Kathua: Located in a narrow lane in Rasana village, nearly 50 kilometres from Jammu is the home of Sanji Ram, the main accused in the Kathua rape and murder case of a minor Muslim Gujjar girl. A year has passed since the incident took place. And as campaigning for the 2019 Lok Sabha Election gains momentum, Ram's house is all decked up with national flags and stickers of Lal Singh, an ex-BJP leader and minister in the PDP-BJP government in Jammu and Kashmir.
Singh and another minister Chandar Prakash Ganga were forced to resign from the state cabinet after they took part in a rally demanding a CBI inquiry into the incident. The former forest minister later quit the BJP as well and launched his own party, Dogra Swabhiman Sangathan, in February and is aggressively campaigning against the BJP in this predominantly Hindu belt.
A number of local residents, including Ram, who are accused in the Kathua rape and murder case, are presently being tried in a Pathankot court in Punjab. Ram’s family is actively campaigning for Singh.
It may be recalled that the body of a minor girl from the nomadic Gujjar community was found in Rasana village near a temporary shelter where her family was staying. The Gujjars spend winters in the plains of Jammu and Punjab and return to the mountains of the Kashmir valley during summers.
Singh's rebellion is a cause of worry for the BJP. Kathua (population of 6,16,435) is one of five Assembly segments — the other four being Bani, Basohli, Billawar and Hiranagar — that are part of the Udhampur Lok Sabha constituency and had voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. But Singh is now threatening to split this solid BJP Hindu vote bank.
With locals now wary of the BJP, and the consolidation of Muslim votes in other areas of Udhampur constituency, BJP MP Jitendra Singh, who is seeking re-election from the seat has a fight on his hands.
His opponent, Vikramaditya Singh of the Congress, has the support of National Conference and PDP as both of them have decided not to field their own candidates to avoid splitting what they call the "secular" vote bank.
Kathua's voters are angry that Ram and the other accused in the murder and rape case have been denied bail and have spent the last year in jail while Gujjar activist Talib Hussain who spearheaded the protests seeking justice for the victim in the case, is roaming free despite being an accused in rape and domestic violence cases. Hussain, who was booked in another case following a domestic violence complaint by his wife, recently joined the PDP.
Ram's wife Darshana Devi was not willing to speak with this reporter during a visit to Rasana. "Many media persons visited us earlier but have portrayed a wrong picture of the incident," she said, adding, "The entire Hindu community was targeted despite the fact that no one has been proven guilty so far."
Members of the Dogra community seem to hold a grudge against the state government and the BJP. However, they share a different opinion with outsiders.
When this reporter asked Naresh Kumar, a Dogra who runs a shop along the National Highway in Kathua in Hindi, he replied that the BJP wave is still present in the area and only a few people were supporting Singh.
However, when the same question was presented in Dogri, the language of the ethnic Dogra community of Jammu and parts of Himachal Pradesh, Kumar shared a contrasting opinion.
"Tus te apne ge ho te tusen pata hai Kashmiri politicians te media ne kiyan Rasana case Dogren de khilaaf ghumaya. BJP power vich onde oyi vi sadi CBI di demand puri nai kari saki te un usi bhugatna pau (You are one among us and you know how Kashmiri politicians and media used the Rasana case to blame the Dogras of Jammu. The BJP despite being in power failed to fulfill our demand of a CBI inquiry into the incident and now the party will repent," Kumar said in Dogri.
At the core of the Dogra's resentment towards the BJP is the saffron party's poor response to the community's demand for a CBI inquiry into the Kathua murder and rape case.
"A sit-in by residents of Rasana village demanding a CBI inquiry continued for over a year but no BJP leader visited us. We did not trust the local police crime branch as it was working on the directions of the then chief minister Mehbooba Mufti to tarnish the image of the Hindus of Jammu," said Kumar.
"Is it possible that Ram, who has grandchildren, can be mastermind of such a crime?” he asks, sharing the community's strong belief in the innocence of the accused.
Kumar is not the only Dogra who holds the view that the PDP-led government tried to use the case to malign the Hindu community and the BJP did nothing to counter it.
"Our pleas for a CBI enquiry fell on deaf ears," said Subedar Major (retired) Bhishan Das Sharma of Rasana village, adding, “We would have accepted the CBI’s conclusions even if our own men were found to be the real culprits."
"Those accused in other rape cases are out on bail and joining Kashmir-centric parties while our men are in jail without getting bail," said Darbari Lal, a local cart puller while referring to Hussain.
Sitting under the same tree where local residents held a sit-in protest for over a year Lal said, "We are being discriminated only because of the BJP which claims to be a Hindu party."
Udhampur goes to polls on 18 April.
The author is Ludhiana-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters
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Updated Date: Apr 17, 2019 19:37:20 IST