Kathua case aftermath: Calls for ‘sterilisation of Muslims’ fuel fears over MR vaccination drive

Many threats have been issued against nomads since the arrest of accused in Kathua rape and murder case. One of the ripple effects is growing suspicion towards the drive and worse, it’s rejection

NH Photo
NH Photo

Akshay Azad

A revolted nation stood in solidarity with the eight-year-old Bakerwal girl who was gang-raped for a week before she was brutally murdered in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir in January. But hundreds of children from her community continue to run the risk of living a scarred life as the existential crisis of their community has only intensified after it captured the national attention earlier this year.

The ongoing hate-filled propaganda and continued overt and covert communal threats since the arrest of accused persons in the brutal rape and murder case, have made the twin-communities, Gujjars and Bakerwals, even more vulnerable. One of the recent threats is ‘sterilisation of the Muslims’ that has resulted into their rejection of the ‘measles and rubella (MR) vaccination’ drive.

The vaccination of MR virus was started by the state’s Health Department on September 24. But Muslims especially tribal communities in Kathua, Poonch, Kishtwar, Doda and Ramban are refusing to get their children vaccinated fearing an imagined conspiracy against them.

In Loi Malhar area of tehsil Billawar in Kathua district, for instance, a team of health department was beaten up by the community members when the officials tried to vaccinate children. In many other hilly areas as well, the teams of the department have allegedly been warned against visiting their villages by the apprehensive community members.

In fact, in several Scheduled Tribe (ST) dominated hamlets such as Gujjar Basti, Massiti Mohallah, Kissen Nagar, Sumwuan, Masjid Mohallah and Nai Basti of tehsil Mahreen of district Kathua, the vaccination campaign had to be postponed by the department.

“When the Health department started vaccination in the last week of September, the attendance abruptly declined to below 50% in our school. Many apprehensive parents refused to send their children to the school, fearing vaccination,” said Sardar Amreek Singh, in-charge principal of the Government Primary School Gujjar Basti, Rajbagh. Majority of students in the school belong to Schedule Tribes.

“They suspect that MR vaccine is a Modi government’s conspiracy aimed at sterilizing Muslims. Rumours of separate injections for Muslim and Hindu children have been making rounds in the area,” Singh said, adding that despite door to door awareness campaign, ST population was reluctant to get their children vaccinated.

Rajbagh area is adjacent to Hirangar—which has been the epicentre of Kathua protests following arrest of the accused persons in the rape and murder case. Echoing popular sentiments, some Hindutva leaders who had the backing of BJP legislators, had allegedly declared in public rallies that they wanted local Muslims especially pastoral nomads to be sterilised. Notably, due to shrinking land and natural resources, pastoral nomads are viewed as land encroachers in many areas.

When the health department started MR vaccination, many observers pointed out, the threats again got renewed. “Several messages that the vaccines were aimed at making Muslim girl children infertile and boys impotent started swarming social media,” a local Gujjar youth disclosed pleading anonymity.

The department had earlier agreed to the demands for dispelling myths surrounding ‘separate vaccines for Hindu children and Muslim children’ in certain areas but later backtracked. “In Rajbagh area, the community members had suggested to the health department to hold awareness camps. But showing utter disregard for such suggestions, their teams visited the schools, which had only ST students, and started vaccination. This angered the community members,” he said, adding that “the agitated parents had to forcibly stop the vaccination drive.”

The paranoia has struck so deep that even Muslim officials who have been engaged by the health department to accomplish the task, have been facing the wrath of the suspicious community members. Sharing his experience, a government teacher said that “even though I belong to their community but when I tried to convince them, they got agitated and called me a ‘Modi agent’. I had no option but to give in and return. Had I persisted they would have lynched me.”

“The problem is that there is no interface between the (health) department and the nomadic communities. The trust deficit needs to be addressed first,” he remarked.

Block Medical Officer (BMO), Dr Sunil Sharma, admitted that in the Muslim dominated areas in Bani tehsil such as Koti, Chandyal and Loang, people have rejected vaccination drive. He rued that even during pulse polio programme, well-oiled rumour-mills were working overtime to dissuade people.

Another BMO from the adjoining Billawar area in Kathua district, Dr ML Raina, also complained that the department was facing stiff resistance from residents, especially Kashmiri migrants in Lohai, Malhar, Macheedi and Sadhota areas.

Similar incidents have been reported from other districts as well. “In Surankote, Poonch, as many as 12 students were hospitalized after MR vaccination at the school on September 26. This irked the parents as their children were vaccinated by the department against their consent,” said Guftar Ahmed Choudhary, vice president of Gujjar Bakerwal Conference, stressing that “lackadaisical” attitude of the authorities was also fueling the fears among community members.

Chief Medical Officer Poonch, Dr Mumtaz Ali and deputy Chief Medical Officer Kathua Dr Chitra Vaishnavi also confirmed the reports, maintaining that the department was trying to rope in religious heads to create awareness.

“We faced similar resistance in certain pockets of Kashmir Valley also. But after our sustained awareness campaign on the ground and social media, we were able to counter the false propaganda,” said state’s Immunization Officer, Dr. Qazi Haroon, assuring that similar steps are underway in Jammu region as well.

In Kashmir, the department aims to vaccinate as many as 20 lakh children aged 9 months to 15 years, out of which nearly 4 lakh have already been covered in the last ten days. Across the Pir Panjal in Jammu region, over 4.5 lakh out of targeted 7.50 lakh children, have been covered so far.

The immunisation campaign, Haroon asserted, would continue till the last child in Jammu and Kashmir gets vaccinated.

(The writer is a Jammu based journalist and media fellow with National Foundation for India)

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