Many years ago a Bakarwal (nomadic tribe of herders in Jammu and Kashmir) encampment suddenly came up near the Army cantonment in Akhnoor where I lived at the time. We watched as the men ate a frugal meal and went out with the sheep each morning. The women spent the day in household chores, which included repairing their sheepskin tents, tending to the newborn lambs or cleaning sackfuls of shorn wool to meet the approval of the trader who would buy them.
The children would play around. Sometimes their curiosity would bring them close to our military quarters where they hesitantly peered over the hedges to take in a world far removed from theirs. I soon got used to watching a little girl in a ragged shalwar, and her brother playing near our house. Her dirt streaked skin and clothes failed to mask large beautiful eyes set in the most luminous face I have ever seen. She was ethereal. Some days later my curiosity about the new neighbours got the better of me and I walked over to their tents. Their open smiles, simple but warm hospitality struck me. Kahwa and bread sitting between sacks of wool while Asifa (let's call her that) hovered close by. Despite a dire warning from the military establishment to stay clear of “suspicious nomads” because they traverse the high passes where political boundaries blur, our friendship blossomed. I envied their blithe spirits and carefree world. We woke up one morning to find that the Bakarwal encampment had moved as suddenly as it had appeared. The military had ordered them to pitch their tents away from the cantonment.
But happy little Asifa became a firmly-etched memory. Last month when pictures of an eight-year-old Bakarwal girl in Kathua, brutally raped and murdered, appeared in newspapers, I couldn’t help but think that the waif like image resembled my Asifa so much. But this one was face down in a scrub jungle, her legs broken and bite marks all over her body. All of eight and raped by two Special Police Officers (SPO), according to the Crime Branch of the Jammu and Kashmir police. The murder itself did not stir the state’s polity as much as the arrests of the accused.
What we are seeing now is the shameful spectacle of how the heinous rape and murder of a child in Jammu and Kashmir is being communalised. Because both the SPOs who were arrested are Hindus, people of Kathua and surrounding areas formed a Hindu Ekta Manch, which has rejected the crime branch investigation on the grounds that it is being done “under pressure from leaders of the other community”. The demand from Hindu Jammu region is for the matter to be handed over to the CBI. Worse, two cabinet minister from the BJP and a couple of BJP legislators are publicly supporting the Manch and are demanding the release of the two SPOs.
Dark insinuations are also being made about the Kashmiri antecedents of the investigating team probing a crime in the Hindu dominated Jammu region. Retaliation from the Kashmiris, and in particular the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has been equally swift and hard. Matters have reached such a stage that the very existence of the PDP-BJP coalition is under threat as PDP legislators are threatening to pull out “if justice is not done to the rape victim”.
Its an irony of the times we live in, that the religion of a little girl has become more important than the crime perpetrated against her. It's also hard to expect that her rapists and murderers will be brought to justice anytime soon, because the public debate sought to be built up is not over the evidence that links the men to the crime but their religion. Are the worthy BJP ministers trying to say that Hindu men would not rape a Muslim girl? Or, that Kashmiri Muslims should not be involved in policing Hindu dominated Jammu region? Or, simply that this is one more opportunity to play communal and divisive politics between the already charged regions of the state, so lets grab it? It could be all this and more. As politics heats up over the horrendous crime, who is thinking of the little one’s silenced shrieks of pain? Her traumatised torso lying face down, wearing that still cheery purple shalwar, probably bought by her indulgent father now sitting desolately somewhere in a Bakarwal encampment. I have sent a little prayer for my Asifa who spent her childhood in a far safer environment. And then an appeal for the unfortunate little one in Kathua whose soul is crying for justice. Perhaps worse than what they did to her is what the leaders in Jammu and Kashmir are doing today - allowing the culprits to go scot free in the dust raised by a maelstrom of communal politics.