Speedy justice

The Pathankot Sessions Court sentences three main accused in the Kathua rape case to life imprisonment and three others to five years in prison.

Published : Jun 19, 2019 12:30 IST

Sanjhi Ram  and other accused being taken to the District and Sessions Court in Pathankot, Punjab, on June 10.

Sanjhi Ram and other accused being taken to the District and Sessions Court in Pathankot, Punjab, on June 10.

ON June 10, the District and Sessions Court of Pathankot, Punjab, convicted six of the seven accused in the Kathua gang-rape case. The abduction, rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl belonging to the nomadic Bakarwal community at Rasana village near the city of Kathua in Jammu division of Jammu and Kashmir came to light on January 17, 2018, when the police found the victim’s body, days after her father had reported her missing. 

The court sentenced three of the main accused to life imprisonment. Three others were sentenced to five years in prison for destruction of evidence. The seventh accused, Vishal Jangotra, son of the mastermind of the crime Sanjhi Ram, was given the “benefit of doubt” and acquitted.

Sanjhi Ram, 61, was a former official of the State government, the village head and also the caretaker of the temple in which the girl was gang-raped and killed. The other two main accused are Deepak Khajuria, a Special Police Officer, and Parvesh Kumar, who was a friend of Sanjhi Ram’s nephew. The nephew was also named in the charge sheet but claimed to be a juvenile. His trial will likely begin after the State High Court hears his petition to determine his age. All the three were convicted under various sections and provisions of the Ranbir Penal Code (RPC): Section 120-B (criminal conspiracy), Section 302 (murder), Section 376-D (gang rape), kidnapping, destruction of evidence, drugging the victim and common intention. Their jail terms for various offences under the RPC will run concurrently with their life sentences, which means that they will be in prison until the end of their natural life. In addition, they have to pay a fine of Rs.1 lakh each. (The RPC is a criminal code applicable in Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian Penal Code is not applicable in the State under Article 370 of the Constitution.)

The three accomplices—Special Police Officer Surinder Kumar, Head Constable Tilak Raj and Sub-Inspector Anand Dutta—were charged with destruction of evidence and taking bribes.

The prosecution team demanded the death penalty for the main accused and will likely to go in for appeal against the acquittal of Jangotra. The convicts are likely to challenge the trial court’s order in the High Court. J.K. Chopra (Punjab), S.S. Basra (Punjab), Harminder Singh (Crime Branch, Jammu) and Bhupinder Singh (Crime Branch, Jammu) were the Public Prosecutors in the case.

The case

The Jammu and Kashmir Crime Branch, which took over the investigation of the case from the local police on January 22, 2018, filed its charge sheet on April 9, 2018, in the court of Chief Judicial Magistrate, Kathua. On May 7, 2018, the Supreme Court transferred the case from Kathua to Pathankot. Citing a report of the District and Sessions Judge, Kathua, the court observed in its order that there had been some obstruction of judicial proceedings by the Bar Association in Kathua.

In order to ensure a fair and speedy trial, the court directed the Kathua Sessions Court to send all the materials relating to the charge sheet and other documents in sealed covers through special messengers with the assistance of the police to the District and Sessions Judge, Pathankot. The lower court was directed to proceed under the RPC. The Supreme Court also directed the translation of the statements of the witnesses from Urdu to English to facilitate the proceedings before the court at Pathankot. The Jammu and Kashmir government was directed to transport the witnesses and the accused to Pathankot and provide all necessary facilities to them.

The in-camera day-to-day trial commenced in the first week of June 2018 in the Pathankot court. The trial ended on June 3, 2019.

The Bakarwals

The Bakarwals are a pastoral community. The term Bakarwal is derived from bakriwale , meaning goatherd. Bakarwals are said to originally belong to the Gujjar stock. Though they have permanent settlements, they often move from one altitude to another in search of pasture for their flock of goats and sheep. 

At the time of the incident, the family was residing in Rasana. The girl was last spotted when she went out to graze her horses in the nearby forest. When she did not return with the horses, her father, Mohammad Yusuf, filed a first information report (FIR) with the Hiranagar police station. Her body was found a week later. It was only after the girl’s community protested that the case was handed over to the Crime Branch.

