes. It was the Narasimha Rao-led government that introduced the economic reforms, which for better or worse, changed the country tremendously.
One simple indicator of the worth of coalitions is the fact that many thought that the UPA-I government was too hobbled by the presence of the Left, as it was a hindrance to the economic reforms associated with Congress governments since 1991.
The withdrawal of Left support, followed by the more emphatic victory that led to UPA-II in 2009, was supposed to bring in a more decisive and unfettered government. Yet, it is the UPA-I government that is remembered for the succession of rights-based legislation it introduced, while UPA II has come to be associated with crony capitalism.
Similarly, the NDA-I government of Vajpayee, with all of its coalition pulls and pressures ensured two things. First, the core and often contentious BJP issues, which are Article 370, Babri Masjid and Uniform Civil Code, were relegated to the back-burner.
Second, the Vajpayee-led BJP government could well and truly be said to have a fringe and a centre, with the fringe remaining where any fringe should belong.
However, the ruling BJP government of the day has once again brought the core contentious issues to the forefront. It has also ensured that the fringe encompasses the party uniformly, leaving no hint of nuance or differentiation.
What this suggests is that weaker coalitions may actually perform better. More importantly, coalitions are able to more naturally weave in the vital regional parties that act as breakwaters in the path of potentially elective despotism.
Are majority governments over-rated?
What have supposedly strong and stable majority governments been able to do? Have they taken decisive measures or brought about ‘big-ticket economic reforms’, untroubled by the petty pulls of coalition partners?
Take the 1984 Rajiv Gandhi government with its mammoth majority of above 400 hundred seats. In less than two years, it started playing communally divisive politics around the Babri Masjid and Shah Bano issues.
The Congress thought it was being cleverly even handed by dealing out both majority and minority communal cards. The drift in the Rajiv Gandhi government could be sensed right in the middle of its term when it lost badly in the Haryana assembly elections of 1987. It lost the hugely symbolic Allahabad by-election in 1988 to V.P. Singh, and the rest we are prone to saying, is history.
The question then is this: Could the supposed strength and stability provided by majority governments be overrated? What has the Modi government achieved on the back of its huge mandate? Has it squandered that majority much like the Rajiv Gandhi led government of 1984-89? Can Modi return to power? This has been a bit of a see-saw question.
When Modi’s government came to power with a huge landslide, or ‘tsunami’ if you will, conventional wisdom was that he was here to stay for at least two terms. The UP assembly elections in 2017 seemed to confirm this. After that, it has been more of a will he/won’t he guessing game. The jury is well and truly out on this one.

 
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