Political and communal divide in Jammu and Kashmir has assumed such proportions that even the horrifying rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl is not bringing society together, writes Athar Parvaiz.
On February 23, Sheetal Nanda, the deputy commissioner of Samba in Jammu province of mountainous state of Jammu and Kashmir, issued an order asking all district officials to make sure that every employee in the district has the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao ringtone installed in their mobile phones.
Nanda’s order was in tune with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheme which he launched on January 22, 2015, to address the issue of declining child sex ratio across India.
As per the 2011 census, the child sex ratio in India is 918 females for every 1000 males. Samba (with just 779 females per 1000 males, according to the 2011 census) is one of the worst 100 districts across India which were initially targeted under the scheme. And Samba also belongs to a state (Jammu & Kashmir) which, as per 2011 census, has the worst child sex ratio (892) along with Delhi (871), Chandigarh (880) and Haryana (834).
But, the order issued by Nanda has been circulated in Samba at a time when protests and public outrage over the rape and barbaric murder of an eight-year-old tribal girl, Asifa, in the adjacent Kathua district was simmering. Kathua’s child sex ratio of 890 females per 1000 males is again way lower than the all-India average.
People in Kashmir region, and Muslims -- particularly those from the tribal Barkerwal community -- living in parts of Jammu province have been demanding exemplary punishment for her rapists and murderers.
The issue was also raised vehemently in the recently concluded budget session of Jammu and Kashmir assembly by opposition National Conference and was supported by Peoples Democratic Party members of the house overtly and implicitly while BJP members sought to counter it by raising slogans against Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists over the issue of firing on Line of Control and borders.
Rape, murder and murky politics
Asifa had gone missing on January 10, 2018, while she was out to graze horses in a nearby forest in Rassana area of Kathua district. Her body, which according to her family and witnesses was bruised and disfigured, was recovered a week later from the vicinity.
Ever since, the issue has been shrouded in murky politics and been hugely communalised. The latest controversy has been created with two senior BJP leaders from Jammu, Chander Prakash Ganga and Chowdhary Lal Singh, participating in a rally organised by a right wing group, Hindu Ekta Manch, on March 1, 2018, in support of the demand that investigation into rape and murder of the eight-year-old should be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
The two senior BJP leaders participated in the rally a week after minister of state in the prime minister’s office, Jitendra Singh, on February 22 had said that there was no harm in handing over the case to CBI “if people feel that they don’t have faith in the police or crime branch investigation.” By people, he essentially meant people from the majority community in Jammu province.
Civil society groups, especially in Kashmir which has a Muslim majority, have expressed serious concerns about the purported plans to hand over the case to the CBI. Civil society groups, academics, Kashmiri politicians and traders believe that an attempt is being made to prolong and prejudice the process of investigation by handing it over to CBI.
On February 24, trade unions from Kashmir warned against handing over the probe to the CBI and demanded that a transparent probe should be conducted by local agencies only.
It also evoked reaction from former chief minister and NC’s working president, Omar Abdullah, who targeted chief minister Mehbooba Mufti in a tweet which read: ‘The case is being handled by the J&K police. If @MehboobaMufti agrees to hand the case over to the CBI it will be another instalment in the price she’s paying to remain CM.’
Earlier, soon after the rape and subsequent murder of Asifa came to the fore, a BJP leader from Jammu, Deepak Sharma, had travelled to Bassana where he, as per media reports, held talks with members from the majority community.
Later, when the police arrested the main accused, Deepak Khajuria, a special police officer, some BJP and Congress members from Jammu region were seen supporting and participating in public rallies against the arrest.
While protesting under the banner of Hindu Ekta Manch, BJP’s district president of Kathua, P N Dogra was quoted by media as saying: “We are protesting because an injustice is being done by the government. And this is being done because our area, the area of Kathua, is inhabited by nationalist people. So, the attempt is to subdue us.”
Dogra’s views evoked serious concerns even from outside Kashmir. Aditya Menon, a Delhi-based journalist sent out a hard-hitting tweet on February 15, which was later re-tweeted by Omar Abdullah and many other Kashmiri politicians: ‘Hindu Ekta Manch threatens agitation if SPO Deepak Khajuria, the main accused in the rape of 8 year old girl Asifa, isn't released. It seems that for Hindu Ekta Manch, raping a minor girl is not a crime if she is Muslim. Monsters.’
‘PDP will pull out’
Leaders of the BJP’s coalition partner, PDP, largely remained silent in the beginning about the communal statements from BJP members like Dogra triggering accusations from the National Conference that the PDP was not doing enough for providing justice to the victim’s family because it “doesn’t want to offend” its coalition partner.
Such views were openly expressed by senior PDP leaders on March 3, 2018 when a senior leader of the party, Syed Altaf Bukhari, who is also the education minister in the coalition government, threatened that PDP will pull out of the coalition with BJP if the government fails to deliver justice. “I am a custodian of children of Jammu Kashmir and let me assure you that we will take this case to logical end. We won’t spare the culprits no matter who is with whom,” he told reporters in Srinagar.
PDP stalwart Naeem Akhtar said that those “who are today questioning the integrity of Jammu and Kashmir police and demand that the investigation should be carried out by CBI, make a beeline to offer tributes when a policeman sacrifices his life while fighting for peace.”
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s tweet on February 16 wherein she had straightaway termed the prime accused as a rapist, could do little to assuage concerns about a fair investigation into the case as no PDP leader later spoke explicitly on the issue which has polarised the state.
‘Appalled by the marches & protests in defense of the recently apprehended rapist in Kathua. Also horrified by their use of our national flag in these demonstrations, this is nothing short of desecration. The accused has been arrested & the law will follow its course,’ Mufti had tweeted.
On March 4, she again took to the microblogging website in an apparent reaction to intensified polarisation in the state over the issue minor’s rape and murder. ‘Some people are trying to communalise the Kathua incident & vitiate the peaceful atmosphere but i have full faith that the people of Jammu will not allow them to succeed. Justice will prevail,’ she wrote.
A worried minority
The members of the minority Muslim community in Jammu have expressed serious concerns about the communalisation of the rape and murder of Asifa. “It is such a pity that rape and murder of a minor girl is not a concern for some people. They are rather concerned about the arrest of a person who is allegedly involved in it,” said Talib Hussain, an activist who had been arrested by the police when the protests were being held after Asifa’s body was found.
Javid Rahi, a researcher on tribal affairs, said that what is happening in Jammu now, especially against the backdrop of Asifa’s rape and murder, is in keeping with the communal and political situation in the region which has evolved over the past few years.
“It started in 2008 [when protests were held both in Kashmir and Jammu regions over the Amarnath shrine land row] and worsened further in 2010 and the years that followed,” Rahi said.
“But in the past three years, the situation has almost gone out of control as the hardliner groups have got quite encouraged. We have not only people from a particular community, especially Gujjars, being harassed by groups like gau rakhshaks, but a 70-year-old man was even killed by such people last year,” Rahi said.