Video Editor: Prashant Chauhan
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Sanji Ram has not committed any crime. Our villagers have not done anything. (...) The rape and murder of the 8-year-old Kathua girl was orchestrated by them (the Gujjar Bakarwals) themselves,” 60-year-old Kanta Kumar who lives in Kathua’s Rasana village says with authority.
She is referring to the rape-murder of an eight-year-old Gujjar Bakarwal girl, whose dead body was found dumped in the Rasana forests on 17 January 2018. She was abducted on 10 January, heavily sedated, raped, held captive in a Hindu prayer hall and eventually choked to death. The police charge sheet claims the main conspirator, Sanji Ram, whom Kanta uninhibitedly defends, orchestrated this crime to get the Gujjar Bakarwals out of the region.
The Gujjar Bakarwals are a Muslim nomadic tribe that travel annually between Kargil in Kashmir to Jammu’s Kathua district. The Quint traveled to Rasana village in Kathua to understand the escalating tension between the Hindus and the Gujjar Bakarwals. While the Kathua rape and murder has surely deepened the communal divide, the intolerance and suspicion between the communities had been on the rise years before the brutal killing took place.
When the Bakarwal tribe travel south, they rely on Jammu’s local Hindu farmers for fodder, water and land. While the Bakarwals say they do not use the land of the Hindus to graze their cattle, the Hindus say they’ve caught their cattle destroying their crop several times. For their part, the Bakarwals say they pay for what they use, which the farmers deny.
“They’ll either blatantly deny that their cattle has destroyed our crop or they will tell us they will pay, but pack up and leave overnight.”Kanta Kumar, Resident, Rasana
Over time these incidents have raised suspicion and intolerance between both communities, evident when the Hindus refer to the Bakarwal tribe as ‘thieves’ and ‘dishonest’. The tribesmen say they’re scared of the harassment and taunts they face when they come in contact with the Hindus.
Not to forget how religious tension often stoked by political parties to score political gains have deepened stereotypes to intolerant and unhealthy levels, The Quint found out on the ground. The gang rape and murder of the 8-year-old Bakarwal girl in Kathua in January 2018 lay bare those fault lines. “It has been a year since we are living in fear. because of them,” Kanta said, referring to the police presence, alleging that the cops have been harassing and intimidating them.
“We don’t let Bakarwals graze their cattle here, which is why this (Kathua rape-murder) happened. They used to lie and take their animals to graze here, otherwise no one would allow them to do so. They used to lie and steal our water without permission.”Bishan Das Sharma, Resident, Rasana
When The Quint asked him to clarify what he meant, Sharma said, “Issues will arise when they hurt our crop and field. The person who has incurred damage, won't he raise his voice? He will say everything. He will abuse, he will do everything.”
The former sarpanch of Rasana, Kant Kumar, whose wife is currently the sarpanch, echoes the same sentiment.
“The Kathua rape survivor’s parents are saying again and again that they are not getting leaves, not getting grass – so I want to say I own the land, it is my choice to give it or not give it to them.”
While it may be about crops and land for the farmers, the Gujjar Bakarwals fear coming even coming into contact with them. The eight-year-old’s mother said a horse or two might stray sometimes to their lands, but it is impossible to tell an animal not to stray. “A horse does not understand instructions. Even if the horse did go on their fields, what complaint did they have to rape and murder my child?” she asks.
“The villagers tell us that when the main accused comes out of jail, the person accused of killing my daughter, they won’t leave us. We have heard this, they have not told us this directly. So how do we live here? We are scared.”Mother
What we see is that while there was conflict between the Bakarwals and Hindus, they were dealt with at the village level. If a Hindu caught the Bakarwal on their fields, they would simply take their cattle and ask them to pay up. The Bakarwals would deny it, but if the cattle were caught, would cough up the money.
However, this was different. The police charge sheet claimed the main accused Sanji Ram hatched this conspiracy to dislodge the tribe from the region. According to the police investigation, a dangerous and deep-rooted resentment over land and fodder had escalated over time to such an extent that a brutal attack was carried out.
The case is being heard on priority in a trial court in Punjab’s Pathankot district, 100 kilometres from Jammu – it began on 31 May 2018.
All eyes are on now on the court.