Sanjay Kumar |
Despite the strong wind and rain, Rafeeza Begum tries to keep the wood fire burning in order to heat her tea. A small plastic tent, next to the open kitchen, is the only shelter available for her family in the unrelenting weather at Nathatop hilltop, some 200 kilometers away from Jammu, the summer capital of Kashmir. Begum and her family are on the move, and in a day or two, will go further up with their herds of sheep, horses, and cows. They plan to reach Leh and Ladakh, further up on the hill, by June.
This has been the life of the Bakarwal nomadic community for centuries. They are afoot for almost eight months a year, spending the few remaining months in Samba, their hometown. But this year the community, which is predominantly Muslim, started its journey a month earlier than usual.
The rape and murder of the eight-year-old daughter of Begum Asifa Bano, this January, has affected the whole nomadic community. The young girl, who used to live with her uncle’s family, disappeared on January 7th while grazing her horses at Hiranagar in the Kathua district – after a week, her dead body was found in a forest. According to the police report, she was drugged, raped and kept in a Hindu temple for seven days.
The Kathua rape and murder of the young girl Asifa, is as brutal as the Delhi incident of 2012. But the national outrage and the unity that was displayed six years ago is now nowhere to be seen.
In 2012, the whole of India erupted in turmoil when a paramedic girl was raped in the heart of Delhi. The anger of the people and the overwhelming political support it got forced the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to bring about drastic changes in the law – including a minimum 20-year sentence for anyone convicted of rape and death sentences in some cases and a speedy trial of all those accused.
The Kathua rape and murder of the young girl Asifa is as brutal as the Delhi incident of 2012. But the national outrage and the unity that was displayed six years ago is now nowhere to be seen. By contrast, the Asifa Bano case has polarized the whole nation and become a battleground for a new religious war in India.
After the discovery of the body, on January 17, the case was handed over to the Jammu and Kashmir crime branch, on protests from the nomadic community. Within a week, Hindu Ekta Manch (HEM) or Hindu Unity Forum came into existence in Jammu, to defend all eight accused, who happened to be Hindus. Two ministers of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), Chandra Prakash Ganga and Lal Singh, even participated in a rally organized by the HEM, in support of the arrested people.
However, in a scathing report, the investigative team squarely blamed Hindu radicals for their involvement in the case. It blames Sanji Ram for kidnapping, raping and killing the eight-year-old girl to teach the Bakharwal community a lesson, in order to drive them out of the Hindu ancestral grounds. It also blames two police officers, Deepak Khajuria and Surinder Kumar, for accepting a substantial bribe for disposing of the case. A temple in the Rasna village of Kathua, which was under the protection of the main accused, was used to commit the barbarity on the young girl, according to the report.
They have turned the case into a Muslim versus Hindu issue; with the local leaders and some of the national leaders supporting this narrative using the national flag, to give the impression that the attack on Hindus is related to the national pride.
The Hindu nationalists under the banner of the HEM, however, accuse the investigative team of bias, since it is led by a Muslim Police Officer. They have turned the case into a Muslim versus Hindu issue; with the local leaders and some of the national leaders supporting this narrative using the national flag, to give the impression that the attack on Hindus is related to the national pride.
Hindu rallies for Rapist finally wakes up the Nation
The flashpoint came in the first week of April when the Jammu bar association attempted to stop the police when they were filing the charge sheet against the eight accused. The Kathua rape incident’s inability to attract the country’s consciousness took a turn and finally became national news only when Hindu nationalists started a rally in support of the alleged rapists in the first week of March.
Scathing criticism of the BJP was expressed on the media for its open support of the accused in the name of nationalism. The involvement of the two-state ministers, part of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and their defense of rape as a political tool is what finally agitated the national consciousness. The complete silence of the BJP central leadership over the matter came to be questioned.
The media started questioning the Prime Minister’s pet slogan – “beti bachao beti padhao” (Save daughter, educate daughter) – and his 2014 election promise of creating a safe environment for girls in India. The social media began questioning the duplicity showed by the Modi regime, in dealing with rape cases. Some said that the situation has become so serious, that girls need to be saved from the BJP itself. A group of retired civil servants issued a strong statement, calling the silence of political leadership on the rape case, the “darkest hour” in the nation’s history; they were also heard saying, “we see no light at the end of the tunnel and we hang our heads in shame”.
A small plastic tent, next to the open kitchen, is the only shelter available for her family in the unrelenting weather at Nathatop hilltop, some 200 kilometers away from Jammu, the summer capital of Kashmir.
A section of Bollywood took over the streets demanding justice. Unlike the civil society in Jammu, the civil society in Delhi and other parts of the country rose in revolt against the government for communalizing the rape issue and denying justice to the young girl.
