This week’s New York Times reported the aftermath following the tragic story of the rape and killing of an 8-year-old girl in early January. Three months ago, Asifa Bano was found dead in the forest after being strangled to death, before which she was raped by at least three men, who claimed their behaviour was an attempt to drive her nomadic community out of the area. Eight men in connection with the case were arrested, including two police officers who were said to have accepted thousands of dollars to cover up the crime.
Although it seemed like an isolated sexual violence case, it soon fuelled a Hindu-Muslim religious war and was used as a means to justify religious violence in India in the past three months. A clear line of Indians based on religion was drawn. On one side are the Muslim police officers who investigated the case and Asifa’s nomadic people, then on the other side are the Hindu perpetrators who committed the rape. Hindu nationalists have turned it into a battle cry, defending the perpetrators instead of the victims.
Protests and counter-protests have spread all over India. Some Hindu lawyers have physically blocked police officers from work, while other Hindu women blocked a highway and organized a hunger strike. “They are against our religion, if the accused men aren’t released, we will burn ourselves,” said Bimla Devi, one of the protesters.
Although the case was concluded with physical evidence and witnesses that “unequivocally corroborated the facts that emerged,” it was pushed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to transfer the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation, where they have greater control, according to the New York Times.
The syncretism of the Hindu-Muslims in India has survived some major political upheavals throughout history however, it also caused great tension underneath the surface. The practice of religious syncretism inevitably fuels the question of identity and faith. Whereas in the scope of a politicized world, the issue is much more complicated. The conflict is more than the question of cultural or social identity. The protests and counter-protests are, in essence, the struggle between the uneven power distribution in politics in India. With this in mind, the Hindu nationalists that share greater power in the political arena should seek a more democratic pluralism.
In the process of democratization and modernization, religious factors should be taken into account when drafting policies and laws, including human rights laws. The needs of all religion to acquire a more evenly distributed power status should be addressed. It is also essential to address the Hindu-Muslim relations instead of treating them as an isolated, self-sufficient community.
Yet, the conflict has yielded an apparent result, that the Hindu-Muslim syncretism is not as cordial as it looks on the surface. The differences in faith would not be obliterated when they syncretized, and it should be discussed via dialogues among politicians.
Nevertheless, the tragic story of Asifa might have highlighted the tension in Indian political arena, which used to lay underneath the surface. The suffering is real and protesters and nationalists should not use it as an excuse to justify their religious battles.