On Monday, a group of lawyers crowded outside the Kathua district court in Jammu, shouting “Crime Branch go back”. They were members of the Kathua Bar Association, trying to prevent members of the state police from filing a chargesheet before the chief judicial magistrate. The case in question was the murder and alleged rape of an eight-year-old girl from the Gujjar-Bakarwal community in Rasana village in Jammu’s Kathua district.
Videos of the lawyers speaking to the local press on April 9 soon emerged. “We have been opposing this since the day one,” a lawyer protesting against the police investigation was heard saying. “That is why we boycotted them today and shunted them out from here.” The lawyer alleged that the police had tortured the accused men by prising out their fingernails and thrashing them after hanging them upside down.
They also alleged that the investigation by the state police had not been fair. The lawyers asked for an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation, echoing a demand made by the Hindu Ekta Manch, a new group formed in Kathua in January to protest against the arrests.
Kirty Bhushan Mahajan, president of the Kathua Bar Association, said it had offered free legal help to the accused in the case. “The accused are invited to name any advocate to represent them in court. They will be given free of cost legal representation at their choice,” Mahajan said.
The Jammu Bar Association has called for a Jammu-wide shut down on April 11 to push for the transfer of the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation and other issues, including Rohingya refugee settlements in Jammu. The Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, however, does not support the bandh.
Late on Monday night, the Crime Branch was finally able to file a chargesheet which detailed a plot to abduct, rape and kill the child in order to “dislodge the Bakarwal community from Rasana”. She had disappeared on January 10 and her body was found a week later.
The chargesheet names eight accused, including a juvenile. Four members of the local police are among the eight. Two are special police officers charged with direct involvement in the crime. Two are regular police officials who were complicit in covering up the crime.
Out of court
On Monday morning, word spread in Jammu province that the Crime Branch had filed a chargesheet, said Abhishek Khajuria, spokesperson of the Young Lawyer’s Association. “We got calls [from various district bar associations in Jammu] enquiring if it had happened,” he said.
However, Khajuria said the police arrived at 4.20 pm, just 10 minutes before the court closes for the day. “We found out about it on time and the bar association [in Kathua] came out to protest,” he said. Though the police was able to present the chargesheet, the lawyers prevented them from presenting the accused before the magistrate so it could not be scrutinised and officially accepted. “We didn’t let them go to the courtroom,” Khajuria said.
Police reinforcements were called in as the lawyers refused to make way. “Later the sessions judge intervened and the Crime Branch was sent back. Through friends in the media we came to know they went back to the police lines and were planning to go to the chief judicial magistrate’s residence to present the accused,” he said.
Members of Khajuria’s association, led by the Kathua Bar Association, reached the magistrate’s home around 7 pm. According to Mahajan, they were there to “prevent the challan from being presented”. The lawyers, however, went back after believing “rumours spread by the police” that they had returned to Jammu city, Mahajan said. “The challan was presented again between 10 pm and 11 pm and the accused were sent to judicial remand.”
A communal charge
The child was Muslim and those arrested for the crime are all Hindu. Over the last three months, the case has acquired a communal and political charge. Some members of the Hindu community gathered under the banner of the Hindu Ekta Manch, formed by Hiranagar-based lawyer, Vijay Sharma. Sharma, who says he has been involved in the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was Kathua district president of the Bharatiya Janata Party from 2013 to 2015.
Through February, the manch held rallies and meetings protesting against the arrest of the accused. After Sanji Ram surrendered on March 20, his wife and other Hindu residents reportedly launched a hunger strike to demand that the case be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
The coalition government, composed of the Kashmir Valley-based People’s Democratic Party and the BJP, which draws support largely from Jammu, has also shown signs of strain. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti promised a speedy and fair probe and said the case would not be passed on to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Meanwhile, BJP spoke in many voices.
Several leaders based in Jammu and a Union minister of state echoed the Manch’s demand. Meetings by the Hindu Ekta Manch were also attended by two BJP ministers in the state government, as well as local Congress and BJP leaders.
But a statement put out by the party’s state spokesperson distanced itself from the Manch and most recently the BJP legislator from Hiranagar, Kuldeep Raj, said he had full faith in the Crime Branch, the “premier probe agency of the state”.