NEW DELHI, India (ViaNews) – The brutal rape-and-murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in the state of Kashmir has, once again, not only put the spotlight back on the safety issues for Indian women but has served to heighten communal tensions in a part of the country that is already largely divided and perennially on the edge due to religious issues. Asifa Bano, the little girl belonging to the Muslim nomadic Gujjar community, was found murdered on January 17 in the Kashmiri town of Kathua, seven days after she went missing while returning home from grazing the cattle in the evening.

Asifa Bano was rapped and killed in Rasana Village, state of Kashmir, India.
Asifa Bano was rapped and killed in Rasana Village, state of Kashmir, India.

“It occurred to me that something horrible must have happened to my girl,” said Muhammad Yusuf Pujwala, father of Asifa Bano, in an exclusive interview to the BBC. The Gujjars crisscross the Himalayan territories in Jammu and Kashmir along with their goats and buffaloes, stopping in various areas along the way to graze their cattle and make use of the public land and resources for their needs. During the winter months, they come down to the Jammu area, a place dominated by a Hindu population. It is widely believed that this heinous act was triggered owing to an issue where the Hindus were against the nomads using their land, claiming it was a move to “systematically alter the landscape of the region of Jammu.” Police say that the act may have been done to strike fear in the minds of the community and drive them out of the region.

Following the discovery of the murder, state chief minister Mehbooba Mufti ordered an investigation by the special unit crime branch of the Jammu and Kashmir police. Investigation findings suggested that Asifa had been kept confined in a local temple for several days while being administered sedatives to keep her unconscious. In the charge sheet, it was also alleged that she underwent rape and torture for days before being murdered. Indeed, her dead body was found with both legs broken and blue and red marks all over her body. She was strangled before being hit on the head twice with a stone.

60-year-old Sanji Ram, a retired government officer, is alleged to be the mastermind behind the crime and he was assisted by police officers Tilak Raj, Anand Dutta, and Surender Verma. Deepak Khajuria, one of the officers tasked with the initial search after Asifa went missing, is also said to have been involved. Vishal Ram, son of Sanji Ram, his nephew, a juvenile, and their friend Parvesh Kumar are also accused of the rape and murder. Police have arrested all eight accused and they are awaiting trial at present. Events following their arrest, however, is what led to nationwide protests and anger against the ruling Narendra Modi-led BJP government.

The matter was best summed up by The New York Times that tweeted on the issue as follows: “In India, the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl has led to protests by Hindu nationalists – coming to the defense of the accused.” Indeed, right-wing activists in Jammu and Kashmir took issue with the arrest of the eight accused and staged protests demanding their release. Lawyers in Jammu also prevented police from entering the court premises to file the charge-sheet against the accused people, supporting the acts of the accused as a lesson taught “to the community of Asifa Bano” for stirring up anti-India sentiments in the region. The Muslim-dominated region of Kashmir has been at the heart of a long-standing armed revolt against Indian rule in the area and this issue has only served to elevate the communal tension between Hindus and Muslims already looming large in the region.

What has incensed the Indian citizens is the fact that two ministers from the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) attended a rally that had been taken out in support of the accused who, being Hindus, had the audacity to commit such a heinous crime in a temple, considered to be the most sacred place for the religion. Massive protests have taken place across the country in all major cities and on social media with #JusticeForAsifa becoming a trending hashtag on Twitter. Celebrities and common people alike have voiced their anger to the cause which, for many, have brought back memories of the similarly gruesome Nirbhaya rape-and-murder case in Delhi during 2012.

Breaking his long-standing silence on the issue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a statement condemning the act and providing assurance to the nation that “no culprit will be spared, and complete justice will be done.” However, not many are buying into his words unless they witness some constructive development on the case with the desired punishment for the criminals. This is a sensitive matter that the Prime Minister must negotiate with care, especially with the state elections and general elections around the corner.

The rape laws in the country had been changed following the Nirbhaya case in 2012 with more stringent sentences being declared for crimes committed against minors. The age of criminal responsibility for serious rape crimes was also reduced to 16 following the incident. Now, Prime Minister Modi has approved death penalty for raping a girl below the age of twelve years. The move has been met with a lot of flak and sarcasm from the Opposition as well as the citizens who want similar penalties to be made legal for any form of sexual offence against women of all ages in the country.

It remains to be seen whether such a drastic change will come about in the Indian judiciary and penal system to help protect the right and dignity of the women of the country.