Jammu Hindus support the accused in the rape and murder of a Muslim girl

Srinagar: The eight-year-old Asifa Bano of Hira Nagar-Kathua in Jammu region went missing on January 10 and was found dead, a week later. Her disfigured body was found on January 17 and her family alleged that she was kidnapped, raped and tortured before being killed. Born in a nomadic Bakerwal community, Asifa was kidnapped when she was herding horses.

Special Police Officer (SPO), Deepak Khajuria, posted at police station Hira Nagar, was arrested (February 9) for the rape and murder of the eight-year-old girl. Khajuria was part of a police team that had searched the area after the nomad family filed a missing report. The police had earlier said that Khajuria, along with an underage boy, raped and murderedAsifa after holding her captive for a week.It has also been reported that Khajuria had threatened his underage accomplice with the murder of his parents if he revealed his name. The case was later handed over to the Crime Branch and Special Investigation Team (SIT) of Crime Branch arrested one more accused, Surinder Kumar, in the case. Investigations in the case, however, revealed that the accused had drugged Asifa so that she would not cry for help.

Demanding justice for Asifa, scores of activists held a sit-in at the Press Enclave here on January 24. Holding placards the protestors raised slogans like “We Want Justice,” “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Nara Kahan Gaya” etc. The protest was jointly organized by J&K RTI Movement, Civil Society for Justice and Development, Gujjar-Bakerwal Foundation and Gujjar-Bakerwal Youth Conference. Expressing dismay over the silence adopted by the civil society of Kashmir, Dr Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, chairman J&K RTI Movement, said “the racist approach adopted by the civil society over the Kathua incident is unfortunate as it exhibits their partial activism.” Hindu Ekta Manch, on the other hand, took out a rally in Jammu on February 15threatening agitation in case SPO Khajuria was not released. The protesters said that they were against the murder of the minor nomad girl but they did not want their men to be framed.

While nomads in Rasana and Kootah in Kathua have reportedly claimed that they have become unsafe after the arrest of the SPO, the state government on January 20 transferred the Station House Officer (SHO) of Hira Nagar police station, ordered a magisterial probe. Three days later, the case was handed over to the Crime Branch.

Chief Minister Mehbooba Muftion February 16said that she was appalled by the protest in demand for release of the SPO arrested by police in connection withthe rape and murder of the minor girl. The Chief Minister, in a tweet, said that she was “horrified by the use of national flag by the protesters in Jammu. The accused has been arrested and law will follow its course.”Senior PDP leader and vice-chairman of Muslim Wakf Board, NizamuddinBhat(February 17)said both society and government should draw a lesson from the Kathua incident.“Some people took out a rally in support of those who are accused of rape and murder of the innocent child which shook the conscience of the society.” National Conference president for Jammu province Devender Rana(February 17)said that communalization and politicization of rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua was “deplorable and against civilized behavior”.Rana, in a statement, said the fringe elements should not be allowed to unleash communal agenda under the garb of ultra-nationalism.  “It is the moral duty of us all to ensure that poor Asifa gets justice to lie in peace in her grave. A criminal is a criminal and crime is a crimeand those evoking emotions and giving communal colour to the Kathua incident were committing a heinous crime against humanity, which cannot have religious sanction.”

Lashing out at a protest march by Hindu Ekta Manch in support of the SPO accused of raping and murdering Asifa, the joint separatist leadership comprising of the chairmen of both factions of Hurriyat Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and JKLF chief Mohammad Yasin Malik in a statement here on February 17 warned of an agitation if the “victimization of Jammu Muslims was not stopped.” They added that a rally by some Hindu chauvinists led by a BJP leader in support of a rapist and murderer of innocent eight-year-old Asifa, that too holding India’s tricolor and with full police protection is a glaring example of how the Indian ruling regime has fallen with regards to humanity and ethics. They added “no religion can allow such support for a rapist and killer. Instead of supporting a criminal, these people should have hit roads to demand an exemplary punishment for him but the animosity against Muslims and Kashmiris has fogged their eyes and minds so much so that these people with dead conscience came out displaying Indian flag in support of the very criminal.”

