Kathua rape case

Disturbing division

Print edition : May 11, 2018

A member of the Kashmiri Lawyers Club takes part in a signature campaign seeking justice in the Kathua rape and murder case, in Srinagar on April 18. Photo: NISSAR AHMED

A police vehicle carrying the accused in the rape and murder case arrives at the District and Sessions court in Kathua on April 16. Photo: AP

Law students during a protest demanding justice for the Kathua rape victim, in Srinagar on April 18. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lal Singh, who resigned from the State government over the Kathua rape and murder case, at a rally seeking a new probe led by the Central Bureau of Investigation, in Jammu on April 19. Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

The manner in which events have shaped the discourse around the Kathua rape and murder serves as a grim reminder of the dangers of using religion for politics.

THE horrific rape and murder of an eight-year old girl from the Muslim Gujjar-Bakarwal community in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir has added to the festering problem of communalisation the State has been facing for a long time. The incident brought out a sinister side of the problem as at one point of time it looked as if rape were a legitimate weapon to take on the community. Although the whole of Jammu did not rally behind those who, in many ways, tried to protect the perpetrators of the crime, the silence of the majority gave an impression that the politics was well played. The turning point in the case came on April 9 when lawyers in Kathua tried to prevent the crime branch of the Jammu and Kashmir Police from filing a charge sheet in court in connection with the case. The Jammu Bar Association also called for a bandh on April 11 on the matter. Both these appalling developments displayed a high degree of insensitivity. The lawyers in Kathua and in Jammu echoed the “sentiment” of the newly formed Hindu Ekta Manch (HEM), which was riding on victimhood by saying that since the accused were Hindus, they were being “framed” by the Crime Branch of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, which had many Muslim officers, including its head, Inspector General of Police Syed Ahfadul Mujtaba.

The horrifying rape and murder of a woman in Delhi in 2012 led to strong protests from all members of civil society and brought radical changes in India’s anti-rape laws, but in the Kathua case, the child’s assault and death are being used by Hindutva groups to communally polarise the State. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is part of the coalition government led by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), also played a role in giving “sanction” to communalising the rape and murder. But it had to bite the dust after tremendous public pressure at the regional, national and international levels forced it to ask two of its Ministers, Chandra Prakash Ganga and Lal Singh, to resign. Both the Ministers had joined a rally organised by the HEM.

Communal card

The body of the eight-year-old child was found on January 17. She had been missing for a week, during which time she had been raped and murdered. Her family alleged that the police had done little to find her. After the Gujjar community erupted in protest, the case was handed over to the Crime Branch, which arrested two special police officers. One of them has been accused of direct involvement in the murder. However, the charge sheet filed by the Crime Branch states that the main accused in the case is 60-year-old Sanji Ram, a retired government employee. Four police officials have also been accused: special police officers Deepak Khajuria and Surinder Kumar, who have been charged with direct involvement in the crime, and a sub-inspector, Anand Datta, and a head constable, Tilak Raj, who have been accused of helping to cover up the crime.

The communal card was played by local Hindutva groups and political parties from the day the case was handed over to the Crime Branch. The HEM, which was formed to defend the accused, came into being on January 23. Its members had no qualms in announcing publicly that the crime was a Hindu versus Muslim issue and took out rallies to seek the release of the accused. It is unlikely that scenes in support of an alleged rapist, such as those seen in Jammu since January, have been witnessed elsewhere. A few women even held a hunger strike demanding that the case be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Indeed, this is the prime demand of those agitating in favour of the accused. They claim that this will ensure that the investigation into the crime will be impartial. And this is where the fault lines become clear.

First, why is the Jammu Bar Association stressing on an investigation by an agency controlled by the Union government when the State’s Crime Branch has already completed its investigation and even filed a charge sheet? Is the demand for a CBI probe to ensure a fair probe or to thwart justice? The Bar Association, which came under flak from both the Supreme Court and the Bar Council of India (BCI) for thwarting the process of justice, has suspended the strike but reiterated its demand for a CBI probe.

