The rape and murder of Asifa Bano contains within it the story of Kashmir's marginalised communities.

On January 10, Asifa Bano, an eight year old Muslim girl from the Bakerwal community was abducted from Rasana village in Jammu and Kashmir. It was later found that she had been drugged, tortured and raped while in captivity before being murdered.

The crime was followed by a destruction of evidence during initial investigations, the politicisation of the the issue by turning it into a communal issue, pressure from right-wing legislators to hush up the case, and the overt harassment of the victim's community by parts of the Hindu majority in the Jammu region.

The crime has to be seen through three prisms which form the corresponding identities of the minor girl. In addition to a violation of the girl's human rights it was the triple identity of Asifa which was raped and murdered. All three identities; tribal, religious and regional - demand separate discussions.

Marginalised tribal identity

The Gujjar, Bakerwal and Pahari are marginalised ethnic communities in the state. The J&K state administration has accorded Gujjar and Bakerwal communities the status of Scheduled Tribes in 1991. They live in all three regions of the J&K state; Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, and form the bulk of the population in Jammu province.

These communities have had a significant contribution to the political struggle of demanding self-determination from India. 

The pioneering figure, Choudhary Ghulam Abbas, ably supported by many members of these communities, headed the Muslim Conference, one of the first political organisations to resist the autocratic Dogra regime prior to the 1947 partition of British India.

These communities, as they live on the geographical fringes, have been on the receiving end of state-sponsored violence in the Jammu region and northern parts of Kashmir Valley near the Line of Control. They live a nomadic lifestyle and pose less of a political threat, comparatively, to state power as long as a satisfactory supply of their basic amenities is ensured.

To avoid collective mobilisation of these communities, the state has successfully managed to  secure for them basic facilities like water, electricity, roads and more importantly, jobs in the public sector.

Diverting their energies towards other issues, the state has ignited a conflict among these different tribes so that a collective tribal uprising alongside their Kashmiri compatriots – based on the lines of a common demand for self-determination – is prevented.

The animosity created between Gujjars and Paharis wherein the latter want a Scheduled Tribe status, but the former oppose such a move for Paharis, is the result of such a divisive politics state plays.

Moreover India's Forest Rights Act, which grants the tribal people rights to use forest land and products, has not been extended to J&K as the right-wing parties have always opposed this move. 

The result is a dispossession of tribals of their land. In 2017, 250 Gujjar families were evicted from over half a million square meters of land, prompting widespread outrage from the community.

Regional identity 

Considering Jammu as a regional unit of the politically disputed state of J&K, most of the districts have historically been proactive in demanding self-determination. Doda, Bhaderwah, Kishtwar have witnessed enough violence during the conflict. Kishtwar had the state’'s first non-Muslim militants waging arms against the Indian state. Poonch and Rajouri were the first launch-pads of armed struggle against the Dogra king as early as 1948, which then continued against the Indian state as well.

The anti-India history of the Jammu region has surprisingly turned into a “pro-India” present. This massive transition is a cause of concern and equally a subject of study that needs a granular analysis.

Some of the reasons include an intricate counterinsurgency network employed by the state to counter dissent. Rather than fighting the war through its own soldiers, the state armed members of the community and made them fight against their own. 

These armed mercenaries were organised in groups known as Village Defence Committees and counterinsurgency succeeded due to their unbridled power.

The leadership of the resistance — largely based in the Kashmir Valley — has also been unable to tap into the different regions of the state as they are mostly under house arrest. They also lack manpower in remote regions.

Zafar Choudhary, author of "Kashmir Conflict and the Muslims of Jammu", summarised the plight of Jammu Muslims well:

“"The Geelanis have regrets that the Jammu Muslim is not a part of the Kashmir movement as much as the Kashmiri Muslim is. The Khajurias have a grouse that their Muslim neighbours are not as much Indians as they are. This is exactly where the fault lies. Both have a poor idea of the sentiments of Jammu Muslims".

The administration in the region employed “militarised humanitarianism” under the guise of welfare schemes, and simultaneously militarised every facet of social and political life in the region. 

A similar tactic worked in favour of the state in Ladakh during the Kargil war of 1999 as narrated by Mona Bhan in her ethnographic account of the region. The state provides people with jobs in the army –to fight its own people, and the Village Defense Committees serve as a perfect example of this.

Religious minority

Muslims form the majority in Jammu and Kashmir as a whole. In Jammu itself, Muslims were the majority until the events of 1947 changed the demographics altogether. 

The dubious accession of Kashmir to India, and backed by military force, was only to ascertain a sort of legitimacy to the claims of India being a secular polity.

When it comes to the Muslim identity within the Jammu region, we are reminded of the Jammu massacre of 1947 which altered the demographics of the region – from 37 percent in 1941 to 10 percent Muslim in 1961, in Jammu district alone.

The massacre executed by Hindu extremists imported from Punjab and Dogra'ss forces — both of whom were supervised by the Dogra ruler himself — was a  strategy, or conspiracy, against Muslim assertion in the state which favoured and could have led to a merger with Pakistan.

The pain of those events has not been extinguished, and the xenophobic sentiment towards non-Hindu communities has not died down.

Pertinently, a BJP leader in Jammu openly threatened and "reminded" Muslims of the treatment of 1947” in a 2016 rally, thereby implying that such an event can be repeated and it won’t take much for a repeat performance.

The successful intrusion of the Bharatiya Janata Party in J&K’s mainstream political arena was made possible due to flourishing Hindu nationalist politics.

