By Mohamed Harees –
‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’- Martin Luther King, Jr.
As the fast-tracked trial of eight men accused in the brutal gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Jammu and Kashmir began, outrage over sexual crimes against women and girls, spread yet again not just across India, but also far beyond. The body of Asifa Bano was found in Kathua on January 17 this year and a four-month police investigation found she was kidnapped, starved, drugged, and raped repeatedly inside a Hindu temple. The police say the attack was planned and carried out to try and drive her Bakarwal Muslim nomadic community out of the area. India’s Supreme Court instructed that the Jammu and Kashmir state government provide security for Asifa’s family under threat, as well as for the family’s brave lawyer, Deepika Rajawat, who allegedly faced rape and death threats herself. Apparently exposing the tense communal divide in India between the majority Hindu and minority Muslim population, the case has thus become another battleground in India’s religious wars, with Hindu nationalists turning it into a rallying cry — not calling for justice for Asifa, but rushing to the defence of the accused.
As IMF chief Christine Lagarde remarked, ‘’what has happened (in India) is just revolting. I would hope that the Indian authorities, starting with Prime Minister Modi pay more attention because it is needed for the women of India’. Like any controversial event, the hashtag #JusticeforAsifa became a widespread movement of rage across the country and internationally. Sexual harassment, assault, and rape are ubiquitous problems of India, and action is once again pressured by the eyes of an enraged international community. However sexual abuse by those in authority and close to them ,has become commonplace not just in India, even beyond, in US, UK and Sri Lanka for example. Rape culture is thus but one reflection of the utter moral degradation not just in Maha Bharat which boasts of a great civilization and a glorious past, but across the so-called civilized world too. Some realities ,observations and lessons are therefore worth taking note, specially in the context of how politicians, the lawyers, the Police as well as the public acted in the case of Asifa’s gruesome rape/murder case which are relevant to all even beyond the borders of India.
Initially, the political establishment’s sheer indifference and apathy in the matter until recently, was disgusting to say the least. Their selective silence showed their partiality and their inability to stand up for justice for all. The reason why, when Asifa’s case indeed shocked the nation and sparked a political storm, blaming fingers were pointing out at the BJP over its’ partial attitude towards the heinous crime. It was two BJP ministers Lal Singh and Chander Prakash in the State, who took part in a rally in support of the Kathua gang-rape accused. BJP MP and spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi however in a tongue in the cheek statement said “What kind of action should we take if someone comes and says that they were misled?” “Is it a crime to get misled?” she asked, adding that the people get misled and this can happen with anyone. The two BJP ministers were misled by a few people. When you are in public life, people come to you with their version… So, the lesson to them is not to believe one side or the other and let the law take its course”. It was eventually public pressure which led to the two ministers submitting their resignation. The government’s action has been barely adequate when crimes against women have been on the rise despite tough laws enacted in 2013 in the wake of the horrific gang Nirbhaya rape case, involving a New Delhi woman Jyoti Singh Pandey and her subsequent death in 2012.
BJP was deploying both silence and noise as part of a strategy. The BJP’s cold indifference to the victim and her family until latter stages , was both sinister and disturbing. Modi in any case, remains reluctant to condemn communal or gender related violence, especially when the victims are Muslims. Even when deriding Muslims has become an everyday affair, Modi rarely pulls up his offending colleagues. Virtually every day, some BJP legislator or another makes offensive remarks about minorities. ‘The Wire’ Indian online journal has this to say. ‘Modi has a way with words but chooses not to speak when it is politically inconvenient to do so. At times of national tragedy – and who can deny the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl by individuals connected to the police is both a tragedy and a disgrace – people expect their leaders to speak out in the name of the nation. Why is Modi reluctant to speak? What awful political calculus is dictating his silence?’. After a long silence, facing flak and political heat over the recent incidents of crimes against women and children, when PM Modi finally spoke out and condemned the crime, it was too late and too little. The long silence of the BJP political establishment to do condemn the gruesome act has been deafening.
