It was January 2018. We were all happy that our daughter has turned 10. Since it was a special moment for the family, we did our very best to celebrate the occasion in a very special way.
As my daughter is fond of movies, we invited all her best friends to the Cineplex in Surrey where they all enjoyed the Jumanji show. Later, all the kids were treated with pizza.
While we were all consumed by fun sitting in a comfort zone of Canada, back in the country of my birth Asifa Bano—an-eight-year-old girl merely two years younger than my child was going through a trauma of which we remained unmindful for weeks.
Asifa had gone missing in the Kathua area of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir on January 10. She belonged to a Muslim nomad community. Her body was found in the forest a week later.
The police investigation revealed that the child was gang-raped and brutally murdered by the Hindu fanatics who wanted to send a message to her community and force them to migrate.
Being a father of a girl, I was as outraged as many others were within the Indian diaspora. What followed was even more shocking. The leaders of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came out in support of the alleged perpetrators.
The Hindu Ekta Manch (or Hindu Unity Front) sought the release of those arrested in connection with rape and murder.
A rally was held where the Indian national flag was waved in support of the accused. A highway was blocked and the investigation was dubbed as “unfair and biased”.
The protesters were partly offended by the arrest of a special police officer, Deepak Khajuria, who was allegedly involved. Some others took to social media justifying the killing of Asifa, with a few suggesting that had she been alive, she would have become a suicide bomber, implying that all Kashmiri Muslims are terrorists.
For the Hindu right, even moderate Kashmiri Muslims who have been campaigning peacefully for years for the right to self-determination and independence are called terrorists and separatists.
They're also accused of intimidating Hindus in the Kashmir Valley and forcing them to leave.
It is a separate matter that Islamic extremists blamed for violence in Kashmir are treated harshly by the Indian forces through draconian laws, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, whereas Hindu extremists mostly enjoy the backing of the Indian state that remains officially secular.
Slowly, it became apparent that Asifa’s body was treated as a battlefield by the people who wanted to instill fear in the minds of her community members. The arrest of Khajuria offers compelling evidence that the crime was done with the backing of the police.
Muslims face intense persecution in India
Asifa was held captive after she had gone out to take ponies out for grazing. She was locked up inside a temple, sedated, raped, and murdered.
All this was done as part of a conspiracy to drive out Muslim nomads, who the conspirators also accused of indulging in in the slaughter of cows.
Since Hindus consider the cow as a sacred animal, "cow vigilantism" has grown since the Hindu nationalist BJP government was elected in 2014.
Muslims are frequently frisked and beaten on slightest suspicion of carrying beef, and in extreme cases are murdered by Hindu fundamentalists.
In 2015, a Muslim man named Mohammad Ikhlaq was lynched in Uttar Pradesh after being accused of storing beef in the fridge. Much like the supporters of Asifa’s killers waved national flag during their rally; the body of one of the Ikhlaq's killers, who had died due to an ailment in jail, was covered with a national flag.
If this was not enough, the BJP government’s enthusiasm to ban cow slaughter has made the task of such people much easier, as the police also side with the vigilantes to deal with “cow smugglers”. The allegation of cow slaughter gave an added motivation to the assailants to punish Asifa and her community.
In all, eight people are accused in the police charge sheet. One of the defence lawyers, Ankur Sharma, who is associated with the Hindu Ekta Manch, went to the extent of saying that Hindus should boycott buying milk from Muslim nomads.
Earlier, a group of lawyers tried to prevent the police from presenting the charge sheet.
A Muslim lawyer and a activist, Talib Hussain, has been at the forefront of the campaign for justice for Asifa. He was also attacked by the BJP supporters.
Meanwhile, Deepika Singh Rajawat, the female counsel of Asifa’s family, has received threats.
Rape was clearly used as a weapon to both terrorize and humiliate Muslims, something the BJP has done even in the past. After all, one of the ideologues of the Hindu right, V.D. Savarkar, who inspires the BJP and the current Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, advocated for sexual violence against Muslim women.
In 2002, when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, Muslim women were deliberately assaulted and raped by BJP supporters during an anti-Muslim massacre allegedly orchestrated by his government. Minor girls were targeted back then, too.
Modi has publicly denied any role in this pogrom.
Though the sequence of events regarding Asifa was being closely followed by activists and members of the slain girl’s community since she disappeared in January, the world came to acknowledge this only after three months had passed.
The United Nations came out with a strong statement forcing Modi to break his silence.
Modi had already launched an initiative, “Save the girl child, educate the girl child,” to empower women in a male-dominated Indian society. He has thundered that those who abuse girls won’t be spared.
The two BJP ministers who participated in the demonstration in support of the accused had to resign.
The opposition Congress Party leader, Rahul Gandhi, took much longer to describe the rape and murder of Asifa as “crime against humanity”. That the local Congress leaders came together with the BJP to form Hindu Ekta Manch in Kathua may be an explanation behind his silence.
