An 8-year-old Bakerwal girl was abducted, sexually assaulted and then brutally murdered to scare away the pastoral nomadic community from Kathua’s Rasana village, according to Jammu and Kashmir police.
Asifa Bano was abducted from a field when she was grazing cattle on January 10. Her battered body was recovered a week later. The gruesome incident has not only divided the political parties including the ruling coalition partners BJP and PDP on regional lines but also exposed growing Islamophobia against the landless nomadic tribes—Gujjars and Bakerwals—in Jammu.
Reportedly, there was an attempt by a section from within the government to thwart the investigations in the case, from the time of her disappearance.
According to sources, the majority community in the area have been led to believe that the state government is discreetly settling nomads on state land to change demographic of Jammu province, which is a Hindu dominant area in the Muslim majority state. While Muslims make only 31% of the total population, they are concentrated in hilly districts such as Poonch, Rajouri, Doda, Kishtwar, Ramban and Reasi. In rest of the economically better-off districts such as Jammu, Kathua, Samba and Udhampur, they are said to be below 10 per cent of the region’s population.
Police submitted a status report of the case to the State High Court on Friday. The report, according to sources, maintains that the Crime Branch has launched a “massive manhunt” to nab the mastermind of the crime.
The “juvenile”, who was the first arrest made by the Crime Branch, turned out to be above 19, after an age determination test was conducted on him at the Government Medical College and Hospital Jammu recently. The Crime Branch has also arrested two local Special Police Officers for their direct involvement in the incident besides a head constable on charges of destroying evidence.
“The probe has revealed that the call details and mobile tower data place the accused at the location of crime. There is evidence that drugs used to sedate Asifa were bought by one of the arrested SPOs from a chemist’s shop in Kathua days before Asifa was kidnapped,” according to sources. “In a letter to the State’s Police Chief, the crime branch has listed all the lapses committed by the Kathua police. The head constable was arrested after it was prima facie established that he had washed Asifa's blood and mud-smeared clothes, before sending them for forensic test. Besides destruction of evidence, the local police didn’t preserve the crime scene. No searches were carried out in the village even after Asifa's family filed a missing complaint.”
The nomadic tribals seasonally migrate between the plains and high-altitude Himalayas. In Rasana village, which is a small hamlet amid forest area, at least 20 nomadic families including Asifa’s family, have traditionally been camping every winter. The nomads—who rear cattle for sustenance—lament that the local residents have turned hostile towards them over growing shortage of land and natural resources in the recent years.
Even after the battered body of the child was handed over to the family by the police, local residents didn’t allow them to bury it in the area. The aggrieved family had to walk about eight km to bury Aasifa in another village, Kannah, where a few Bakerwal families had their own community graveyard.
While investigations have shifted hands from a first Special Investigating Team (SIT) to a second SIT to the Crime Branch, the BJP has been demanding transferring of case to the CBI.
Hindu Ekta Manch has been protesting against the arrest of the accused. It enjoys the support of several BJP MLAs, including two ministers in the state government.
Gujjar activist Talib Hussain alleges that a member of the Manch is mastermind behind the conspiracy to drive nomads away from the area and the rape and murder of the child was part of it.
The opposition National Conference took out a march, on Saturday, from its party headquarters to the Chief Minister’s residence in Srinagar, to protest against the alleged attempts to shield the accused in the case.