Then there was the lawyers’ obstruction in this gang-rape case, which should be taken cognisance of , which sadly reflects the deterioration of the overall moral standards in the legal profession. Shame on a profession which is duty bound to uphold the rule of law free of partisan politics and religious differences!. In contrast, lawyers from the Jammu and Kashmir Bar Council, Jammu High Court Bar Association, and Kathua district bar association stooped low and obstructed advocates representing the victims’ family in the courts. Jammu High Court Bar Association also passed a resolution to protest and not to attend the court and lawyers took to the streets shouting slogans and trying to block the road outside the court where the charge sheets have been filed, obstructing Police from the filing of charge sheet in the court as well. The Police team was also heckled by the lawyers and prevented from submitting the charge sheet before the Chief Judicial Magistrate court in Kathua. This tantamount to impeding the process of law which affects the delivery of justice” and Supreme Court observed “Obstruction of process of law and delivery of justice, and that too by lawyers, cannot be condoned and is unethical. Access to justice cannot be impeded by lawyers”.
Of course, there are always angels among Satans. It was the victim family’s lawyer Deepika Rajawat, an Advocate in Jammu and Kashmir High Court and also Chairperson of Voice For Rights, an NGO working in the field of human rights, who was lauded by many for her undeterred fight for justice in the case despite several threats from the Jammu Bar Association, while some right wing peoples were even threatening her to kill and rape. She also served a legal notice upon Zee News, allegedly for broadcasting a false news report tarnishing her image. She has become an internet sensation with her hell-bent attitude in fighting for what’s right- a hero who has defied all threats and abuses, and embarked on an arduous journey to provide justice to the eight year old Asifa Bano. Many tweets and posts echoed that ‘Deepika may be fighting the case alone but the whole nation is standing with her’. In a statement, she boldly thundered ‘Justice is blind to caste, community and religion. I have full faith in the judiciary of this country, and I am sure that justice will be done. I am not deterred by the fake and false propaganda spread against me and I will continue to do my professional duty without fear or favour’. She indeed is a role model and an inspiration to all those lone voices who wants to bring justice to the vulnerable against the pressure exerted by the mighty and the powerful in their professions.
With regard to Police action , there were mixed views. At the initial stages, with no signs of Police moving to trace Asifa’s whereabouts , on January 12th the family filed a police complaint, in which her father Yusuf Pujwala recalls ‘the Police were unhelpful’. He even recalled that one police officer suggested that she had ran off to “elope” with a boy. As time progressed, the tribe became more and more frustrated at the lack of law enforcement support; so staged protests in condemnation of ignorance. This finally forced two police officers to be assigned to the case. It is said that Sanji Ram, a retired government officer, allegedly planned the kidnapping and rape along with the help of police officers Surender Verma, Anand Dutta, Tilak Raj and Deepak Khajuria, all of whom are Hindu. Khajuria was one of the officers who had been assigned to the case when she had first disappeared. Among those subsequently arrested were four police officers, including Khajuria as well who wanted to rape the 8-year old one more time before she was killed-a sick rapist indeed!. Further, sub-inspector Anand Dutta and head constable Tilak Raj were also accused of trying to scuttle the probe by not collecting vital evidence and washed the girl’s dress to help the accused.
However, it was also to the credit of the State Police that the case was properly investigated and accused brought to Justice ultimately. Several prominent members of BJP have been pushing to have the case taken out of the hands of the state police, arguing that the Central Bureau of Investigation would be a better, more neutral agency to handle it. Many suspect this was an attempt to win leniency for the accused, noting that the bureau is an arm of the central government, which the Bharatiya Janata Party controls. However, the Directorate Police stood their ground, and its’ Head said ‘we work as police officers, we don’t work as Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. All my officers, I can vouch for them. They work as professional police officers’. The 15-page charge sheet filed by their Crime Branch in the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court revealed that the brutal crime was an attempt to remove the minority nomadic community from the area. Police officials said that they have physical evidence and DNA tests linking the defendants to Asifa’s death. They also say they have interviewed more than 130 witnesses, who “unequivocally corroborated the facts that emerged.’’
