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The contours of Kathua: A crime, rumours and hard feelings

Economic stagnation, fears of an eroding majority and political instigation have stoked the Kathua gang rape case into a regional flashpoint. Is there a way out?

india Updated: Apr 23, 2018 14:57 IST
Kathua rape,Jammu reaction to Kathua rape,Kathua rape and murder
Gujjar and Bakerwal families – including that of the victim’s – lived near this area in Rasana village. Due to the case, the entire area has ben cordoned off by the police.(Photos: Nitin Kanotra / HT)

Night comes early to the cramped bylanes in the old city of Jammu. The bustling street corners start looking deserted by 9.30 pm and even the ubiquitous monkeys, who trail every weary pilgrim during the day, appear to retire to the shadows. But all that changed last month.

Now, groups of men hang around in shop corners trying to catch snatches of the nightly television news shows, immersed in conversation about the latest video they received over WhatsApp or what they had heard in chatter outside the court, or the bus stand, or through a relative in Delhi. Everyone is an expert, everyone has the latest scoop or an incisive analysis or at least, the most impassioned argument. The topic, though, remains the same: The gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old tribal Muslim girl.

The case, which has come to be known colloquially as the Kathua kand, has driven a virtual wedge between Jammu and Kashmir and incensed many dominant Hindu communities, especially the Dogras, who nurse a sense of neglect at the hands of a Muslim-majority state and are particularly stung by what they see is a betrayal by the national press and political parties. But simmering under the surface are decades-old grievances and creeping polarisation that have been fanned by stagnant economic growth and fast-changing migration patterns.

The temple where it is alleged the crime took place in Rasana, 55 km from Jammu town (Nitin Kanotra / HT )

The anger

Outside the 19th century Raghunath Temple, the second-holiest shrine in the region after Vaishno Devi, groups of young men and women amble about on Thursday, tired from a rally that has just got over. “This is a question of Jammu’s honour,” says one man to loud cheers.

The rally, which snaked its way through the old city, its numbers swelling at every crossing, was led by controversial Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Chowdhury Lal Singh who has become the face of the protests roiling Jammu. He has been demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry in the case and has expressed distrust of a state police probe that has named eight Hindu men, including a priest, as the accused. “We will not let Jammu be discriminated against,” thunders the former forest minister. Behind him, a young girl’s voice pierces through the din, mouthing the familiar “Hum Kya Chahte” (What do we want) slogan made popular on the streets of Kashmir. But the roar from the crowd is not azaadi (independence), but “CBI inquiry”.

This demand has become a lightning rod across the Jammu region, from the traditional old town to the newer settlements across the Tawi river, and from the flat valleys and millet fields of the Samba district to the glitzy malls in newer Jammu.

“What’s the problem with a CBI inquiry? Does that make us rape supporters? Jammu has always opened the doors for refugees. But dubbing us as pro-rape, as the media and others have done, is not good. You’re pushing us to the wall,” says KB Jandial, a former IAS officer and Dogra who resides in the city.

The sentiment strikes a chord. Two kilometres outside Rasana village, where the rape allegedly occurred, groups of women and men have been sitting on a dharna on the national highway to Jammu for almost a month. Many of them say they were driven out of their villages because of harassment by state forces. “Many of us lived in fear,” says Santosh Devi, a resident.

All of them back the demand for a CBI probe. “We are not extremists, we don’t support rape. But we will not let them malign Hindus,” says Kant Kumar, a member of the Hindu Ekta Manch, a loose collection of local village chiefs that believes the accused are innocent. Kumar, himself a former Congress leader, is sitting next to Shanti Swarup Sharma, a former block president of the National Conference and a third leader with BJP links, Bhagmal Khajuria. “It seems unlikely that a Dogra can rape in a temple. Even if the charge sheet is true, people won’t believe if the state police say it. CBI is a must,” argues major general (retired) Goverdhan Jamwal. Others echo him – that even if Hindus are guilty, no one will believe that the Srinagar-based government isn’t targeting them.