Activists raised concern in Surrey, B.C.
There have since been a series of protests held across the globe. We in British Columbia organized a demonstration and a conversation on the issue. Under the aegis of Indians Abroad for Pluralist India (IAPI) that was formed in 2017 by people, including myself, in response to growing attacks on religious minorities in India, we held a procession asking for justice for Asifa. It occurred outside the Surrey Newton Library.
Teesta Setalvad, a visiting human rights activist from India, joined us. Earlier, she explained how rape was used as a weapon in this case.
At a public meeting held inside the library, she read the charge sheet in detail and made everyone understand the gravity of the situation.
After she finished, we took to the street outside and raised slogans against the BJP and growing atrocities on minorities.
A little girl also joined the march carrying a portrait calling for justice for Asifa. She is the daughter of a dedicated activist friend, Rakesh Kumar, who especially brought her to the event to show his solidarity with Asifa’s parents.
My wife Rachna Singh, who is the MLA for Surrey-Green Timbers, joined us briefly in the beginning. She later raised the issue in the B.C. legislature.
Despite widespread outrage, there was an attempt to overlook the political aspect of the gruesome episode. Some did that out of sheer ignorance, others were doing it on purpose to dilute the real issue.
In Surrey, a vigil was organized for Asifa, but it turned out to be a rally against the general rape culture. Most speakers emphasized on patriarchy and male chauvinism. Barring a few individuals who touched upon politics of sexual violence, the organizers wanted to steer clear of indulging in criticism of any “specific political party”, even though we all knew the role of the BJP in the entire incident.
Very cleverly, the religious card was used to discourage any criticism of the BJP. People were told that no community or caste should be blamed.
To be fair, some people did try to malign the entire Hindu community for what happened to Asifa, but I was not convinced.
My own Hindu friends and colleagues, including the CEO of Spice Radio where I work as a broadcaster, took a stand for Asifa. Shushma Datt is a practising Hindu. Though she has a picture of herself shaking hands with Modi inside our office when he visited Canada in 2015, she has been as critical of Hindu fundamentalism as the religious fanaticism of any other community. She tweeted to Modi and challenged him to break his silence over the tragedy.
Deepika Singh Rajawat, the legal counsel to Asifa’s family, is a Kashmiri Hindu and has remained immune to sectarian polarization being used by the BJP to divide people on religious lines.
The ordinary Hindus were equally disturbed. However, the BJP, which has frequently used Hinduism as a shield, must be held accountable. The very fact that Asifa was held captive and raped inside the temple shows that the self-styled defenders of Hindu nationalism are only using the religion to further their agenda of terrorizing minorities. Those who discouraged people from pointing this out in plain and simple term—and rather focused on rape culture alone—were actually helping the BJP.
There was also an attempt to discredit those who were asking for justice from the Jammu and Kashmir police crime branch investigators. Right-wing commentators tried to float alternative theories, suggesting that the rape did not happen. They also tried to attack the credibility of some of the investigators, citing their Kashmiri background and creating more confusion, forcing the authorities to come out with a statement confirming rape of Asifa to counter such rumours.
Asifa’s rape was not like any other case of sexual abuse of a child. The intentions of the accused must be exposed and seen in the proper light to understand how sexual violence continues to be used with impunity against minorities and the oppressed groups in the world’s so-called largest secular democracy.
Kalyanpuri to Kathua
Asifa’s rape and murder is the culmination of ongoing state repression for which the BJP alone cannot be held responsible. It’s the Indian state and the previous secularist Congress governments who have encouraged this culture.
Ironically, Rahul Gandhi, who described Asifa’s rape and murder as a “crime against humanity”, has no moral right to speak for the minority communities. It was his party, led by his late father and the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, that had organized anti-Sikh massacre in early November 1984 following the assassination of his mother Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister of India, sent the army to attack the Golden Temple complex, the holiest shrine of Sikhs. It was done in June 1984 to flush out a handful of militants who had fortified the place of worship with weaponry.
The military attack left buildings inside the shrine heavily destroyed and damaged; many innocent worshippers died. Sikhs all over the world were enraged. On October 31, Indira Gandhi was shot to death at her official residence in New Delhi by her Sikh bodyguards, resulting in large-scale anti-Sikh violence wherever the Congress party ruled.
Sikh women were raped by mobsters instigated by Congress leaders. Girls who were minors were not spared either. The Kalyanpuri Police Station area in New Delhi alone saw the worst form of sexual violence against Sikh women. Some eyewitnesses noted that girls aged nine or 10 were also raped.
Hartosh Singh Bal, a journalist friend based in New Delhi, has been consistently writing on the 1984 carnage. He has thoroughly read all the inquiry reports related to the bloody episode.
He told me: “Nobody is sure how many unknown Asifas were exactly raped and murdered at that time, but the survivours still recount having witnessed Sikh girls being abducted and molested as the police watched.” All this was done to teach the Sikh community a lesson.
