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Editorial
MARGINALIA
Hiranagar rape & murder: Let's get to the root of the problem
By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal
For three months, Asifa's rape and murder did not spark the kind of outrage that Jammu witnessed when the region joined rest of the nation in seeking justice for the Delhi bus gang rape and murder of a college student in 2012. Asifa's rape and death did not seem to bother anyone. Far worse, it trapped people into binaries of 'us' and 'them', many easily falling for the bait of perpetuating the flawed narrative of victimhood of the perpetrators.



What has been achieved in the last month by the Hindu right wing is excessive communal polarization in Jammu region and that cannot be undone by simple candle light marches and signature campaigns. The issue of communalization is the root of the entire problem and this reality must be grappled with.



Propaganda against the victims and the Muslims was not being built up simply to protect the accused. The real motives are far more political. The local upper caste Hindus in and around the village may be inspired by both contempt for Muslims and the desire to save the people of their own community. For the others playing politics on her body, Asifa's murder has become an object for furthering communal polarisation. The ugly discourse that has emanated in defence of the accused has distinct signs of a right wing hand.




Asifa rape and murder case is one of the most grotesque cases of our times and is symbolic for the many ugly truths it lays bare.

It is an apt manifestation of not just the physical brutality of sexual violence but also conveys that patterns of impunity for protecting the perpetrators go beyond the familiar strategies used in subverting and weakening the legal justice system. It shows that political ideologies and politicking can also be fully employed to throw weight behind the perpetrators and lend a sense of pride to the campaigns for saving their necks. The case is also a grim reminder that reaction to sexual violence of a civil society does not simply emanate from the horrifying reality of the brutality of the act but is conditioned by the communal, caste and social identities of the victims and perpetrators.

For three months, Asifa's rape and murder did not spark the kind of outrage that Jammu witnessed when the region joined rest of the nation in seeking justice for the Delhi bus gang rape and murder of a college student in 2012. Asifa's rape and death did not seem to bother anyone. Far worse, it trapped people into binaries of 'us' and 'them', many easily falling for the bait of perpetuating the flawed narrative of victimhood of the perpetrators.

When the Crime Branch, its functioning strictly monitored by J&K High Court, speedily and systemically began cracking the case, this silence was punctured by the deafening echoes of campaign to save the alleged perpetrators of the crime.

Asifa's tragedy is defined by the two photographs in wide circulation on the social media. One taken on January 10 when she went missing - a smiling wide eyed child with a carefree twinkle - wearing bright purple salwar kameez and sporting two pigtails on her ruffled oily head. The second of her lifeless body in the same but dusty clothes, her bruised face matching the shade of her suit. These two images, captured in the same clothes, just about sum up the short span of Asifa's life and her death.

More chilling than these images is the venomous outrage that was on the boil till three days ago - not over her death but in brazen defence of the accused.

Asifa's rape and murder symbolises the typical use of bodies of women as weapons of war and conflict. Asifa was raped and brutalized before she was strangled to death by upper caste Hindu men to teach the Muslim Bakerwal community a lesson and make them flee. Local politics and land related conflict was at play in the defining of the act.

But what is it that continued to fuel the controversy, long after she is gone? Clearly, propaganda against the victims and the Muslims was not being built up simply to protect the accused. The real motives are far more political. The local upper caste Hindus in and around the village may be inspired by both contempt for Muslims and the desire to save the people of their own community.

For the others playing politics on her body, Asifa's murder has become an object for furthering communal polarisation. The ugly discourse that has emanated in defence of the accused has distinct signs of a right wing hand. It started with the surfacing of Hindu Ekta Manch and appearance of national tricolours at a rally organized by it. The show was dominated primarily by the RSS activists and BJP leaders. Two senior ministers of the BJP, Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga, addressed public rallies, video recordings of which are still in circulation, where they provoked people to disrupt the Crime Branch investigations, they chose to call 'jungle raj' and trivialized the crime of rape and murder as something ordinary and routine. Others in the BJP distanced themselves from this discourse but threw their weight behind demand for shifting of the case to CBI. Yet others, even though they distance themselves from the hooliganism of the streets, were busy tarnishing the image of Asifa and her family by questioning why they are not being questioned by the investigators.

They have all been alleging that when the Bakerwal community took out a protest march, they raised Pakistani slogans, charges that are unsubstantiated but they have helped build up an anti-Muslim hysteria in the area where communal polarisation had been on the rise for quite some time. In the backdrop, the misplaced anxieties against Muslims perpetuated by unsubstantiated theories of 'Muslim nomads harbouring militants' and few odd incidents of gau-rakshaks have been contributing factors.

After a sudden turn-around of events and support being mobilised after three months for justice for Asifa, there has been lot of public shaming of those opposing the culprits so brazenly. Two BJP ministers have been forced to resign and Supreme Court has put the lawyers and some members of Bar Association on notice for obstructing justice and threatening Asifa's lawyer. This has taken the wind out of the massive campaign to protect the accused.

