The attempts to intimidate and drive out a nomadic community from their village has exposed the horrors faced by Muslims in India, where supporters of Hindu groups continue to be emboldened by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Moazum Mohammad reports from the Pir Panchal mountains in the Indian-administered Kashmir.
As the sun emerged from a thick cloud over the lush green peaks in Pir Panchal on a recent morning, Naseema removed the blue tarpaulin sheet from the tent they’d been sleeping in. The mountains have been home to her and Mohammad Yusuf Pujawala, her husband, for the last few weeks. The couple, along with dozens of other families from the Bakarwal community, takes a grueling two-day trek to come to these mountains every year from Kathua, a village on the banks of the Khad, about 55 miles from the state’s winter capital of Jammu. This year, they were forced to arrive here earlier.
“This time we came early because of threats from Hindus in our village,” says Pujawala. Nearly 87 percent of Kathua’s population is Hindu, who dominate the businesses and own almost all of the land in the district. Bakarwals, the Muslim nomads who for centuries have traveled with their livestock between the mountain pastures in the summer and lowland grazing grounds in the winter, are the third largest ethnic tribe in the region—about 60,724 people, according to 2011 survey by the Indian government.
On January 10, Naseema and Pujawala’s eight-year-old daughter went missing from a neighboring village. Seven days later, authorities found her body in Rasana, a village in Kathua—she had been raped and murdered. Since then, eight men, including the custodian of a local Hindu temple, have been arrested in the case. (Indian law prohibits identifying a rape victim by name even after they have died.)
The incident has sparked outrage in the region and across the country, especially following protests in support of the detained men, led by outfits like the Hindu Ekta Manch, whose members have ties to both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as the Indian National Congress.
Police in the state of Jammu & Kashmir said the motivation behind the gruesome rape and murder was to terrorize and dislodge the Bakarwals from Kathua, and the man at the center of the conspiracy was Sanji Ram, the custodian of the local temple. Police officials have also said that Ram had been discouraging Hindus in Kathua from providing land to the Bakarwals for grazing their cattle.
“We didn’t know he was living next to us,” Naseema says about the Hindu priest. “If I knew, I wouldn’t have allowed my daughter to go to Rasana.”
Jammu & Kashmir police say the girl had walked to the nearby village that day to inquire about her horses. According to the charge sheet filed by authorities, that’s when the priest’s nephew signaled her to the forests, claiming he had seen her horses. Local investigators said she was then kidnapped, drugged, and held inside the Devisthan temple, where the men took turns and raped her.
“My daughter loved horses, and she would play with them,” Naseema says, pointing to a big stone a few yards away which she said her daughter used to jump on the horseback.
In a 15-page document, investigators describe in sordid detail what happened to the girl in January. The eight-year-old was held without food, given sedatives, and subsequently raped. Minutes before she was murdered, one of the accused men told the priest’s teenage nephew—he is a minor and is being tried under a separate law for minors—to wait so that he could rape her one last time. Then, according to police, the two of them raped the little girl again before strangling her with her scarf and hitting on her head with a stone.
“I can’t believe how brutal they were,” Naseema says. “Hindus would harass and abuse us when our herd would graze on their farmlands, but we never expected they would drug our daughter and rape her.”
When the parents went out looking for the girl on January 10, Naseema said they ran into Ram, the priest, who told them to go back home.“Your daughter is having roti somewhere, and you will find her,” Naseema says he told them that evening.
Life has always been filled with hardships for Kashmir’s Bakarwals, but Naseema said this year has been “the toughest and the saddest” because of the tragedy that befell them. “There is no end to the loss,” she says. Three of their children and Pujawala’s mother were killed in a road accident in the mountains eight years ago. After the accident, the family adopted the girl from Pujawala’s sister when she was only two months old.
Pujawala said they had plans to admit their daughter to school this year and were looking forward to seeing her in a uniform. Her family and relatives in the Bakarwal community remember her as talkative—“chirpy like a bird”—and a clever girl who was always happy whenever she went go to the meadows with the animals.
“She loved trekking along these mountains,” Naseema says. “She would sit on a horse and keep watch on the herd.”
The family was supposed to attend the court hearings on their daughter’s rape case in the following days, but Naseema didn’t know if they could make it.
“How can we attend the hearings?” Naseema shouts. “Who is going to look after the herd?”
For generations, Bakarwals have trekked hundreds of miles every year herding and grazing their goats, sheep, cows, and horses. Many of them say their lives would cease to exist without the animals because they are the only source of their livelihood. “For us, these goats and sheep are as dear as our children,” says Pujawala.” “I climb mountains so that our herd doesn’t die from hunger. We may not eat, but will do everything we can to protect them.”