Much like in Kathua, Kalyanpuri also symbolized a divide created by the establishment to keep a minority community at its place. An attempt was made to suppress the facts and deny the involvement of the ruling party in the massacre.
The police not only disarmed the Sikhs of their traditional weapons in the name of maintaining peace, but let the mobs kill them and rape women without fear. No senior police officer or topnotch Congress leader was ever convicted even as many witnesses openly testified about their involvement before several commissions of inquiry.
Adding insult to the injury, Rajiv Gandhi went to the extent of using the metaphor of a falling tree to justify the violence. He publicly stated that when a big tree falls, earth around it shakes a bit. This received a thunderous applause from his supporters.
Following in the footsteps of Rajiv Gandhi, a senior BJP leader and deputy chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Kavinder Gupta, tried to dilute the issue of Asifa.
Gupta described it as a “minor incident” that “should not be given much attention”.
Modi is latest reflection of majoritarianism
What all the right-thinking people who strongly denounced the rape and murder of Asifa need to see is that the process of transforming India into a Hindu nation by using violence did not start with the emergence of Modi or the BJP. This process began 30 years before Modi became the prime minister, or much earlier, when India was being led by those known as secularists.
For those who continue to fool themselves by assuming that the BJP is the real culprit that needs to be ousted from power to restore the lost glory of India, it is important to recognize that Modi is only a symptom and not the cause of the problem. He has merely taken advantage of the space created by previous rulers to grab the power.
The doctrine of majoritarian democracy is the root cause of the current situation in which various religious minorities find themselves unsafe in India. And it was long applied by the flag bearers of secularism. Unless we accept that, we will continue to deviate further from the real task at hand: calling for a radical change in the power structure of the Indian state that has become inherently sectarian.
The term "1984" should describe the base year in understanding how and when the mask of India’s secular democracy came off. The inability of the civil society and the BJP's opponents to comprehend the political circumstances back then has contributed to the increasing threat of Hindu right today.
Had 1984 not happened, and the Sikhs were not allowed to be chosen as victims by the Congress-led Indian establishment, then 2002 wouldn’t have happened either, nor would anyone have dared to pick on Muslims or others today in the name of cow protection. That's leaving aside the question of targeting a girl child, raping and murdering her, and then coming to the rescue of those who indulged in this heinous crime.
This is not to suggest that the rape wasn't used as a weapon before 1984. Women from the oppressed communities, such as Dalits (or so-called untouchables) and Adivasis (the tribal people), have frequently been targeted by the "upper caste" goons to humiliate those on the lower ladder of the caste-based Indian society. It's well-documented that security forces have repeatedly used rape as a weapon in the conflict zones such as Kashmir, Punjab and tribal areas.
Having lived in the late 1980s in Jammu, a city that is very close to Kathua, I can tell that the Hindu right did not become strong overnight in that part of India.
In the aftermath of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, I commonly noticed posters with slogans such as Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain, Hindustan Hinduon ka hai (Proudly say we are Hindus, Hindustan belongs to the Hindus) displayed at many public spaces all over Jammu. The Shiv Sena, a Hindu fundamentalist group, had a strong base in the city.
Being a Hindu-dominated region, it was polarized by the Shiv Sena in the name of religion. They capitalized as much on anti-Sikh and anti-Muslim biases as they could in light of growing activities of Sikh and Muslim separatists in Punjab and Kashmir, respectively.
The group frequently targeted innocent Sikhs if there were violence against Hindus in the neighbouring state of Punjab by Sikh militants seeking a separate homeland of Khalistan.
At school I encountered taunts such as “underground”, a reference to my Sikh identity because of ongoing violence by Sikh extremists in Punjab. My turban and beard back then made me vulnerable to such prejudices, though my family was fortunate to survive any violent attack directed at our community.
My late father was a government employee and it was a transfer that brought us to Jammu in the first place.
The worst retaliation came in January 1989. By that time we had already moved to Chandigarh in the state of Punjab because of another transfer.
It was the birth anniversary of the tenth guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh. Sikhs in Jammu, like across the rest of India, were gearing up for an annual religious procession.
Even as intelligence reports indicated signs of trouble, the police remained indifferent. Fourteen Sikhs died in an attack on the procession by Shiv Sena activists who were waiting for an opportunity to strike.
The trigger was the display of a banner glorifying the assassins of Indira Gandhi; offended Hindus who saw the deceased leader as their saviour.
They attacked the innocent participants with bricks and later caught and killed Sikhs as they started leaving, while the police stood by.
Not surprisingly, as in the Kathua episode, police were forced to release those arrested. This came after their supporters used pressure tactics.
The technique of keeping a minority community under the boot that was once used in Kalyanpuri area of Delhi and other parts of India in 1984 was repeated in Jammu. Asifa’s rape and murder was yet to come.