#KathuaVerdict: Justice for now

Jammu will need much more time to heal.

WrittenBy:Anuradha Bhasin
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It’s victory of justice. Six men were convicted in the Kathua rape and murder case by a trial court in Punjab’s Pathankot city on Monday. Three of them – Sanjhi Ram, Deepak Khajuria and Parvesh Kumar – were sentenced to life imprisonment. The other three – special police officer Surinder Kumar, head constable Tilak Raj, and sub-inspector Anand Dutta – were given a five-year jail term each for destroying evidence. Sanjhi Ram’s nephew, Shubham Sangra, is facing trial in a juvenile justice court, while his son Vishal Jangotra was acquitted.

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In the 432-paged judgement, Sessions Judge Pathankot Dr Tejwinder Singh observed that “commission of this devilish and monstrous crime has sent shock waves across the society and the actual guilty needs to be brought under the sword of justice.” While he spoke about the need for “poetic justice” to the perpetrators of the crime, the opening lines of the verdict are Ghalib’s famous couplet, “Pinha Tha Daam-E-Sakht Qareed Aashiyaan Ke Udhne Hi Na Paaye The Ki Girftaar Hum Hue” (Near the bird’s nest was a strong net, we were trapped even before we could take our first flight).

The words capture the essence of the horrendousness and heinousness of the crime that took place over a year ago.

On January 10, 2018, an 8-year-old girl belonging to Bakerwal community (a Muslim nomadic tribe) went missing from Rasana village in Kathua district of J&K while she had taken the horses out for grazing. 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. She was drugged and raped several times before she was killed.

Concluding that “under a criminal conspiracy, an innocent eight years old minor girl has been kidnapped, wrongfully confined, drugged, raped and ultimately murdered”, the court verdict states that the convicts had behaved in a manner as if “law of the jungle was prevailing in the society”. The judgement was delivered after over a year-long in-camera, day-to-day fast track hearings. The Supreme Court last year had ordered that the trial be shifted out of Jammu and Kashmir after lawyers at the Kathua court prevented the Crime Branch from filing charges amid high drama on April 9. The prosecution team in the case comprised JK Chopra, SS Basra and Harminder Singh.

While the trial against the eighth accused, Shubham Sangra is yet to begin as his petition on determining his age is to be heard by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court (if declared a minor, he will be separately tried at the Juvenile Justice Board in Kathua), Ram’s son, Vishal Jangotra was acquitted because of lack of evidence. The court observed thatevidence, statement of account of bank, attendance sheet, categorically proves the fact that accused Vishal Jangotra during the day of occurrence was not present in Kathua rather he was present in Meeranpur, Muzaffarnagar UP and was appearing for his examinations. As such it is manifest that accused Vishal Jangotra is an innocent in this trial and accordingly his “Plea of Alibi” is accepted by this court and acquits him all the charges framed against him in this Court.”

While delivering the sentence, the court has observed that the convicts are first-time offenders and “there is every possibility to rehabilitate and reform them”.

The verdict is immensely significant and its import needs to be understood in the light of what the case itself signified. At one level is the component of sexual violence and in that respect, justice has been finally delivered. The victim’s family has expressed satisfaction over the verdict but the grief of losing a daughter and her horrifying experience before she was killed is something that will continue to haunt them for the rest of their lives. The investigation was scientifically concluded and the trial is an exemplary one and should form the basis of litigations in all cases of sexual violence to correct the anomaly of poor conviction rate in such offences across the country.     

The significance of Kathua case, however, goes beyond the gendered lens. After the eight-year-old girl was killed and investigations began, an equally horrifying drama began to unfold. A month after her killing, hundreds of people led by a Hindu right-wing organisation marched in a rally, Indian national flag in hand, and demanded that the eight accused, all upper caste Hindus, be released. Several campaigns followed thereafter, propping up the narrative that Hindus were being victimised by the Muslims in India’s only Muslim-majority state. The little girl’s body was turned into a site of communal frenzy and hatred by linking the nomadic Muslim communities of Gujjars and Bakerwals to Pakistani flags and terror activities without a shred of evidence and without any recent history of insurgency in the area. At the heart of the kidnapping in the first place were the local communal fault-lines. The girl was picked up to create panic and fear among the nomads whose cattle and livestock would enter the fields of the upper caste Hindus and destroy them.

The rape and murder symbolised the typical use of bodies of women as weapons of war and conflict. Local politics and land-related conflict was at play in the defining of the act. But long after she was gone, the communal cleavages were being deepened and her body became a site for politicisation. There were predominantly two visible strands in the rape and murder case. One was the perpetuation of the crime and the other was the discourse, rather volatile campaigns creating serious law and order problems, in defence of the culprits. The first stemmed from greed and partly communal anxieties. The other sought to play upon those very anxieties and extrapolate them through a pack of lies and propaganda to further perpetuate them into full-scale communal polarisation.

With the convictions on Monday, the question of rape and murder has been settled. But the social fabric of Jammu that lay in tatters amidst all the attempts to communalise and politicise the incident will need much more time to heal. While support for the accused last year turned into massive campaigns with jarring noises, the silence after the verdict is only temporarily comforting. Hindu Ekta Manch has described the verdict as flawed and maintained that it would appeal against it. That is a legal remedy available for those unhappy with the judgement. But there are several worrying questions. Would the battle be taken out of the courtrooms on the streets like it happened in the spring of 2018 to further the communal agenda? Would the verdict become as much a milching cow for political interests of some, perhaps in ways different from last year, as did the horrifying incident itself? Or would this thankful silence prolong to fill in the gaps created by communal tensions and frictions? Will it be back to usual for the nomadic population to visit their temporary homes in the Hindu belt of Jammu and Kashmir during winters or will the fears and anxieties continue? The coming days will be crucial. For now, it’s justice and it imbues some hope.       

The author is Executive Editor Kashmir Times

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