Kathua in focus: Slogans and outrage must not wipe out the specifics of the crime

The communally charged rape and murder is framed by the ordeal of Gujjar-Bakarwals in Jammu and Kashmir, tensions over land and the paranoias of a border state.

For months, few people outside the state of Jammu and Kashmir noticed that an eight-year-old child from a Muslim Gujjar-Bakarwal family had been murdered after being kidnapped and allegedly raped in Kathua district. Then in April, with the spectacle of lawyers blockading the Kathua district court to prevent the police from filing a 15-page chargesheet with harrowing details of the crime, the case erupted into the consciousness of people nationwide.

Now, protests against the crime have spread to various parts of the country. In many ways, it is a constructive rage. It breaks away from the weary acquiescence to sexual violence and hate crimes that have become endemic to India. It may also increase the chances of justice in this case. But, like the Delhi gang rape of 2012, this case has journeyed from the real to the symbolic. The child, her name and her photograph, is becoming the emblem of a new campaign on the streets and on social media, powered largely by the urban middle classes.

Two narratives have emerged from these protests, broadly fitting the themes “India’s Daughter” and “Not In My Name”. The India’s Daughter narrative sees this case in a continuum of other sexual crimes, from Unnao to Surat, and the child as a successor to “Nirbhaya”, the young woman who was brutalised on a moving bus in Delhi in December 2012, and who died of her injuries in hospital. According to arguments that flow from this narrative, the Kathua case should not be politicised; this campaign is primarily one for women’s safety.

Except, everything about the Kathua incident is political, from the original act of violence, meant to drive away a particular community from the area, to support for the accused, which was organised under the banner of the Hindu Ekta Manch and drew politicians into its fold. It is impossible to drain the Kathua case of politics.

The Not In My Name strand of protests places Kathua alongside other hate crimes, the symptom of a poisonous Hindutva enabled by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The larger currents of majoritarian hate sweeping through the country have, no doubt, touched Kathua, but not all aspects of the crime can be explained by mainstream Hindutva.

This was, in some ways, a very local crime rooted in very local power structures. Why are these nuances important? Because, as they get flattened out by polemic, large-scale campaigns such as this one tend to unsee their subjects.

Minority within a minority

First, while the crime was communally charged, it is unlikely that the perpetrators would have acted with such a sense of impunity if their victim did not belong to the tribal community.

In Kathua district, according to the 2011 census, Hindus account for about 87.7% of the population, and Muslims just 10.4%. The Gujjar-Bakarwal community is almost entirely Muslim. Samba district, where Gujjars have been victims of communal violence, has over 86% Hindus and just 7.2% Muslims. But it is not always a majority bearing down on the minority. For instance, Reasi district, where a Gujjar family was attacked by a mob on charges of cattle smuggling last April, is almost equally divided between Hindus and Muslims. The Gujjar-Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir are no ordinary minority and their experiences of marginality do not always stem from religion.

In 1991, the government of India recognised the community as a Scheduled Tribe, which entailed reservations in state and Central government jobs. But this did not necessarily translate into material benefits. Literacy levels remained low, as did access to education. The state, which has special status under Article 370, has chosen not to implement Central laws such as the Forest Rights Act, which could secure tribal rights to land. This means the Gujjar-Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir have not only remained poor, dependent on the old livelihoods that rely on access to forests and pasture land, but are also vulnerable to displacement by more powerful groups.

In the Kashmir Valley, they are seen as ethnically different from the majority and sympathetic to the Indian state, aloof from the dominant separatist sentiment there. In Jammu, their religious identity comes to the fore, often giving rise to charges of cow slaughter and cattle smuggling, which then become grounds for violent assaults and arson against them. It is perhaps significant that many of these targeted attacks have been directed at Gujjar-Bakarwals, arguably the most marginalised group within the Muslim community.

Contestations over land

Very often, beneath the communal rhetoric surrounding these attacks, lie contestations over land, crops and money. In Kathua’s Hiranagar area, where the eight-year-old was killed, there were spats over land. The tragedy of her death was compounded by the fact that local Hindu residents refused to let her be buried in a plot of land owned by one of her relatives, saying it was disputed property. One of the policemen charged in the case is also said to have quarrelled with the tribal community over his crops. In Reasi, the Gujjar family that was beaten up last year alleged that they were targeted because one member had run up a debt in a local ration shop.

Are these disputes merely the symptom of a growing population competing for limited resources? Some claim there is more to it. Arson and violence have become a prelude to forced evictions of Gujjar-Bakarwal families in Jammu, part of a tacit state policy in the BJP-dominated region. In the run up to the 2014 state election, clearing Gujjar-Bakarwal settlements was an election promise made by BJP leaders such as Chander Prakash Ganga, one of the ministers who resigned on April 13 following criticism over his presence at a rally in support of the men accused of raping and murdering the eight-year-old. But these attempts to push the community out of Jammu began months after the People’s Democratic Party tied up with the BJP in February 2015 to form the state government.

In some instances, the state was complicit in the violence. Take Sarore, in Samba district, where the community said bulldozers of the Jammu Development Authority arrived after Hindu mobs had set their houses alight in 2016. The police then opened fire on the Gujjars, killing one.

At times, these Hindutva assertions have dovetailed into something colder: a bid to empty land occupied by Gujjar-Bakarwals to make way for showpiece projects. In Vijaypur, for instance, over 200 families lived under the threat of eviction because the government wanted the land for a new All India Institute of Medical Sciences, despite warnings by survey officials that the area was prone to flooding.

But even the state government does not speak in one voice. A February order by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said Gujjar-Bakarwal settlements were to remain undisturbed until the government put a new tribal policy in place. The order said if eviction was absolutely necessary, it would have to be sanctioned by the tribal affairs ministry, and no police protection would be provided for eviction drives that take place without this approval. The order was not well-received by its alliance partner, the BJP, and one of the demands of the Jammu Bar Council was that it be reversed.

A border state

It is difficult to understand the Jammu mobilisations without accounting for the paranoias of a border state. The agitations over “demographic change”, allegedly brought about by Muslim migration into Jammu, mirror those in the Kashmir Valley, where a government plan to resettle Kashmiri Pandits triggered similar anxieties. Hindu residents in Kathua speak about being “encircled” by new Muslim settlements, a fear that sounds implausible in the Hindu-majority district.

For years, local political parties have thrived on polarising formulations where Hindu-majority Jammu is pitted against Muslim-majority Kashmir, where nationalist Jammu is the counterpoint to separatist Kashmir. In border districts like Kathua, which has seen cross-border shelling by Pakistan, these tensions acquire an added edge.

But the projection of a Hindu nationalist Jammu does not always hold true. Some of the anxieties seem localised even within Jammu. Formed on January 23, the Hindu Ekta Manch is a local organisation concentrated in Kathua. When the Jammu Bar Council called for a shutdown on April 11, it found little resonance beyond Kathua district and Jammu city. Influential traders and business organisations stayed away from it.

This variegated politics, these local inflections do not always fit into the narratives imposed by television studios and urban centres. But if crimes like the one in Kathua are to be addressed beyond the rhetoric of public rallies, they need to be acknowledged.

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