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Why the BJP Has to Eat Humble Pie in the Kathua Rape & Murder Case

The fact that it has taken so long to acknowledge the heinousness of the crime, is shocking.

Updated
India
6 min read
Protest in Srinagar against the rape and murder of 8 year-old girl in Kathua.
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At his estimated 1,00,000-strong ‘Lalkaar rally’ in Jammu on 1 December 2013, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a special mention of two of his potential vote-banks, while proudly referring to his decades-old connection to Jammu and Kashmir and seeking votes for the BJP in the ensuing Lok Sabha elections.

One of the two was the Gujjar community. According to him, Gujjars were deeply linked to Gujarat, and in Jammu and Kashmir they had made sacrifices and stood with India in the most challenging circumstances during “23 years of terrorism.”
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Law of the Jungle

Making a living by grazing sheep and goats across the state forests, Bakerwals are essentially Muslims and like siblings to the Gujjars. The eight-year-old girl – who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in her rustic neighbourhood of Rasana in Jammu’s Kathua district on 10 January and was found dead on 17 January – belonged to this ethnic group.

As allegations of rape and murder from the local Bakerwal concentration grew shriller, the postmortem report confirmed that the child had been raped and killed most likely by strangulation. Asphyxia was determined as her cause of death.

The Amarnath land row of 2008 had diametrically split not only politicians but also other institutions, including the media, on religious lines in Jammu and Kashmir. Like the killing of a Gujjar in police firing sometime ago, Jammu-based media either underplayed the tragedy or practised a complete blackout. As it did not really make headlines in either English or vernacular dailies in Srinagar, there was no remarkable demand for a shutdown from separatists for a long time.

How Trouble Began

Even as MLAs and MLCs in the Legislature’s Budget Session made routine demonstrations and demands for arresting the culprits, there was no major political confrontation. Trouble began brewing when the police in Kathua arrested a Bakerwal activist, Mohammad Talib, for raking up the minor girl’s rape and murder, and threatened to detain him under the draconian Public Safety Act.

It took two Gujjar Ministers – Choudhary Zulfikar of the PDP and Abdul Gani Kohli of the BJP – nearly two weeks to plan their maiden visit to Kathua.

Defending the Perpetrators

The Bakerwals narrated to the two ministers how everybody from Hiranagar Police Station to the Senior Superintendent of Police’s office at Kathua had remained unmoved and done “nothing” to recover the ill-fated girl until she was raped in confinement for seven days and ultimately killed. They asked how men of Hiranagar Police Station, who themselves were involved in committing rape and destroying evidence, could conduct an investigation.

Politics sprung to the forefront days after Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti assigned the investigation to the Crime Branch of the Jammu and Kashmir Police. Over a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), the Jammu and Kashmir High Court monitored the investigation.

But as soon as the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Crime Branch, under the constant supervision of Inspector General (Crime Branch) Aloke Puri and Crime Branch SSP Ramesh Kumar Jalla, began picking up the accused for sustained interrogation, local leaders of different political parties began clamouring that the investigation was “shoddy.”

The key accused and administrator of a local temple in Kathua, Sanji Ram, who is a retired girdawar of the Irrigation Department, played a key role in mobilising crowds that led to the formation of the Hindu Ekta Manch (HEM). It comprised activists from different political parties competing on the same turf. The BJP’s state secretary, advocate Vijay Kumar, was appointed its vice president.

On 15 February, the HEM, enjoying support interestingly from both the BJP and the Congress, organised a 5,000-strong rally from Gaghwal to Hiranagar on the National Highway as its activists shouted religious and patriotic slogans holding high the Indian national flag. They demanded moving the investigation from the Crime Branch to the CBI.

It was on this occasion that Mehbooba Mufti took a tough stand and made it clear that she would not succumb to any pressure from whatever side. She wrote on her Twitter handle:

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Political Blame Games

The chief minister’s coalition partner, the BJP, did not stick its neck out in New Delhi but its J&K leaders took exception to Mufti calling the accused “rapists.” In a veiled rebuff to the CM, Singh asserted that nobody could be “judgmental” about an investigation yet to be completed.

Union Minister and Udhampur MP Jitendra Singh told a local TV channel in Jammu on 21 February:

No politician or any official, at any high position, has the right to make judgmental remarks on such sensitive issues. We have courts to decide as to who is culprit and who is innocent. It is not the job of any official or politician to make such remarks.

“If people feel that they don’t have faith in the police or the 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,” Singh said in his cautious endorsement of his voters’ demand for a CBI probe.

On 1 March, BJP ministers Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga visited Koota village in Hiranagar and assured the HEM and families of the accused that the investigation would be withdrawn from the Crime Branch and assigned to the CBI. They threatened to resign in case the chief minister did not accede to their demand, and said that the government would fall.

“Government can’t run without the BJP’s support,” MLA Lal Singh Chaudhary reportedly said at the gathering.

Obviously under advise of the PDP top brass, including Chief Minister Mufti, Minister of Education Altaf Bukhari paid his BJP colleagues in their own coin. “The PDP will end its alliance with the BJP if justice is not served to ****,” Bukhari asserted in a statement.

The following week, all the BJP ministers, with the exception of Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh, walked into Mufti’s office and exerted maximum possible pressure to shift the Kathua investigation to the CBI.

Mufti’s Stand

Highly-placed sources in the state government revealed to The Quint that Mufti categorically turned down their demand and told the BJP ministers that there was no fun in meeting her after making “fiery statements” in Kathua. She made it clear that the investigation would be handled by none other than the Crime Branch and the same would be completed and taken to its logical conclusion in a few days.

The Crime Branch held eight of the accused guilty of kidnapping, wrongful confinement, gang rape and murder of the 8-year-old in Sanji Ram’s temple. One of the accused, a juvenile, has confessed to having raped the child twice. Two more admitted to having raped her once each. They include Sanji Ram’s son who came all the way from Meerut to ‘satisfy his lust.’

Even as a union of Jammu-based lawyers sponsored a shutdown against the Crime Branch’s findings, the BJP and other constituents of the HEM distanced themselves from the agitation. Some of the political analysts insist that a number of aspirants were trying to grab the space that in 2008 catapulted advocate Leela Karan Sharma to the centre stage of the “Jammu sentiment.”

It had been vacant a long time. Then came a professor of medicine at the Government Medical College, Jammu, Dr Jitendra Singh, who owes much his entire political career to the agitations and communal divide.

Since the annual Bar elections are scheduled to be held next month, a number of lawyers from the BJP, the Congress and the National Panthers Party have intensified activity to claim maximum possible support. However, there are indications that the BJP would prefer to eat humble pie rather than making itself part of any political turbulence and forcing Mufti to call it a day.

Conscious of her cards in the coalition, Mufti tweeted:

“The Law will not be obstructed by the irresponsible actions & statements of a group of people. Proper procedures are being followed, investigations are on the fast track & justice will be delivered.”

(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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