Besides, like lawyer Deepika Rajawat who rose like a star to bring Justice to Asifa, it is also important to cite the case of Shwetambri Sharma, the only female member of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of Crime Branch of the Jammu and Kashmir Police that investigated the rape and murder of Asifa. She too is an inspiration to Police officers across the world. It is relevant to quote her, taken from her interview to a newspaper. “As most of the accused were Brahmins, they over-emphasised their surnames. They particularly tried to influence me and communicated through different means that we belonged to one religion and one caste and I must not hold them guilty of the rape and murder of a Muslim girl. I told them that as an officer of the J&K Police, I had no religion and my only religion was my police uniform. “When all such tactics failed, their families and sympathisers resorted to blackmailing and intimidation through whatever means at hand. They carried lathis, shouted slogans, organised rallies under the tricolour and blocked our roads to different villages and finally the court. But with perseverance and patience we stood our ground to carry out our job with total determination, commitment and professionalism”.
There was admirably public outrage too, which rose above narrow religious prejudices. A group of former civil servants also issued a strongly worded open letter to PM Modi, holding him responsible “more than anyone else” for the “terrifying state of affairs” in the country. The letter asked Modi to check India’s “free fall into anarchy” by taking tough action against the alleged perpetrators of the Kathua and Unnao rape cases and the perpetrators of other hate crimes across the country. Incidentally, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, 50, from the ruling BJP allegedly raped the girl last year in Unnao district. But her case was registered only after she tried to kill herself recently in front of the chief minister’s home.Thousands of Indians have also taken to the streets to join nationwide protests against continuing sexual assaults of women and girls. There were many condemnations in social media under the meme; ‘Not in our Name’.However ,several people have asked why the horrific fatal gang-rape of eight-year-old Asifa in Kathua in January hasn’t seen even a fraction of public anger in Jammu that was seen in the case of Nirbhaya in Delhi in December 2012. According to analysts, the simple answer is vote-bank politics. Supporting Asifa or, to be more factual, opposing her killers could be seen as being anti-Hindu, something that neither the BJP nor the Congress seems to want at this juncture. It was therefore apparent that the ongoing stir, which started out as apolitical, is drawing support from all the parties that want to attract Hindu votes.
Many analysts observe that at the heart of the ongoing agitation in Jammu is the mistrust cultivated for decades by the politicians of two culturally distinct regions. The seeds of hatred are sown so deep that it has almost created an unbridgeable gap between the two regions. Asifa fell prey to a conspiracy hatched for months by Sanji Ram, the custodian of the temple ,with the political elements; in this horrifying story, a place of worship was used for the heinous crime. If one pays attention to the demands of the protesters one will see it’s a dangerous show of majoritarianism and absolute contempt for law. For days, no one, not even the Jammu-based media, reported the story in Rasana village. It was only after two state BJP ministers addressed the protesters waving tricolor in support of the accused surfaced in social media that the media in Srinagar woke up to the story. There were forces inimical to peace among the protesters who want to start an agitation on the backs of the peace loving people of Jammu, and make it a Hindu versus Muslim issue.
Politics should never interfere with atrocities that enact such human brutality and cruelty on any innocent human being. The case of Asifa Bano is one of many that have not surfaced the international spectrum of news, but nevertheless they are there, calling for action in the protection of all human beings, faced with the inhumane crimes of sexual assault and abuse. The rape is a crime committed by maniacs and those involved, regardless of their religion, should not be spared. New laws alone however would not arrest such crimes and ensuring that they are implemented is another challenge,. Besides, the mind-set of men also needed to change. There is also the need to introspect on “what kind of a society we are developing into.
In the streets of London, Mumbai, Washington or Sri Lanka, the recent outpouring of stories from women using #MeToo and its many iterations has showed the uniformity of the problem — irrespective of country and culture. In 2017, the world has made one thing clear: Sexual harassment is everywhere. Since the allegations surfaced many high profile names have used social media to highlight the problem of sexual assault, some also detailing the harassment they’ve endured. Although both genders suffer abuse “there’s a specific misogynistic component to rape culture. But, what can we do to fight the rape culture and to empower a victim to come forward and speak out about her sexual assault? It is important that public pressure is kept up to encourage victims to stand up to the bullies who promote the rape culture. Social media has been playing a useful role in this regard. There’s a burden from society too, upon people who speak out. Overall, to completely get rid of a culture in which rape happens, we have to change the root cause of why this happens in the first place: a lack of respect for human dignity. Question arises in everyone’s mind: Humanity! Where Art thou?