Early in January 2018, Asifa, an 8-year-old Muslim child from the nomadic Bakarwal community in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir in northern India, was gang-raped and murdered, as reported by Global Voices.
Much of India's local news coverage relegated the heinous story to its back pages due to its religiously-charged content. Asifa hailed from a Muslim community while her perpetrators come from a predominantly Hindu community backed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with sloganeering and rallies in the Jammu region.
After three months and countless struggles faced by the family, including denial to bury Asifa in her family land, political pressure, advocates in the region blocking the filing of the charge sheet and threatening Asifa's lawyer Deepika S. Rajawat, local stringer Nazir Masoodi analyzed the charge sheet filed in the case:
The charge sheet, filed by the Crime Branch of J & K [Jammu and Kashmir] police, says that the 8-year-old was not fed for the four days that she was kept captive. She was put on sedatives while she was raped by three men. The drugs ensured she would not cry out loud, not even when she was strangled.
The documents say all this happened under the watch of the temple custodian Sanji Ram. His own son, Vishal, his nephew (a juvenile) and a special police officer, Deepak Khajuria, are also accused of raping her and are among the eight men who were arrested by Crime Branch.
Masoodi's detailed report for New Delhi Television (NDTV) clearly describes Asifa's inhumane treatment. It reports on how local police conspired with perpetrators in an attempt to cover up the crime, using nationalist tactics such as joining in pro-India demonstrations in the region that borders Muslim-majority Kashmir.
While Masoodi's report raised awareness among Indians as well as Kashmiris, the news polarised communities throughout India. For example, Vishnu Nandakumar, a Kotak Mahindra Bank employee in the southern state of Kerala, India, made disparaging comments about Asifa through a Facebook post, which got him sacked amid social media outrage.
Jammu and Kashmir's Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti promised justice for Asifa and condemned a group of Jammu bar association lawyers who allegedly attempted to derail the investigation and charge sheet filing process.
Asifa's case stirs nationalism debate in India
The narratives surrounding Asifa's disturbing crime has polarized netizens from India, Kashmir and around the world as her case has been used to fuel nationalist and religiously-charged debate.
One impassioned Twitter user implored readers to understand Asifa's rape as a hate crime against Muslims of Bakarawal:
Ashifa is not ‘just the face of a child'; she symbolises the violence her community faces. Fuck your appeal to ‘humanity’. People are more than just human faces. This was a hate crime. If you can't talk about her as a Bakarwal Muslim, don't talk about her at all.
— deleting low impression tweets to enhance brand (@inshallahvolcel) April 12, 2018
Poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar wrote an inflammatory tweet against the Muslim Bakarwal, dismissing the community for informing the Indian army of a Pakistani intrusion during the Kargil Conflict on the border between Jammu and Kashmir and India in 1999:
Who was Asifa ? She was an eight years old daughter of Bakerwals. Who are Bakerwals ? A nomad tribe who when spotted the Kargil intruders promptly informed the army .Who are the people who are trying to protect the rapists of this little girl . ? Now it is your turn to answer.
— Javed Akhtar (@Javedakhtarjadu) April 13, 2018
To which Kashmir-based historian M. Junaid retorted:
I can understand the constant desire for elite Indian Muslims to appear nationalistic, but may I ask why it is necessary for Asifa’s community [by the way, how racist & antiquated are you to call them ‘nomad tribe'!] to be represented as snitches to receive empathy from you? https://t.co/L8PQiAYrzn
— M Junaid (@mjunaidr) April 13, 2018
Oommen C. Curian also responded by explaining why Akhtar's argument was invalid on the grounds that a crime is a crime no matter its religious connotations or political background, referring to another religiously-motivated lynching of a Muslim man in 2015:
Deeply uncomfortable with the liberal parade of Bakarwals as ‘the watchmen’ who've served the nation. It reminds one of the sudden urge during [the] Dadri [lynching] to say that Akhlaq [a Muslim man] had mutton, not beef, in his refrigerator.
What if it was indeed beef?
What if she were, say, a stone-pelter?
— Oommen C. Kurian (@oommen) April 13, 2018
Many actors and activists from the film industry shared outraged reactions and expressed grief at the brutal gangrape, akin to the 2012 New Delhi gangrape of a medical student that triggered major protests.
Actor and comedian Vir Das wrote:
I'd like to see every one of you miserable scum and your army of slimy sycophants put your parties and your bullshit aside and do something to make sure that no child ever has to face what this girl did. But you won't. Because you don't deserve this country.
— Vir Das (@thevirdas) April 12, 2018
Kashmiri journalist Gowhar Geelani accused India's journalism community of spinning the narrative and reasserting the crime as religiously and politically motivated:
Attempt by Indian scribes to give a spin & portray the brutal gang-rape, kidnapping, torture & murder of the 8-year-old Muslim girl #Asifa in #Kathua by Hindu goons, backed by rightwing groups, as ‘a normal rape for lust’ is shameful. This was a rape to drive away Muslim nomads.
— Gowhar Geelani (@gowhargeelani) April 17, 2018
Activist Shehla Rashid took a jibe on the ruling BJP with a tweet:
No one raped Ashifa. No one murdered her. No one tortured her. The innocent *Hindu* men are being targeted unfairly, and there should be a CBI probe to get justice for these innocent *Hindu* men who are being oppressed by Muslims!!
— Shehla Rashid (@Shehla_Rashid) April 12, 2018
Why did India wait so long to respond to Asifa's case?
The New York Times questioned why President Modi waited so long to respond to the case in an April 16 editorial:
On Friday, Mr. Modi said that these cases had brought shame on the country and that ‘our daughters will definitely get justice.’ But his remarks ring hollow because he waited so long to talk about the cases and spoke in broad generalities — describing the crimes as ‘incidents being discussed since past two days.’ He has taken a similar approach in the past when addressing cases in which vigilante groups affiliated with his political movement have attacked and killed Muslims and Dalits — members of India’s lowest caste — who they falsely accused of killing cows, which are sacred to Hindus.
Global Voices contributor Inji Pennu offered some explanatory points:
Gentle corrections to narratives:
* Asifa was brutally Murdered, her neck was strangled and broken (not only raped).
* Asifa was also a child of 8 years. Rape of adult women are separate issues.
-Asifa was raped by multiple people — Gang raped is an insulting word to the victim. There is no ‘gang’ rape.
Around fifty retired civil servants termed the incident ‘the darkest hour in post-Independent India’ in a letter addressed to President Modi.
Kashmir Observer made a plea for the greater social good:
We as a society must think that no matter what our politics and ideology, we can’t fail in our collective duty towards the safety of our children.
Global Voices will continue to report on the latest updates and proceedings on Asifa's case that has rattled Jammu and Kashmir, as well as India's conscience.