Questions were raised about the silence from the Congress party – the main opposition in India. Further media probing revealed the presence of local Congress leaders in the rally organized by the HEM. After sensing the national outrage, Indian National Congress President, Rahul Gandhi, released a strong tweet saying “how can anyone protect the culprits of such evil? What happened to Asifa at Kathua is a crime against humanity. It cannot go unpunished.
What have we become if we allow politics to interfere with such unimaginable brutality perpetrated on an innocent child?”. He also led a midnight rally in the national capital to support Asifa. Gandhi obviously wanted to take advantage of the national angst and create a political mood in the country similar to the one in 2012, after the Delhi rape case led to his party being thrown out of power. Finally, the growing political and social anger also compelled Modi to react when he talked about “justice to Asifa and the rape should not be politicized”.
India got international attention for another rape case but the display of outrage was not only limited to India but also at the international front. The Kathua rage followed the Indian PM to London, where he went to meet the Commonwealth heads of states. Indian community members, came out in large numbers, holding placards, to protest against the BJP government. During a choreographed public interaction in London, he was asked a question on Kathua, his response convinced no-one.
The involvement of the two-state ministers, part of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and their defense of rape as a political tool is what finally agitated the national consciousness.
The International Monetary Fund Chief, Christine Lagarde also reacted by saying, “What has happened (in India) is just revolting. I would hope that the Indian authorities, starting with Prime Minister Modi, pay more attention because it is needed for the women of India”, she said in Washington.
Read more: India, Asifa and the UN
The delayed response by the PM was seen as an unsatisfactory and half-hearted political gesture. After his reaction, the two BJP ministers of the Jammu and Kashmir cabinet – who had attended the pro-Hindu rapist rally – was forced to resign. However, the BJP’s duplicity came to the fore when only a couple of weeks later – in a recent reshuffle of the cabinet in the valley; Kavinder Gupta, one of the participants in the HEM rally in support of the alleged rapists, was made the Deputy Chief Minister of the state.
In his first media interaction after assuming the office, he termed the Kathua incident as a “small incident” being blown out of proportion. The BJP also supports the demand of the accused rapists that the case is handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the federal investigative agency, which is under the BJP regime.
The Modi government uses the CBI as a tool, not only to suppress the opposition’s voice but also to dilute cases against its own leaders. By demanding the CBI probe, the Hindu nationalists not only hope to weaken the case but also to legitimize their own government in Kashmir – where it is a coalition partner in the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s regime.
A large section of the Indian people hoped that Modi came as a changed man in 2014 and meant business when he talked about development. Four years down the line, that great hope lies betrayed.
Kathua case: a reflection of widening Hindu-Muslim fault lines
The Kathua episode has further widened the Hindu-Muslim fault line in Kashmir. The general silence of Hindus in Jammu on this blatant communalization of the rape issue demonstrates tacit support to divide Kashmir in the name of religion. It is a larger design to accentuate communal rifts in the state. For centuries, Bakarwal and Gujjar nomads have drifted with their herds across the plains and hills of Jammu and Kashmir and leased Hindu farmlands for the grazing of their livestock.
Read more: Crimes against Women plague India
But in recent years, a concerted campaign has been waged to depopulate Kathua and adjoining areas of the Muslim nomads. Villagers tell us, how the main accused in the rape case, Sanji Ram, has been a ringleader in the oust-Muslim campaign. This widening of the fault line is also in play at the national level. A systematic attempt is being made by the Modi regime, to sideline the larger Muslim population in India, take them out of the national discourse and to dehumanize them.
The ‘Love Jihad’ campaign, ban on beef and the negligible presence of Muslims at the government and administration level – all demonstrate a systematic plan to reduce Muslims to second-class citizens in the country, even, the new history textbooks being released by the government, put Muslims at the margin of Indian history.
Modi has never been a votary of secularism, neither as Chief Minister of Gujarat or Prime Minister of India. He built his political edifice in Gujarat on the dead bodies of Muslims, who were the real victims of the Gujarat riots in 2002 – which his administration is alleged to have promoted and patronized. A large section of the Indian people hoped that Modi came as a changed man in 2014 and meant business when he talked about development. Four years down the line, that great hope lies betrayed. Inter-religious harmony has never been as non-existent in the post-Independence India, as it is today.
Muslims, the largest minority of India, have never been driven to feel so unwanted in this country. Four years of the Modi regime has put the whole community under siege. The Kathua rape and murder of a nomadic girl is not just a local event but part of a larger project of the Hindu nationalist government to undermine the existence of Muslims in India. It is the face of a violent Hindu majority that the BJP government in Delhi has been promoting ever since Modi has assumed office in 2014.
Sanjay Kumar is a New Delhi based journalist covering national and international politics with special focus on South Asia. He has been associated with ANI TV, the German public broadcaster, ARD First German TV, The Diplomat, Express Tribune and Dawn and has appeared on TV in Pakistan. He has extensively traveled in different conflict zones in the region, with Afghanistan being his special area of interest.