The rape and murder of an eight-year-old tribal Muslim girl in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (IAJK) earlier this year left India shaking. However, this horrifying incident resulted in a political game that is seeing no end.
The members ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are continuously rallying their support for the accused and rejecting the investigation into the case conducted by State Crime Branch (CB).
The probe by the specialized crime investigative agency of the state police resulted in the arrest of eight men, who belong to the Hindu majority in Kathua district of the disputed territory. Their victim, the minor girl, was from a tribal Gujjar-Bakerwal community. Her dead body was found in a jungle on January 17.
The charge sheet filed by the state crime branch before the district court in Kathua on April 10, provided gruesome details of the incident. It was unveiled that the accused men committed the crime to instill fear among the tribal Muslim community and dislodge them from the area.
On the plea of the victim’s family, and following directions of the Supreme Court, the case was transferred outside the Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir to the neighboring state of Punjab. It happened following a disruption of the court proceedings by local lawyers and attempts to polarize the communities within the state.
BJP Leaders Rallying Behind Accused
The leaders of the ruling BJP have shown more concern about “justice” for the accused men rather than the victim girl.
Choudhary Lal Singh, a senior BJP legislator and former Forest Minister of IAJK, has been at the forefront of protests, candlelight vigils and barefoot marches demanding a federal probe by Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the case. He did it despite the fact that the probe by the state crime branch was conducted under the close supervision of the state’s High Court.
Singh believes that the accused Hindu men were falsely implicated by the state crime branch, whose investigation had prima-facie established their involvement.
In April, Singh and senior BJP leader and Minister for Industries Chander Prakash Ganga were forced to step down from their positions. It happened in the aftermath of their participation in a rally organized by a right-wing group, Hindu Ekta Manch (HEM), in Kathua’s Hiranagar in support of the accused. The event backfired and became a reason for national outrage and embarrassment for the party.
“A girl has died, while there are many other girls who have disappeared and no one knows about them,” Lal Singh told the crowd at the time, asking people to continue their agitation with full force.
“We will not allow this jungle raj, under which they [police] are picking up people at will, to continue. What kind of investigation are they doing?” Ganga said.
Since his resignation from the ministry, Singh has organized more than three dozen protest marches in Jammu demanding nullification of the state-led investigation and handing the case over to the federal controlled CBI, which has a reputation of being used as a tool by the successive ruling governments to target those critical of their governance.
On May 20, Singh conducted mega Dogra Swabhiman Rally (“restoring self-esteem of the Dogras,” an ethno-linguistic group in India), where he walked barefoot for around 35 kilometers (22 miles) along with his supporters to press the government for the CBI inquiry.
“Dogras have decided to fight for their dignity and honor,” he told his supporters.
“A probe by CBI should be conducted in this case,” Dina Nath Bhagat, a BJP legislator from Chennani area in Udhampur district of Jammu division told The Globe Post. “No one should suffer if they haven’t done any crime,” he said while referring to the accused.
Even a Federal Minister in Prime Minister Office, Jitendra Singh, who is also a parliamentarian from Udhampur – Doda constituency in Jammu division, has supported the calls for a new probe.
While sharing his concern about the accused, he said that his party is behind all the rallies conducted by Singh in support of the CBI probe.
“The party (BJP) owns the rallies Mr. Singh conducted so far in support of transferring Kathua case to CBI, and no question arises of disowning him,” he added.
Bharat Bhushan, Vice President of BJP unit in IAJK, also put his weight behind the accused men alleging that police framed them in the case.
“It seems that the investigation by the state crime branch was done in haste and is motivated. It [investigation] is fraud, and the case has been twisted in a manner to pave the way for their arrest,” Bhushan told The Globe Post.
“Even the senior national leader of the party, Ram Madhav has said that demanding CBI probe isn’t a wrong thing. So officially, we have neither opposed nor rejected the demand of the CBI probe,” he added.
These developments come in the backdrop of the decision by the Indian Supreme Court to reject the plea of the accused to have the case investigated by CBI.
On May 4, the BJP unit in Jammu and Kashmir uploaded a video titled “A big expose on Kathua facts” on its official website. It questioned the investigation by the state crime investigative agency which led to the arrest of the accused. Members of its IT cell were issuing appeals on WhatsApp groups to share the video on social networking websites.
“They [BJP] have been communalizing this most gruesome crime and this is what they are doing elsewhere as well,” Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, a legislator from Kulgam district in Kashmir and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told The Globe Post.
“The case is already on trial, so campaigning for a CBI probe is out of the question now. There are people’s voices which are stronger than those who are shielding the criminals,” he further added.
Deepika Singh Rajawat, the lawyer who appears in court on behalf of the victim’s father, feels that BJP is trying to befool the people to gain political mileage.
“The matter is in court and it should be left to it to decide on the merits of the investigation, but the unfortunate part is that some persons (BJP leaders) instead of demanding justice for the victim are trying to derail the justice delivery to the victim family,” Rajawat told The Globe Post.
38 Lawyers for 8 Accused
The support for the accused is not limited to candlelight protests and long road marches by the BJP leaders. In courtrooms, the eight accused are being defended by 38 lawyers, while the prosecution team is led by six.
The battery of lawyers, the majority of whom are Hindus, includes Ankur Sharma, who has previously led a right-wing group, Hindu Ekta Manch, to gather support for the release of the accused. Speaking at one of the right-wing group’s gatherings, he appealed to his community members urging them not to sell their land and properties to Muslims.
“Hindus shall also make it sure that they will not purchase anything, especially milk and other dairy products from Gujjars and Bakerwals,” Sharma told the crowd.
After the Supreme court, on May 7, transferred the rape case outside the state and directed a day-to-day in-camera trial, it is being heard in Pathankot district and sessions court. The court has framed charges against the accused persons under sections of Ranbir Panel Code, which includes criminal conspiracy, murder, causing hurt by poisoning with an intent to hurt, and gang rape. The witnesses in the case are being examined by defense counsels.
“Almost 40 lawyers are cross-examining a witness, and being a lawyer, I am surprised. This is something very challenging for the prosecution,” Rajawat said.
On June 14, Jammu and Kashmir Police Officer Ramesh Kumar Jalla moved an application before the court alleging threats to a witness by the accused. The court has taken cognizance of the matter, and the trial is being conducted on the fast-track basis.