How politicians exploited Kathua rape case should make us sick

The signs of a communal rift that were so apparent should have compelled the government to take note and explore all options to resolve differences.

 |  5-minute read |   16-04-2018
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An eight-year-old girl's gang rape and murder brought into limelight two communities of Jammu region - the Gujjar-Bakarwals and Dogra Hindus. Despite a seething conflict in Jammu and Kashmir which has brought the world's attention to the region, these communities traditionally managed to live a life away from media glare.

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Tension in Jammu has prevailed for over a year now with residents agitating against what they allege are illegal settlements and encroachments. A fear has been lurking that land is gradually being usurped by non-Jammu residents, with an intention to change the religious demography - a fear reminiscent of the turmoil that Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed since long.

The signs of a communal rift that were so apparent should have compelled any government to take immediate note and explore all possible options to resolve differences.

Despite the sensitivity of the issue, especially in a polarised conflict zone, government's outreach remained non-existent. This allowed space for a dangerous fringe to take over. A fringe that asserted its presence within days of the revelation of a horrific crime, only to be backed by political parties.

If the Kathua child rape and murder was a hate crime intended to force out a community - a claim made in the chargesheet - why did the local elected representatives ignore the crisis while it was in the making?

Politicians knew about the fault lines between the two communities and yet allowed it to fester till it manifested itself in the form of a brutal and horrific crime, whose magnitude is dangerously chilling.

Worse, instead of healing the wounds and calming nerves, leaders across political ideologies took sides blatantly and brazenly, even inciting intimidating agitations.

After the chargesheet details emerged, the media, people on social media and public at large were infuriated and rightly so. Visuals of rallies with people carrying the tricolour and raising "Jai Shri Ram" slogans "in support of the accused" were splashed across all television channels and social media platform.

People are baying for the blood of the culprits reigniting the death penalty debate. Meanwhile, protests have continued in Kathua by locals alleging that the accused - Sanji Ram, the alleged mastermind, Ram's nephew, a juvenile, his son Vishal Jangotra, special police officers Deepak Khajuria and Surender Verma, friend Parvesh Kumar - have been wrongly framed.

The chargesheet appears tight, precise and gruesome in its details, which have shaken the nation drawing people to the streets, a reminder of the 2012 Nirbhaya protests.

While the trial in the case began on Monday (April 16) against the six, for direct complicity in the crime, two police officials - head constable Tilak Raj and sub-inspector Anand Dutta - are accused of taking Rs 4 lakh from Ram to destroy crucial evidence in the case.

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The situation in Jammu, however, is far from calm with residents feeling deserted and isolated.

The Dogras are taken aback by the turn of the events and say while their rallies were only an expression of distrust in the police probe, they have been made to appear pro-rapists. The politicians, they say, manipulated their anger, lawyers used the volatile situation to exhort pressure, a development that has caught them unaware.

While the Bakarwals said they faced humiliation and understandable hurt over the brutal incident, the Dogras claimed a cover-up conspiracy.

As Bakarwals of Kathua walk uphill having forever left behind a young member of the community, who became a victim of the worst form of human brutality, buried in a grave, another section is battling the accusations of "glorifying rapists".

Amid all this, a deep fear is taking shape - permanent damage to peace in the Jammu region.

Attempting to score points ahead of an election year, rallies were organised by local political leaders. When protesters blocked roads and the situation grew tense, leaders from all affiliations joined them in support.

The Congress, National Conference and the BJP found representation in agitations organised by Hindu Ekta Manch.

In the garb of "defusing tensions", the leaders made an abhorrent bid to use their power to pit communities against each other.

Demanding a CBI probe, even provoking to intensify agitations, BJP minister Lal Singh's intimidating speech was a clear sign that his intention was more than just to "pacify the mob".

Even as tensions were simmering, what fuelled tempers was the February 27 order by Tribal Affairs department. In the backdrop of ongoing anti-encroachment drives in Jammu region, a directive was released by the government stating, "Till a formal tribal policy is formulated and issued: tribal population shall not be removed/dislocated. In case absolutely necessary... same should be done in prior consultation with Tribal Affairs department". Also, the police department was asked not to provide protection to any eviction drive, which was not in consultation with the department.

The directive also referred to renovation of hostels and setting up of schools for the nomadic tribes, including finalising areas for pasture during seasonal migration.

While the stated objective of the order was to protect and preserve the rights and culture of tribal populations, it was badly ill-timed given the tensions on the ground. A sentiment started to gain ground in the region that the directive was aimed at changing the region's demography.

February 27 order by Tribal Affairs department further aggravated the existing anger of local residents.

While women in Kathua sat on an indefinite fast demanding the release of the accused, the Crime Branch concluded its investigation and headed to court to submit the chargesheet. This led to an ugly showdown with Bar Association members trying to stop the police from presenting the chargesheet before the court, a move that earned countrywide condemnation for the lawyers.

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As the issue gathered heat, the J&K High Court Bar Association gave a call for Jammu bandh on April 11, raising four demands. The demands included removal of illegal Rohingya immigrants settled in Jammu, revocation of the Tribal Affairs Department directive which was seen as encouraging the settlements, decision on district status for Nowshera and transfer of the Kathua case to CBI. Four unlinked, disconnected issues clubbed into one protest.

People took to roads with the tricolour in hands, demanding that the government take notice of its failed promises. Men stood next to burning tyres, holding posters demanding removal of "Bangladeshi, Rohingyas".

At a time the lawyers were intensifying their protests, the nation had begun taking note of the gory details laid out in the chargesheet.

Protests against the rapists and those shielding them started to gather steam. But the international media took note only of the "resurgent Hindu nationalist".

As voices against the rape and communalising of the incident grew, leaders deserted the people they were backing till just a couple of months ago.

People in power played politics of the worst kind encouraging locals - a powerful vote bank - to intimidate a nomadic community that was in mourning over a raped and murdered child.

Jammu has always represented the secular fabric of a sensitive territory. For the last 30 years, since militancy erupted in Kashmir, Jammu has been providing refuge to people from all communities, who had to flee from other disturbed areas of the state. But such is the state of mutual suspicion in the region now that the victim's family has demanded that the trial be shifted out of the region.

The question that deserves to be pondered over is in which civilised, democratic society do politicians use a child rape and murder to set off a ticking time bomb?

Also read: Why 49 ex-bureaucrats have written a stinging letter to PM Modi

Writer

Pooja Shali Pooja Shali @poojashali

Special Correspondent for India Today TV.

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