Asifa – victim of India’s ‘failed secular democracy’

It is at one level a kind of anticipation of impartiality to see outburst of anger over the gruesome rape and murder of eight year old Muslim Nomad Bakkarwal Asifa at village Rasana in Kathua but at the same time one wonders why it took almost three months for Indian civil society, media houses and public intellectuals to raise hue and cry over the incident. After having gone through excerpts of the chargesheet prepared by the crime branch of J&K police, I believe most Indians felt pain in their hearts and the outpouring of anger is reaction to that. Has the moral compass of Indian society degraded to such a level in the frenzy of nationalism? There are numerous examples of gruesome rapes being perpetuated across Kashmir (infamous Shopian rape and murder case) but hardly had they shaken the collective conscience like Asifa did lately. The recent widespread coverage given to the Kathua incident by Indian media was also augmented by the international media like NYT and BBC, however it would be hypocrisy not to acknowledge the way Kashmir media has covered it from very first day. Therefore not giving widespread coverage to the Asifa case by Indian media initially is a question for secularists, leftists and liberals to ponder upon. I must admit it is extremely painful and heart-wrenching exercise to put this spine-chilling rape and murder in a proper context but then I feel there is need to do so keeping in view appropriations not seeing it as a rape of a Muslim nomadic Bakkarwal girl but of India’s daughter. I strongly affirm that this categorisation, rape of India’s daughter completely evades context in which this incident took place. Rather it generates fuzziness and confusion among people and to which many intellectuals and writers subscribe, as can been seen in recent write-ups. The general appropriation of seeing it as issue of humanity is the most unjustified one. It is pertinent to mention that comparison of incidents of rape and murder to my understanding is immoral however analysis definitely gets enriched by doing contextual analysis of every single incident. Seeing parallels solely as a gender in the Nirbhaya and Asifa case would entail to paramount hypocrisy.

Kathua rape and murder is solely not an act perpetuated by either a sick mind nor an outcome of toxic masculinity, but rather a well-planned and orchestrated ploy to achieve a bigger motive. Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir is mainly hegemonised by two dominant identities, Dogra Hindus in the Jammu province and Kashmiri Muslims in the valley. Within these two dominant religious hegemonic identities subsume many other identities. Gujjars and Bakkarwals are the third largest ethnic identity after these two identities. The whole narrative of Indian held Jammu and Kashmir revolves around these two dominant identities as they are more numerically and hence politically significant. Bakkarwals are mostly nomadic-practicing transhumance across all three regions of Jammu and Kashmir. This is only community in the whole state which has direct interactions with settle populations of all three regions. It is important to mention that Bakkarwals are the followers of sunni Islam. The faith (Islam) Bakkarwals practice puts them in quandary with regards to political and social milieu of Jammu and Kashmir. While one goes through the pages of history, Gujjars and Bakkarwals turn out to be excruciated victims of the Partition of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir. This was very recently and honestly verified by Forest Minister Choudhary Lal Singh wherein he said, “Oye Gujroo tum 1947 bhool gaye hoo (You Gujjars, have you forgotten 1947?)” Partition of 1947 saw brutal massacre of the members of this community in Jammu. Most of the members of this ethnic group are now residing in the Pakistan Administered Kashmir (POK) and parts of Gilgit and Northwest frontier. The partition left this group to bear the brunt of regular border disputes between two countries. The border tension has made the life of these people much more vulnerable to the human tragedies like cross firings, landmine blasts and night bombings. Soon after Partition, the Indian held Jammu and Kashmir began its journey with the slogan of building a new Kashmir. However, the story remained same for these people as they further became the scapegoats of political gamblings in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The capitalist-oriented growth deprived them of their traditional niche. Further with just a few elite representations in the political circles, the larger population of Gujjar and Bakkarwals continued to remain in slumber and destitution. The apparent marginalisation of Gujjar and Bakkarwal community both at the political and social level revolves around their identity. The discrimination on the basis of identity not only manifests in terms of marginalization at the social level but it does so in terms of institutional marginalization. Gujjars and Bakkarwals have been part of the historic mosaic of Jammu and Kashmir for quite long but they have always been left to the fringes by dominant identities Dogras, Kashmiri Pundits and Muslims. Besides, this as argued by Sanjay Caturvedi (2005) in his book ‘politics of Autonomy’, Gujjars and Bakkarwals continue to live with poverty and deprivation, and are conveniently, but not unknowingly left out of increasingly communalized binary geographies of the Hindus and the Muslims underpinning the dominant discourses of the Freedom Movement. Deprived of the political vision of their own, located at the border and periphery of modern nation states, the voices of the Gujjars and Bakkarwals often problematize nationalist narratives of history and identity. The Gujjar and Bakkarwal community of Jammu and Kashmir at present is faced by two different phenomena- Gujjar Bakkarwal consciousness and Muslim consciousness. Allegiance to the larger Gujjar identity as often propounded by status-quoist political regimes in Jammu and Kashmir can be analysed in the backdrop of the prevailing resistance movement. The evident example of this is the support provided by the Gujjar leaders of Jammu and Kashmir to the protesting Gujjar community of Rajasthan. Many Gujjar and Bakkarwal leaders of Jammu and Kashmir went to Rajasthan and addressed the protesting gatherings. There have been attempts to give rise and prominence to the consciousness of ethnic Gujjar and Bakkarwal identity so as to restrict their assimilation with larger resistance movement.

