The Gujjars and Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir, a nomadic community which make up 12 percent of the state’s population, have in the last 29 years of political turmoil in Valley remained loyal to New Delhi. If you ask a serving or a retired Indian Army officer who may have served on the Line of Control or International Border in the state, they will tell you how the Gujjars and Paharis are “the second first line of defence”.
On the morning of 18 January, I was sitting in the press gallery of Jammu and Kashmir Assembly when Mian Altaf, an influential Gujjar leader from the Opposition, waved an Urdu newspaper that had printed a photograph of Asifa Bano with a news item on the eight-year-old Bakerwal girl’s shocking murder. Soon, Congress and National Conference leaders joined him to demand a probe into the murder.
“Kya yehi ‘Beti padhao, Beti bachao’ andolan hai(Is this the ‘Beti padhao, Beti bachao‘ movement)?” Altaf shouted at the speaker and treasury benches. But he was soon outshouted by BJP legislators, Rajiv Jasrotia among them, who claimed in the house that it was a “family matter” and “land grab issue”.
No one paid much attention to the story. Most of the English newspapers in Jammu skipped reporting the incident, so we assumed it was another murder of a young girl, a child really, from a lower economic group, committed by her rich landlord.
The Gujjars and Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir, a nomadic community which make up 12 percent of the state’s population, have in the last 29 years of political turmoil in Valley remained loyal to New Delhi. If you ask a serving or a retired Indian Army officer who may have served on the Line of Control or International Border in the state, they will tell you how the Gujjars and Paharis are “the second first line of defence.” In the early nineties, when the insurgency broke out, a section of Paharis who live closer to Kashmiris, a separate community which is confused with other two, worked as guides in the Valley to take Kashmiri militants to Pakistan.
Gujjars and Bakarwals have always been discriminated against and looked down upon by most people, including Kashmiris. When Ghulam Nabi Azad became chief minister of the state, he was often called a “Gujjur.” In Srinagar, if you are from a village or a town, during fights and arguments, many people would call you a “Gujjar.” It is normally referred to person who is either “unclean” or has no “manners.” A slur.
It was surprising that most journalists in Jammu, who have done exceptional reporting on border violence, particularly on TV, failed to report the crime in Kathua. Two TV journalists from Kashmir arrived in the city later, one stayed back and continuously reported on the crime.
Two days later, a friend who works with a national daily, was missing in the Assembly. When I called a fellow reporter from Kashmir, it turned out he had gone to Rasana, a village in Kathua district, where the brutal rape and murder had taken place. Once there, he was asked to prove his identity, and disclose the hotel name he stayed in. He was terrified. He wrote about the incident many days later.
It was after three days that another journalist friend called in the evening. “Go to Rasana,” he said, “Media in Jammu won’t cover it.” I did not understand why they would not. On the fourth day after Asifa’s body was recovered, I arrived in the village.
“Kahan jana hai (Where do you want to go)?” a tall, broad-shouldered youth with a moustache asked my driver, who was wise enough to remain silent. He knew something had gone wrong. He is a Dogra from Jammu. Then he spoke: “Gujjarun kay yeha jana hai (We have to go where the Gujjars stay).”
The youth pointed towards a plateau near the forests, which was approached by a bumpy road. We moved forward and I took a sigh of relief. It takes a half-hour uphill trek from the nearest road, through dense forests, to reach Rasana village.
Seven years ago, Muhammad Yusuf Pujwala bought a piece of land in Rasana, where he has built a single-storied house. In the last three years, the villagers say the conflict between Hindu villagers and Muslim nomads has escalated. It worsened last year when Hindus demanded return of over one acre of land sold to the Muslims.
There have been fights over trespassing by cows and sheep. In a recent case, Sanji Ram, a former bureaucrat arrested in the rape and murder case, had charged a nomad Rs 1,000 for his buffalos entering his fields.
Pujwala is a Gujjar nomad and depended on Hindu residents for providing fodder in the form of tree leaves to his livestock, for which he used to pay duly. Asifa spent most of her time in a nearby forest. The family lived here only for four months before migrating to Kashmir and finally to Ladakh.
When I sat with him and his wife, he looked like a broken man. “Beti ka pyaar hi naseeb main nahi tha (Our daughter’s love was not even part of our destiny),” he told me. His wife was silent. Three days before she was abducted, Asifa had told her mother she had a fight with a boy from the neighbourhood many times in past few days. The boy was the nephew of Sanji Ram, the alleged ringleader of the crime. Though a juvenile, he was the first to be arrested in the case.
“Bahut ganda hai who larka (That boy is very evil),” Asifa had told her mother Naseema. “Bolta hai: cigarette piyo mere saath baith ke (He tells me: Sit with me and smoke a cigarette).”
“Dur reh us say, apna kaam kar (Stay away from him, do your own work),” she had advised her daughter, unaware of the hell that awaited her.
Apart from narrating this brief conversation, the couple hardly spoke. They know what it was all about. They know Sanji Ram. They know Deepak Khajuria. They know the juvenile. They know all of them had conspired to throw them out of the village.
But they were terrified. A few days later, I returned to the village. Emboldened by the support given to them by Talib Hussain, a crusader of tribal rights, they blocked the road and demanded the arrest of the culprits.
On my second trip, I was again confronted by local youth. They asked for an identity card. I left it in hotel. My bag was checked. I was let go peacefully. “They are nice guys but something is wrong,” my driver told me.
Upon reaching there, I saw a different version of Asifa’s parents. They were willing to talk. Shareefa Begum, a relative of Yusuf’s, walked in. She was an outspoken lady. Holding the hand of Naseema, she asked her to show us the clothes of Asifa. As she moved into the room, a trunk was opened in which lay a chocolate and maroon-coloured frock of her daughter. Then she broke down.
Shareefa, the relative, told me she knew the culprit was Sanji. “When our children were young, we used to tell them, ‘so jao warna Sanji Ram aayega (Go to sleep, or else Sanji Ram will come)’. He is a notorious man,” she said.
She knew Asifa had been violated. She performed her last rites, She saw red and blue marks on her arms and legs, behind her back and on her neck too. “Only a beast can do this to an eight-year-old,” she remarked.