Mass protests have rankled Kashmir after two incidents of rape of minor girls in the Valley—of a three-year-old in Sumbal in the northern district of Bandipora on May 9 and of a 16-year-old in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, according to a complaint registered Sunday, May 12.
Massive protests, led mostly by student demonstrators, have erupted across the Valley over the Sumbal case since last week, with thousands of people hitting the streets in the past few days, despite the authorities appealing for calm.
Clashes with security forces have culminated in violence in some areas, as demands for “exemplary punishment” for the accused have been raised, not excluding death penalty.
According to a report by Scroll.in, the three-year-old had gone with her uncle to a local shop last Thursday, May 9, after which her uncle went to offer prayers, asking her to go home on her own.
The FIR, based on her family’s complaint, alleges that the accused, neighbour Tahir Ahmad Mir, abducted her en route, took her to a nearby government school and raped her.
“Locals caught the accused red-handed,” Rahul Malik, superintendent of police, Bandipora, told the media. “The police arrested him immediately. The victim is stable now.”
Additionally, the police have also refuted rumours that Mir is a minor, claims that were based on a handwritten birth certificate issued by a private local school; the police have summoned its principal for questioning.
The accused’s family is yet to provide a genuine birth certificate, but based on his build and physique, officials have tentatively entered him as a major.
In the still-developing Ganderbal incident, the victim’s family pressed charges after she narrated the ordeal to her parents.
The accused was later identified as neighbour Asif Ahmad Wani, son of Mohd Maqbool Wani, also a resident of new Colony Harran Ganderbal. He was picked up on Tuesday and later arrested; further investigation in the case is underway.
Protests in the Valley and sectarian violence
Protests in the Valley began last week, as news of the Sumbal incident spread. Clashes between youth protesters and security forces were reported on May 12 from Bandipora and Budgam districts.
Mobile internet services were suspended in many areas of North and Central Kashmir; shops were shuttered, while students from colleges and universities took to the streets. Protesters also voiced their complete lack of trust in authorities to keep girls safe.
Protesters in the Baramulla district in the north clashed with security forces on the national highway, leaving hundreds of commuters stranded for hours and at least 47 security personnel injured, including one assistant commandant of the Sashastra Seema Bal.
The tension is exacerbated on both ends as protesters face suppression from security and armed forces, even as threats of sectarian violence loom. That is because the victim and the accused in the Sumbal case are reported to belong to two different Muslim sects.
Despite the incidents being decried from across the political divide, there is reason to fear that the situation may devolve into a three-pronged standoff, due to the army’s constant presence in the state, currently under President’s rule.
Reports of greater agitation also emerged after fake photographs and videos of the three-year-old girl were allegedly circulated on social media. The police in Bandipora are monitoring such content and trying to detect rumour-mongers with the help of administrators of platforms where the pictures were uploaded.
“Wherever we are coming across rumours and other fake content attributed to the incident, we are taking notice of that… We will definitely take action against them,” a senior officer told the media.
Call for unity in times of adversity
Law enforcement authorities, leaders of religious and separatist organisations, and other influential figures of the Valley, including governor Satya Pal Malik, have all impressed upon the civilians to maintain peace and calm.
A mass meeting of various religious sects was held at a prominent religious seminary in Bandipora on May 13, where everyone unanimously called for stern action against the accused.
On the same day, the Jammu and Kashmir Ittehadul Muslimeen, a party affiliated to the Hurriyat faction and headed by separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, called for a strike.
Appealing for sectarian unity, Farooq, who is also the presiding cleric of the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar, tweeted, “Fervent appeal to all people of Kashmir to maintain unity and vigil especially in view of mischievous forces waiting to create a sectarian divide out of this most reprehensible crime against a child which is indeed a crime against all humanity.”
“All of Kashmir stands in unison…demanding sternest punishment against the brute perpetrator,” he added.
A statement from the governor’s office on Monday read, “Governor has also talked to religious leaders of different communities and asked them to deplore this gruesome incident unanimously and make appeal to the people to remain calm and not let antisocial elements disturb peace and harmony in the society.”
Why Kashmiris must rage and rise
Human rights observers, activists, and women of Kashmir all agree that the Kathua case last year played a crucial role in generating conversations about the widespread culture of rape and sexual violence in Kashmir.
Nearly a decade after Konan Poshpora, it was the rape and murder of an eight-year-old nomadic girl in a temple that triggered widespread and violent protests not only in Kashmir but all over the country. The case and the response it received has changed the way civilians today are rallying for gender justice, as brutal crimes against girls and women in the Valley shock people into speaking, not staying silent.
Besides that, violence against women perpetrated by the armed forces is already a massive human rights issue in the Valley, especially in light of the impunity the AFSPA grants erring soldiers and military officers. Journalist Freny Manecksha also raises this question in her book, Behold, I Shine: Why are there “separate laws for crimes by Kashmiri civilians and those perpetrated by the army?”
Incidents of alleged rape and sexual violence by security forces have often been discussed, but there has been a relative silence when the alleged perpetrator has been a local.
Perhaps, the ongoing agitation will force open the underlying fault lines within the deeply fraught Kashmiri community and, simultaneously, open up a parallel with the extra-judicial crimes committed by the Indian Army in Kashmir and northeastern states.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.