The eight-year-old girl’s rape and death did not seem to bother anyone for long. Far worse, it trapped people into compartment of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
The Kathua rape and murder case is one of the most grotesque cases of our times and is symbolic for the many ugly truths it lays bare.
It is a manifestation of not just the physical brutality of sexual violence but also conveys that patterns of impunity for protecting the perpetrators go beyond the familiar strategies used in subverting and weakening the legal justice system. It shows that political ideologies and politicking can also be fully employed to throw weight behind the perpetrators and lend a sense of pride to the campaigns for saving their necks. The case is also a grim reminder that reactions to sexual violence of a civil society does not simply emanate from the horrifying reality of the brutality of the act but is conditioned by the communal, caste and social identities of the victims and perpetrators.
The young girl belonged to the poor nomadic Bakerwal community, one of the most oppressed social groups in Jammu and Kashmir. Yet to turn eight this year, she helped her family with simple household chores that involved taking the horses and sheep for grazing.
On January 10, when she went missing from Rasana village in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir, she had taken the horses out. Seven days later, her badly bruised and swollen body, bite marks on her face, was found from the spot that the family had passed several times while searching for her.
When police refused to act, protests were organised by local activists and students in Kathua and some college students in Jammu. The protests caught the attention of legislators, while the Assembly session was on and the Gujjar-Bakerwal leaders lobbied for justice, forcing the government to constitute a Special Investigation Team of the Crime Branch to investigate the case. Before this happened and in the days that the police continued to drag its feet over the case, the eight-year-old’s rape and murder did not spark the kind of outrage that Jammu witnessed when the region joined rest of the nation in seeking justice for the Delhi gang-rape and murder of a college student in 2012. The eight-year-old’s rape and death did not seem to bother anyone. Far worse, it trapped people into a compartment of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
In subsequent days when the Crime Branch, its functioning strictly monitored by J&K High Court, speedily and systemically began cracking the case, this silence was punctured by the deafening echoes of a campaign to save the alleged perpetrators of the crime.
The eight-year-old’s tragedy is defined by the two photographs in wide circulation on the social media. One taken on January 10 when she went missing – a smiling wide-eyed child with a carefree twinkle – wearing bright purple salwar kameez and sporting two pigtails on her ruffled oily head. The second of her lifeless body in the same but dusty clothes, her bruised face matching the shade of her suit. These two images, captured in the same clothes, just about sum up the short span of the eight-year-old’s life and her death.
More chilling than these images is the venomous outrage that continues to be on the boil — not over her death but in brazen defence of the accused.
The charge-sheet in the case filed by the Crime Branch before the court of chief judicial magistrate offers a horrifying account of how she was incarcerated in the store-room of the local temple and of how she was raped several times before she was strangled to death.
The charge-sheet mentions seven accused persons including two policemen, accused of fudging evidence, and two Special Police Officers hired on a contractual basis by the police. The eighth accused is said to be a minor, but a dispute over his age continues and he is being charged separately. The charge-sheet also gives the shocking account of the rape and murder being a premeditated act to scare away the nomadic community from the village and forests around the village. Its mastermind is said to be an ex-bureaucrat, who is also among the accused. The other three accused are his son, nephew and a neighbour.
The eight-year-old’s rape and murder symbolise the typical use of bodies of women as weapons of war and conflict. She was raped and brutalised before she was strangled to death by upper caste Hindu men to teach the Muslim Bakerwal community a lesson and make them flee. Local politics and land-related conflict was at play in the defining of the act.
But what is it that continues to fuel the controversy, long after she is gone? Clearly, an entire canard of propaganda against the victims and Muslims are not being built up simply to protect the accused. The real motives are far more political.
The local upper caste Hindus in and around the village may be inspired by both contempt for Muslims and the desire to save the people of their own community.
For the others playing politics on her body, her murder has become an object for furthering communal polarisation. Within days of the murder, Hindu Right-wing individuals constituted the Hindu Ekta Manch, which held its first rally, led by Vijay Sharma, one time a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist and now a Bharatiya Janata Party man, on February 14, holding tricolour flags, and seeking the release of the accused. Ankur Sharma lawyer who had earlier filed a review petition against Article 35A is yet another Hindu Ekta Manch leader. District BJP president, Kathua was also among the crowd. Later, while addressing the gathering, he called it a fight between their nationalism and the “anti-nationalism of the Bakerwals”. It was on this occasion that the demand for transferring the case to CBI gathered momentum.
In another meeting, in the following days, attended by local BJP leaders including a minister, Rashpal Verma, legislator Kuldeep Verma and a local Congress leader, a call for boycotting the Gujjars and Bakerwals was given. They have all been alleging that when the Bakerwal community took out a protest march, they raised Pakistani slogans — charges that are unsubstantiated but they have helped build an anti-Muslim narrative in the area where communal polarisation had been on the rise for quite some time.
