At 3.30 pm on January 10, Asifa Bano, an eight year old Bakerwal girl left her home at Rassana in Kathua to graze horses in the nearby forest but didn’t return. A day later, her family registered a case but police couldn’t trace her. A week later, her disfigured and decomposed body was recovered. It turned out that she had been raped too. The father Mohammad Yusuf said the girl’s “lips had been bitten and there were marks of violence on her thighs and face”.
The crime shocked the entire state. Public clamour grew for the police to act and arrest the killer. Bakerwals, a nomadic community, held protests. The issue also rocked the then ongoing Assembly session. The government promised action and formed a Special Investigation Team to probe the case. Two days later, police arrested a 15 year old boy for the murder.
Minister for Revenue and Parliamentary Affairs, Abdul Rehman Veeri later informed the House that the accused had confessed to the crime. He said “the accused had kidnapped the minor girl and put her in nearby cowshed at village Rassana, where he attempted to rape her and when she resisted, he killed her by way of strangulation”.
The arrest soon assumed a communal colour. The BJP MLA of the area Deepak Sharma visited Rassana later and held deliberations with the people of the one community only. Senior BJP leaders maintained silence over the issue even while the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti summoned the family of the girl to her office and assured them of the government’s support.
The Bakerwals, however, were not convinced about the involvement of the boy in the rape and murder, arguing that it was not possible for him to restrict the girl to a cowshed for a week. Another breakthrough in the investigation followed on February 10 when police arrested a Special Police Officer (SPO) Deepak Khajuria for the crime. Ironically, Khajuria had been part of the police search team looking for the then missing Asifa. And he had also been a part of the police contingent deployed to break up the crowds protesting the rape and murder.
“Police official held for rape and murder of 8 year old girl in Kathua. It has shaken our soul forever. Kudos to IGP Mr (Alok) Puri for his professional and timely investigation,” tweeted the Deputy Commissioner Rajouri Dr Shahid Iqbal Choudhary,
But since then, the issue has increasingly been communalised. The BJP has jumped to the defence of Khajuria and framed the crime in terms of a battle between nationalists and anti-nationals. Rallies are being taken out in support of the accused, with people participating in them using the tricolour to press their demand for his release. This forced Mehbooba to tweet her disappointment.
“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,” Mehbooba wrote.
But this hasn’t changed her coalition partner’s behaviour.
“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,” the BJP’s Kathua district president P N Dogra told media while leading a protest. “The fault of the accused (Khajuria) is that he was trying to push back against anti-national elements and those shouting pro-Pakistan slogans. It is part of jihad”.
The protests demanding the release of Khajuria are being taken out under the banner of Hindu Ekta Manch which is headed by state BJP secretary Vijay Sharma.
What is more, even Congress has decided to support the accused. In the protest rally held on Friday at Ghagwal, Congress leaders like Girdhari Lal, a former legislator and Subash Chander, a former MLC were also present were also present beside the BJP leaders Kuldeep Raj, an MLA and Rashpaul Verma, vice-chairman of State Board for Development of Other Backward Classes.
This has generated anger in Kashmir Valley and also among large sections of population in Jammu.
“Support for the rape accused is the new high in ultra-nationalism,” wrote Anuradha Bhasin tweeted on the hashtag #Justiceforkathuarapeandmurder.
In Valley, the chairperson of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons Parveena Ahangar termed the rape and murder disgusting. “The rape of Asifa should disgust us all as a people. And at the same time it should wake us up from our slumber; we must ask questions as to why it happened and we should be initiating strong campaigns to build pressure on the state to arrest the perpetrators,” she said in a statement.
Far from becoming an issue which should have brought the people together across the political divide, the rape and murder of Asifa has become a fresh source of polarisation in J&K. Even the coalition partners the PDP and the BJP are not on the same page with Congress also supporting the BJP line.
“This is a tragedy. This means the rape and murder of a minor girl is no longer an issue. The arrest of the alleged perpetrators is,” says Talib Hussain, an activist who was earlier arrested by the police for protesting the crime. “The BJP is trying hard to communalise the issue and it has succeeded to a large extent. But our effort is to stop the polarization and put the focus back on investigation”.
He said he was due to speak on Sunday at a seminar in Jammu city organised by some Hindu organisations in support of the justice for Asifa. “So, there are efforts to salvage the situation. And we hope to succeed in this,” Hussain said.