Even Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association (February 18) maintained that anyone who is accused of kidnapping a minor and thereafter raping and murdering the child, should be treated as a terrorist and awarded a death penalty. “Instead of taking out a procession in support of a criminal, the people, who were part of the protest march should have demanded that the investigation of the case be completed within the shortest possible time and the challan against the accused be filed before a fast track court and the proceedings of the case be conducted on day-to-day basis. Instead, the Hindu Ekta Manch took out a rally in support of the accused, in which a BJP as well as a Congress leader participated shamelessly.”

Furthermore, a statement issued by People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), February 18, said that a joint rally by Hindu Ekta Manch and BJP in Kathua on February 14 demanding release of SPO Khajuria has brought to the fore the blatant communal politics. While the Chief Minister has taken exception to the “desecration” of the national flag in the rally, National Conference has questioned the Chief Minister for allowing the march, the issues are much deeper and each of them deserves to be condemned in the strongest way possible, said the statement. The kidnapping, rape and murder of Asifa who belonged to the nomadic Bakarwal community went unnoticed for a week as her mutilated body was discoveredonly on January 17 and the facts of the aftermath show that the local police was indifferent to the family’s complaints which had started looking for the missing girl from the evening of January 10 but for nearly 48 hours there was no police investigation, added the statement. “Besides delaying the search operations, the police was also unsuccessful in finding her as her body was discovered in the Rassana forest area by locals. Yet, two days after the discovery and protests, the police arrested a minor boy and claimed that he had held her hostage in a cattle-shed in Rassana village and strangled her when she resisted rape. The police story was not plausible as it seemed impossible that the girl could have been held hostage for nearly a week without anyone noticing her cries. Quite clearly, the police was shielding the real perpetrators,” said PUDR in its statement.

The protests following the discovery of her body, especially in the Legislative Assembly, kept up the pressure and the SHO of Hira Nagar was suspended and a magisterial inquiry and SIT and Crime Branch investigations were ordered, the statement said, adding, “Subsequently, on February 9, the Crime Branch arrested SPO Khajuria who had participated in the search parties and had also handed over her body to the family. On 16th February, the Crime Branch arrested another SPO, Surinder Kumar. While there may be other arrests in the weeks to come, the present arrests are significant as the policemen are local SPOs and the arrests have roused passions of the Hindu community. Since the Bakarwals are a Muslim nomadic community, the protests have communalized the issue into one of ‘insider’ versus ‘outsider’. The findings of the Crime Branch show that the rape and murder was a well-planned move and that the motive was to spread fear among the Bakarwal community. Besides being the prime accused in the rape and murder of Asifa, SPO Khajuria threatened and even beat up protesting Bakarwals.”

The statement further added that there are over 29000 SPOs in the state who have been employed in the police department since 1995 to fight militancy. “While the creation of SPOs has provided employment to local youth, the history and experience of Chhattisgarh shows that hiring of SPOs is a well-established divisive tactic of the state—to arm civilians in the name of law and order. In the present instance, the Bakarwal community has been facing a backlash at the hands of the SPOs in collusion with the local Hindus and its access to water has been disrupted. Communalization of land and forest rights is deeply linked to the rape and murder of Asifa.” The statement added that in the Hindu majority area of Kathua, almost 90 percent of the land is custodian property (evacuee property which was created in the wake of Partition and which remained in the hands of a dedicated department created in 1949) and all of it is held by Hindus. “In recent years, under the sway of communal propaganda, Hindus have stopped selling their forest produce to the Bakarwals. So much so, they are preventing the Bakarwals from buying private land. Several Bakarwal families had bought land in neighbouring Kootah village but the Hindus refused to let the burial of Asifa take place there as they claimed that the land could not be used for burial or religious purposes.

These communal moves are in tandem with the recent attempts by the BJP to refuse the implementation of the 2006 Forest Act in the J&K state. For the first time, the BJP has refused the extension of a central legislation to the state claiming that there are enough safeguards for scheduled tribes! Quite clearly, the BJP does not wish to recognize the forest rights of the Muslim scheduled tribes such as the Bakarwals who are an economically, socially and educationally backward community. While the Bakarwals were granted the status of scheduled tribe in 1991, they stand deprived of their political rights as they lack political representation.”

The statement further concluded that the Hindu Ekta Manch rally in support of SPO Khajuria was allowed with the national flag, but Talib Hussain, a student, was arrested on January 21 from a protest demonstration organized by locals and students against the rape and murder.