It was early afternoon when Asifa Bano had come back home from the nearby forests along with two horses of the family. Impatience grew in the chirpy seven-year-old, eager to play with children of Rasana from where she had just returned. After a quick lunch, she rushed towards the cluster of houses in that village. Asifa’s mother, Naseema Bibi, paid no attention—for, that was “routine” outing.
But then, Asifa didn’t return late into that evening. By 5.30 pm, Naseema got a little worried. She got out of her two-room house, walked down a cleared stretch of the rugged forest and began inquiring about Asifa. All were clueless about the girl. Finally, one woman informed her that she had seen Asifa, distinctly fair and brown-eyed, play with other children near her house.
Naseema started panicking and alerted her husband and other relatives. The entire team of tribal Gujjars joined in their search for Asifa deep into midnight. Subsequently, they filed a police report. Easy-going as usual, two special police officers (SPOs) began a leisurely search for the girl, along with her family. The prime suspect, as it turned out dramatically, was one of the cops who was put in charge of the initial search along that belt of Kathua district of Jammu, which continued for next seven days. That was SPO Deepak Khajuria, 28.
In hindsight, Asifa’s family notes that Khajuria behaved particularly strangely with the family. “Every patch of the jungle was searched, except the houses and cowsheds of this small Rasana hamlet,” says Ali Jan, uncle of the girl.
On January 17, a shepherd rushed towards Asifa’s family to break some news. As he reached the house, the Hindu youngster could not muster the courage to say anything. He ran back and made a telephone call to Asifa’s father, informing that her body was lying in the bushes of the forest, barely half a km from their lowly house and 200 meters from that of a minor who was first arrested in the case. The spot, the family was to soon realise, was one where they, along with the police and a few residents of Rasana, had passed through several times in the recent past in the peak of this winter.
“Asifa’s body was bruised. She had bite-marks on her lips, while the nails of her hand had turned black,” Naseema narrates. “Her bones of the arm and thigh seemed to have been cracked.” The woman who performed the final ritual bath to Asifa confirmed that her genitals had been brutally mutilated.
After post-mortem, when Asifa’s body was brought to a nearby village, a group of youths disallowed her burial in the graveyard owned by Asifa’s family and relatives. They belonged to the Hindu right-wing—and threatened of communal clashes if she was buried there, according to the local All Tribal Coordination Committee (ATCC). “They came up with tridents, didn’t allow the family to bury Asifa in the graveyard,” says Nazakat Khatana, vice-chairman of the body.
The girl was later buried eight km away, in another village. “Not allowing to bury her in the ancestral graveyard conveyed the message that the tribal’s Gujjars have no rights in the village or on their own land,” says Khatana. “They actually want to drive all the nomads away from Hiranagar-Kathua belt.”
Most of the print and electronic media in Jammu remained silent on the issue. At the J&K assembly that was on, some Opposition legislators flagged the matter. That was when the police swung into action and arrested a minor who lived in Rasana at his uncle’s house. The BJP legislator from Hiragana and fellow MLAs from the party (in the ruling coalition) remained silent. At this, tribal activist-lawyer Talib Hussain, who is ATCC chairman, upped the protest. He was arrested and released after two days. The police threatened to slap a case under the Public Safety Act, but Talib was released after Gujjars expressed anger over his arrest.
Public outcry grew louder, forcing the government to shift the case to the Crime Branch (CB), which is now investigating the case. Its sleuths arrested Khajuria, who is believed to be directly involved in the abduction, rape and murder of Asifa. According to police sources, he told investigators that his idea was to instil fear among the nomadic Bakerwals and prompt them to leave the place (even as the community has always been pro-India). The CB later arrested another SPO, Surinder Kumar, of Satoora Kathua. According to CB sources, the accused had held the girl captive for a whole week before murdering her.
Amid these, on February 14, a group of right-wingers, believed to be affiliated to the BJP, took out a march. That rally by the Hindu Ekta Manch also saw the participation of a few Congress leaders. Some, carrying the tricolour, sought the release of Khajuria. The news shocked the chief minister. In a tweet, Mehbooba Mufti said she was “horrified” also “by their use of our national flag in these demonstrations, this is nothing short of desecration.” The accused has been arrested and the law will follow its course, she added. A day later, she refused to meet the Manch activists.
Their leader, Vijay Sharma, who is also state committee member of the BJP, avers that the rally was for peace. “It was not to support any criminal; we want justice for Asifa,” he tells Outlook. “All we want is that no innocent should be booked in the case and the CBI should inquire it.” The demand found endorsement from the BJP’s Jitendra Singh, minister for state in the PMO. He terms the CM’s remarks against the Manch as “judgemental” when “we have courts to decide about someone’s crime.” If the state government recommends a CBI probe, the Centre will act on it, adds the MP from the Kathua-Udhampur-Doda Lok Sabha seat.
But the minor’s rape and murder is not a communal issue, argues Choudhary Zulfikar Ali, J&K minister for consumer affairs. “The Crime Branch probing it means the case will go to the court,” he tells Outlook. “The court will see the merits of investigation.”
The Manch is in no mood to give up. On February 22, it accused the state’s mainstream parties of being pro-jehad. In an attacking statement, it noted that “land and forests have already been handed over to people belonging to one community so that demographic character of Jammu is changed fast and jehad succeeds in Jammu as well.”
Pro-independence groups took out a march (in pic), claiming a ‘land jehad’ is on in Jammu against tribal Muslims.
Lawyer Ankur Sharma speaks of a public feeling that Jammu is facing a demographic change at an alarming rate. “The Gujjars are encroaching upon the forests and water resources and the government is doing nothing,” he bemoans. “There’s also smuggling of cattle taking place amid a clear surge in illegal settlements in Jammu and surrounding districts. We see cases of Gujjars occupying state land, and attacking the police who reach the spot for evacuation.”
Author-researcher Zafar Choudhary says the right-wing intervention in Kathua should be seen in the context of the politics of Kashmir. “At the roots of the conflict is the Muslim-majority character of J&K,” he maintains. “Now, that is further worsened by Pakistan’s support to the separatist sentiment. “The more the conflict prolongs and deepens, the more the Muslims come into the spotlight.” In Jammu, Muslims make only 31 per cent of the population—and are concentrated mainly in the hilly region. In the economically better-off districts of Jammu, Samba, Kathua and Udhampur, they are well under 10 per cent of the population, he notes. “Yet, with Kashmir conflict shaping the region’s everyday political narrative, Jammu Muslims, who have never espoused separatist goals, are increasingly considered as ‘the other’ by the Hindu right-wing.”
Lawyer Talib says the BJP-led government at the Centre sees Jammu Muslims as loyal citizens. “That has led the right-wing to invoke “land jehad” in the Jammu districts against Gujjars,” he says. “The Manch has for quite a while been working to create a fear among secular Hindus. It’s their last resort.”
The intention behind the Manch rally, Talib says, is to force the Gujjars leave Rasana and other places. “No different was the idea behind disallowing Asifa’s burial in the graveyard of her ancestors,” he adds. “They know the Crime Branch probe will expose them before the people. Hence the cry for a CBI probe.”
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar