The brutal rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl from a Muslim minority group is not just about gender violence.
The gruesome rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Kathua district of Indian-administered Kashmir is a chilling reminder of how sexual assault is used as a tool to instil fear among those belonging to the minority communities in India.
There have been many Indians, especially on social media platforms, who have repeatedly claimed that one must look at this rape as a gender violence crime. But to turn a blind eye to the events that took place before and after her murder and to her belonging to the Bakarwal nomadic minority would be grossly unfair.
The official investigation has already shown that there is a hate crime element to the rape and murder - in other words, the victim being attacked by her murderers had a lot to do with her being a Muslim Bakarwal.
The charge sheet reads:
In the course of investigation, it transpired that [one of the accused] was against the settlement of Bakarwals in Rasana Kootah, and Dhamyal area, and always kept on motivating the members of his community of the area not to provide land for grazing or any other kind of assistance…
[Two of the accused] were also against the settlement of Bakarwals in Rasana, Kootah and Dhamyal area who had already discussed this issue [...] to Chalk out a strategy for dislodging the Bakarwals from the area. They were blaming the Bakarwals on one pretext or the other and used to threaten them...
This apart during investigation it transpired that a particular community had a general impression that the Bakarwals indulge in cow slaughter and drug trafficking and that their children were turning into drug addicts...
Thus during investigation it has become abundantly clear that the accused had a reason to act against the Bakarwal Community and hence the conspiracy ultimately resulting into the gruesome rape and brutal murder …"
One could easily see in these lines elements of the demonising stereotypes that have provoked attacks on minorities across India in recent years. In 2017 alone, accusations of cow slaughter (forbidden in most Indian states) against minority communities resulted in dozens of mob lynching and 11 deaths.
Furthermore, tensions between the Hindu majority and minorities have also resulted in communal violence in the past in which women and girls have been specifically targeted, as was the case in Gujarat in 2002 and Uttar Pradesh in 2013.
In this sense, it is difficult to see the sexual assault and murder in Kathua only in the framework of gender violence. Unfortunately, we live at a time when rape has become a political tool to instil fear among minority groups in India.
Support for the suspect rapists
Before this brutal case made to national and international news, the Bakarwal community struggled with pressure from members of the Hindu majority not to make noise about it. The family and their lawyer were repeatedly threatened not to speak out; some members of the community left early for the mountains. Her parents were forced to take her brutalised body to another village to bury because baton-wielding locals did not allow them to lay her to rest in the place where she used to live.
But even more disturbingly, after the suspects in the case were arrested, locals organised protests in their support. On February 15, thousands joined the demonstrations in Kathua to demand the release of special police officer Deepak Khajuria - one of the accused.
The march was organised by the newly created right-wing Hindu Ekta Manch (Hindu Solidarity Platform, based in Jammu) and was backed and attended by officials from the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including two ministers in the state government.
After much outrage, the ministers submitted their resignations, but one cannot but wonder why they were not expelled by the party immediately for being part of the protests. Similarly, Congress Party member Ghagwal Vijay Tagotra, who was also in the front line of the protest, was suspended but not expelled from the party.
It took national public outrage and the release of gruesome details of the violence unleashed on an 8-year-old girl in temple premises for the prime minister to come out and issue a general statement four months after the murder. This says a lot about how seriously a crime committed against a Muslim girl belonging to a nomadic community in a state like Jammu and Kashmir is treated.
But it hasn't only been Kathua locals and politicians who have reacted disgracefully to the brutal murder.
Public figures like Indian feminist and academic, Madhu Kishwar have gone as far as claiming that the crime was committed by "jehadi [sic] Rohingya" refugees.
Support for the Bakarwal community from tribal organisations has also been conspicuously absent.
"The inherent bias against the Muslim minority community also displays itself in the fact that there have not been any joint statements made by de-notified/nomadic tribal organisations across the country condemning the incident faced by the nomadic family let alone standing in solidarity with them," told me one leader of an alliance of denotified tribes, who did not wish to be named.
As protests around the country take place to demand justice for the eight-year-old victim, we must ponder two points.
One, in the December 2012 Nirbhaya gang-rape case, the family of the victim did not have to beg and plea for their safety and security; there were no protests in support of the six suspects and rightly so.
Two, not one of those named as the suspects in the gang rape of seven Muslim women during the Muzaffarnagar riots in Uttar Pradesh in 2013 are behind bars today. Society and media both forgot the women soon after they received a small amount of compensation as rape survivors.
With this in mind, we should continue to demand not only that justice is served for the Kathua victim and her family, but also that it is seen as a hate crime.
We need to acknowledge that there is a problem with both gender and communal violence in our country.