Has rape and murder of a child in Kashmir widened India’s religious fault line?

Simran Sodhi

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The rape and murder of eight-year-old Asifa in Kashmir has divided India along religious lines like never before. While the secular fabric of this nation has always been held together very thin, the current low in the political debate, and that includes all political parties, has now dragged the issue to a new low.

What makes the incident even more embarrassing is the fact that the brutal rape and murder has seen a parallel conversation pointing to the fact that Asifa was a Muslim and the alleged rapists all Hindus. To make matters worse, lawyers’ association in the state of Jammu – where the incident took place – tried to prevent the police from registering the complaint.

In endless television debates spokespersons from the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party, pointed fingers at one another on a daily basis, seeking political brownie points even on this issue. The debate in India has never been this low, especially when it is obvious that no political party is clean.

Hindu-Muslim coexistence

Being a minority in India, where the majority population is Hindu, has never been an easy situation.

This is despite the fact that in India today there are some 172 million people who follow Islam and according Tom data released by the Pew Research Centre in the US, by 2050 India will have a Muslim population of 300 million.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, journalist and an expert on right-wing politics when asked if the minorities should be worried about the secular fabric of India said, “Not just Muslims but basically I also have a right to be concerned as to where the country is heading. 25 to 30 years back, while one could tell the Muslims that they did the right thing by not moving to Pakistan, it is difficult to say so today with a straight face.”

Mukhopadhyay also said that he sees the entire debate over Asifa’s rape in the framework of Parliamentary elections. The ground has slipped from under the BJP’s feet and they are now attempting to make the upcoming elections a “wave elections”.

He pointed out that a wave election can be created one, by creating hyper nationalism, two by playing up the Hindutva card and thirdly by a miraculous economic action. In the present scenario polarization against Muslims might make good politics.

Neerja Chowdhury, a political commentator feels that the values of tolerance and the idea of assimilation which is unique to India will help it in keeping the country together even as the demographics change on the religious lines. However, she admits to being worried about how religion has become a part of the debate in this case.

“Religion is becoming an issue largely because of politics. I am optimistic that tolerance and a feeling of live and let live will keep us together unless hate-mongers over power us. In that case first it will be a divide on the basis of religion, then caste, then race and language. There will be no end to division,” Chowdhury said.

Communal riots

The riots against minorities, Sikhs and Muslims, have been carried under different political parties. While the Indian constitution confers India to be a “secular” state, the reality is vastly different.

Most minorities today live in a state of fear, and significantly also lack a political voice. A nation that boasts of a huge Muslim community has no national Muslim leader of national stature. Other minorities like the Sikhs have maintained their hegemony in a state but in other parts of the country, including the national capital, the specter of riots that happened more than three decades ago haunt.

What makes matters worse is that convictions are few and far between. Following the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, courts have largely been unable to deliver justice. As political parties shrug off past sins, what gets threatened at every juncture is the belief in the separation of the state and the church, to borrow a Westphalian concept.

The images of Rahul Gandhi, the latest in the line of the Nehru-Gandhi family, visiting a series of temples dressed in saffron is a mockery of the Congress party claims of being “secular”. If at all, this proves that in India, to win elections every party is willing to don whatever colors and stripes it takes to reach the finishing line first.

And the blame game going on in Asifa’s case proves that unless checked, the politics of this nation will eventually divide India on communal lines. It is not the people of this nation as much as the political discourse that has hit rock bottom.

Beyond party politics

No party is today willing to come out and publicly acknowledge the fact that the rape of an innocent child has religious and political overtones written all over it. Something has seriously gone wrong and this desire for political victories has driven people to monstrous levels where religious identities of rape victims and perpetrators is a more serious issue that the act of rape itself.

This sorry state brings us to accept another grimacing fact, that rape and dignity of women and their safety and all such related issues are actually non-issues in this country today. For a long time, some of the country’s leading women politicians chose not to comment on this barbaric act in Kathua, because they were assessing the political optics.

The crime of rape that is inflicted every day in India, on women and girl children, should make its political class and men on the street shudder.

But what should make every Indian even more ashamed today is that the country cannot mourn the loss of life and feel the pain of an eight-year-old who was drugged and gang raped by grown men. All we care about is religious identities and the constitution’s reference to “secular” is a joke on all minorities today.