The barbaric rape and murder of the eight-year old girl in Kathua, Jammu, has gripped the nation. National outrage has ensured that the course of justice in this case will be carefully monitored.
Along with the Unnao rape case, the Kathua case has once again brought the national spotlight on gender-based violence. However, there is one aspect to the Kathua case that is unlikely to garner similar attention, and that has to do with the evolution of politics in Jammu and Kashmir.
Insidious Poison of Polarisation Needs More Attention
While the gut-wrenching details of the minor’s case have shocked ordinary folks, underlying sectarian divisions in a society merit attention as well. Not even the brutality meted out to the child could unite people across sectarian divisions. This does not auger well for the future. This is where Jammu and Kashmir’s political (and social) leadership faces its biggest test.
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In Jammu and Kashmir, it is the turmoil of the last three decades that has received maximum attention. Beyond the ‘Kashmir issue,’ however, there is an insidious problem that has taken shape in recent decades.
Polarisation along religious, ethnic and geographical divides has become more pronounced. It is no secret that people on either side of the Banihal tunnel are alienated from each other.
Depending on what province you are located in, you are bound to read news reports about “discrimination” against your own region.
Allocation of resources, recruitment to government jobs or establishing new public institutions are occasions for conflict.
While this is not new, the religious dimension has been added to this in recent years. Communal polarisation, especially close to elections, is creating a wider and deeper chasm between the people of the state.
Some will argue that divisions in Jammu and Kashmir date back to the time of the Dogra rulers. Undoubtedly, there are historical reasons for some of the divisions. However, we have also seen times when these divisions have been muted.
Cordial relations have existed between people of the two regions. I look back to my own childhood in the 1970s when I stayed in Jammu in the winter months, where my family would move because of the annual ‘Durbar Move.’ I have fond memories of those days just like many others.
Meanwhile, business relations between people from different regions of the state continue. Politically, the National Conference used to have a sizeable support base in the Jammu province, although the Congress was the major political player in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. The Congress had pockets of influence in the Kashmir Valley, which it retains to this day.
Unfortunately, forces that highlight divisions between the two regions are stronger than ever before. Over time, this has impacted the state’s politics. Broadly speaking, the Congress and the BJP are seen as Jammu-based parties. The National Conference and the PDP are perceived as Kashmir-centric.
It is true that both the National Conference and the PDP have pockets of influence in Jammu, while Congress retains influence in parts of Kashmir. However, politics is highly fragmented and there is no party that can claim to be truly statewide with equal influence in both Jammu and Kashmir (and Ladakh).
As a result, coalitions are necessary to govern. Balancing the aspirations of people belonging to different regions, faiths, ethnicities, etc, is no easy feat in a state as complex as Jammu and Kashmir.
This is even harder when two ideologically opposite parties form a coalition government. This is not a criticism of the PDP and the BJP but a reality we must contend with.
An Obligation to Unite J&K
With politics of polarisation ascendant, political parties find themselves attending to the needs of their core voters. Sadly, this serves to further polarise politics in the state. This does not mean that the state is headed towards a division.
I think it is far likelier that the state will find itself in a sub-optimal equilibrium that does not allow J&K’s people an opportunity to maximise their potential well-being. Mind you, this problem is on top of the already debilitating problems in Kashmir. Having said that, I do think there is a possibility for some of our political leaders to step up and take on a centrist position that attempts to fill the chasm between Jammu and Kashmir.
I believe there are some decent leaders in the state who also have a mass following. They have an opportunity, and, in my opinion, an obligation to step forward and make a conscious effort to reach out to people in all regions of the state. They must promote transparency in governance and empathy in social relations. We need statesmanship at a time of deep crisis.
The eight-year-old girl from the Bakerwal community in Kathua is no longer with us. It hurts me deeply. But her life can be an inspiration for us. The poison of polarisation snuffed out her innocent, young life. We would be doing a great disservice to her memory if we do not combat this poison.
Seeking the death penalty for those responsible for raping and killing her, or making laws more stringent is one way to help ease our own feelings of anger and helplessness. However, I think a greater tribute to the little girl’s memory would be to work on a ‘unity project’ in J&K that will help bring people together, and isolate those who profit from poisonous divisions.
(The writer, formerly with the World Bank, is a National Media Panelist of the Indian National Congress. He can be reached @SalmanSoz. Views expressed are personal. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)