The BJP supported this demand. This was evident from the presence of Chandra Prakash Ganga and Lal Singh at the HEM rally on March 1. Both the Ministers had vociferously echoed what the HEM was saying and raised serious doubts about the Crime Branch probe, initiated earlier by its former head, Additional Director General of Police Alok Puri, who retired on February 28.

The BJP could not resist the temptation to ignite emotions on the basis of religion when the demand for a CBI investigation found support within the Union government. Jitendra Singh, Union Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, who is the Lok Sabha member from Udhampur, which includes Kathua, said in Jammu on February 22: “If people feel that they do not have faith in the police or Crime Branch investigation and the case needs to be handed over to the CBI, I don’t think there is any problem in handing over the case to the CBI. If the State government does so and recommends it to the Centre, we will definitely act on it.”

As late as April 17, he repeated the same position even as the BJP was trying to distance itself from the demand. “We have no problem in handing over the case to the CBI even today if the State government makes a reference to it,” he told mediapersons in Jammu. This was in contrast to the BJP’s assertion that it did not support Lal Singh’s demand for a CBI probe. Lal Singh took out a rally on April 17, three days after his resignation, reiterating that the probe should be handed over to the CBI.

What the BJP Ministers seem to forget is that the BJP is in power in Jammu and Kashmir and that the Crime Branch is the investigations wing of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, which takes its orders from the State government. Additionally, the Crime Branch already has a professional team of officers dealing with the case, and the State police is headed by Shesh Paul Vaid, who is from Jammu. Ramesh Kumar Jalla, the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) who headed the team, has an unblemished record of professionalism to his credit. A response to the “fears” about the Crime Branch probe, however, came from the only female member of the Special Investigation Team (SIT), Shwetambari Sharma, who also hails from Jammu. She said that they completed the investigation against heavy odds, referring to the hurdles created during the process. “The people we believed were involved in the gruesome rape and murder of that eight-year-old angel, and their relatives and sympathisers, including a multitude of the lawyers, left no stone unturned to disrupt our investigation. They went to the extreme of our humiliation and harassment. But we stood our ground firmly till the end,” Shwetambari Sharma, the Jammu-based Deputy Superintendent of Police in the Crime Branch, said.

Lal Singh and his colleagues also need to answer this question: If the Jammu and Kashmir police can be hailed for successful counter-insurgency operations in which they kill militants, why can they not be trusted to handle the Kathua rape and murder case?

The CBI investigated the Pathribal fake encounter case of 2000 and proved that five civilians who were killed by the Army after the massacre of 35 Sikhs in March 2000 were innocent. But the Government of India refused to prosecute the Army personnel. In the Kathua case, a Union Minister has supported the call for a CBI investigation. But given that the investigating agency comes under the Centre, how can it be ensured that action will be taken?

The motive

The rape and murder of the minor was to be used as a tool to harass the Gujjar-Bakarwal community in the area and “get rid of it”. Sanji Ram, the alleged mastermind, had planned it “meticulously” and guided the gang, according to the charge sheet. He also paid a bribe of Rs.4 lakh to two police officers to cover up the crime by destroying evidence.

There has been animosity towards the Bakarwal community for a long time. The community members, who are mostly Muslim in these parts of Jammu, are a small minority in Kathua district. In Rasana village, which lies in the Hiranagar area of the district, Hindu residents and Muslim herders regularly clash with each other, with Hindus alleging cow slaughter by Muslim herders and damage to their crops by the herders’ livestock. The acrimony has already led to several cases in local police stations. But this case was to be used to teach them a lesson once and for all.

The charge sheet reveals that at least two among the accused are believed to have held personal grudges against the Bakarwal community. One of them is Khajuria, who had got into a “few scuffles” with the Bakarwals. The minor, too, had to take revenge as he had been beaten for his “unruly behaviour” by some community members.

