Should’ve Never Split From Her: Father of Girl Raped in Kathua
"She didn’t know I was her birth father, she got to know just this year", Muhammad Akhtar, the birth father of the eight-year-old Kathua rape victim, tells The Quint while we sit and speak on a nondescript hill, surrounded by horses, sheep and extended members of his family, ahead of Udhampur in Jammu.
He repeatedly recalls the evening from seven years ago when he and his wife decided to part with their daughter when she had turned one. The victim’s birth mother, 40-year-old Rasiya, had given her word to her brother, Yusuf.
"Yusuf had lost two children within a span of a few months, and was depressed. He fell ill often and wouldn't talk much. There were days he kept crying, but she changed that for him. I could see it", Rasiya recalls.
From Giving Her Away to That Dreadful Phone Call
Akhtar is still coming to terms with the fact that he lost out on all that precious time with his daughter; anxiously mulling over the possibility that his daughter might still have been alive if they had not given her away. This has even led to fights between him and Rasiya.
"Gharwali se ladte hain. Kyun bola tha? Zubaan kyun di thi unko? Kosta hoon apne aap ko (I fight with my wife. Why did she have to give her away? Why did she give him (Yusuf) her word? I curse myself about it).”
Akhtar says he was taken aback when he heard these words.
“I told him why will I secretly take my child away? I would do it openly. Where is she? Why can’t you find her?”
And that’s when the story unravelled.
Rasiya and Akhtar got to know on 12 January that their daughter has been untraceable for two days. “We were going to meet her in a few days. Just a few days”, he says expressing a sense of disbelief over what his family has suffered.
Recounting the moments after his phone call with Yusuf, Akhtar says he shared the news with his family while still trying to disconnect the call on his old red and black handset. Rasiya and Akhtar’s younger brother rushed to Kathua to look for the child. He joined them soon after.
“She was kept in a Hindu prayer hall. I never thought that was possible. It is a place of worship. Who would think of hiding a child, dead or alive, there?” Akhtar says, recalling how they never contemplated going in to check.
‘Want to Go Further and Further Away’
Despite the tragic loss, the family, which is part of a Gujjar Bakarwal nomadic community, is continuously on the move. They've gone ahead of Udhampur and plan to keep moving ahead, Akhtar says, adding, "I'm afraid for the life of my mother and father, what if they kill them? Hindus and Muslims were united at one time but now they have grown apart, right? Then why will they not hurt my family".
The community travels to and fro from Kargil in north Kashmir to Jammu. He says when they're on the move they witness various shades of conflict across Jammu and Kashmir.
"We keep hearing that the Army bases are attacked and then in Srinagar there are normal people who throw stones at the police every Friday. Whenever we have spoken to them we have said, ‘hum jaise reh rahain hain hum theek hain’ (we are satisfied the way we are living).”
When asked about her daughter, Rasiya’s face lights up with a smile and she promptly replies, “Bohut shakaldaar thi, photo aapne dekha? (she was very beautiful, did you see her photo?)”
But soon that smile fades away and a sense of betrayal seems to takes over. The mother laments, “she never stole from anyone. Kept to herself. All she was doing was grazing the horses, then why did they have to do this to her?”
Akhtar wants the sun to set and he wants to go further and further away. "I've cried and cried in the last few days. I don't know what to do anymore. We will travel further away tonight. When it's daytime it is scary, the night is soothing cause we are constantly on the move."
However, the birth father adds that later in the year he doesn't mind going back to Kathua, down in the plains, as then it will be snowing heavily in north Kashmir. "This is what we do each year. We will go back around 25 August this year too. I spent money and constructed a small home there for my family. I will go back", he says, adding that he is willing to talk to the people in the village who treat him well, Hindu or not.
His wife is absolutely against it though. "Burying my daughter was traumatic enough. After that I don't want to go back. They killed my daughter how am I supposed to live there again?” she asks as her eyes start welling up with tears.