Warning: This story contains mention of descriptions of rape, torture, and murder.
8-year old Asifa Bano was out grazing horses in a field near her home, when a man beckoned her into the woods.
He led her deeper into the forest, away from her people, and seeing the window of opportunity, forced sleeping pills down her throat. The man and his friend then dragged Asifa into a nearby temple and locked her inside. For the next three days, the two men, and at least one other man, repeatedly raped 8-year old Asifa, before finally strangling her.
Looking past the atrocity of the crime itself for a very, very brief moment—however hard it may be—one might wonder what the motive behind the crime may be. What investigations have revealed, however, is more chilling: the perpetrators wanted Asifa’s nomadic community, The Bakarwals, to leave the area, and thus chose to terrorize them into doing so by gang-raping a child.
India has always been a communally volatile state—ever since the country split into two in 1947, there have been skirmishes between the majority Hindu population and the minority Muslim communities. The brutal gang-rape and murder of eight-year old Asifa, however, exposes such fault lines in the country’s makeup as have never been addressed before.
The Case in detail
In the case charge sheet published by the Indian news site Firstpost, evidence shows that Asifa was detained, drugged, “raped for days, tortured, and then finally murdered.” Her mother, in a statement, further elaborated on the condition her daughter’s body had been found in: “Her legs had been broken. Her nails had turned black and there were blue and red marks on her arm and fingers.” She was also hit on the head twice with a stone.
Six days after the body was found, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti ordered a probe into the incident, which revealed that the crime had been planned by a retired government official, Sanji Ram, with the help of police officers Surender Verma, Anand Dutta, Tilak Raj and Mr Khajuria. Ram's son, Vishal, his nephew, a juvenile, and his friend, Parvesh Kumar, are also included on the list of the accused.
Investigators have also alleged that the police officers help cover up the crime by washing Asifa’s blood-stained clothes before sending them to the forensic lab. Initial probes have also revealed that the police was uncooperative with the parents when the couple went to a lodge a complaint about their daughter having gone missing: one of the officers, Asifa’s father alleges, suggested that she must have “eloped” with a boy.
Since news of the spread, the radicalized region of Kashmir has been divided along the lines of religion, turning the area into a battleground—all of the accused arrested in the case are Hindu, while the victim and her family are Muslims. Hindu nationalists have come to the defense of the accused—this week, a mob of lawyers physically blocked the courthouse to prevent the police from filing the chargesheet. In another protest, Hindu women shut down a highway and threatened to go on a hunger strike until the accused were released.
The family and the Bakarwals allege that the primary motive behind the crime was to terrorize the community into leaving Jammu. For years, the community, comprised mostly of shepherds, has been leasing land from Hindus for pasturing. In recent years, the same has to conflicts between the two communities—Ankur Sharma, a lawyers who protested on behalf of the accused, told the BBC that the Gujjars were trying to alter the demographics of Jammu.
News of the crime has drawn criticism from prominent personalities in India, with jabs mostly aimed at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the right-wing party in power, and their prolonged silence, which some assume to be support of the accused. This week, two minister affiliated to the BJP resigned from their posts after being criticized for attending a rally in support of the accused, thus politicizing the matter even further. The BJP has, in the past, also been criticized for being increasingly Hindu-centric and aggressively nationalist.
Where does Kashmir Fit Into All Of This?
Jammu and Kashmir, India’s northernmost state, has long been a point of contention between India, Pakistan, and China. Known as the world’s most militarized zone, 43% of the state is controlled by India, 37% by Pakistan, and 20% by China.
During the British Raj in India, Kashmir, a princely state (i.e. under a monarch’s rule) was an anomaly: it was a majority Muslim state (77% of the population registered as Muslim) with a Hindu ruler. As the Indian war of Independence was coming to a successful end and the British drew up plans to divide the country into two, all princely states in India were given two choices: they could accede either to the Dominion of India or to that of Pakistan.
Since the population was majorly Muslim, erstwhile politicians anticipated that the Maharaja would yield to the majority and join Pakistan when the British rule finally ended on August 15th, 1947. However, when the king hesitated, Pakistani forces attacked the state, meaning the frighten the ruler into joining Pakistan.
The king then appealed to Lord Mountbatten—the uncle of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh—who was overseeing the transfer of power. Mountbatten agreed to help the king on one condition: he needed assurance that the state would accede to India. When the king agreed, Indian forces entered Kashmir and drove the Pakistani elements to a small part of the state.
Following the incident, the UN was called upon to dissolve the quarrel between the two nations—the peacekeeping body insisted that the people of Kashmir deserved a say in deciding which state they wanted to join. The referendum, however, never happened. Since then, Kashmir has been the battleground for three major wars between India and Pakistan, minor wars with China, and ongoing civil unrest owing to the fact that the southern part of the state is majorly Hindu, while the northern mostly Muslim.