Kathua rape and murder case: Most now see disease, but symptoms of communal strife were always there in Jammu and Kashmir

For a decade, it was only spoken about in whispers. Then, a special investigation team of Jammu and Kashmir police’s crime branch made a startling revelation: an eight-year-old Bakarwal girl was raped and murdered as part of a conspiracy to drive out the Muslim nomadic tribe from Kathua area’s Rasana village.

The victim was drugged, held captive in a temple and sexually abused for days before being strangled and battered to death with a stone in January 2018. The case sparked nationwide revulsion and made headlines when Hindu Right-wing groups protested over the subsequent arrests. Eight people, including a former government official, four policemen and a juvenile, were charged in connection with the crime. One of them has been acquitted and the minor will be tried separately.

The trial court’s verdict on Monday not only confirmed the police assertion but also revealed the mindset of the prime accused, Sanji Ram, and the co-accused who themselves told the court about their anger against the Muslims. Many Gujjar and Bakarwal activists allege that some Right-wing elements in Jammu, particularly in Hindu-majority areas of these parts, have been systematically trying to force the Muslim population out of their residential areas.

 Kathua rape and murder case: Most now see disease, but symptoms of communal strife were always there in Jammu and Kashmir

Representational image. AP

“It has been there for decade now. Before that, this fear prevailed during Partition. Some forces in Jammu don’t want Muslims, particularly the Gujjar and Bakarwal communities, to live there. The beating and harassment of our people, which are filmed and uploaded on social media, only testifies to that,” said Mukhtar Ahmad Haji, a Gujjar activist, who has been working on building bridges between the communities.

The example of “Partition” is something which Choudhary Lal Singh, a former Jammu and Kashmir minister who now heads a newly floated Jammu-based party, has repeatedly used whenever he wants to make a political point. A few years ago, he went to the extent of threatening the Gujjars with a repeat of the 1947 massacre of Muslims.

But some Hindu Right-wing leaders, including the lawyer of the accused in the Rasana case, Ankur Sharma, say people in Jammu are dependent on the Gujjars and Bakarwals for a variety of reasons, including buying milk from them. The crime branch, Sharma says, gave examples of 13 FIRs to drive home the point that there is animosity against the clans, and people want to throw the Gujjars and Bakarwals out of Jammu. But such cases had happened even 25 kilometres from Kathua.

“No one wants to push them out when they have been living in Jammu for decades,” Sharma said. “The crime branch and Kashmiri politicians communalised the issue. This is a disgraceful judgment when there is no evidence.”

In the Kathua case, main conspirator Sanji Ram and former police officer Deepak Khajuria, who were convicted by the Pathankot Sessions Court on Monday, told the judge that the members of the Bakarwal community would come down the hills during winters and stay in areas near Rasana where they were “in the habit of disturbing and spoiling the crops of the local resident”.

The court in its verdict held that the statement made by Sanji Ram “reflected and echoed” the motive behind the crime and observed the declarations made by him and his son, Vishal Jangotra, who was acquitted, form “incriminating evidence” against them. The investigating agency had said that the accused also had a conflict with the members of the Bakarwal tribe and the rivalry between the two communities had already led to several FIRs and counter FIRs at different police stations.

The girl was a “soft target” to fulfill the larger aim of “dislodging” the minority community from the area, the court was told. A witness belonging to the Bakarwal clan said to the judge that he owned around 150 animals and had purchased for them leaves from trees grown in certain areas. However, he added in his statement, Sanji Ram objected to his visit and another accused, Deepak Khajuria, abused him, questioned his motives and threatened him not to go there again.

According to Census 2011, the Gujjars number around 9.8 lakh in the state’s population while the Bakarwals, a related tribe, are 1.1 lakh. Nearly all the members of both clans are Muslims.

The Gujjars have been targeted for years now in the Hindu belt of Jammu. The proposed All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Vijaypur threatened to evict 204 Gujjar families and when the villagers protested, police used force.

“A large crowd of Hindus set our houses on fire,” said Nazir Ali, a resident of Sarore. “We started defending ourselves by throwing stones at them, but the police targeted us.”

Ahead of the-then prime ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi’s Lalkar rally in Jammu in December 2013, BJP leader Chander Prakash Ganga declared at a public meeting in Vijaypur that he would run a bulldozer through the Gujjar settlements. “Once you make us (the BJP) successful, we will throw them out,” he told the rally.

A few weeks before the Rasana incident, about a dozen Gujjars were beaten up for allegedly killing a cow. The chaos that erupted later left many injured and it took several days to pacify both sides. In December 2018, a mob set a truck on fire, alleging that it was being used to smuggle cattle and blocked the Jammu-Pathankot national highway, prompting the police to use mild lathicharge to disperse the crowd.

“The fear sparked by the Kathua case had driven many Gujjars out of Jammu areas. But we are hopeful that this verdict will send out a strong message that law is equal for all,” said Deepika Singh Rajawat, a prominent lawyer based in Jammu who was involved in the campaign to seek justice for the child.

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Updated Date: Jun 13, 2019 14:42:07 IST