In Spain last month, hundreds of people protested against the sentence handed down by a court against the five young people of ‘La Manada’ or ‘the wolf pack’. People all over the Iberian Peninsula rejected the sentence of nine years in prison given to the five defendants for the crime of “continuous sexual abuse” of an 18-year-old girl in 2016.
The same month in Jammu, hundreds came out on the streets to defend the five accused who had raped and then killed eight-year-old Asifa Bano. The family members of the accused launched a hunger strike demanding that the investigation be done by the federal investigative agency, Central Bureau of Investigation, which comes under the BJP-led central government’s jurisdiction. Some of the staunchest defenders of the suspects in Asifa’s killing belonged to the ruling BJP which is also a coalition partner in the Indian-occupied state of Jammu & Kashmir; two were ministers in the state cabinet.
Asifa belonged to the Muslim nomadic Bakarwal community who loved to take horses for grazing to the forest near her home in Rasana, a quiet village in Kathua district of Indian-occupied Kashmir. The reason Asifa was picked as a target was simply to drive the Muslim community out by creating fear amongst them. She was kept in captivity inside a temple for four days where she was drugged and raped. Eventually, the temple custodian announced to his group that the time had come to kill the girl. But, before she was strangulated and her head hit twice with a stone to make sure she was dead. Before murdering her, two of the men also decided to rape the child once.
The accused include the temple custodian who is a retired government official, his son who was invited from another city to for this heinous crime, the official’s juvenile nephew and his close friend, and a special police officer. Three police officers have been charged with destroying evidence.
Asifa’s body was found in the forested foothill. Asifa’s mother recalls the horror she saw on her dead daughter’s body. “There were scars on her cheeks. Her lips had turned black and her eyes had bulged out. It was a scary scene for a mother to see. 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...what they can do with a 13-year-old”.
The villagers did not permit Asifa to be buried in their village. After the accused were caught, their relatives came to Asifa’s family to tell them that “if our men are given the death sentence, we will kill you one by one.” We don’t know what the outcome of the trial will be. But the female police official who led the investigation is constantly being threatened – as is the lawyer for Asifa’s family. Many Hindu majoritarian lawyers of Kathua regularly attempt to block police investigators and Asifa’s lawyer from entering the court premises.
The accused have definitely succeeded in scaring the Muslim Bakarwal community who are a poor nomadic tribe with a rudimentary lifestyle that earns a living out of herding goats, sheep and horses to mountainous pastures. The incident has instilled fear amongst them as they are unprotected during their lengthy migratory journeys.
Bakarwals tread across mountains during their biannual migrations from the meadows of Kashmir valley to the hilly forests of Jammu. Yusuf, 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 horror forced it earlier. There is a fear among all the Muslim families in Rasana and most of them have left now – too afraid to return home.
Yusuf says that in the village where Asifa was raped, killed and later not allowed to be buried, Hindu residents were always hostile towards their Muslim counterparts. Sometimes, they would object to horse-grazing by them, sometimes they would block their water supply. All the Muslims of the village, particularly the Bakarwal nomads, now fear for their daughters. Previously, their young girls would run after the horses, and were free to play outside but now their parents are very worried. No one there has seen anything as gruesome as Asifa’s rape and killing.
Life cannot get worse than this incident. But what is even sadder is the fact that during the initial weeks, the eight accused men found a crusading force of lawyers and ministers from the BJP in their support. These people insisted that the police investigators were Muslims and had a bias towards the accused – all of whom were Hindus. The rape took place in January this year; for the next three months, the rape and murder of Asifa seemed to be just another case of sexual violence and did not attract much attention. The public reacted in April when a 16-page charge sheet was presented by the crime branch in court; the charge sheet revealed details of the gruesome crime.
The BJP central government has yet to denounce the crime. Prime Minister Modi, who tweets after even minor incidents, kept mum for weeks until public uproar over his silence forced him to condemn the incident in a general fashion. The two BJP state ministers who had attended a rally in favour of the accused had to resign. But the duplicity continues as a member of the Kashmir Assembly who had attended the same rally has now been promoted as a minister. The deputy chief minister of Indian-occupied Kashmir says this is a minor incident. If this is minor, imagine what a major one would be like?
The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court. Email: ajjillani.org