On the ground

After countrywide outrage against its support for Kathua accused, BJP is on the back foot in Jammu

Muslims feel threatened by the party, Hindus feel betrayed.

“What is wrong with a Hindu manch?” demanded Chaudhary Lal Singh, addressing a crowd of supporters in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua district on April 17. “I am a public representative and what’s wrong in meeting Hindu manch?”

Until not long ago, Singh was a Bharatiya Janata Party minister in the state’s coalition government. He was referring to the Hindu Ekta Manch, formed in Kathua this January to protest against the arrest of men accused of abducting, raping and killing an eight-year-old Muslim Bakarwal girl. All those arrested were Hindu, and the police chargesheet filed in April said the crime had been aimed at “dislodging the Bakarwal community” from the area.

Singh and fellow BJP minister Chander Prakash Ganga had attended the Manch’s rallies in February. Both were forced to resign on April 13 following a groundswell of anger against the crime and those trying to shield the accused. Days after his resignation, however, Singh was unfazed. He only resigned because the “image of our Prime Minister Modi and the party” was being maligned by the media, Singh told his supporters on April 17.

Singh had organised a rally that day. Small crowds gathered at intersections along the highway in Kathua district waiting for Singh to arrive. The former minister and his cohort came in a cavalcade of luxury vehicles. At each intersection, Singh got down for about five minutes and stuck to the same script: the crime should be investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, but Kashmiri Muslims are scuttling this demand and maligning the region’s Hindus.

Singh accused journalists based in the Valley of creating “confusion and misleading the national media”, which in turn labelled Jammu “pro-rapist”. “We are not pro-rapist for demanding CBI inquiry,” he raged.

Singh criticised Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti for dismissing their demand, even alleging that she was influenced by Kashmiri separatists. “Mehbooba has opposed a CBI inquiry because her mausa Geelani has opposed it,” he told supporters, using the Hindi word for maternal uncle for the Hurriyat chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

A few hours after Singh’s rally ended, all BJP ministers in the state resigned, reportedly on the orders of the party’s leadership in Delhi and apparently to pave the way for a reshuffle.

Good BJP, bad BJP

In Jammu, the BJP has painted itself into a corner over the Kathua case. The party’s rise in Jammu and Kashmir is relatively recent. It became part of the state’s government for the first time in 2014, riding the “Modi wave”. In the Assembly election in 2014, it won 25 seats, all from Jammu division. Earlier that year, it had won three of the state’s six parliamentary seats.

Since 2014, the BJP has thrived on religious polarisation in the Hindu-majority region. But now the Hindtuva posturing that helped usher it into power has led to public outrage in the state and elsewhere in the country. Caught in a bind, the party is speaking in two voices about the Kathua incident.

The BJP’s fingerprints are all over the Hindu Ekta Manch’s mobilisation. Not only were the Manch’s meetings in February attended by local BJP leaders, the group itself is headed by Vijay Sharma, the party’s former district president in Kathua.

In the wake of national outrage, the BJP distanced from the Manch and its demands, including for a CBI investigation, angering the Hindu community. Now, Ashok Kaul, the party’s state general secretary, claims the BJP ministers were sent to the Manch’s meetings “to pacify the people”. He denied that the two ministers had resigned under pressure.

But the resignation of all BJP ministers within hours of Singh’s roadshow on April 17 led to speculation that the party was, in fact, acting under political pressure. This seems to flow from the People’s Democratic Party, its coalition partner, and the BJP’s central leadership, which is keen to keep the alliance going. Last week, the BJP’s national general secretary, Ram Madhav, visited Jammu, giving public assurances that the coalition was not in danger.

Perils of polarisation

The polarisation the BJP gained electorally from was effected through an old formula: pitting the “nationalist Hindu Jammu” against the “separatist Muslim Kashmir”. Singh, who held a candlelight march on April 19 to press his demand for a CBI investigation, spoke of a “Kashmiri infection” spreading in the region.

But this strategy is being doubted now. A mid-level BJP functionary admitted that the party’s “wrong policies” had not only deepened hostility against Gujjar Bakarwals among Hindus, they had also sharpened the tribal community’s sense of religious identity. “The polarisation has given rise to something that was not here before,” he said. “The Gujjars have begun to see themselves as Muslims first.”

If the Gujjars’ Muslim identity aligns with the Kashmiris’ separatist Muslim identity, he continued, it would be a threat not only to “national security but also the state’s future”. He claimed that only certain ministers tended to benefit from such polarisation in any case. “It would be disastrous in the long run,” he said. “Gujjars have been the most patriotic community.”

