Official statistics show that rape is the fastest growing crime in India compared to murder, robbery and kidnapping. Every 60 minutes, two women are raped in this country, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). A total of 20,737 cases of rape were reported in 2007, registering a 7.2% increase over the previous year. Instances of forced marriage of young girls by militants are also on the rise in Indian Kashmir.
Sources in India’s federal Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) have told this journalist about increasing evidence and reports about young girls from lower impoverished segments being tortured to enter into marriage contracts with persons affiliated to separatist and terrorist causes in Kashmir.
The hidden nature of the problem makes statistics extremely difficult to compile, even as officials say that hundreds of girls in villages of Indian Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) have simply disappeared, suspected to have been kidnapped by militants.
Though state police records show quite a few cases of forced marriages by militants, no one doubts that this is a gross under representation of the real picture as majority of instances are not reported due to fear of a backlash by the militants.
Officials say that many of the girls are impregnated by the militants and then abandoned. They are then socially ostracized and many have committed suicide. The social repercussions are being witnessed by the decrease in the marriageable age of girls.
It is being observed that the earlier practice of marrying of girls in many areas at ages of 16-17 has considerably advanced to 12-13 to evade the militant threat to adolescents. Villagers report of abuse, threats and bullying by militants who are committing these crimes.
Against the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these marriages under the threat of a gun-point scar the life of young girls, robbing them of their childhood. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has equated ‘forced marriages’ with rape and a crime not separate from sexual slavery.
Officials quote the instance of Fatima Bi, a sixteen year old minor of Kishtawar district (Jammu), who was kidnapped about four years ago by Sher Khan, divisional commander of the Islamic outfit, HuJI (Harkat–ul-Jihad-al-Islami), based in Pakistan.
New Delhi has recorded Fatima’s case in detail, especially the torturous methods used by Sher Khan and his accomplices for eight days to extract her affirmation to marry Hashim, belonging to the same organization.
It was a matter of chance and great fortitude that Fatima escaped from her tormentors and sought refuge in a police station and on her testimony the perpetrators were arrested by the Indian authorities.
Instances such as Fatima abound. Another Kashmiri girl Shenaz of Doda district (Jammu) too was abducted and underwent a similar experience at the hands of her kidnappers who again were Kashmiri militants.
Roubia Kousar, age 14, a Gujjar tribal girl, was forced into marriage by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) militants after abduction. The LeT has orchestrated some of the worst attacks in India, including the November Mumbai strikes.
Kousar was gang-raped repeatedly by her ‘husband’ and his associates for two months, though she managed to escape.
Similarly, Zaitoon, 15, from village Bajoni, Doda district was threatened with dire consequences and forced to marry Nazir Ahmed, a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant and Tahira Banoo, 16, was forcibly married to the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen divisional commander, Barkat Ali, alias Yaseen, in Dewari village in Doda.
According to officials, militants committing such crimes mostly mingle with the local population to escape identification by the police and Army. Villagers are too scared to report them to the authorities, even as the terrorists identify and prey on young girls. Indeed, the situation in J&K is only a part of the overall grim picture.
(Priyanka Bhardwaj is a New Delhi-based journalist. She can be reached at [email protected])