Kumar and his colleagues have hit the news this month for opposing the state police probe and demanding a CBI inquiry that many allege is a mere delaying tactic. But what meets the eye is often not the reality of inter-community dynamics.

Most Dogras of Jammu talk of the Gurjars as their brothers and a fellow community they share the province with, but privately stress of how the tribals were “allowed” to graze on “our” land. It is this sentiment, possibly, that led to widespread resentment and anger when the administration decided in February to not evict tribals from government land without prior permission. Many Dogra Rajput and Brahmins protested, saying the minority Hindus were being discriminated against, yet again. Indeed, one of the demands of the controversial Jammu strike, called by the high court bar association, was revoking this decision.

Many Hindus in Jammu also claim that Gujjars are rich and illegally buying land and settlements to “encircle the old town”, notwithstanding the fact that the tribal community is impoverished with more than half below the poverty line, and many of the settlements are scraggy heaps of bricks on the edges of town, next to the flood-prone river bank.

In this atmosphere where the Jammu Hindus see themselves as an aggrieved minority surrounded by what many of them call ‘mini Pakistan’, all protesters call for justice but are angry about the priest being named, and question every contention of the probe – where was the family, how could the temple be deserted, the allegations against members of the state police team, and the demonstrations of innocence of the accused. Their questions are different but the conclusion common: That Hindus are being targeted as part of a Kashmiri conspiracy and that no matter how heinous the crime is, a priest and his family can never be involved. “The atmosphere is taking a communal angle now,” says Deepika Rajawat, who is fighting for the victims in the case.

The reason

Bitterness between the two main regions of the state is old but has mounted in Jammu over recent fears of an eroding Hindu majority and an economic downturn reflected in a lack of job opportunities for the youth, who feel resentful at the boom witnessed in other parts of India. Add to this the hurt emanating from a sense of being wronged by India and you have the concoction for a tinderbox.

Author and researcher Javaid Rahi, who belongs to the same Gujjar-Bakerwal tribes as the victim, thinks the main issue is about land. “A majority of Jammu is pro-Gujjar but there is an increase in the number of Hindu fanatics. Earlier they used to say Kashmiris are settling here and trying to engineer demographic change and now it is against Gujjars.”

Gujjar-Bakerwals, classified as a scheduled tribe in the state, travel through treacherous mountain passes from Kashmir to Jammu every winter and go back as temperatures rise in the plains during the summer. Most of them rear animals, live in straw and mud tents outside villages and are intimately tied to the local communities in Jammu through milk production and shared culture. They say they are ill-treated in Kashmir, where Gujjar is often used as an expletive. But the delicate balance might be fraying. Jammu today has a larger population of Muslims, especially around the fringes of the city but this has made many Hindu communities start talking about “Muslims taking over”.

The tensions spilled on to the streets during the 2008 Amarnath land agitation, a terror attack on the Sunjuwan military base in February and en masse settling of Rohingya refugees over the past year. Today, many Rohingyas continue to live in penury in housing next to the highway and mostly work as domestic workers or construction labourers but that has done little to ease perceptions.

“We now find people in different dress and cap all the time. They have been given ration cards, included in revenue records. Hindus are disappearing. What was done in Kashmir is now being done here,” says Shailendra Aima of Panun Kashmir, an organisation of Kashmiri Pandits.

The government officially denies all charges and experts say there is a simpler explanation. “Across India, most communities are settling down. And because Jammu is the economic and educational hub of the state, people come here. There is no change in proportional population across the state. But the optics are such that Jammu feels discriminated,” explains Ellora Puri, an assistant professor of political science at Jammu University.

To be sure, the charge of demographic change cuts both ways – as exemplified by the massacre of Jammu Muslims during 1947 that killed half-a-million people. “As a result of these massacres and consequent migration, the Muslim population was reduced to 7 per cent according to the 1961 census. So the phenomenon of radicalisation in Jammu is old and it was there when Kashmir as a whole was preoccupied with protecting its non-Muslim population,” explains Sheikh Showkat Hussain, associate professor at the Central University of Kashmir. Jammu also has fewer seats than Kashmir. It has never had a chief minister from the region, adding to a sense of political isolation. Moreover, after producing legendary generals for centuries, many Dogras say there is a leadership vacuum.

