Views from Srinagar
EIGHT years old, Ashifa Bano, went missing on Januray 12 from the vicinity of her home at a village in Tehsil Hiranagar, in Kathua district of Jammu province. The little girl disappeared after taking horses for grazing in the nearby fields, a practice she had been following since past so many days. The horses returned in the evening but she did not. Six days later, on Jan 17, her mutilated and bruised body was discovered by the villagers in the nearby Rassan forest. Her body bore multiple torture marks, and her family alleged that she was raped and brutalized during her abduction. She reportedly had bite marks on her tender body and her legs were broken, confirming that the little child had been subjected to heinous brutality before being killed. We will never know the measure of cruelty and violence this young child must have gone through before falling dead.
Asifa, (or Ashifa) belonged to one of the most underprivileged ethnic groups, Gujjar and Bakerwals. These people rear cattle, sheep and goat and constantly migrate with their flocks and families between high and low altitudes in the mountains, lands and valleys of the Jammu & Kashmir state. The habitat of these people is the hilly terrain of North-Western Himalayas.
These people virtually live and die with and for their cattle, which forms the main, in fact the only lifeline of their existence. They hardly have access to any of the amenities of modern life and continue to live under subhuman conditions, being always exposed to the wrath and harshness of the nature and humans equally.
Be it the scorching summer days, or the shivering cold winter nights, torrential rains or the stormy winds, they have little to protect themselves with. They have little to eat, hence majority of the community, more so the womenfolk is undernourished. They have little or no access to even the basic health care, and hardly have a permanent roof over their heads.
The disappearance of this little soul did not cause any ripples in the area, or anywhere else in the neighbourhood, or in the winter capital or in the state. Nor did it put the police on tenterhooks for any quick action despite timely filing of a missing report. Consequently, the family was left to act on their own to trace the missing child. Eventually, before police could do anything to recover the little girl, her mutilated body was found by her family members, leaving police to do the post murder rituals and formalities.
Shamefully yet, even the brutal murder of this unfortunate child could not stir the conscience in the so-called civil or civilised society. There was a criminal silence and indifference towards this ghastly and heinous murder of a poor helpless girl. The civil society of the province just got along with business as usual without giving any damn to the plight of the parents and the family of the victim. There was no candlelight mourning or march for poor the girl, no demand for quick justice, no efforts to offer any consolation to the family. It was only the dera (group of close relatives) of that particular family who cried and wept over the tragedy.
The belated and reluctant police action failed to infuse any hope of bringing the culprits to justice. The indifference of the society towards the plight of these underprivileged people shows how polarised and communalised these societies have become. It is pertinent to mention that almost the entire community of Gujjar and Bakerwals , 99.3 precise to be precise, are Muslims and belong mainly to the districts of Rajouri, Poonch, Anantnag , Udhampore and Doda. This is obviously the reason that no concern was shown by the majority community there towards this inhumanity against these unfortunate people.
There were no screams in television studios, no noisy debates, no live coverage, and no panel discussions. The brutality just did not qualify for any serious coverage in the national print or electronic media.
Ironically, the same citizens, the same media, the same civil society, had joined the pan-India demonstrations five years back over what came to be known as NirbhayaGangrape, where a 22-year-old para-medical student was gangraped and subjected to monstrous brutality inside a moving bus in Delhi. Spontaneous widespread protests erupted across the country expressing compassion and sympathy with the victim and her family and demanding strict action against the accused. Police identified four accused and arrested them in a short span of time, even before victim died few days later in a hospital in Singapore.
The beastly crime had triggered an unending media furore all across India and led to formation of new laws on crimes against women in the country and it looked that the entire country had come up alive against such ghastly crimes against women and will never tolerate such kind shameful acts in future, which, however have been touching dangerous proportions all across the country.
The fast track justice ensured that of the six rapists, one who was juvenile was sentenced for three years at a probation home. One of the prime accused was found hanging in his cell at Delhi’s Tihar jail three months after his arrest.
The other four convicts were sentenced to death on September 13, 2013, by the Delhi High Court, all happening just within one year of the crime. Such was the speed of the proceedings against the accused that the counsels of the four convicts said that the Supreme Court has bowed to public pressure in confirming the death sentences.
Coming back to Ashifa, it was somehow fortunate on part of otherwise unfortunate family that the state assembly was in session. The opposition leaders did everything to bring the crime to limelight and forced the government to take some action on the ground. The police eventually woke up following the pressure put by the opposition benches which resulted in the formation of the SIT and one accused, surprisingly a juvenile, is reported to have been arrested. However, it is alleged that the main accused in the crime , a local goon, is moving scot free as he enjoys backing and patronage of a particular political party, which is calling shots across the province, in fact across the country.
Pathetically, the members for the ruling alliance, particularly those belonging to BJP did not show any concern over the crime for obvious reasons. One wonders and feels pity over their selective attitude even towards human tragedies, which they have demonstrated quite often in the past.
Of late, the entire Gujjar and Bakerwal community have been subjected to various ways of harassment and intimidation, particularly since the present dispensation came into power in the state. Several attempts at various places in Jammu province have been made to uproot them from their ancestral dwellings on one or the other pretext by different government agencies.
Their journeys in the mountain terrains have ceased to be smooth and carefree owing to heavy presence of forces along the tracks of their movement. There have been murderous attacks on them by the goons calling themselves gawrakshaks even decamping with their cattle.
And now without any fear or fright, the evil hands have reached onto the very honour and chastity of the community, and the poor clique are finding themelves forlorn and forgotten, helpless and defenceless.