Among the six Bharatiya Janata Party MLAs who took oath as ministers in the Jammu and Kashmir government on Monday was a legislator who took part in a rally in support of the men accused of raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl in Kathua district. The child, from the Muslim nomadic Bakarwal community, was murdered allegedly by Hindu residents in January and the rally organised by the Hindu Ekta Manch was held in February.

For many in the state, the inclusion of Kathua MLA Rajiv Jasrotia in the state cabinet came as a shock. Just three weeks ago, two BJP ministers in the Peoples Democratic Party-BJP government, Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga, had resigned in the wake of national outrage over their participation in the Hindu Ekta Manch rally. Their resignations were seen as damage control by the BJP. A week later, eight of the nine remaining BJP ministers in the government had also stepped down, in what was seen as an attempt by the party to address growing resentment in Jammu over its response to the Kathua case and its perceived failure to deliver on promises and for “giving in to Kashmiri hegemony”.

On Monday, one minister was elevated to cabinet rank and five new faces from the BJP inducted in the cabinet. But as the party picked replacements, Jasrotia was not the only hardliner among its ranks to find a place in the cabinet.

The ‘RSS man’

Former Assembly speaker Kavinder Gupta replaced Nirmal Singh as the state’s deputy chief minister. Nirmal Singh, who stepped down on Sunday, was seen as having been subdued by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party. Gupta is considered more vocal and aggressive than his predecessor. Soon after taking oath, he described the Kathua case as a “small incident” that “should not be given much weight”.

As a Jammu-based journalist, who did not wish to be identified, said, “The party needs that to offer a counter to the PDP’s upper hand. They wanted a hardline replacement to [Nirmal Singh].”

Gupta has been a controversial figure in the state. In October 2015, months after the coalition government was formed, he had proclaimed that he was proud of his membership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent. “It is a matter of pride that I am an RSS member but here I am the Speaker only,” Gupta had said in the Assembly.

In February last year, he had called Mufti’s remarks on Article 370 – which confers special status on Jammu and Kashmir and limits the Centre’s powers to make laws for the state – “anti-national” and sought to expunge them. The chief minister had said in the House, “There are some forces within this country who think that by scrapping Article 370, the issue of Kashmir will be resolved and everything will be alright...We need to work together to save the composite culture which Article 370 protects.”

Then, in February this year, as a military station in the outskirts of Jammu city came under fidayeen attack, Gupta had blamed the incident on the small Rohingya refugee community in the city. He later had to expunge his own remarks.

The Hindu Ekta Manch rally in support of the Kathua rape-murder accused. (Credit: Twitter)

Kathua fallout

Two of the ministers who took oath on Monday came in place of Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga, who stepped down in April over their participation in the rally in defence of the Kathua accused. Singh represents Basohli constituency in Kathua and Ganga is the MLA from Vijaypur in Samba. Their replacements are also from this region in Jammu – Samba MLA DK Manyal and Kathua MLA Rajiv Jasrotia.

Manyal represents both Samba district and the Scheduled Caste community in the state cabinet. But it is the appointment of Jasrotia – who has been given the forest portfolio, earlier held by Lal Singh – that has raised eyebrows, because of his participation in the same rally for which Ganga and Singh had to resign.

According to a Times of India report, Jasrotia had tried to “incite violence against the Bakarwal community and also tried to justify the rape and murder”.

His elevation comes at a time the BJP is facing resentment in Jammu, Samba and Kathua for its support of a police probe in the case as opposed to the local demand for an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Communal baggage

If the BJP leaders from Kathua and Samba districts have publicly backed the accused in the rape-murder case, the two new ministers from the Chenab Valley’s Doda and Kishtwar districts have courted controversy because of their alleged proximity to criminals wanted in cases of murder and communal violence.

Kishtwar MLA Sunil Sharma was elevated to the cabinet and Doda MLA Shakti Parihar took oath as a minister of state on Monday. In March 2016, the two were photographed with BJP leader Hari Krishan – wanted for the murder of a Muslim man during communal violence on Eid in 2013 and declared an absconder by a court of law. The photograph was taken at a meeting at the residence of Union minister of state and Udhampur MP Jitendra Singh.

A report in The Indian Express said Singh had said that Krishan was part of a delegation led by Sharma. “We meet a large number of delegations daily and many of the people are not known to us,” it quoted Singh as saying. It went on to say that Sharma had urged the paper not to mention Krishan’s presence at the meeting.

The same report also said Krishan had campaigned for both Sharma and Singh. It further pointed out that in May 2015, Sharma was seen watching a cricket match in Kishtwar town with Roshan Lal, who is accused of burning a Muslim man alive. Lal reportedly left the venue before the police arrived.

‘Crossroads of despair’

Monday’s cabinet reshuffle comes in the backdrop of strained ties betweeen the BJP and the People’s Democratic Party. Earlier this month, Tourism Minister Tasaduq Mufti, who is the brother of Mehbooba Mufti, had said “communal politics” over the Kathua case had “pushed the state to a new low and brought shame to all of us”. And that three years after the alliance was formed, the Peoples Democratic Alliance now found itself “at the crossroads of despair and abandonment”.

The Indian Express quoted him as saying, “If coalition politics is about living with a series of failures and ignominies, then I am sorry I don’t know how to hide my awkwardness and discomfort with it.”