They found her body after eight days. Eight-year-old Asifa’s face was battered black and blue. She was mutilated. Her mother was horrified.
But for three months, few said a word. There were some news reports in local Kashmiri papers, and an online campaign to bring her justice. But for some time, Asifa became just another brutal killing in Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir.
This was until the charge sheet was released to the media last week. According to the statement, Asifa had been taken to a temple and gang-raped by at least three men. Eight suspects were rounded up in the case, including four police officers.
Asifa had been strangled, killed and dumped in a nearby forest. One police officer allegedly took a bribe to cover up.
It is charged that the gruesome crime was part of a plot to drive the Bakarwals, a nomadic Muslim community to which Asifa belonged, out of the Kathua district in Jammu by various Hindu groups.
The acrimonious motive was made more extraordinarily palpable when supporters of the eight men took to the streets, arguing they had done nothing wrong.
Even members of the ruling BJP party in Jammu and Kashmir supported the accused, startling India’s liberal elite, who have now begun to mobilise to call for justice for Asifa.
Protests and vigils have taken place in some of the country’s major cities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government has been called out for his silence over this incident and another rape of a 16-year-old girl by a BJP legislator in Uttar Pradesh in mid-2017. When he finally spoke, he promised justice. As if he could say less.
But Kashmiris are neither surprised nor enamoured by the duality of India’s response to the gruesome crime. They know this is not just a story about a rape of a little girl.
The story here is more about entitlement and impunity, of jingoism and fraught Hindu nationalism; even in death, the little girl’s body is being used as a means to wage political battles.
On the one hand, you have Hindu nationalists following Hindutva’s bidding: building a Hindu majoritarian state where minorities like Muslims, Christians and others are second-class citizens.
Their support for the perpetrators is analogous to the larger ambitions of shifting demographics and changing the face of the nation. This is, then, their war against Muslims and those who do not belong.
The targeting of Asifa was deliberate, to rape her and kill her was an attempt to instill fear and shame into the community.
On the other hand, most liberal Indians, screeching in horror at the gruesome murder of Asifa (and the 16-year-old girl from UP) have a lot more to answer for. While they might be calling for justice, their inability to see the crimes as part of the larger culture of impunity is unconscionable.
For one, there is no attempt or ambition to link the violence meted out on Asifa as part of a larger practise of sexual violence in India’s disputed borderlands.
That Asifa’s rape and murder is part of a larger attempt to dilute and change the demographics in India’s brutal military occupation of Kashmir will be glazed over.
They will focus on the brutality on the girl-child, as if the men acted as rapists and not those with larger political intent.
Why? This is the Indian liberal: uninterested in changing the status quo. Kashmiri self-determination, the dignity or justice for Dalits or the marginalised is none of their concern.
This is also Jammu after all, where a massacre of Muslims took place in the first attempt at a demographic change in 1947. In other words, there is precedent for this violence.
How can we be so sure that this liberal outrage for women and girls is a farce?
Well, these are the same folks who are silent when Kashmiris are raped and murdered at the hands of Indian security forces. They are the same liberals who say nothing when Kashmiri youth are shot in the face and blinded by pellets.
This is, after all, the occupation that created the conditions for Asifa’s rape, murder and cover-up. But India’s liberals wouldn’t dare suggest that impunity has emboldened the behaviour of their armed forces; it would be “anti-national” to do so.
The security forces in Kashmir are upholding the idea of the nation after all, so they can be excused for their crimes. But here, the perpetrators don’t represent nation and therefore they must be punished. This false consciousness is extraordinary.
Take the logic of Nidhi Razdan, NDTV’s director, who described those supporting the accused as “fake nationalists”. On the contrary, it is precisely the jingoistic nationalism that has allowed India to slip out of control.
Or consider the words of famed Hindi film lyricist, Javed Akhtar. In his tweet calling Indians to come to their senses, he reminded his fans that Asifa comes from the Bakarwal community who had informed the Indian army when Pakistani intruders had entered the country in 1999.
Here, Akhtar wants to “prove” that the raped 8-year-old came from a community of patriots and was deserving of their support.
In protesting for justice for Asifa, India’s liberals have little more on their mind than themselves; the heinous crime is a slight on their identity as modern, civilised, thoughtful, yoga-loving Indians.
The attack on Asifa offends their sense of self. This is not the India “they” want. To raise the ante over the treatment of Asifa is an opportunity to make themselves more relevant. But no one on this track is likely to admit they helped Hindutva run away unhindered in the first place.
In the coming days, if you notice that Kashmiris are not enamoured by the support of India’s civil society or its media or its elite for their liberal tears over Asifa, don’t be surprised - they know this has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with image.
* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.