The brutal gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Indian-administered Kashmir has put the restive state on edge. The investigation has split the region along religious lines.
On 23 January, six days after Asifa’s body was found, the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, ordered a investigation by the crime branch, a special unit of the state police.
According to the investigators, Asifa was confined in a local temple for several days and given sedatives that kept her unconscious. The charge sheet alleges that she was “raped for days, tortured and then finally murdered”. She was strangled to death and then hit on the head twice with a stone.
Sanji Ram, a 60-year-old retired government officer, allegedly planned the crime with the help of police officers Surender Verma, Anand Dutta, Tilak Raj and Mr Khajuria.
On the morning of 17 January, Muhammad Yusuf Pujwala was sitting outside his home when one of his neighbours came running towards him. He stopped in front of Mr Pujwala and broke the news: they had found his eight-year-old daughter, Asifa Bano. Her body lay in bushes in the forest, a few hundred metres away.
Mr Pujwala belongs to a community of Muslim nomadic shepherds called Gujjars who crisscross the Himalayas with their goats and buffaloes.
The crime has shocked the community, exposing the fault lines between Hindu-majority Jammu and the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley in a sharply divided state. The Kashmir valley has a tumultuous relationship with India – there has been an armed revolt in the region against Indian rule since 1989.
Police have arrested eight men, including a retired government official, four police officers and a juvenile in connection with Asifa’s death.
Two days later, on 12 January, the family filed a police complaint. But, according to Mr Pujwala, the police were not helpful. One of the police officers, he alleges, said Asifa must have “eloped” with a boy.
As news of the crime news spread, Gujjar staged protests and blocked a highway, forcing police to assign two officers for the search. One of those who was assigned, Deepak Khajuria, was himself arrested in connection with the crime.
Five days later, Asifa’s body was found.
“She had been tortured. Her legs were broken,” recalled Ms Naseema the mother of the minor, who had rushed to the forest along with her husband to see the body. “Her nails had turned black and there were blue and red marks on her arm and fingers.”
Mr Ram’s son, Vishal, his nephew, a juvenile, and his friend, Parvesh Kumar, are also accused over the rape and murder.
Investigators allege that Mr Khajuria and the other police officers – some of whom lodged the complaint and accompanied the family in the search – washed Asifa’s bloodied and mud-spattered clothes before sending them to a forensic lab.
They believe that the accused men wished to terrorise the Gujjar community into leaving Jammu. The shepherds use public and forest land in Jammu for grazing, which has recently brought them into conflict with some Hindu residents in the region.
“It was about land,” said Talib Hussain, a tribal rights activist and lawyer. Mr Hussain, who led a protest in support of Asifa’s family, alleges he was arrested and threatened by local police.
Ankur Sharma, one of the lawyers who protested on behalf of the accused, alleged that the Muslim nomads were trying to alter the demographics of Jammu, where Hindus are currently the majority. “They are encroaching our forests and water resources.”
The Gujjars wanted to bury Asifa in a graveyard where they had purchased some land a few years ago and had already buried five people but when they arrived there, Mr Pujwala said, they were surrounded by Hindu right-wing activists who threatened them with violence if they were to continue with the burial.
“We had to walk seven miles to bury her in another village,” Mr Pujwala said.