A group of lawyers protested against the filing of the chargesheet against seven accused in the kidnap, rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl from the Bakarwal community in the month of January in Kathua district. In the process, the filing of the chargesheet against the seven accused got delayed by a few hours.
This wasn’t the first protest in defence of the accused in the alleged rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl from the Bakarwal nomadic community.
A rally was held on February 15 organised by the Hindu Ekta Manch in Katua district to demand the release of one of the accused – a 28-year-old special police officer. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s state secretary Vijay Sharma who took part in the protest told The Wire, “He (Khajuria) has been falsely implicated. More than 5,000 people participated in the rally.” People were seen with the Indian national flags in their hand.
This protest was publicly condemned by the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti.
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 Mufti (@MehboobaMufti) February 16, 2018
But the question is why are people protesting against a criminal investigation against those alleged to have committed the heinous crime of raping, torturing and murdering an 8-year-old girl?
On the morning of January 10, an eight-year-old girl belonging to the nomadic Bakarwal community went to the forest to graze the horses of her family. Her dead body was found on January 17. In the first post-mortem report, there was prima facie evidence of sexual assault. According to the same report, she had died of asphyxiation. A histopathology report took place which indicated that the uterus of the girl had been damaged.
Chargesheet against seven accused also seems to suggest that some of them had prejudices towards the Gujjar-Bakarwal Muslim community. According to a report in the Scroll, the chargesheet says the girl who was murdered became a ‘soft target’ in the tensions between the Hindu and the Muslim nomadic communities.
The two are believed to have had ‘personal grudges’ towards the Bakarwals. One of the accused who is believed to have had prejudices against the Bakarwals is a special police officer called Deepak Khajuria. He also has a history of getting into a ‘few scuffles’ with the Bakarwals, as per the chargesheet.
To understand the current happenings in Jammu, one needs to locate it in the larger context of the history of the region and how the relationship between the Hindu and Muslim community has played out since the Partition took place.
Before the Partition, Muslims constituted around 61% of the population of Jammu. However, this changed in a very short period of time. According to journalistic accounts of those times, lakhs of Muslims were killed in the course of the violence. According to The Times, London report in August 1948, “2,37,000 Muslims were systematically exterminated – unless they escaped to Pakistan along the border – by the forces of the Dogra State headed by the Maharaja in person and aided by Hindus and Sikhs. This happened in October 1947, five days before the Pathan invasion and nine days before the Maharaja’s accession to India.”
The backdrop to the killings was the Partition of British India, where millions of both Hindus and Muslims were in the process of crossing the border – Muslims to Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindus to Hindu-majority India.
Historian Muhammad Ashraf Wani and a professor at Kashmir University told Al Jazeera that Muslims in Jammu ‘do not talk about it because they fear for their survival’.
Muslims are currently a minority in the region of Jammu.
The impact of the violence and the massacre is part and parcel of public memory of people living in Jammu even after more than 70 years. There are grave allegations against Jammu and Kashmir Forest Minister Choudhary Lal Singh of having asked Gujjar Muslim farmers if ‘they had forgotten the 1947 massacre of Muslims in the region’. This allegedly happened after they had gone to the minister regarding some grievances they had.
According to the 2011 Census, there are 1.1 lakh Bakarwals residing in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and close to 9.8 lakh Gujjars. While the region of Jammu has had a violent past, people belonging to the Gujjar and Bakarwal community, who are majorly Muslims, have particularly been at the receiving end of violence in the region of Jammu. The girl belonged to the Bakarwal community.
In June 2015, the Gujjar-Bakarwal community had threatened an all-India protest against the alleged forceful eviction of Muslims from different forest areas of the state.
More recently, in April 2017, a Bakarwal Muslim family was attacked in Reasi district in Jammu and Kashmir as they were suspected of transporting cattle for slaughter. Eleven ‘gau rakshaks‘ were arrested and four members of the family were also charged for transporting cattle without permission. According to police officials, a mob of around 150-200 people attacked the family of five.
There have been other reported instances of violence too against such nomadic Muslim communities.
Rape, even of minors is an unfortunate reality in India. According to the 2016 NCRB data, 19,765 cases of rape were registered under sections 4 and sections 6 of the Protection of Children against Sexual Offences (POCSO). It was an increase of 82% from the previous year. While rape against minors in India is a grave concern, given the evidence which we have so far, based on the criminal investigation, the protests of the public and the lawyers, it could be an error to only see this heinous crime from the lens of gender and violence against women. Scholar Veena Das by analysing accounts of abducted women during the 1947 Partition, argued that Indian nationalism included ‘the appropriation of bodies of women as objects on which the desire for nationalism could be brutally inscribed and a memory for the future made’.
Veteran Kashmiri journalist put the happenings in perspective when he wrote in an opinion piece, “With the condemnation only coming from Muslim areas of Hindu-dominated Jammu division, and from the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, it is clear that the child’s rape and murder has become the perfect example of the communalisation of rape.”