Jammu and Kashmir on edge as right-wing group demands freedom for policeman arrested for rape and murder of 8-year-old girl

Tensions are mounting in Jammu and Kashmir after the Hindu Ekta Manch, a Right-wing group connected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), started taking out rallies in the state's Jammu region in support of a special police officer who was arrested by the crime branch for the rape and murder of an eight-year-old nomadic girl last month.

In a brazen contempt of law, hundreds of demonstrators, including women and children, gathered in Kathua area on Friday with the National Flag and shouted 'Bharat Mata Ki Jai' and other slogans. They were demanding the immediate release of Deepak Khajuria, the police officer who allegedly abducted the nomadic girl, kept her in confinement for seven days, and then murdered her.

According to the police, Khajuria and a minor boy, who has also been detained, were responsible for the ghastly crime which was discovered after a badly mutilated body was recovered from the Rassana forest in Kathua on 17 January, a week after she went missing while grazing horses. The victim hailed from Kathua.

Sources said that Khajuria threatened the boy that he would kill his parents if he told anybody about the incident.

Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. PTI

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti expressed helplessness at preventing breakdown of law and order in the state. PTI

Cover-up or negligence?

When the case was initially brought to the notice of the police, official negligence paved way for attempts of cover-up. Khajuria, who has been claimed by the Hindu Ekta Manch as their member, was among those appointed to trace the victim when she went missing. "He was also part of the police party which recovered the body," a senior officer of the Jammu and Kashmir police's crime branch, which is investigating the case, told Firstpost.

By the time the body was recovered, police had turned the heat on the nomadic population, a small Muslim minority in Hindu-dominated Jammu. A local activist was detained for spearheading an unofficial movement seeking justice for the girl.

The official indictment came after the SHO Hiranagar was suspended over allegations that he had allegedly helped Khajuria, who was being accused of involvement in the crime, to evade the law.

The issue also repeatedly halted proceedings of the Budget Session of the state Assembly, with Opposition parties raising questions and demanding action against the culprits. On 23 January, the Mehbooba Mufti government ordered a probe in the matter and handed the case over to the crime branch.

Seeds of discord

On Twitter, Hindu Ekta Manch describes itself as a "social welfare organisation" with 99 followers. The handle follows all the top leaders of the BJP, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah. According to a report on Outlook, the group was formed by Milind Ekbote, a BJP corporator from Pune, after he lost the election in 2007.

His family is linked to RSS and the group was recently found to be involved in the Bhima Koregaon violence which led to the killing of one person.

"This so-called 'Hindu Ekta Manch' is nothing but a cover. It's the BJP hiding behind religion to further its political agenda. No justice loving Hindu can support rape and murder," student leader and former vice-president of JNU Students Union, Shehla Rashid, who hails from Srinagar in Kashmir, said.

The rally in Kathua by the 'Hindu Ekta Manch' with a top BJP leader and secretary as its head, was one of the many rallies that were organised by the Right-wing group in Jammu over the past few weeks following Khajuria's arrest. It was something that made Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti obliquely express her helplessness in preventing the breakdown of law and order in the state by Hindu Right-wing groups.

"Appalled by the marches and protests in defence of the recently apprehended rapist in Kathua. Also horrified by their use of our National Flag in these demonstrations. This is nothing short of desecration. The accused has been arrested and the law will follow its course," she said on Twitter.

However, the BJP has hit back at the chief minister for her statements, saying she i trying to politicise and communalise the matter. Vijay Sharma, advocate and BJP secretary, said, "The police had arrested a boy who everybody said was responsible for the killing. After he was arrested, some people from Jammu and members from a particular community put pressure on the government saying he couldn't have committed this crime on his own. It was our government which handed over the case to the crime branch. There is a personal enmity between Deepak Khajuria and the family. Before his arrest, they were involved in a fight three days ago. They were encroaching on his land they had a fight over this issue. The police isn't looking into that angle at all."

"We didn't block traffic, and our boys got in a National Flag to the rally only because the man who was arrested was serving the country. We asked how can you arrest someone without a proper investigation. Mehbooba called him a rapist even though it wasn't proven. She is trying to politicise and communalise the issue. They want to further deepen the animosity between the two communities in the region," Sharma said.

Atmosphere of Fear

The initial botched investigation by the police has shattered the faith of the nomadic community. Amid fear of retaliation, nomads in Rasana and Kootah villages of Kathua are living a life of uncertainty. Reflecting the sorry state of affairs in the police and civic administration, their water supply was cut and the community has been socially ostracised as well.

On Friday, the Right-wing group took the National Flag to their protest march, as demonstrators shouted slogans including 'Vande Mataram' and 'Bharat Mata Ki Jai', while demanding the policeman be released immediately. Interestingly, the demonstration had a police escort team accompanying them.

"How can the police provide an escort to the protesters who want the rule of law to be suspended? Is it not disrespectful to the National Flag itself? On whose direction was the escort provided? Why hasn't action been taken against those who organised or took part in the protest march?" Choudhary Talib, a social activist from the Gujjar community, who was arrested by the police for seeking justice for the victim, told Firstpost.

He pointed to the fact that no action is expected to be taken against the demonstrators as showing a complete breakdown of law and order in the state.

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Updated Date: Feb 17, 2018 17:24:58 IST

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