Moreover the fragmentation of existing political units to carve out new constituencies in Hindu majority areas provided the BJP with ready made vote banks. As a consequence, it won 25 out of a total 87 seats in the state assembly, and formed a coalition government with the People's Democratic Party - a chief proxy of the Indian state in Kashmir.

In a nutshell, the situation for Muslims in Jammu province and Jammu city in particular continues to remain precarious. They live on the cusp of imminent danger anytime the Kashmir Valley erupts in protest or a terror attack happens in India. 

This fragility was on show in 2008 and 2010 when Jammu Hindus enforced an economic blockade by stopping the entry of essential necessities into the Valley.

The case of Asifa

Back to the case, it should now be understood that a Bakerwal, Muslim, Jammu & Kashmiri minor girl was raped and murdered.

The man who committed the crime had no doubt aimed to– threaten an entire community by assaulting its "girl-child".

The recovery of the murdered girl ignited protests by the community and all over the region. The protests were spearheaded by Talib Hussain, a young lawyer and activist, who heads the All Tribal Coordination Committee which seeks to lobby for justice on behalf of marginalised tribes.

On January 21, during one such protest, Talib Hussain was arrested by police for demanding a fair investigation because he already found a local BJP politician trying to shield the accused. According to Talib, the administration at the behest of the government confused people by spreading misinformation in order to politicise and communalise the issue.

The protests following the crime should, and would in democratic places, have been in favour of severe punishment for the accused but in territories administered by India in the 21st century, such an act was followed by a Hindu Ekta Manch rally to protest against the arrest of the accused policeman.

This NGO, which includes BJP legislators, is an amalgamation of right-wing Hindus who feel insecure by the presence of non-Hindu communities. It also called for a "social boycott" of the Gujjar-Bakarwal community. Their protests have intensified to the point of hunger strikes, calling for transfer of the case to India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the release of many of those arrested.

As many as seven people have been arrested so far which also include the alleged mastermind Sanji Ram, a former revenue official, who is believed to have engineered the whole crime, as well as his son Vishal. A sub-inspector, head constable and two special police officers have also been arrested for destroying prima facie evidence during the initial stages of investigation. 

While Sanji Ram was at the forefront of the Hindu Ekta Manch protests in favour of the accused, the involvement of the police reflects the deeper nexus between the majority community and the Indian state's support.

A shocker as it would appear to many, it allows us a sneak peek into the socio-political environment during Narendra Modi’'s reign where people (non-Hindus to be precise) have been lynched, burnt or shot to death for eating beef, slaughtering cows, opposing statist coercion, or for as absurd a reason as indulging in inter-religious romantic relationships.

J&K serves as a playground of power for the Indian state where women in the twin villages of Kunan Poshpora, in the northern part of  the Kashmir valley, were mass-raped by Indian armed forces in 1994. Forget about outrage, the Indian state till date has not even acknowledged that the army perpetrated this mass rape.

This intractable conflict has torn apart the social fabric of marginalised groups, who tend suffer even in the best of democracies.

India's shift

One major shift in India has been that the individual now indulges in what used to be the territory of lynch mobs. 

This has been made possible because under Narendra Modi’'s government, the party that used to facilitate the activities of right-wing riot groups, is now in power. This naturally has led to greater immunity for criminals.

The addition of the already existing culture of impunity allowed by a law like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act makes J&K a safe haven for perpetrators of injustice.

The institution of state leaves no one outside its radar. The tribes in discussion here, apparently concerned with their daily bread and butter, are deeply politicised by the state and used as vote banks. They also form the battleground where the sham of the state's electoral politics is enacted.

Across the length and breadth of J&K, rape has been used as a weapon of war, as reported by Humans Rights Watch. 

The scholar Seema Kazi opines that rape functions as a tool of subordinating the Kashmiri community at large. She also says that it is used to demoralise the Kashmiri resistance and that there have been documented cases of soldiers confessing that they were ordered to rape women. 

Journalist Freny Manecksha says that due to their remote locations, marginalised communities are even more vulnerable to sexual violence.

The sexual abuse of Asifa shapes not just her own but her community's future for years to come. The community is bound to live in fear and that was the essential message, and motive, – of this crime.

Moving forward

The Indian judiciary has time and again failed in providing justice, not just to the marginalised, but across the board. The problem is not that it is incompetent but rather that it is not willing to override the collective conscience of its majority which is desperate to implement a Uniform Civil Code throughout the country and considers J&K as an integral part of its country, held by military might. Therefore, any expectations from them should finally be put to rest.

Second, the Indian National Congress Party is not as "liberal" as made out to be. This is the golden rule for understanding Indian politics. Congress is a covertly fascist party while the BJP is an overtly fascist one. In an era of Trumps and Modis, the Obamas appear as the epitome of liberal-moral politics.

Third, the death penalty is not the solution to this problem, and for the people of J&K in particular. The decimation of an authoritarian polity which allows the violation of political and human rights is the only and ultimate resolution that can create, and sustain, peace in J&K and also South Asia. All concerned movements should channel their resources towards this goal.

The resistance leadership based in Kashmir needs to strengthen its camaraderie with like-minded populations in the state and widen the circle of the liberation movement as much as possible.

The deliberate denial and a tacit nod of the Indian state to brush off cases like Asifa's, while trampling on the rights of Muslims and Kashmiris, is fast becoming the heart and soul of the Indian state.

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