In the backdrop, the misplaced anxieties against Muslims perpetuated by unsubstantiated theories of ‘Muslim nomads harbouring militants’ and few odd incidents of gau rakshaks have been contributing factors.
The women family members of the accused and some other village women have been sitting on a relay hunger strike since April 1, demanding that the case be handed over to the CBI. “We have no faith in the Crime Branch or the courts,” they said, adding that the government is “headed by Mehbooba Mufti and the institutions of the state favour the Muslims”. “We are not against justice for the girl but why have their people not been questioned? Why have they picked up only our people?” they question, adding that “We have faith only in CBI?” But when asked, they had no idea of what CBI is other than a one-liner, “they tell the truth”.
Last month two senior ministers of the BJP, Chander Prakash Ganga and Chowdhry Lal Singh, swooped in on Hiranagar and addressed a public meeting, where they described the arrests by Crime Branch as “jungle raj” and branded the nomads as “pro-Pakistan”. These parochial comments and Lal Singh’s visibly sexist remark, “so what if this girl has died, many girls die every day” remain unnoticed by the BJP high command, which is, otherwise, distancing itself from the campaign in favour of the accused. Yet at the same time, the BJP supports the demand for shifting the case to CBI. No less than Union minister Jitendra Singh echoed this.
Raising this demand now that the Crime Branch has completed its investigation and filed a charge-sheet amid violent opposition by lawyers in Kathua makes little sense. Unmindful of this technical legality, the Jammu High Court Bar Association gave a call for Jammu bandh on April 11 and was offered support by several fringe groups, surprisingly even the local unit of Congress, which, however, offered different reasons for extending support. The bandh drew a mixed response but was visibly aimed to sharpen the communal divides. The demand for handing over the eight-year-old’s case to CBI was one of the three major issues raised.
The other two demands were the ouster of Rohingyas and opposition of some unverified ‘order’ by chief minister Mehbooba Mufti to not evict nomads without consulting the Tribal Affairs department. All three demands smack of an anti-Muslim sentiment and reveal signs of a flawed sense of Hindu victimhood.
The so-called order pertaining to nomads has been distorted out of proportion. According to reports in mid-February, the chief minister chaired a review meeting of Tribal Affairs Department, where she directed that “no harassment be made to any member of the Tribal community by any Government authority till a formal Tribal Policy is unveiled”. However, the remarks have been selectively picked up without mentioning the context; and a massive propaganda has started with the use of local media, in an attempt to project nomads as cartels of land mafia whom the chief minister was protecting.
While the demand to oust Rohingyas, even though there is not a single case of their involvement in any militant-related or major crime-related case, stems from pure xenophobia, the other two demands are directly inter-linked.
Majority of Gujjars and Bakerwals are landless people who follow a traditional migratory way of life and come to the plains in the winters. Some of them have gradually bought land but a majority of them continue to use land for stay and agricultural purposes by paying rent to the locals. The Hindus accuse them of running cartels of land mafia and the BJP has been strongly opposing the formation of tribal affairs policy and amendment in forest protection laws. Barring some aberrations, the nomads are an oppressed and dispossessed lot; use of forest resources by them is often limited and follows a sustainable pattern as against the big land sharks, whom the BJP or any other party does not want to target.
The eight-year-old was killed for related reasons and juxtaposing the tribal affairs lies with the demand for protecting the accused in her murder case serves the purpose of perpetuating communal polarisation.
It is no secret who gains electorally out creating a communal divide. Jammu and Kashmir is crucial to that end, despite its poor stakes in Parliament. Communal discourse in this state is fodder for Hindutva constituency elsewhere. There are enough loose links including the J&K Bar Association’s usual Right-wing leanings to show where and why this opera is being choreographed.
However, curious and out of tune is the case of Congress offering its support to the Bar Association on the occasion of the bandh, even though it sited some ambiguous reasons, like calling the ongoing situation a failure of the PDP-BJP coalition, while endorsing the strike. While party high command at the national level is silent over the local Congress unit hobnobbing with groups that are visibly doing the bidding of the BJP, Kashmir-based Congress leaders have contradicted their Jammu counterparts. Is there more method to this madness other than the usual temptation of playing soft Hindutva that the Congress cannot resist? Only time will tell.
Amid all this politicking, what is forgotten is justice for the eight-year-old.
She continues to be victimised with a discourse that seeks to justify the act, deny its existence or shamefully even prop up the victimhood of the perpetrators — all under slogans of nationalism.
Metaphorically, the story resembles the tormenting tale of ‘Thanda Gosht’ that Manto penned. For its chilling narrative and the way it has been handled by various stakeholders, the eight-year-old’s story will continue to haunt us forever. It should haunt us and serve as a grim reminder of the dehumanised society and polity around us.
Note: The story has been updated in accordance with the Delhi High Court’s order.