By Reeta Tremblay
The brutal rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl, a Muslim resident of the Bakkerwal nomadic community of Rasana village in Jammu’s Kathua district, has sent shock waves throughout India and worldwide, stoking communal violence in the regionally and religiously divided state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
She went missing on January 10. She had been abducted, held in a temple, drugged, tortured and raped for days. Her body was discovered a week later, near her home. Seven men have been charged for this heinous crime. They are all from the Hindu community and include a former revenue officer, a local custodian of the temple and a police officer.
Two other local police officers, allegedly after getting a bribe of Rs 4 lakhs, destroyed evidence before the case was handed over to the J&K Police Crime Branch. Deep communal fault lines, within the larger framework of the protracted Kashmir conflict lie behind this brutal crime against an innocent girl child. Her abduction and brutal rape were meant to frighten the nomadic Muslim community and drive them away from lands which local Hindus believe has been undergoing a demographic transformation by the nomadic settlements.
The J&K state, with its three distinct religiously divided regions—Jammu with a Hindu majority, the Kashmir Valley, predominantly Muslim, and Ladakh, with almost equal Buddhist and Muslim populations—is home to the nomadic community of the Gujjars, all Muslims, accounting for between 18 and 20 percent of the state’s population.
A sub-group of Gujjars are the pastoral Bakkerwals, who live or move around the plains and mountains in the Hindu-dominated Jammu. The nomadic Muslim community of Bakkerwals, the poorest of the poor, both within the Gujjar and the overall population of J&K, have little in common with Muslims of the Kashmir Valley. They consider themselves as Hanafi Muslim (distinct from the Valley’s Sufi Muslims), speak a language closer to that of Jammu’s Hindus and have a warm relationship with Hindus of central and western India.
However, with the three-decade-old ongoing secessionist movement in the Kashmir valley, this economically vulnerable and politically underrepresented nomadic community has, inadvertently, become entangled between the militants in the Valley and the security forces, and also entangled between competing Hindu and Muslim nationalist narratives.
Many Bakkerwals have been coerced by militants into providing them shelter and food and keeping them hidden from the security forces, who therefore view the community as informants, sympathetic to the Islamic jihadists. Meanwhile, Hindus of various Jammu districts which the Bakkerwal community visit or where they maintain temporary settlements see these Muslim nomads as contributing to changing the region’s religious demography.
The little girl’s brutal rape and murder has exposed the existing deep fault lines between Hindu-majority Jammu and the predominately Muslim Kashmir Valley in the sharply divided state.
As is typical in cases of gender violence, her disappearance was initially treated by local police as voluntary elopement of the girl with a boy and they refused to search for her. After a massive protest by the Gujjar community, a search was eventually conducted and her mutilated body soon discovered.
Rapidly, Kathua case became enveloped in cultural/religious warfare with the horrendous crime itself and the need for justice taking a back seat. Local religious rivalries prevented her burial in the land her family had bought some years ago, where they had earlier buried five people.
Hindu right-wing activists threatened the Bakkerwals with violence, so she was buried about 10 km from the village. As the state’s Crime Branch began to investigate and make arrests, cultural nationalism reared its ugly face.
The Kashmir Valley united to demand justice, while Jammu was dominated by a vocal minority with a militant Hindu nationalist agenda. This minority formed a new group, Hindu Ekta March, backed by two BJP ministers of the state’s PDP-BJP coalition government, which staged protests claiming the police had made wrongful arrests. The J&K Bar Association’s Jammu wing joined them in demanding that the investigation be shifted from the J&K Crime Branch to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti expressed her outrage and refused to accede to demands to shift the investigation out of J&K to the national CBI. She has been accused of being part of a wider conspiracy to use J&K Police as jihadis to make Jammu Hindu-free. The Bar Association expressed concern that the hidden motive behind Mufti’s refusal to move the investigation was to provide illegal protection to the encroachment of land by the Muslim nomadic community.
Hindu nationalists claim that in the next 10 years, Hindus will be endangered as their population is declining and this is the final battle of Hindus who must unite to save the country from the grip of Jihad.
Faced with ongoing protests in the Valley united in their demand for justice, the national and local media’s extensive, factual coverage of the crime, the slow progress of the justice system, and Mufti’s bold stance against her coalition partner, the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence on April 13, calling the Kathua incident shameful. Two BJP ministers involved in the Hindu agitation were made to resign and the BJP national leadership provided a vocal commitment that justice would be done in this case.
To fulfil Modi’s promise that "no culprit will be spared and complete justice will be done", the Union Cabinet passed an ordinance making the rape of a girl under 12 punishable by death and increasing the minimum punishment for female rape from seven years to 10 years, extendable to life imprisonment.
This ordinance is motivated as much by Modi’s political and social agenda of eliminating gender violence as it is by strategic considerations in view of the forthcoming 2019 national election. The overwhelming victory for the BJP in Hindu-dominated Jammu in 2014 (which led to the BJP’s participation in a governing coalition for the first time in J&K’s political history) was made possible by building a broad coalition of some Hindu nationalists and a majority of secular Hindus (the latter responding to Modi’s development and inclusive agenda).
A repeat performance for the BJP in Jammu would be unthinkable if secular Hindus were to shift their support to a secular alternative. Additionally, the BJP needs Jammu’s vote desperately in 2019, as the Valley remains alienated and in the grip of a reinvigorated "aazadi" (freedom) movement.
The Kathua episode has given Mufti strength to take her own course of action in opposition to her partner BJP. She has begun to differentiate her governance agenda from that of the BJP.
It has created a small of opportunity for the Modi government and BJP to do the right thing in the Valley. With new harsh laws introduced for rape and a promise to have an expedited court process for sexual assault cases, it might be appropriate to bring justice to the culprits of Kunan Poshpura (four personnel of the Rajputana Rifles allegedly mass-raped women in two villages of Kunan and Poshpura in 1991 and justice for these women is still pending) and the Shopian rape and murder of two women in 2009.
This would help remove some of the trust deficit which the Modi government and ruling PDP-BJP have incurred over the past four years in the troubled state.
(The author is a Professor, Dept. of Political Science, University of Victoria (Canada). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)