Jammu and Kashmir is a state in the Indian Union that evokes mixed responses across the country. To some, it is India's Switzerland, a tourist destination that has been unaffected by modern capitalism. But to others, it is an ideological, military and political battleground. If one had to look for an analogy, perhaps the only one that would come close, is to call Jammu & Kashmir India's Northern Ireland. For this reason, the reaction to the rape of an 8-year-old at Kathua is a complex political call. The response has to be tailored to be one that manages to reassure citizens who live in the state that India is here to support them rather than use them to make a political point.
Of late, that has become hard to do. The party in power at the Centre, and a key coalition partner in the State, the BJP has responded in a mixed manner to the Kathua incident, while the Opposition party, the Indian National Congress has decided to use this incident to attack the government.
It will be important at this time to recollect the "theek hai" moment during the prime ministerial tenure of Dr Manmohan Singh. After the 16 December 2012 Delhi gangrape, Manmohan Singh addressed the nation on live television. Just as the broadcast ended, one could hear him ask "theek hai?" (Was that okay?) to the cameraperson. While this would have been an ordinary way to determine if the take was fine, the line got broadcast live. In the view of this author, that moment perhaps sealed the BJP's election victory in 2014 as the Congress had lost its moral legitimacy in the eyes of the country at that point. Anything that the government did, including the Criminal Law (Amendment) of 2013 which reformed the laws on crimes against women, was insufficient to compensate for that broadcasting goof-up.
Images matter and how they are delivered help communicate the intent behind those messages. After the 2012 Delhi gangrape, the Indian Armed Forces cancelled their new year celebration to stand with the rest of the nation in condemning the incident. While Kashmir has a strong military presence, there has been little or no statement from any senior army officers this time. Perhaps this may be because this incident has political connotations to it — political connotations that all parties will find difficult to ignore.
The eight year old girl belonged to a minority Muslim herder community and the perpetrators were Hindus. Hindus in Kashmir have found a natural ally in the Central Government whose standard propaganda line while discussing Kashmir is "But what about the Pandits?". If the BJP has to consolidate whatever gains it made when it entered into a power-sharing arrangement with Mehbooba Mufti's Jammu and Kashmir People's Democratic Party, it needs to ensure that it manages this situation well.
The first sign of distrust has been the reluctance of the state to accept a probe into the incident by the Central Bureau of Investigation. While the Director General of the Jammu and Kashmir Police said he had no objection to a CBI probe, he was quick to reiterate the competence of the police to conduct a fair investigation into the matter. The protests by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association, demanding a CBI probe into the matter also quickly turned communal. This perhaps is evidence of the fact that while the state is shaken by the incident, it has little or no confidence in Delhi to bring justice to the 8-year old Kashmiri girl.
This was aggravated by the fact that state industries minister Chander Prakash Ganga and forest minister Lal Singh, both BJP members addressed a rally called by the Hindu Exta Manch in March of this year, in support of the accused. In the face of mounting pressure on the BJP, which snowballed into mounting pressure on the state government, the ministers sent their resignation to the party on Friday. However, they still remain members of the state legislative assembly. If the BJP wants to send a message that it is with the Kashmiri people, it will do well to ask these members to resign from the Assembly and suspend them from the party. However, doing so may cost it votes among its vote bank in Kashmir and the rest of India.
From the rest of the Central government though, there has been a measured response. Minister of State for External Affairs and former Chief of Army Staff, General VK Singh was the first to break his silence and publicly condemn the incident. On Friday, various government ministers have issued measured responses. The responses also take a dig at the Opposition. The issue has now become a political war now, rather than one on which to stand in solidarity with the Kashmiri people. Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally broke his silence on Friday, announcing that the perpetrators would be punished. However, his silence over the past few days may have resulted in fanning the flames of anger in Kashmir against the central government.
For ordinary Kashmiri people, it must be business as usual. Incidents and political statements about Kashmir are often not about the Kashmiri people, but are part of a bigger ploy in the national political debate. Unfortunately, several political parties are now trying to generate political capital from the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl. The long term impact of this on the peace process in Kashmir is something that only time will tell.
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Updated Date: Apr 13, 2018 22:54:18 IST