An Indian activist holds a placard during a protest against a rape, which has now turned political. Photo: AFP / Sajjad Hussain
An Indian activist holds a placard during a protest against a rape, which has now turned political. Photo: AFP / Sajjad Hussain

Three weeks after an eight-year-old girl from a nomadic Muslim community was found dead in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua district, details surrounding her murder have got murkier amid suggestions the incident is linked to a rival village and custodial land that her community occupies.

Chairperson of the State Commission for Women, Nayeema Mehjoor, who visited the girl’s family last month, revealed that they suspect the alleged rape and murder is linked to the “vast chunk of custodian land in area”. Mehjoor told Asia Times she had shared this with Mehbooba Mufti, chief minister of the northern state, and other “concerned authorities.”

Born in the nomadic Bakerwal community, the girl had taken her horses to a pond about a mile downhill from her hill house when she went missing on January 10. She was found dead a week later, a mile from her village, Risana. Her family alleges the girl was abducted, raped and tortured before being killed.

“Her lips were bitten. There were marks of violence including burns on her thigh and face, and her legs had been broken with some heavy objects,” her father Muhammad Yousuf said. The government, awaiting a forensic report, is yet to confirm rape, but Yousuf said the women who gave the girl a ceremonial bath before her burial “confirmed that her genitals were mutilated.”

Battle for custodial land

During the Partition of India in 1947, hundreds of Muslims were killed in riots or migrated to Pakistan amid fears of communal killings by Hindu mobs. They left behind swathes of land in Jammu and Kashmir. The property was subsequently taken over by the government after a dedicated department was set up in 1949, and came to be known as “evacuee property or “custodian property”.

In the Hindu majority district of Kathua, “almost 90% of the land is custodian property, and 100% of it is occupied by members of the majority community. Over the past three to four years, tensions over land occupation have been so high that communal boundaries have been fixed over it. Even if a cow owned by one community ‘infiltrates’ into land owned by the other, it’s not returned. What do we say about humans?” social activist and lawyer Talib Hussain, who is fighting the girl’s case, said.

Hussain, a member of the tribal Gujjar community, said that for the past few years the minority community was looked at with suspicion by some of the Hindu community – as if “we will encroach upon their land”. He said Gujjars had to pay Hindus even to collect fodder and leaves in the area, despite all the land being custodian property.

According to Hussain, the bakerwal girl’s family procured land in the area around six years ago, and constructed their house there. The land was just up from a village of about 25 families from the Hindu community.

“Basically we, nomadic Bakerwals, would spend two to three months at one place and then move to a different area with our herds, but some [extremists] propagated a false notion that we are now grabbing land,” the lawyer said.

When the community took the girl’s body for burial, “some baton-wielding goons appeared at the graveyard asking us not to bury her there, as that way the land would permanently remain with the Muslims,” Hussain said.

He said a member of the Bakerwal community had procured the land for a graveyard six years ago, and that five bodies had already been buried there. “But the way the burial was resisted this time has never happened before”. It took a lot of persuasion before they were able to bury the Bakerwal girl there, Hussain said.

Strange response from police and local officials 

the girl’s family claim that despite “mysterious circumstances” around the girl’s disappearance, local police did not file a report for two days. In fact, they issued a lookout notice for the missing girl in newspapers – four days after her burial.

A lookout notice issued by Kathua Police, four days after the Bakerwal girl was buried.

Facing public fury over the horrific killing, the state government – a coalition of the People’s Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janta Party – announced the arrest of a 15-year-old boy on January 19. “The accused has confessed the crime,” officials said.

According to official documents, “the investigation conducted by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by SDPO Border Chadwal revealed that the accused kidnapped the minor girl and put her in nearby cowshed at village Rassana, where he attempted to rape her and when she resisted, he killed her by way of strangulation.”

But Hussain was unconvinced. “How could the minor accused single-handedly execute the entire crime with no one in the village getting to know about the entire incident? Is it a ploy to shield other culprits?”

The lawyer was later arrested by police, allegedly for making these remarks and threatened with action under the draconian Public Safety Act. But he ended up being released after an angry debate in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly.

The gruesome rape and murder has rocked the state’s Legislative Assembly for weeks, as opposition lawmakers have made several shocking allegations public.

“The screams and cries of the girl were heard by neighbors. Why was there such a delay by police [to help her?]. The kidney of the girl was also removed by the accused, where were police before the organs of the abducted girl were removed?” National Conference (NC) lawmaker Shamima Firdous said.

But despite the outcry, the NC President and former chief minister Omar Abdullah never visited the bereaved.

Twelve days after the girl’s body was found, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti “summoned” the family to her office and formally released a picture of her talking with them.

A photo released by Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s office after she met with the Bakerwal girl’s family on January 29.

“The parents of the eight-year-old girl … sought an expeditious probe into the killing of their daughter and bringing the culprits to justice. The Chief Minister assured them that the government has already constituted a Special Investigating Team to probe the case and in the meantime the case has also been handed over to Crime Branch for further investigation,” the official spokesman said.

Yet it seems there is no respite for the Bakerwals, many of whom plan to migrate from the area after the horrific killing. “Though the entire story was conveyed to the chairperson of the Women’s Right Commission [Mehjoor], there has been no respite for the nomads, as they continue to live in constant fear,” said Hussain.

“Even the water supply to some villages has been cut off. We don’t want a probe by the Crime Branch, which is just another wing of the police. We want a CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] probe.”

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