Kathua rape case and its probable political fallout

IMG_0065The ousted J&K BJP minister, Chaudhary Lal Singh, is holding rallies in Jammu in support of the CBI probe in the rape and murder of the eight-year-old girl in Kathua. The implicit rationale for this mobilisation is that the investigation carried out by the state’s Crime Branch team has unfairly charged the accused. Why? Because most of the members of the team are Muslims-albeit it is headed by a Hindu, according to Singh.

Lal Singh’s week-long campaign has been attracting thousands of people. He along with another minister Chander Prakash Ganga was forced to resign by the party for their earlier participation in the rally by Hindu Ekta Manch (Hindu Unity Forum) where they had spoken in favour of the accused. Ganga called the then ongoing police enquiry into the crime a “jungle raj” which had booked people randomly.

Over time, the Hindu Ekta Manch garnered support from more sections of the civil society including the Jammu High Court Bar Association which organised a bandh in support of the CBI probe on April 11. The BJP too adopted an ambivalent approach towards the demand, with some of its leaders choosing to play both ways. In fact, the Union Minister in Prime Minister’s Office, Dr Jitendra Singh, who hails from the state, was the first to support Hindu Ekta Manch, and is still in favour of the CBI probe.

But, the situation transformed, when on April 9, the Crime Branch produced charge-sheet against the accused. The charge-sheet graphically revealed how the eight-year-old girl was recurrently sedated and gang-raped by the men over the week that she was held captive in a temple.

Sanji Ram, a former revenue official, had meticulously planned the horrible crime. He recruited his son Vishal Kumar, sixteen-year-old nephew, SPO Deepak Khajuria and a cop among others to carry out the crime. According to the charge sheet, the boy was deliberately chosen to play a role in the abduction and killing of the girl, so that if he is arrested he would be let off with minimal punishment.

The objective of the crime, as turned out now, was to expel the Bakerwal community from the area. But the plan didn’t work out along the expected lines. The minor was soon arrested and upon his interrogation, the criminal conspiracy was unravelled.

Shockingly, the lawyers at the Kathua court tried to stop the filing of the charge-sheet. The Bar association of Kathua district protested on the court premises and shouted slogans against the Crime Branch officials.

It has been quite a turnaround in the case ever since. After the case being overlooked for three months and largely played down in the media, the crime suddenly broke upon the national consciousness with all its ghastly details. This triggered an outrage not only in Kashmir but all across the country and world. Even the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, sought severe punishment for the killers.

“We, very much hope that the authorities will bring the perpetrators to justice so they can be held accountable,” a spokesperson for the UN Secretary General said.

On his visit abroad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was told by the chief of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, to ensure more safety for women in India.

Kathua case galvanised civil society

The crime has galvanised the civil society in the country in a big way. People from all over the country have protested against the crime, including celebrities and members from cricket and Bollywood fraternity. In some major cities, large protests were held in support of the justice for the victim. Some artists even performed on the streets to draw attention to the crime and videos circulating on social media have shown some singers musically expressing the horror.

In Kashmir, a new wave of student protests has begun in response to the preceding knowledge of the horrors that the victim had to endure in captivity. Almost every day, since the charge-sheet was made public, there have been protests in the Valley in support of the justice. The students from various colleges, including the girl students, have hit the streets against the crime and the alleged attempts to protect the accused. Scores of the students have been injured in the process, some hit by bullets.

Other sections of the society have too participated. The shopkeepers in major markets have observed one hour token strikes to press their demand for justice.

These wide repercussions have lent the crime an overarching political dimension, both in J&K and at the national level. It is already anticipated to be the BJP’s Nirbhaya moment. Just as the rape and murder of a girl in Delhi in 2012 had galvanised public opinion against the then UPA government, Kathua case and the rape of a girl by a BJP legislator in Unnao could similarly alienate the large swathes of the population from the NDA regime.

The Prime Minister was quick to sense this. Responding to the public outrage, Modi promised justice to “our daughters” and also ensured that the two BJP ministers in J&K who had rallied around the accused were shown the door. What’s more? Both the Union and the J&K cabinets have approved ordinances allowing the death penalty for the accused.

However, the widespread sense that the BJP is somehow ideologically culpable for the two crimes, more so in Kathua, is unlikely to go away easily.

“If the ideological narrative of the BJP government in New Delhi currently appears to have taken some beating, the credit goes to the public outrage generated by the rape and murder of an 8-year-old child in Kathua. And, also the rape in Unnao in Uttar Pradesh by a powerful BJP MLA,” an analytical piece in a J&K daily read. “The incidents between them hold a mirror to the new India. In case of Kathua, it shows how an ideology can be used to sanction an unspeakable crime against an eight-year-old girl.”

In an election year, a perception like this and its resonance among a significant section of the population can detrimentally impact the electoral chances of the ruling party. However, much will depend on how the politics over the Kathua case shapes up in J&K and how the accused are dealt with.