It is pertinent to mention this community does face social discrimination from the majority Kashmiris as well. Even now, they are being regarded as an inferior, short tempered and out-layered community within the state of Jammu and Kashmir. They are undoubtedly categorized under the rubric of “uncivilized”. They have always been seen by Kashmiri’s only with the identity of Muslims. Irrespective of all this, Bakkarwals feel more secure in Kashmir province than in Kathua, Samba, Udhampur, Jammu because of the persistent threat of sexual violence, communal riot and social boycott. There is popular narrative propagated vehemently by the Indian State that they are informers of Kashmiris; however, one must take note of the fact that Bakkarwals themselves have been active supporters of resistance movement to which is the evidence of the formation of Gujjar liberation front in 1992. The Gujjar liberation front was formed by the Gujjar and Bakkarwal community to fight the Indian occupation of Jammu and Kashmir State. The question of their identity has always remained in a state of fluidity within political as well as social discourses. It has been found out that on one hand, being followers of Islam, they have a Muslim identity of which they are fully aware and to which others like Kashimiri Muslims associate with them as their own. On the other hand their ethnic identity of being Gujjars and Bakkarwals has also been used well by the Indian State and by many different groups. This disjuncture and identity fluidity gains further prominence because of the prevailing resistance movement in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. According to Navnita Chadha Behara (1996), ‘Gujjars were first politicized in 1970’s when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi cultivated them and propped them up as a possible counter weight to the valley Muslims. The first step in this direction was the recognition of the Gojri language and the allocation of time on J&K radio for its programs”. It is being argued that the eruption of secessionist movements in 1989 and their gaining of the indigenous support alarmed the Indian State. In this backdrop Indian government provided tribal status to this community in 1991. Providing of tribal status is seen as a move to dissociate them from the resistance movement which was gaining ground in the state. This political move further created ruptures by emanating into the Pahari-Gujjar conflict which is still prevalent in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In the larger discourse of the resistance movement, Gujjars and Bakkarwals have been caught in a dilemma. They have not been fully accepted as nationalists by the Indian State because of their Muslim identity which allegedly is the character of the resistance movement in Kashmir. The Amarnath Land Row in 2008 is a testimony to the fact that Gujjars were brutally harassed by the Hindu community of Jammu region only for fact that they belong to the Muslim faith. Their houses and herds were torched by Hindu mobs in places like Samba and Kathua of Jammu Province.