The other thorn is economic. Jammu and Kashmir has few large-scale industries and one of the lowest per-capita Gross Domestic Product in the country. It has failed to keep pace with the burgeoning aspirations of a growing young population. RL Bhat, a professor of economics at the Central University of Jammu, explains that the primary employer continues to be the government, which has reached saturation point. Moreover, state government data from 2015-2016 shows that Jammu’s share of tax revenues outstrips that of the valley 3:1. Some reasons are obvious: the long-running insurgency in the valley and months of bitter cold. “But this creates inter-regional tension,” says Bhat.

Indeed, accusations of favouritism to Kashmir in jobs and government openings is as popular in Jammu as is its famed rajma-chawal. “There is no question of any discrimination. It is just a wrong perception perpetuated by some with vested interests,” says Naeem Akhtar, a Kashmir government spokesperson.

But this has done little to assuage the outrage of a community with a long history of military service but fast-eroding cultural artifacts, exemplified in the crumbling forts and temples of Jammu, fuelling a deep sense of identity crisis. “We built this state but our issues are nowhere to be seen. The youth don’t speak the local language. We are a warrior race, we didn’t write down our history, and our script is almost dead. How long will we tolerate this?” asks Manu Khajuria, an activist.

The present

Many Dogra community leaders deny that the current crisis is communal but those among the Muslim population are not convinced. Talib Hussain, a former Jammu University student and a Gujjar leader, says the protests are politically instigated to terrorise the Muslim community. He also denies all charges of demographic change, saying land is not an issue with tribals, who will not stay in one place even if they are economically well-off. “They have tried to brand us criminals and anti Hindus to please the fundamentalist voter,” he says, calling for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act to safeguard the interests of the tribals. Others see in the protests a continuation of the politics of the mainland. “As you find in the entire country, hate speeches have increased. People try to communalise issue to secure votes. This atmosphere has percolated into the state,” feels Masud Chowdhury, a former additional director general of police in Jammu.

The protests have evoked strong reactions in Kashmir too. “I have a strong feeling that the rape and murder has put the divide between people there and here out in open. Primarily it is a Hindu-Muslim divide but it manifests itself in a Jammu- Kashmir divide,” says Toyeba Pandit, 28, of Baramulla district. Another Kashmiri student in Jammu, who wished to remain anonymous, offered the 1992 Kunan-Poshpora rapes, allegedly by the Indian army, as an example of how rapes have been used politically in the state. Many Kashmiris don’t trust the CBI after its probe in the 2009 Shopian rape case.

Caste plays its role too, especially in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region, where Dalits continue to face ritual abuse and obstruction in accessing public spaces, water and even burial sites. Hiranagar, the assembly constituency where the crime occurred, is a reserved constituency. “Wherever the upper castes dominate, they use the Dalits against the Muslims. But we have friendly relations with the tribals, we support them,” says RC Kalsotra, state president of the All India Confederation of SC,ST, OBC organisations.

There is deep anger coursing through Jammu today. Dogras feel decades of military service have gone in vain, its heroes forgotten and its name maligned. They seethe at the insinuations made about supporting rapists – pointing out here, girls are worshipped. “We cannot even think of such a thing done to our kanjak ( girl goddess),” says an upset Khajuria. Muslims feel that hostility against them is rising, aided by political parties. But the way out of this crisis might also come from within Jammu itself, and its plural nature. As Puri says, a glimpse into an average classroom in the university would reveal students from every corner of the state. “Jammu has been liberal and broad-minded, always opening doors for the displaced,” says Jandial. Chowdhury agrees. “We have full faith in our neighbours and members of the Hindu community. The majority are not communal. This gives me hope.”