However, worries are far from over. Massive campaigns now being organised by civil society members and the big media house teams swooping down on Jammu have strengthened the cause of justice for Asifa. However, the clear motives that inspired the crime in the first place and the misplaced campaign to obstruct justice have left their poisonous residue in the minds of the public. What has been achieved in the last month by the Hindu right wing is excessive communal polarization in Jammu region and that cannot be undone by simple candle light marches and signature campaigns. The issue of communalization is the root of the entire problem and this reality must be grappled with.

The Bar Association that gave a call for Jammu bandh last week juxtaposed the demand for handing over Asifa case to CBI, after the investigations were complete and the charge-sheet presented before court, with the demands for ouster of Rohingyas and opposition of some unverified 'order' by chief minister Mehbooba Mufti 'to not evict nomads without consulting the Tribal Affairs department'. The so-called order pertaining to the nomads has been distorted out of proportion. According to reports in mid-February, the chief minister chaired a review meeting of Tribal Affairs Department, where she directed that "no harassment be made to any member of Tribal community by any Government authority till a formal Tribal Policy is unveiled". However, the remarks have been selectively picked up without mentioning the context; and a massive propaganda has been started with the use of local media, in an attempt to project nomads as cartels of land mafia whom the chief minister was protecting. All three demands smack of an anti-Muslim sentiment and reveal signs of a flawed sense of Hindu victimhood.

While the demand to oust Rohingyas, even though there is not a single case of their involvement in any militant related or major crime related case, stems from pure xenophobia, the other two demands are directly inter-linked. Majority of Gujjars and Bakerwals are landless people who follow a traditional migratory way of life and come to the plains in the winters. Some of them have gradually bought land but majority of them continue to use land for stay and agricultural purposes by paying rent to the locals. There may be some few odd cases of community members encroaching small portions of land. However, the Hindu right wing groups wrongly accuse them of running land mafia. A sound tribal policy and amended Forest Act will lend protection to nomads following a traditional and ecologically sustainable way of life as well as check illegal encroachments. The BJP has been strongly opposing the formation of tribal affairs policy and amendment in forest protection laws to bring it at par with the national law but many politicians including BJP are known to patronise the big land sharks.

Asifa was killed for related reasons and juxtaposing the tribal affairs lies with the demand for protecting the accused in her murder case serves the purpose of perpetuating communal polarization. It is no secret who gains electorally out of creating a communal divide. Jammu and Kashmir is crucial to that end, despite its poor stakes in the parliament. Communal discourse in this state is fodder for Hindutva constituency elsewhere. There are enough loose links including the J&K Bar Association's usual right wing leanings to show where and why this opera was being choreographed.

There are predominantly two visible strands in the Asifa rape and murder case. One is the perpetuation of the crime and the other is the discourse in defence of the culprits. The first stems from greed and partly communal anxieties. The other seeks to play up on those very anxieties and extrapolate them through pack of lies and propaganda to further perpetuate them into full scale communal polarisation. It is anybody's guess who stands to gain from any communal polarization of Jammu region in run up to the 2019 elections. In the backdrop is the history of several decades with Jammu being treated as a twin pet project by the right wing ideologues for both countering the Kashmir narrative through communalization of discourse and then showcasing the communalization elsewhere in the country to whip up communal frenzy. The Congress ambiguity and silence on the issue once again reveals the party's similar temptation to play second fiddle to the more venomous Hindutva discourse rather than countering it. The Congress offered its support to the Bar Association on the occasion of the bandh, even though it sited some ambiguous reasons, like calling the ongoing situation a failure of the PDP-BJP coalition, while endorsing the strike. While party high command at the national level remained silent, until recently, over the issue, the local Congress unit was hobnobbing with groups that were visibly doing the bidding of the BJP, Kashmir based Congress leaders have contradicted their Jammu counterparts. Is there more method to this madness other than the usual temptation of playing soft Hindutva that the Congress cannot resist? Only time will tell.

Amidst all this politicking, for three months justice for Asifa was forgotten. The response of liberal minded people was shockingly missing or lukewarm. This is just as horrifying as the gory sequence of events in which the girl was raped, brutalized and murdered for pure parochial and xenophobic reasons. Even after her death, she continued to be victimised and horrifyingly raped and murdered over and over again with a discourse that sought to justify the act, deny its existence or shamefully even prop up the victimhood of the perpetrators - all under slogans of nationalism. Metaphorically, the story resembles the tormenting tale of 'Thanda Gosht' that Manto penned. For its chilling narrative and the way it was handled by various stake-holders atleast for three months till there was a sudden 'awakening of the conscience', Asifa's story will continue to haunt us forever. It should haunt us and serve as a grim reminder of the dehumanised, irrational and spineless society and polity around us!

(This is a revised article. Major parts of this piece are incorporated from two articles earlier published in News Laundry and National Herald)


News Updated at : Sunday, April 15, 2018
 
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