Pujawala says his community had been tolerating the harassment and intimidation from Hindu villagers in Kathua for years. But in the aftermath of their daughter’s rape, members of the Hindu Ekta Manch have turned hostile towards Muslim families in the village. “We are four to five nomadic families in the village,” Pujawala says, “but the Hindus accused us of occupying their lands and conspired to throw us out.” Pujawala says Hindus in the village also regularly accuse them of “smuggling” cattle—illegally transporting cows for slaughter.
Last year in April, a Bakarwal family that was traveling with their cows was attacked by a mob of Hindu men in Jammu. About 150 men beat the Bakarwals with iron rods and sticks and burned down the local police post. When the police arrested 11 Hindu men involved in the attack, local groups called for a strike to force their release.
The attack was one of the many taking place across the country, as hardline Hindus formed vigilantism groups calling themselves Gau Rakshak—“Cow Protector”—and targeted Muslims and Dalits for possessing beef or transporting cattle for slaughter from one state to another. Reports of attacks on Muslims by cow vigilantism groups have grown since the election of BJP leader Narendra Modi—97 percent of the cow-related attacks from 2010 to 2017 took place after Modi’s election in 2014, according to a content analysis of the English media in India by Indiaspend.
“When Bakarwals go to mountains, they accuse us of smuggling cows.”
Talib Hussain, a Bakarwal lawyer and activist who has been rallying for justice in the Kathua rape and murder case, said members of right-wing Hindu outfits have been attacking Bakarwals during migration between Jammu and Pir Panchal mountains.
“When Bakarwals go to mountains, they accuse us of smuggling cows,” says Hussain, adding that Hindu right-wing groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, are systematically harassing and threatening Muslim nomad communities in Kashmir.
Chaudhary Abdul Hamid, a representative of the Bakarwal community, said the Bakarwals and the Gujjars—another ethnic Muslim community—have been living in fear following the rise in violent attacks by Hindu groups. “The Bakarwals receive permission for transporting cows during migration from one place to another, but they are still being targeted by Hindus,” says Chaudhary.
Two years ago, a BJP minister threatened a delegation of Gujjar farmers by reminding them of the 1947 massacre of Muslims in Jammu & Kashmir region. He was also among the two BJP ministers who addressed the Hindu Ekta Manch rally in support of those accused of raping the Kathua girl. Since BJP came to power in the region three years ago, the ministers who oversaw the provincial forest ministry directed to remove encroachments from the forests—a move many nomadic Muslims say was aimed at removing them from the forest land.
For the Bakarwals, who earn their livelihood by selling sheep and goats, shrinking grazing lands and increasing restrictions from Hindu villagers and vigilante groups is adding growing apprehension.
“The forests are being closed for Bakarwals,” said Hussain, the Bakarwal lawyer, who last year led a caravan of livestock to the region’s highest office to demand right to the forest for the nomad community. The BJP has opposed implementing the law to guarantee the rights to members of the region’s tribal community, arguing that the laws enforced by the parliament cannot be extended to the disputed territory.
“Our issue is with grazing rights and right to life, but the RSS and BJP don’t want the law to be applied here because it involves Muslim nomads,” says Hussain, who has pledged not to wear shoes till the law is not implemented in the region.
The Hindu men accused of raping their daughter are still in prison, and their trial is yet to begin. The Hindu Ekta Manch has started a donation campaign to hire the “best” legal team and file a plea in India’s top court for handing the case to Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), an agency under the jurisdiction of the BJP government. So far, the court has turned down the plea in previous hearings.
“The crime branch fairly investigated the incident, but the Hindus want to shield the accused men by seeking a CBI investigation,” Pujawala says. “We don’t want that to happen.”
Following the nationwide outrage after a series of rape incidents, including the gang rape of the eight-year-old girl, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi signed an executive order last month introducing the death penalty for anyone found guilty of raping girls below the age of 12. “We want those men who snuffed the life out of a pure soul to be hanged,” Naseema says.
The Bakarwals still have more than five months before their winter migration, when they leave the mountains and head downhill to Kathua. But they are worried about going back to the village. Until now, Pujawala had been using pastures owned by Hindus on lease for grazing his flock. But Bakarwals fear that the Hindus would no longer lease grazing pastures to them even if they were allowed back in the village, especially if the Hindu men are found guilty and sentenced to death.
“I locked my home and abandoned my wheat fields in Kathua out of fear,” Pujawala says. “Usually I would hire a man to take care of fields, but no one was willing to stay on this year.”
After the family retrieved their daughter’s battered body from the village for the funeral, the Bakarwals wanted to bury her in the land they’d purchased a few years ago—and had used it as a graveyard to bury dead people in the past. But Pujawala said a group of Hindu men wielding batons threatened the family and told them they would excavate the girl’s body if she was buried there. So, the Bakarwals walked more than seven miles into another village to bury the girl’s body.
“When they didn’t even let us bury our dead daughter,” Pujawala says, “how can they give us their land to graze animals?”