Six men who were involved in a plot to abduct, rape and kill an eight-year-old child in Jammu’s Kathua district last January have been convicted for their crimes. While the Jammu and Kashmir crime branch is likely to challenge an acquittal in the case and demand stiffer sentences for the convicted men, there is a general sense that justice has been done.
But the Kathua case was not just a random act of violence. It was inscribed in concentric circles of social prejudice, political power and religious hate. The bitter conditions that led to the brutalisation of a child still remain. Despite well-meaning appeals not to politicise the case, the crime cannot be seen outside them.
First, the police chargesheet filed last year mentioned that the crime was an attempt to “dislodge the Bakarwal community in Rasana” village, where the child’s family lived. The nomadic Gujjar-Bakarwals, recognised as Scheduled Tribes and mostly Muslim in these parts of Jammu, are among the most marginalised groups in the state. In the Valley, they are ethnically different from the Kashmiri majority and seen as aloof from the separatist sentiment that shapes its politics. In Jammu, where they migrate during winters, they are cut off from the Hindu majority by religion and seen as a demographic threat. The child belonged to this community and her killers to the majority.
She became a “soft target” in tensions between the two communities, the police chargesheet alleged. In the aftermath of the murder, Bakarwals living in the area feared for their security and the working relationship that had evolved between communities seemed to be permanently disrupted. A year later, the girl’s parents returned to their land in Rasana, only to face a social boycott from the local community. They contemplated selling their land and leaving. The alleged intention behind the murder may well have been realised after all.
Second, these local contestations seemed to have tacit political backing in a region where both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have freely peddled Hindutva, raising the fear of Hindus being “swamped” by Muslims from the Valley or across the border. In 2014, some BJP leaders had even made the expulsion of Gujjar-Bakarwals part of their election promises. After the murder, local Hindu residents organised under the Hindu Ekta Manch, defending the accused and demanding that the case be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation. The mobilisations had political fingerprints all over them, attended by local Congress and BJP leaders, organised by people with ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
There was hardly any political cost to defending the accused, and much to gain. While two BJP legislators who had attended the rallies were forced to resign, one formed his own party and went on to contest the Lok Sabha election, though he was badly defeated. Others were rehabilitated. One leader was appointed a minister in the state government soon afterwards. Jitendra Singh, who loudly supported the demand to transfer the case, is now member of Parliament from the Udhampur constituency, under which Kathua falls, and a minister of state. After the convictions this week, BJP leaders maintained a studied silence and the Congress leader expelled for attending the rallies insisted that the convicted men were innocent.
Third, the religious, political and regional polarisations that gave rise to Kathua have only deepened after the incident. The coalition between the BJP, which primarily won from Jammu, and the People’s Democratic Party, with its support base in the Kashmir Valley, finally snapped under strain from the case. In the Lok Sabha election, the Jammu region saw unprecedented Hindu consolidation around the BJP. Though anxieties about national security and the recent Pulwama attacks were major factors behind this consolidation, the Kathua case also played a part. According to post-poll surveys, it certainly figured prominently in Muslim voter choices, both in Jammu and the Valley.
So long as the conditions which enabled the Kathua murder exist, there is reason to fear this will not be the last such tragedy. So long as the accused have powerful political defenders, grim precedence suggests, even these convictions will not survive higher courts.