Vote-bank politics

It is now clear that the major factor in the agitation in support of the alleged rapists is not about faith in the State police but vote-bank politics. This factor has driven politicians in the State to openly defend the accused. Almost all Jammu-centric parties, with their eyes on their vote banks, have remained non-committal on the matter, their silence obliquely endorsing the heinous crime.

Although the Congress has not officially made its stand clear on the matter, one of its spokespersons attended a meeting called by the Jammu Bar Association on April 8 in which all issues, including the demand for a CBI probe, were discussed and the call for a bandh was made.

It is also disturbing to see civil society in Jammu silent on the matter.

With condemnation coming only from Muslim areas of the Hindu-dominated Jammu division and from the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, the crime has become a perfect example of the communalisation of rape. Only a few voices from Jammu have called for justice in the case without looking at it as a Hindu versus Muslim affair. Some exceptions like Rekha Choudhary, a distinguished political scientist, made it clear that it was all about justice for an eight-year-old.

“This case has shaken the conscience of Jammu. Irrespective of religion or community barriers, people are expressing shock and horror. Time to say, no more politics and no more communal appropriation of the issue. Only empathy for the family and demand for speedy justice” she wrote on Facebook on April 14, triggering a debate. Others like Anuradha Bhasin, a journalist, and Ellora Puri, an academic, also came out in support of the campaign for justice. But a clear-cut opposition to those who openly came out in support of the accused on the premise of a CBI inquiry did not come. Many people linked the case to the “larger issue” of apprehension of a demographic change in Jammu. The lines were clearly drawn as to how it must be dealt with.

In a way, the situation is reminiscent of that in 2008, when Kashmir and Jammu were divided on similar lines over the Amarnath land row, which started after the State government decided to transfer forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board. Land is an emotive issue, and one could understand the emotions at that time. The beneficiary in the Assembly elections held that year was the BJP. But in the Kathua case, the move to defend an alleged rapist and murderer has made the entire politics around it murky.

The Hindu-Muslim divide in Jammu and Kashmir became official in 2014 when parts of Jammu division voted en masse for the BJP, giving it a majority of the seats in the region. But the fact is that the Congress party, which ruled the State in alliance with both the PDP and the National Conference, has also played a role in dividing the State along communal lines. The Congress perhaps sowed the seeds and the BJP is now reaping the benefits, pushing its rival into oblivion.

Amid all this, the stance of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry has shown maturity. The industry body exhibited its sense of responsibility when it distanced itself from the bandh call given by the Jammu Bar Association. “It is their unilateral decision,” said the body’s president, Rakesh Gupta. His stand was widely hailed in Kashmir. But the manner in which events have shaped the discourse around this rape and murder serve as a grim reminder of the dangers of using religion for politics and what happens when these lines are blurred.

Since Jammu has a history of communally surcharged atmosphere right from 1947, politics is also played here on these lines. In fact, the Congress has also been playing the same card when it comes to elections. Kashmir’s domination has been the biggest ploy for the parties that apparently plead the “Jammu cause” but it eventually turns into dividing the State on communal lines. Although Jammu showed a sense of accommodation and inclusiveness when it came to opening up its space for both Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits in early 1990, of late it has been used purely for furthering vote-bank politics.

Now that the BJP has been forced to recall its Ministers, it will find it tough to live up to its promise of giving “azadi” to Jammu from Kashmir leadership. The way Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti stood her ground on the issue by ensuring the arrest of all the accused and not entertaining the demand for a CBI probe has also put the BJP in a tight spot.

The usual issues of Article 370 and Article 35, which appeal to its vote bank, have also got buried. The handling of this case has backfired on the BJP, putting it in trouble in Jammu.

As of now, the BJP is the loser. Calling for a CBI probe without showing respect to State institutions such as the Jammu and Kashmir Police, it has burnt its fingers and it will be difficult for the party to do a course correction soon.

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