The Big Story: The Kathua test

Three months after an eight-year-old child was kidnapped, drugged, raped and killed in Jammu’s Kathua district, the national media has woken up to it and so have political parties. Inevitably, the political grandstanding has begun. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti announced on Thursday that the state government, led by the People’s Democratic Party, will enact a law that ensures the death penalty for the rape of minors. The Congress’s Rahul Gandhi went on a midnight vigil at India Gate to protest against the Kathua rape and murder as well as the rape of a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, and the death of her father in police custody. The Bharatiya Janata Party, a coalition partner in Jammu and Kashmir, swings between sympathy for the accused and muted sympathy for the brutalised child, while the top leadership maintains a deafening silence.

Of the three, the People’s Democratic Party has been under pressure for months as the Kathua incident gave rise to protests in both Jammu and the Kashmir Valley. While a newly formed organisation, the Hindu Ekta Manch, agitated for the case to be shifted to the Central Bureau of Investigation, groups representing the Gujjar-Bakarwal communities in Jammu and various other organisations in Kashmir broke out in protest against the crime. Even as Mufti held out against pressure to transfer the investigation, there was growing anger against her party for its alliance with the BJP, which is widely believed to be shielding the accused.

As a consequence, the People’s Democratic Party proposes to take the route that the United Progressive Alliance did after the Delhi gang rape of December 2012: to frame a big-ticket law with stringent punishments to give the appearance of action and quell public anger. As the last five years have shown, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, which allowed capital punishment for rape, has not been a deterrent. While other states have tried to introduce the death penalty for the rape of minors, studies show that low conviction rates and other flaws in the judicial system will continue to blunt such laws. The death penalty law is no better than a promise of blood for blood.

Meanwhile, the Congress has not covered itself with glory. While the party high command showed admirable agility in organising a spontaneous vigil on Thursday, it may want to look within first. In Jammu, its local party leaders openly supported the Hindu Ekta Manch. Moreover, the Jammu Bar Association, which enforced a shutdown to push for the transfer of the case and supported lawyers who tried to prevent the chargesheet from being filed, is reportedly led by an old Congress hand. The party high command may now point fingers at the politics of hate but there is little difference between the Congress and BJP in Jammu. For too long, both parties have thrived on a poisonous Hindutva that fed on the polarisation between Hindu-majority Jammu and Muslim-majority Kashmir. So long as this continues, the Congress cannot expect to be a credible voice in the campaign for justice.

Most troubling, perhaps, is the BJP top leadership’s studied silence – it is, after all, the party in government at the Centre and in the state. Moreover, the party has its fingerprints all over the vicious mobilisations that followed the crime and tried to shield the accused. The Hindu Ekta Manch is headed by the former Kathua district president of the BJP. Two BJP ministers in the state government attended the meetings of the manch, which called for a boycott of the Muslim Gujjar-Bakarwal community to which the child belonged. A Union minister of state also chimed in sympathy with the manch, echoing its demand for a Central Bureau of Investigation probe. While Union Minister of State for External Affairs VK Singh and a few other legislators have made soothing noises, it is not enough. The party’s top leadership, including the prime minister, needs to speak above the din and make its position clear. In an ideal world, this would mean the BJP stating clearly that it does not stand for hate crimes, that it will crack down on any attempt by party members to bully and alter the course of law.

The Big Scroll

Rayan Naqash reports on how the Kathua rape and murder stirred the Valley into a new debate. He also travelled to Kathua to find villages divided along deepening communal faultlines, explored how the Forest Rights Act may safeguard the rights of Gujjar-Bakarwals and reported on a charge sheet which gave harrowing details of the eight-year-old’s ordeal.

Punditry

  1. In the Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues that with Kathua and Unnao, blaming politicians is just a way of exonerating ourselves.
  2. In the Hindu, Sadiq Rangwala makes a case for science.
  3. In the Economic Times, Atisha Kumar writes that India will not be able to sustain economic growth without focusing on all states and regions.

Giggles

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