Ever since the BJP government came into power at the Centre and in the state, there have been various attempts to depopulate the areas inhabited by this community. Attempts to push the nomadic community to leave the Jammu region began months after the BJP forged an alliance with Mufti’s party in J &K in March 2015. In February 2016, a young Gujjar man was shot dead as residents of a Gujjar settlement in Sarore, Samba district, resisted Hindu mobs attempting to drive them out of their homes. The tribal community has also felt targeted by other government-sanctioned moves to evict them from land they traditionally use. The threat of eviction looms large over this tribal community also because their lands are currently located in Samba District which has been chosen as the site for a new All India Institute of Medical Sciences. There is continuous push to displace them even from forests of which they have been historical users. They are now being projected as land grabbers which is completely a myth. The rightwing hooliganism in the name of gau rakshaks has further increased the threat to Bakkarwals. The incidents of Bakkarwals being attacked by Hindu mobs on the pretext of cow-smuggling in areas like Reasi are the manifestations of the rising Hindutva bigotry. The orchestrated rape and murder of Asifa, an eight-year-old girl, was undoubtedly a plan to terrorize the Bakkarwal Muslim community so that they no longer use forest land nor settle in and around Rasana Village. This inhumane brutal act was planned and can be ascertained from the fact that Bakkarwals are not the only nomadic groups in and around Rasana village of Kathua; the Gaddis are also being there. Interestingly, the idea of otherness does not come into play with regards to the Gaddis, even though they are also tribals. It is important to mention the idea of change in demography which has been propounded and popularized inadvertently gives rise to such situations where the community falls prey to blatant gruesome horrific incidents like these. The continuous social engineering that manufactures the lie that there is an increasing rate of Muslim population, which in-turn becomes a threat to Hindus and to Saffron democracy was propounded by political groups who are now acting as messengers of humanity in demanding justice for Asifa. Kathua and Samba districts of Jammu and Kashmir have been polarized for so many years for this very political mileage.

The apathy was such that the protests demanding justice for Asifa were also projected along communal lines. The saffron democrats like Madhu Kishwar and her ilk went so far to link Rohingayas with this incident. The propounders of India as a largest democracy should answer how come the ‘Hindu Ekta Manch’ got formed and then legitimized by political party in power and lawyers in uniform. I am sure this might be a unique example wherein we see association being formed to resist the in-depth investigation in the incident. The most disheartening fact, one which hardly anyone talks about is the denial of giving burial to Asifa’s mutilated body by Rasana villagers. Can anyone even imagine such a treatment being met to a dead person? The family had to carry her dead body for four kilometer for a burial at another village. Not allowing Asifa’s burial at Rasana village signals towards the fractured social fabric. Who then wouldn’t hesitate to say this must be last nail in the coffin of the already-sinking Indian secularism? To all those who have always been wary of not being marked by a religious identity, you must now admit that if you claim the Muslim identity or not, you would always be seen as Muslim.


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Bhat Iqbal Written by:

currently teaches at central university Jammu and is working on Bakkarwals of Jammu and Kashmir.

One Comment

  1. Arka Bhattacharya
    April 25, 2018

    Failed Secular Democracy you say .
    Let me point out the fact the the Privileges The minorities get in India even the Majorities don’t get them .. India among all the countries where Muslims are Minorities , is the one of the most tolerant places , cause Indians by general tend to accept diversity and difference ,, you see these values are written in your sacred Book , Gita .
    You talk about atrocities against Muslims , how about the atrocities by Muslims .. History knows that during partition how many Hindu and Christian Souls died at the hands of you all.. My ancestors who were from Bangladesh were threatened that either become Muslim or move out .. Else Your daughters and wives would be raped and you all will be Killed .. You talk about Hindus being intolerant , how tolerant are you .. History remembers when the then Mayor of Kolkata ordered their Muslim army to kill all Hinduz so that Kolkata can be incorporated to East Pakistan..
    Before Partition , Hindu percentage in Bangladesh was 39 percentage , now it is 4 % .. You all are shameless enough to talk about Minority Rights …
    In Khidderpore I see Pakistan flag flying yet you all say you are proud to be Indian ..
    Don’t colour Crimes in terms of Religion Mate according your own preference because , if we do the same , the list would be endless ..
    Yes Hindus also committed crimes , but if compare it with that of Muslims you would see that it’s like comparing Uganda with USA. .
    The crime that happened is awful in it’s own accord , leave Hindu or Muslim , the guys who can do these heinious acts are not Human nor Animals , they are Devils , should be removed from the society regardless of what their surname is …

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