Early this year, an eight-year-old Muslim girl was abducted, sedated, gang raped and brutally murdered by Hindu fanatics in the Kathua area of India.
Asifa Bano belonged to a nomadic tribe. She had taken some of family’s horses to graze when she was kidnapped and taken to a Hindu temple. Her body was later found in the forest.
An investigation revealed that she was raped and then murdered during her captivity. Subsequently, eight people were arrested. But what followed this ugly series of events was even more horrific and inhuman.
The supporters of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came to the rescue of those held in connection with the crime. They not only demanded the release of the accused but also waved the national flag during the protest. Some BJP supporters shamelessly mocked the victim by making sexist comments on social media, one of them even stating that had the Muslim girl been alive she would have become a suicide bomber.
Angry protests in India and outside the country by those outraged by what happened to Bano forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break a months-long silence and assure the nation strict action would be taken against the perpetrators. Two BJP ministers who had supported the accused had to resign from the government of Jammu and Kashmir. Such was the gravity of the crime that even the United Nations made a statement asking for accountability.
The opposition Congress Party also responded slowly. Its leader Rahul Gandhi described the incident as a “crime against humanity. ”
What distinguishes this case of sexual violence though is that Bano was raped and killed with a political purpose: The police charge sheet says this was part of a conspiracy to instill fear in the minds of the Muslim nomads in Kathua and force them to migrate.
The justification of such an act by BJP supporters must be read and seen in that light. All this boils down to the tendency of the BJP and other Hindu right-wing groups to use the bodies of Muslim women as battlefields to humiliate and intimidate Muslims, whom they treat as aliens in Hindu-dominated India. Bano’s case, therefore, should not be confused with other instances of sexual violence involving minors. The BJP and related political forces have to be made answerable for the mindset behind such acts.
This isn’t the first time that the Hindu Right has been involved in sexual violence against non-Hindu women. In 2002, when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, many Muslim women were gang raped during anti-Muslim pogroms organized in the state by BJP supporters following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. Over 50 passengers had died in the incident, which was blamed on Muslim fundamentalists.
The so-called secular Congress Party that is now shedding tears over this incident must also take blame for setting such a precedent. Many Sikh females, including minors, were raped during the 1984 anti-Sikh violence that followed the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. The Congress had orchestrated this massacre to polarize the Hindu majority in the name of nationalism.
Sexual violence has always been used as a weapon to punish and persecute minorities in India. The forces of bigotry in the BJP have made it more acceptable by giving impunity to its followers.
The Indian security forces have used it extensively in conflict zones, including Kashmir, where an armed insurgency for independence has been active for years. To suppress the movement and shame the militants and their supporters, the Indian forces have targeted Kashmiri women, a majority of whom are Muslims. The Indian state represented by both the Congress and the BJP often try to shield its soldiers in the name of the national interest. Whether it’s an outright sectarian force like the BJP or any other political actor, the use of rape as a weapon in conflict must be condemned by the whole world.
This Thursday, April 19, a candlelight vigil is being held for Asifa Bano at Holland Park in Surrey, B.C., from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.