Why flag the issue? Communal politics and protests in Kathua

The joint rally by the Hindu Ekta Manch (HEM) and BJP in Kathua on 14th February 2018 demanding the release of SPO Deepak Khajuria, arrested in connection of the abduction, rape and murder of eight-year-old Asifa Bano in January 2018, has brought to the fore the blatant communal politics of the BJP-HEM combine. And, since the Congress is not ready to be left behind, Kathua is fast becoming a communal tinderbox. While the Chief Minister has taken exception to the “desecration” of the national flag in the rally and the National Conference has questioned her for allowing the march, the issues are much deeper and each of them deserves to be condemned in the strongest way possible.

  1. The abduction, rape and murder of Asifa who belonged to the nomadic Bakarwal community went unnoticed for a week as her mutilated body was discovered only on 17th January. The facts of the aftermath show that the local police was indifferent to the family’s complaints which had started looking for the missing girl from the evening of 10th January. However, for nearly 48 hours there was no police investigations. Besides delaying the search operations, the police was also unsuccessful in finding her as her body was discovered in the Rassana forest area by locals. Yet, two days after the discovery and protests, the police arrested a minor boy and claimed that he had held Bano hostage in a cattle-shed in Rassana village and strangled her when she resisted rape. The police story was not believable as it seemed impossible that the girl could have been held hostage for nearly a week without anyone noticing her cries. Quite clearly, the police was shielding the real perpetrators.   
  2. The protests following the discovery of Bano’s body, especially in the Legislative Assembly, kept up the pressure and the SHO of Hiranagar was suspended and a magisterial inquiry and SIT and Crime Branch (CB) investigations were ordered. Subsequently, on 9th February, the CB arrested SPO Deepak Khajuria who had participated in the search parties and had also handed over Bano’s body to the family. On 16th February, the CB arrested another SPO, Surinder Kumar. While there may be other arrests in the weeks to come, the present arrests are significant as the policemen are local SPOs and the arrests have roused passions of the Hindu community. Since the Bakarwals are a Muslim nomadic community, the protests have communalized the issue into one of ‘insider’ versus ‘outsider’.
  3. The findings of the Crime Branch show that the rape and murder was a well-planned move and that the motive was to spread fear among the Bakarwal community. Besides being the prime accused in the rape and murder of Asifa Bano, as an SPO, Deepak Khajuria threatened and even beat up protesting Bakarwals. There are over 29000 SPOs in J&K who have been employed in the police department since 1995 to fight militancy. While the creation of SPOs has provided employment to local youth, the history and experience of Chhattisgarh shows that hiring of SPOs is a well-established divisive tactic of the state—to arm civilians in the name of law and order. In the present instance, the Bakarwal community has been facing a backlash at the hands of the SPOs in collusion with the Hindus and its access to water has been disrupted.
  4. Communalization of land and forest rights is deeply linked to the rape and murder of Asifa. News analysis shows that in the Hindu majority area of Kathua, almost 90% of the land is custodian property (evacuee property which was created in the wake of Partition and which remained in the hands of a dedicated department created in 1949) and all of it is held by Hindus (Asia Times, 17.02.2018). In recent years, under the sway of communal propaganda, the Hindus have stopped selling their forest produce to the Bakarwals. So much so, they are preventing the Bakarwals from buying private land. Several Bakarwal families had bought land in neighbouring Kootah village but the Hindus refused to let the burial of Asifa Bano take place there as they claimed that the land could not be used for burial or religious purposes. These communal moves are in tandem with the recent attempts by the BJP to refuse the implementation of the 2006 Forest Act in the state. For the first time the BJP has refused a central legislation as it has claimed that there are enough safeguards for scheduled tribes! Quite clearly, the BJP does not wish to recognize the forest rights of Muslim scheduled tribes such as the Bakarwals who are an economically, socially and educationally backward community. While the Bakarwals were granted the status of schedule tribe in 1991, they stand deprived of their political rights as they lack political representation. Under these circumstances, the attack on their land rights and the refusal to allow the burial of Asifa in Kootah village is an attempt to marginalize them completely. 
  5. The double-speak in the 14th February protest rally was revealing: the protesters said that they demanded justice for Asifa Bano but they did not want their men to be falsely framed. And, the administration has played a partisan role. While the HEM rally in support of Deepak Khajuria was allowed with the national flag, Talib Hussain, a student, was arrested on 21st January from a protest demonstration organized by locals and students against the rape and murder, on grounds of law and order. Partisan politics has enabled the Hindutva forces to actually dare the police arresting ‘their men’. For instance, Vijay Sharma, the state secretary of the BJP, openly defended the 14th February protest rally and stated that the HEM had been formed in January to “defend people from police harassment”. The idea of a majority Hindu community facing harassment from the local police is preposterous to say the least; unfortunately, it is a potent weapon with which the poor nomadic Muslim Bakarwals can be threatened and harassed.     
  6. The crimes perpetrated on Asifa Bano are heinous and the fading likelihood of her community receiving justice must be protested. That Asifa’s rape and murder has not shaken the country is not surprising as it is part of the larger violations that happen on an everyday basis against Muslims which are not heeded to. But the fact that it was a young girl who was raped and murdered while tending to her ponies brings out a shocking aspect of inequalities that have become normalized and acceptable. The indifference shown by the police, the threats and disruptions which the Bakarwals are facing, the stiff resistance which is being ratcheted up by the political parties against the arrests—all suggest that the rape and murder of Asifa Bano is not just an illustration of the predominant rape culture that makes no distinction between children and adults. Besides the barbaric nature of male lust evident in the broken-up body of Asifa Bano, the communalization of the rape and murder and the politicization of the arrests and protests show the dangers that are being written into Kathua’s tinderbox.

PUDR strongly protests the communalization of the aftermath of the rape and murder of Asifa Bano and the communal eviction and marginalization of the nomadic Muslim Bakarwal community in Kathua.   


Shahana Bhattacharya and Shashi Saxena

Secretaries, PUDR


18th February 2018