A young muslim girl's death reignites growing religious divisions

On June 10, 2019, three Hindu men were sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a young eight year old Muslim girl, Asifa Bano, reflecting the unceasing and devisive tensions between Muslims and Hindus in India. The rising accounts of sexual assault attacks on young women in recent years have led to a call for harsher punishment for the culprits. 

After the attack of young Asifa in 2018, the Lok Sabha implemented the Criminal Law Bill, which criminalizes the rape of girls below the age of twelve, with the death penalty as its maximum punishment. Reports show that incidents of rape are increasing, however, the exact number is unclear because many of them remain unreported. Even so, rates of official reporting have increased over the past five years, yet, conviction rates remain stagnant. With rape accounting for 12% of all crimes against women, a survey conducted by the Thomas Reuters Foundation in 2018 found India to be the most dangerous country in the world for women. 

These religious strains came to the forefront when Asifa Bano, a member of the nomadic tribe, the Bakarwal, disappeared from her village in Kathua in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in January of 2018. The investigation revealed that she was taken to a remote Hindu temple where she was subjected to multiple accounts of gang-rape, forcely induced drug use and starved. Four days later, she was found in a nearby forest where she used to tend to her family’s horses. She was reportedly found to be strangled with her own scarf and hit in the head with a rock. 

The man responsible for orchestrating the attack was identified as Sanji Ram, a 61 year-old retired government revenue officer and custodian at the temple where the attacks occurred. Ram’s extreme nationalist beliefs drove him to execute this plan in an effort to drive the Muslim, nomadic tribe away from a plot of land that has been largely disputed over with the Hindu majority community in Kathua. Mr. Ram recruited a son, a nephew and a few other local village men to kidnap the young girl. Three additional men, also police personnel, were found guilty of destroying evidence to the crime.

Although the conviction is deemed as progress for the protection of women’s rights in India’s legal system, Asifa’s family members believe they have not received “complete justice.” Asifa’s father, Muhammad Akhtar, expressed his expectation of capital punishment for the felons who executed the systematic attack. Muslim protestors agreed and voiced these complaints as they took to the streets and awaited the trial’s decision.

The story sparked anger amongst Hindu nationalists as counter protestors rallied behind the supposed falsely convicted men. A group of Hindu women threatened to light themselves on fire if the trial continued. A mob of hindu lawyers even physically blocked police officers from entering the courthouse to file charges against the men.  Many Hindus believe the eight men convicted were framed and the event was a conspiracy theory contrived to demoralize the Hindus. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) stance on the controversial trial was questioned when members of the party attempted to move the case from the state police to the Central Bureau of Investigation, in an effort to receive greater leniency throughout the trial. In addition, multiple BJP officials led counterprotests proclaiming the Hindu mens’ innocence. They were then immediately asked to resign from their position. Prime Minister Modi was criticized for not publicly denouncing the incident quickly enough. Modi responded to this accusation that he was trying to “pacify the people”

Asifa Bano’s death is seen to be part of a daunting pattern of violent attacks against Muslims, particularly Muslim women. Only a few days before Asifa’s death was another young girl similarly killed in Uttar Pradesh where her body was found in a sewer in Madhavpuram of Meerut. While the Criminal Bill of 2018 was a breakthrough development towards the greater protection of women, this conflict continues to persist as Hindu protestors take to the streets to proclaim the innocence of Asifa’s attackers, some of who were police officers responsible for enforcing, rather than dismissing, this critical piece of legislation. 

Photo Credit: Jaipal Singh/EPA