Indian children held a vigil to protest against the rape and killing of Asifa Bano, in Jammu on 14 April [Jaipal Singh/EPA]
Udhampur, Indian-administered Kashmir – The time was ripe to kill the girl, Sanji Ram told his juvenile nephew on a cold January evening.
The ritual had been performed and Asifa, an eight-year-old Muslim nomad girl, was taken to a culvert in front of a temple where she had been kept in captivity, and sedated, for four days in Rasana village of Kathua district in Indian-administered Kashmir.
But, before she would be strangulated and her head was hit twice with a stone “to make sure” she is dead, Deepak Khajuria, a special police officer, made a demand. He wanted to rape the girl before she was killed.
“As such”, the police investigation noted, “once again the little girl was gang raped” by the accused police officer and then by the juvenile.
For the next three months, the rape and murder of Asifa seemed to be another case of sexual violence that is rampant in India but rare in Indian administered Kashmir, till the barbarity and the plot came to fore in the 16-page charge sheet presented by the crime branch – a local investigating agency.
The investigation revealed that the rape and murder were systematic, pre-planned and rooted in religious hatred harboured by Sanji Ram, a Hindu, against the Muslim nomadic community of Bakarwals.
The nomad girl
Asifa, the nomad girl, loved to take horses for grazing to the forest near her home in Rasana, a quiet village in Kathua district of Indian-administered Kashmir.
The reason Asifa was picked as a target by Sanji Ram, who knew she “often comes to the forest”, was simple; they wanted to drive the Muslim community out, according to the investigation.
In captivity inside a temple, Asifa was drugged and raped. The police in its investigation report described Asifa as an “innocent budding flower, a child of only eight years of age, who being a small kid became a soft target”.
|Outrage over the rape and killing of Asifa Bano soared across India [Jaipal Singh/EPA]|
The crime, however, was rooted in a sinister conspiracy and Asifa’s rape and killing were the means to an end – create fear among the Muslim nomadic community, Bakarwal, and force them to leave.
Rafeeza Bano, Asifa’s 55-year-old mother, recalls the horror she saw on her dead daughter’s body. “There were scars on her cheeks,” she told Al Jazeera at their camp in Udhampur.
“Her lips had turned black, and her eyes had bulged out. It was a scary scene for a mother to see,” she said. “She was my youngest child. It was horrific. She had faced a lot of barbarity.”
The mother now fears for her surviving daughters, one of them aged 13. “They did this with an eight-year-old girl, imagine what they can do with 13-year-old,” she said.
The tough life of a nomad had cast its shadow on Mohammad Akhtar and he looks older than his 45 years. He now lives with a more damning burden – the elusive justice for his daughter, Asifa.
On a hill in Udhampur district, nearly 150km north of Rasana, the family camps under the open sky with their herd of goats and horses. The journey is part of the annual migration of this nomadic community in search of grazing pastures.
“Her face was full of scratches and bites,” Akhtar told Al Jazeera, describing the marks of torment on Asifa. “I never knew they will do this with the child, her milk teeth were yet to fall out,” he said.
Akhtar is Asifa’s biological father as the girl was raised by her maternal uncle, Mohammad Yusuf, who adopted her when she was a toddler after he lost his two children in an accident.
“After she was killed it created more fear than before. We now take our daughters along all the time, all in our community became protective towards our daughters,” he said.
Akhtar said the family also faced threats in the aftermath of the incident.
“They said if our men are given the death sentence, we will kill you one by one. After the dead body was found, Hindu people came to us and threatened us,” he said.
Gazala, Asifa’s aunt who lived in nearby Samba district, says she now fears for her two daughters aged 9 and 4. “I fear for them. They would run after the horses, they were free to play but now we are very worried. We had not seen anything as gruesome,” she said.
Asifa’s rape and killing have forced an early migration of Bakarwals, a tribe with a rudimentary lifestyle that earns a living out of herding goats, sheep and horses to mountainous pastures. The incident instilled fear in their community, which is unprotected during its lengthy migratory journeys.
Manega, Asifa’s elder sister, was still in shock when she talked to Al Jazeera in Udhampur.
“I saw her dead body,” she said. “I now fear a lot. We don’t play, we don’t go out alone. Asifa’s killing has shattered us,” Manega, 13, said.
A retired government official, his son who came from another city to “satisfy his lust”, the juvenile nephew and his close friend, and the special police officer were all part of the conspiracy and crime to kidnap, rape and murder the eight-year-old girl, according to the police report. Three police officers were involved in destroying the evidence.
The incident, which initially appeared to draw a reluctant outrage, however, snowballed into a major crisis for India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the horrifying details and motives of the rape and murder came into public domain.
Human rights groups have repeatedly claimed that religious minority groups, particularly Muslims, face increasing “demonisation by hardline Hindu groups, pro-government media and some state officials” in India, and the frequency of such incidents appears to be increasing.
In a recent Amnesty International report, the London-based human rights group noted that dozens of “hate crimes against Muslims took place across the country”.
“At least ten Muslim men were lynched and many injured by vigilante cow protection groups, many of which seemed to operate with the support of members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party,” it said.
While the outrage over Asifa’s rape and murder was muted – even missing – during the initial weeks, the eight accused men found a crusading force of lawyers and ministers from BJP in their support, some of whom insisted the police investigators were Muslims and had a bias towards the accused – all of whom Hindus.
In the second week of April, nearly three months since Asifa’s body was found in the forested foothill, a group of Hindu lawyers attempted to block police investigators from entering a court premise where they had gone to file the charges against the accused.
“It is shocking that the lawyers in Kathua so blatantly tried to obstruct justice in this case,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, said in her report last week.
“For the local lawyers and other BJP supporters, the Hindu suspects and the Muslim victim were grounds for blocking prosecution of the case,” Ganguly said.
As the pressure mounted on BJP, which administers Indian administered Kashmir in an alliance based government, its two ministers – who had attended a rally in favour of the accused – resigned.
“The investigation was completed within 90 days which makes it clear that there was no intervention or attempt to block the investigation,” BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav told reporters in the city of Jammu, 60km from here.
The fact that it took three months and the exposure of horrific details for the outrage to build against the rape and murder of the girl, who was just eight-years-old, has already instilled fear among the Muslim nomads.
Bakarwals, a poor tribe of nomads, tread across mountains during their biannual migrations from meadows of Kashmir valley to the hilly forests of Jammu, where some pockets are dominated by ultra-nationalist Hindu groups.
Muhammad Yusuf, 45, Asifa’s uncle who had adopted her when she was a toddler, abandoned Rasana village with his herd of sheep, goats and horses soon after the girl’s body was found. The routine migration was still weeks away, but the new-found fear forced it earlier.
“We left home earlier than usual due to fear. There is a fear among all the Muslim families in Rasana and most of them have left now,” Yusuf said. “We are afraid to go back,” he said.
In the village, where Asifa was raped and murdered and later not allowed to be buried, Yusuf said Hindus were always hostile towards Muslims. “Sometimes they would object to our grazing of horses, sometimes they would block the water supply,” he said.
Zafar Chowdhary, author and political analyst based in Jammu, told Al Jazeera that there is a feeling among the Hindus in the state’s Jammu region that Muslims are involved in making demographic changes.
“There is unrest and distrust among the communities in the region particularly on the question of identity in the state,” he said.
The family members of accused in the village have launched a hunger strike demanding that the investigations be done by the federal investigative agency.