BJP general secretary Ashok Kaul admitted there was public anger against the party. Photo credit: Reuters
BJP general secretary Ashok Kaul admitted there was public anger against the party. Photo credit: Reuters

Widespread resentment

Meanwhile, the BJP faces widespread resentment among both Hindus and Muslims across Jammu. While the largely tribal Muslim community alleges systemic attempts to dislodge them from the region, the Hindu community feels let down by the party. The investigation in the Kathua case, the Hindus feel, has been targeted at their community. Besides, in Jammu, the dominant Hindu identity is also twinned with Dogra pride. This is the ethno-linguistic community to which the erstwhile rulers of Jammu and Kashmir belonged. Historically, Dogras have occupied positions of power in the state.

“The sense of Dogra pride has been hurt badly,” said a Jammu-based journalist. “They feel they have got the tag of being rapists and want a CBI probe. There is also anger against the BJP. It has consolidated the Dogra community.”

A prominent industrialist from Jammu who asked not to be identified said Singh was projecting himself as a strong pro-Dogra and pro-Hindu leader “to capitalise on the current mood” in Kathua, which includes his constituency Basoli. Indeed, it was on the strength of these projections that Singh won the 2014 election. “He knows he is one of the few who did not win because of the Modi wave,” he said. “Ganga is silent right now because he has to remain in BJP, Singh can part ways for another party like he has done before.”

Among the Hindu residents of Rasana, the village where the rape and murder took place, the sense of betrayal is evident. Many villagers they have been on a sit-in against the arrests since March 31. Under the shade of a tree in front of a temple on the highway near Kootah village, the women family members of the accused say the BJP has abandoned them.

Men from other villages in Kathua accompanying the women at the sit-in, say no party represented them any more. “For us there is no BJP or Congress anymore. They have all betrayed us,” said a man who refused to identify himself. “The next time we will make NOTA [None Of The Above] win here.”

Apart from the immediate case, bitterness against the BJP has built up over three years of broken promises and the sense that it has “given in to Kashmiri hegemony”. A long running grievance in the Jammu region is that it is neglected by governments with their power centres in Srinagar.

A strained alliance

State BJP leaders admit they have failed on several counts. Many of them said they lacked experience in government. Indeed, only three of the party’s 25 legislators had occupied seats in the Assembly before. Others accuse the ally People’s Democratic Party of “acting like an opposition” even in power. “The coalition is so unstable it is struggling to keep it together,” said a BJP functionary, alleging that some “elements” wanted the coalition to fall and the state to disintegrate.

Kaul admitted to public anger against the BJP but said the party has not failed in delivering development. He blamed the opposition parties for “exploiting people’s emotions” in Jammu. “They have added petrol to the fire instead of helping us douse it,” Kaul claimed.

Civil society leaders also blame the People’s Democratic Party for not heeding to administrative demands in Jammu and the deepening bitterness against the government. For instance, Nowshera, a subdistrict in Rajouri, has been restive for months, demanding a separate additional deputy commissioner. “Their minister gave an additional district commissioner to his constituency, ignoring the oldest subdistrict of Naushera,” said the trader. “Now we have people of three areas, Naushera, Sunderbani, and Kalakote, fighting among themselves.”

Bolder civil society

Influential sections of the civil society have drawn away from the BJP and the mobilisation around the Kathua accused. Rakesh Gupta, president of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industries, the main platform for the powerful trading community, said they did not support the Jammu Bar Association’s shutdown call on April 11 “because it will polarise society”.

But Gupta was also critical of the media coverage in the wake of the lawyers’ protest. He accused the Kashmiri media, in particular, of bias. “The media has to cover all issues and play a positive role but they are not,” he said.

Gupta said they will “challenge the narrative being built that Hindus are acting against Muslims”. The trade body, he added, is in touch with the region’s Muslim socio-cultural organisations and they will address a joint press conference in coming days. Jammu’s “secular thread” still survives, Gupta, said, but the situation is “volatile”.

For Manu Khajuria, founder of a non-profit called the Voice of Dogras, the coverage of the Kathua incident was “a second rude awakening” for the people of Jammu. The first time such ugly communalisation was visible, she said, was during the Amarnath land agitation of 2008, which had led to widespread protests in both Jammu and Kashmir. “I kept looking at the television and thought to myself: these are not my people,” said Khajuria.

Unlike Kashmir, which has a well-organised and vocal civil society, Jammu civil society has been reticent in the past. But the mobilisation around Kathua and the bad press that Jammu got over it seem to be changing that. The “media trial” and the “community shaming” that followed, said Khajuria, has done disservice to the victim as also the region. “Now civil society is coming together to think of how to take back the narrative in their own hands,” Khajuria added.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.