Aasifa Bano, daughter of Muhammad Yusuf Pujwala and Naseema, lived in Rassana village of Hiranagar in Kathua district.
The family belongs to the Gujjar-Bakerwal nomadic tribe, also known as Pahari Muslims, recognised in 1991 as Indian Scheduled Tribe. By tradition, the community consists of goatherds and shepherds. Asifa’s family resides 72 k.m away from the Jammu region.
According to the family members, on 10th January, 8-year-old Aasifa went into the forests to bring home the horses. Aasifa was very familiar with the forest and used to take care of the horses for the family regularly. However, on that tragic day, only horses returned but not Aasifa. After some time, the family members became anxious about her disappearance and along with a couple of neighbours, they went in search of her. The search team went deep into the forests but returned without any traces of the child.
On 12th January, the panic-stricken family filed a complaint in the nearby police station and according to Aasifa’s father, the police dismissed their complaint immediately and alleged that she must have eloped with a boy.
With no help in sight to find their daughter, the Gujjar-Bakerwal community staged a protest and blocked the Jammu National Highway thus forcing the police officers to start a search for her. But, the police also used laathis to forcibly remove the protestors.
Five days later, on 17th January, her hacked and strangled body was discovered by a local in the forest. According to her mother, when they found Aasifa’s body, her legs were broken, her nails had turned black and there were blue and red marks on her arms and fingers.
After the protests and blocking of the roads, a special investigation committee was set up by SSP Kathua Sulmain Chowdhary to handle the case. The member of the investigation committee was Sub Inspector Anand Dutta, who is now alleged to have taken a bribe of 1.5 lakh from Sanji Ram to divert the case.
National Conference and Congress Members raised this issue in the State Assembly and later, CM Mehbooba Mufti ordered to hand over the case to Crime Branch.
On Jan 24, according to Kashmir Reader, hundreds of people from the Gujjar-Bakerwal community assembled at the DC office in Anantnag, protesting and demanding the government nab all the culprits behind 8-year-old Asifa’s rape and murder in Kathua.
The community gave the government an ultimatum of 24 hours and threatened that the 25 lakh strong community would be forced to come out on the streets if the government did not act fast.
Besides the protest, other sections of the society condemned this crime and demanded a fair inquiry and strong action against the accused. J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti promised quick actions.
Soon after, crime Branch arrested Deepak Khajuria, Special Police Officer of J&K. His assistant Surinder Singh was also arrested. It is also alleged that head constable Tilak Raj, Deepak Khajuria, and SPO Surendra Verma helped to wash out the evidence of the crime.
Section 144 was imposed in the district to avoid any further protests after the arrest.
As soon as the perpetrators were arrested, the people of Hindu Ekta Manch came out in support of the alleged rapists. The Hindu Ekta Manch members, under the leadership Vijay Kumar waived the Indian National Flag and chanted the slogans of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and ‘Jai Shree Ram’ in favour of the alleged rapists.
Bar Council of Jammu Sides with the Alleged Rapists
After three months as the charge sheet was to be submitted, the Bar Council of Jammu region started to hold protests and tried to stop to file the charge sheets against the accused. The lawyers of Kathua and Bar Association of Jammu declared a general strike — ‘Jammu Bandh’ on April 11 — demanding the transfer the case from crime branch.
President of Bar Association of Jammu, B.S. Salathia who called for the strike, was also supported by the BJP leaders of the Jammu region. However, many trade unions and the Bar Associations from PirPanjal and Chenab region defied the call and condemned the act.
Hindu Priest as the Master Planner of the Crime
As per the investigation report, Aasifa was confined to a local temple for several days and were given sedatives. She was sedated, raped by multiple people for several days, brutally tortured and then finally strangled to death.
The report named Sanji Ram, a 60 years old retired government officer, and also the Hindu temple priest, as the master planner of the crime. He hatched the plan along with police officers like Surendra Verma, Anand Dutta, Tilak Raj and Deepak Khajuria. Besides them, Sanji Ram’s son, Vishal Jingotra, his nephew (a juvenile) and his friend Parvesh Kumar (Mannu) are also charged with the crime.
As per the investigation, the motive of the crime was to terrorise the nomadic community who uses public and forest land for grazing their animals. The lawyer of the accused Ankur Sharma accuses the nomadic community of ‘altering’ the demography of Jammu region, where Hindus are in majority. The majority Hindus later did not even let the body of the girl be buried in the same region and the grieving family and community members had to walk several miles to bury her in another village.
From the reports, the animosity amplified as a scuffle had occurred between Gujjar-Bakerwal community and Sanji Ram, a few months earlier.
BJP Legislators Favours the Alleged Rapists
In the Hindu Ekta Manch rally, two BJP Ministers Chowdhary Lal Singh (Minister of Forest) and Chander Prakash Ganga (Minister of Industries and Commerce) along with BJP Legislators Rajeev Jasrotia and Kuldip Raj spoke in favour of the alleged rapists. Chowdhary Lal Singh challenged the section 144 and said in Jungle Raj, these laws do not work.
Chander Prakash Ganga trivialised the death and rape of the child and said that rape happens all over the country. “We support the accused, who is a Hindu” was the common slogan. After the Bandh, a bike rally with men holding the Indian national flag was held in support of the accused. Women members of Hindu Ekta Manch went in for hunger strike in favour of the alleged rapists.
Protests Demanding Justice for Asifa Continues
Gujjar-Bakerwal and Sikh organizations in Jammu took out separate marches seeking death penalty to the accused. Both the BJP ministers were forced to resign from their posts. National Conference of Jammu and Kashmir expelled Shanti Swaroop from the party as he to had participated in Hindu Ekta Manch.
Multiple organisations across India and the social media have erupted in protests and demanding justice for the child. Multiple protests are in plan across the country and in the Kashmir region
With inputs from Inam Ul Haq (Special Correspondent to TWJ) and Harpeet Singh Seethi (From Early Times)