The tragic rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl from the Muslim Gujjar-Bakarwal community in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir, in January, has taken a nasty turn and divided the state on communal lines.
If the horrifying rape and murder of a woman in Delhi in 2012 had led to strong protests by members of civil society, which brought radical changes in India’s anti-rape laws, this kind of solidarity remained missing in the Kathua case. The gruesome murder is being used by Hindutva groups to polarize the state on communal lines.
On April 9, lawyers in Kathua tried to prevent the crime branch of the Jammu and Kashmir police from filing a chargesheet in court in connection with the case. The Jammu Bar Association jumping on the bandwagon of Hindutva forces called for a bandh on April 11. Both these developments are appalling and display a high degree of insensitivity.
The battered body of the eight-year-old child was found on January 17. She had been missing for a week, during which she was raped and murdered. Her family, which had sought help from the police to find the missing child, alleged that it (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 is accused as being directly involved in the murder.
After the crime branch took the lead, local Hindutva groups and political parties played the communal card and rallied for support in favor of those who were arrested. In fact, that is how the Hindu Ekta Manch – 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 went on a hunger strike and demanded that the case be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
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.
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 chargesheet in connection with the case? Is the demand for a CBI probe to ensure a fair probe or to thwart justice?
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is part of the Mehbooba Mufti-led coalition ruling Jammu and Kashmir, has supported this demand. Two senior ministers Lal Singh and Chandra Prakash Ganga even joined the Hindu Ekta Manch rally in support of the Kathua rape suspect on March 1. The gradual build-up of political pressure, particularly after media highlighted the public outrage, has led to the two ministers tendering their resignation on Friday.
The demand for a CBI investigation has found support within the Union government too. Union Minister of State Jitendra Singh, the MP from the Udhampur Lok Sabha seat, 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.”
But Singh and his party colleagues in the state forget 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 SSP who headed the team has the unblemished record of professionalism to his credit.
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’t they be trusted to handle the Kathua rape and murder case?
One may offer as evidence to the CBI’s impartiality the fact that it 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 then the Government of India also refused to prosecute the five Army officers.
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 the investigation will be fair, given the agency’s decades-old reputation of speaking in its master’s voice?
Why so silent?
It is now clear that the major factor in the agitation in support of the alleged rapist is not about faith in the state police but about competitive vote bank politics. This factor has driven politicians in the state to openly defend someone accused of rape and murder. In fact, almost all Jammu-centric parties – their eyes on their vote bank – have remained non-committal on the matter, their silence obliquely endorsing the heinous crime.
Though the Congress has not officially made its stand clear on the matter yet, 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 was discussed, and where the call for a bandh was made.
It is also disturbing to see civil society in Jammu silent on the matter.
With the condemnation only coming from Muslim areas of Hindu-dominated Jammu division, and from the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, it is clear that the child’s rape and murder has become the perfect example of the communalisation of rape. Only few voices from Jammu have called for justice into the case without looking at it as a Hindu versus Muslim affair.
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, leading it to bag the majority of the seats in the region. But the fact is that the Congress – which ruled the state in alliance with both the People’s Democratic Party and National Conference – has also played a role in dividing the state along communal lines. The Congress perhaps sowed the seeds, which the BJP is now reaping, 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 has been widely hailed in Kashmir. But the way events have shaped the discourse around Asifa’s rape and murder, they serve as a grim reminder about the dangers of using religion for politics, and all that happens when these lines are blurred.