“Jai Duggar! Jai Dogra!” That is how any visitor to Chaudhary Lal Singh’s party office or home in Jammu is greeted. It’s more than just a symbolic invocation of “Dogra pride”. It is the main campaign plank of the Dogra Swabhiman Sangathan Party, which Singh floated nine months ago after he was sacked as a Bharatiya Janata Party minister for rallying in support of the Kathu rape and murder accused.

“We are fighting for the protection of Dogra identity and we want to end the discrimination against Dogras by previous governments,” Lal Singh explained his party’s agenda, accusing previous regimes of being “Kashmir-centric”. “And every person living in the Jammu region irrespective of their caste, creed and religion is a Dogra.”

He is contesting both of the Jammu region’s parliamentary seats, Jammu and Udhampur, for his new party. As such, he is directly pitted against his former parties, the BJP and the Congress.

Lal Singh won Udhampur for the Congress in 2004 and 2009 but was denied a ticket in 2014, prompting him to leave for the BJP soon after. In his stead, the Congress fielded former Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, who went on to lose to the BJP’s Jitendra Singh by nearly 60,000 votes. The BJP won the Jammu seat as well.

The Hindutva party is eyeing another sweep in the Jammu region, but it has become harder after the main regional parties, the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party, decided against contesting in the region to prevent the division of the “secular vote”.

Still, there are 14 nominees in the fray in Udhampur. The BJP has repeated Jitendra Singh while the Congress has fielded Vikramaditya Singh. Another prominent contestant is Harsh Dev Singh of the Panthers Party.

While Jammu voted in the first phase on April 11, Udhampur goes to the polls on April 18.

The Hindu sentiment

In January 2018, a minor Muslim girl was murdered after allegedly being gangraped at Rasana village, Kathua. The case soon became a communal flashpoint. The accused, eight of them, were all Hindu and when they were arrested, a newly launched group called the Hindu Ekta Manch rose up in their defence. They held protests against the arrests and called for a social boycott of the Gujjars and the Bakarwals, nomadic Muslim communities, branding them “anti-national”. The murdered girl was from the Bakarwal community.

The Hindu Ekta Manch was founded by a former Kathua district president of the BJP and its meetings were attended by the saffron party’s legislators, including Lal Singh.

This arrayed the BJP against its coalition partner, the Peoples Democratic Party. While the BJP demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti insisted on a probe by the police.

In April 2018, pressured by its ally and the public, the BJP removed Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga from the state’s ministry for attending the rallies in support of the accused.

Is he still calling for a CBI inquiry? “If it was up to me, I would do it in one day,” Lal Singh replied. “It is the state government which has to recommend a CBI inquiry.”

One of Lal Singh’s staunchest supporters is Madhu Sharma, daughter of Sanji Ram, the suspected mastermind of the Kathua girl’s murder. Several videos of Sharma railing against the BJP for failing to ensure a CBI probe “despite being a Hindu-centric party” have gone viral on social media.

“She’s not supportive of the DSSP because of power politics, but because of the fact that DSSP is the only outfit that has raised the demand of the people of Rasana which is a CBI inquiry,” said Navneet Kaur, the party’s spokesman.

Sanji Ram’s family refused to speak with Scroll.in.

Beyond the Kathua case and Dogra pride, the Dogra Swabhiman Sangathan Party’s is a standard Hindutva agenda. In its vision document, the party talks about having a rotational chief minister, setting up a commission for Jammu and Kashmir’s minorities and “absolute nationalism”. It also seeks delimitation of Assembly constituencies on the basis of “equitable representation”, code for increasing the number of seats in Jammu.

‘Unhappy with BJP’

More than a year after the Bakarwal girl’s murder, Rasana is hauntingly quiet. Set amidst a vast expanse of greenery, it takes an effort to locate the village, home to around 60 people. Visitors are greeted with suspicious looks and questioned why they have come. Few are willing to talk about the murder case and the politics around it.

“People are unhappy with the BJP because they believe the eight accused persons were framed,” said Mahendra Pal Sharma, Sanji Ram’s neighbour. “We are not satisfied with the police inquiry.”

But Lal Singh is not the solution, Sharma reasoned. “He does not belong to a national party. So he can’t do much in Parliament,” he said. “Here, people will vote for Modi.”

Kant Kumar, the village’s former sarpanch, echoed Sharma’s view. “Lal Singh reaped political benefit from the Rasana case,” he contended. “First it was the Hindu Ekta Manch, then it became Dogra Ekta Manch. Eventually, it became a political party. The fact is even Lal Singh could not do much for the accused when he was in power.”

One of the accused in the Kathua rape and murder case being taken to court. Photo credit: PTI

There are around 4,000 voters in the four revenue villages that make up the Rasana panchayat, Kumar said, and some 200 of them are Muslim. “Hindus will vote for the BJP and Muslims for the Congress since the National Conference and the PDP have decided to support them,” he predicted, because there is “complete polarisation” along religious lines in Jammu.

As the Kathua agitation lost steam, Kant recalled, the “national security” discourse took over. “The Balakot air strike, the way India responded to Pakistan will be on every voter’s mind,” he added.

That may not be entirely true. Udhampur has a substantial population of the Dalits who are not particularly happy with the BJP. Several Dalit voters in the region said the Modi government’s “systematic assault” on lower caste people will factor in their voting choices.

“We know how Dalits have been marginalised by this government. The way they diluted many protections for lower caste people is for everyone to see,” said Lucky Atri, who has a postgraduate degree in Economics and sells fast food on Kootah village’s main road. “Also, they have failed to create jobs for the youth. Why should we vote for them?”

The secular vote

In 2014, Ravi Kumar, from Doda in the Chenab valley, had not decided who to vote for until he found himself before a voting machine. A member of the Sangh Parivar’s student affiliate, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, he ended up voting for the Congress’s Azad.

“Ideological affiliation and governance are different things,” Kumar, who has a PhD in Hindi from Jammu University, explained his choice. “Chenab valley is the most neglected area of the state in terms of development. The roads are so bad the number of people killed in accidents is more than those killed in conflict-related violence. Whatever development has happened so far is all due to Azad.”

Udhampur constituency comprises six districts with a population of over 24 lakh. The Hindus are around 65% of the population and the Muslims nearly 35%, concentrated mostly in Kishtwar, Doda and Ramban districts of the Chenab valley.

In the 2014 Assembly election, the BJP won 12 of the 17 seats that make up the Udhampur parliamentary constituency. In the Lok Sabha election earlier that year, the party led in nine Assembly segments and the Congress in the remaining eight, mostly in the Chenab valley. The Congress’s performance was widely credited to the “secular vote” and the personal support of Azad, who hails from Doda.

The Congress seems in a stronger position now given that it’s backed by the National Conference and the PDP is not contesting. Additionally, political observers expect Lal Singh’s presence in the fray to dent the BJP’s chances.

“On the face of it, this is a fight between BJP and Congress,” said a senior journalist from the Chenab Valley who asked not to be named. “In the last election, the BJP won by over 60,000 votes. That was primarily because of two reasons, the Modi wave and the division of the Muslim vote. While the Modi wave is still a factor, the Muslim vote is likely to consolidate behind the Congress. Add to this the Lal Singh factor. Any votes he gets will be from the Hindus. And that’s a worry for the BJP.”

Also read: ‘My vote is for a strong prime minister’: Pulwama attack deepened the communal divide in Jammu

After Hindu group rally to support man accused of Muslim child’s rape and murder, Jammu rift widens