The 15-page charge sheet said that the entire incident was part of a carefully planned strategy to remove the minority Muslim community from the area. There was a plot to force the Bakarwals out of Rasana. The Jammu region is considered to be the original homeland of the Bakarwals, but they are frequently linked with offences pertaining to cow slaughter and crop damage. 

The victim’s parents were reportedly not allowed to bury her body in the village under the pretext that the land did not belong to them. According to the charge sheet, at least two of the accused held personal grudges against the Bakarwal community, and the girl became a “soft target”.

The charge sheet went on to describe the gruesome details of the crime. The girl was held in captivity for many days in the temple, raped by multiple men, and bludgeoned to death with a heavy object. The horrifying nature of the crime and the fact that it was committed inside a place of worship caused widespread outrage. But local Hindu groups tried to give it a communal colour and polarise the region along religious lines. They claimed that as the accused were Hindus, this was a ploy to frame them by Muslims in the Crime Branch. They quickly formed the Hindu Ekta Manch (HEM) to defend the accused and marched on the streets in their support. They demanded that the case be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was part of the coalition government led by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the State, lent support to the HEM. Ministers Chandra Prakash Ganga and Lal Singh participated in a rally taken out by the HEM. The two Ministers were forced to resign after the incident caused national and international outrage.

The rupture point came when, on April 9, lawyers in Kathua tried to prevent the Crime Branch from filing the charge sheet in court. The Jammu Bar Association called for a bandh and attacked the victim’s lawyer Deepika Singh Rajawat and branded her an “anti-national”. She moved the Supreme Court requesting it to transfer the case outside the State. The apex court granted her request and the case was shifted to Pathankot, about 30 kilometres from Kathua. Everybody associated with the case was under tremendous pressure. In November, the family of the victim filed a petition to remove Deepika Rajawat from the case. She was not only attacked by the Hindu Right, who accused her of being pro-Pakistan, but also by the Muslim Right, who led a whispering campaign against her. She told the press how her life was under threat and even after the verdict in the case came, no one was willing to give her a house on rent in Jammu.

The tribal activist Talib Hussain was a prominent face in the campaign against the accused. But in August 2018, he was arrested after his sister-in-law filed an FIR against him accusing him of rape. Following his arrest, Talib’s cousin, Mumtaz Ahmed Khan, moved the Supreme Court alleging custodial torture of Talib. After his release, Talib joined the PDP.

Despite insurmountable problems, the trial court verdict was hailed as just by people cutting across party lines. Both Deepika Rajawat and Talib, who were no longer associated directly with the case, welcomed the verdict. Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, too, hailed the court’s decision. But several people, including the victim’s parents, were unhappy with the life imprisonment handed down to the culprits and demanded the death penalty for them.

Around the time the Kathua case came to light, a rape case in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, made headlines. Since political parties were more or less unanimous in their condemnation of both cases, the Lok Sabha immediately passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill. It increased the maximum punishment for the rape of a girl child under 10 years to death penalty. In the case of gang rape of a child under 12, the minimum punishment became life sentence (earlier 20 years) while the maximum was death penalty.

Despite the euphoria in the BJP camp that credited Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the passing of the Bill, several voices cautioned that instead of moving towards improved justice delivery systems, India was falling back to regressive means of addressing crime and punishment. No matter the severity of the crime or the amount of defence mounted for the criminals or the depravity of the perpetrators themselves, the death penalty could not be a rallying point for justice, they said. Rather than hanging criminals, they should be given a chance to reform themselves. That was the only way to weed out the crime and ensure lower crime rates in society.

The United States-based activist Mary Scully articulated this position by saying: “Many are expressing outrage over the verdict, and the defence will be appealing the verdicts because the brutes were not sentenced to death. All seven should certainly be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but even in the case of such unspeakable violence against a child, the death penalty remains a weapon of the oppressors and not a suitable form of justice for the oppressed. There is no possible justice for the monstrous crimes committed against this little girl or for her family and community. Bloodlust doesn’t cut it. To address justice, we must commit ourselves to active solidarity with the struggles against gender, ethnic, religious, caste and class oppression, and to the struggles against Hindutva nationalism and the military occupation of Jammu and Kashmir.”

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