Lawyers in the Jammu region, led by the president of the Jammu Bar Association, Bhupinder Singh Salathia, came out on the streets to try and physically prevent the crime branch of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Police from filing a chargesheet on the brutal rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl.
They shouted slogans, burnt tyres and, armed with sticks, brought Jammu to a halt during a bandh (shutdown) protesting alleged targeting of Dogras. Threats were issued about picking up AK-47 guns if their demands were not met.
Their core demand was that investigation into the Kathua case should be transferred from the state police to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) because, according to them, the police’s investigation would be unduly ‘influenced’ by officers from the Kashmir valley. This just indicates the mistrust and growing polarisation between Jammu and Kashmir – Salathia feels that Jammu is being ‘betrayed.’ He also has strong words for the BJP and the national media.
As visitors and clients came and went, The Wire met Salathia at his office inside his home in a posh locality of Jammu. He appeared unruffled by the negative press that he has received over the last few days. He spoke about the reasons behind the demand for a CBI probe, the trust deficit between Jammu and Kashmir and sacking by the BJP of two of its state ministers.
Excerpts from the interview:
What is your stand on the brutal gangrape and murder of the eight-year-old in Kathua?
It was a heinous crime. We want justice for the girl. Desh ki amanat thi wo (She belonged to the country). There should be no compromise on meting out punishment to those who are responsible for the crime. At the same time, innocents should not be punished.
Is it your opinion that the crime branch of the Jammu and Kashmir Police has named innocents as the accused?
Look, from the beginning, people in that area have been protesting against unfair investigation by the police. They have been organising protests. They have blocked roads and sat on dharnas. The police has also lathi charged them. All we want is a fair probe and the guilty to be punished.
What are the reasons for your demand for a CBI probe in this case?
Mehbooba Mufti has herself demanded a CBI probe in many incidents that occurred in Kashmir. What is the problem if we are asking for it?
So, you are demanding a CBI probe into the Kathua incident because Mehbooba Mufti has demanded CBI probes in certain incidents in the Kashmir valley?
No. That is not all. The families in Kathua and Hiranagar have been demanding a CBI probe for a very long time. They have been complaining that they are being harassed by the police. And, if you look at how everything has played out, you will understand yourself. Even before the investigation had begun, Mehbooba Mufti declared that this is a case of rape and murder. She is also the home minister. And when she has already declared what this case is about, what do you expect the police to do?
So, you are saying that Mehbooba Mufti has influenced the police’s investigation?
It is obvious that there is pressure. It is only natural when the chief minister has already announced what the crime is all about. How can the police be expected to deviate from that?
Then, if you look closely, on February 9, the girl’s biological father filed a writ petition in court saying that he does not trust the investigation by the police.
So, if you look at it in totality, there are a lot of suspicions about the police investigation – the victim’s family wasn’t satisfied, the families of the accused weren’t satisfied, and you have Mehboobaji declaring before the investigation began that it is a case of rape and murder. Doesn’t it seem proper that a CBI investigation should be carried out in this matter?
Are we supporting rapists if we are asking for a CBI probe? We are only asking for a fair investigation.
You have also said that you do not have faith in the crime branch investigation as officers from Kashmir who don’t have a ‘good track record’ are involved. What did you mean by that?
It is there for everyone to see. I do not want to comment on it as the matter is now in the court and let the court decide. But, the families of the accused have been saying that they have been wrongly implicated. They have been targeted. But now, we will fight it out in court.
But why would lawyers try to prevent the crime branch from filing the chargesheet in court?
We did not. That was the lawyers in Kathua. The media has portrayed it wrongly. I haven’t even gone to Kathua since this incident happened. And I have spoken to lawyers in Kathua – they say that they were only demanding the transfer of investigation to the CBI.
Let us assume, that the lawyers in Kathua did actually try and prevent the crime branch from filing the chargesheet. Would you stand by them?
No, it is not good to obstruct the work of officers of the law. But since I wasn’t there, I can’t say what exactly happened. They told us that they did not stop the crime branch. And the crime branch did file the chargesheet.
When the crime branch had filed the chargesheet, the matter became sub judice. Why then did you call for a Jammu bandh on April 11 demanding a CBI probe? If you felt the police had not done a thorough investigation, you could have pointed that out in court, as lawyers.
The Bar called for a meeting of civil society groups on April 7 and it was decided that we will call for a bandh on April 11 on four issues – demanding a CBI probe into the Kathua incident, expulsion of Rohingyas from Jammu, withdrawal of notice regularising illegal encroachment and declaration of Nowshera as a separate district. One day before our bandh, the chargesheet was filed. Once that was done, we no longer asked for a CBI probe because now it was up to the courts to decide.
But, according to reports, even on April 11 you demanded a CBI probe into the Kathua incident.
That is false. This is a conspiracy of the national media to show us in bad light. And they have succeeded. This has been a trial by the media. They have pronounced us guilty without even listening to us. They call us on their shows, but do not allow us to speak. Civility of discussion demands that you at least listen to what the other person has to say. Our voice hasn’t been heard.
Deepika Singh Rajawat, the lawyer for the victim’s family, has accused you of trying to threaten her demanding that she drop the case. She has alleged that you told her that you have the means to stop her.
She is lying. This is all a part of a conspiracy. I never threatened her. Neither did I stop her from appearing in court. In fact, I have evidence to prove that she did appear in court on both April 9 and April 11. She is only trying to create a hype around herself and around this case by saying things which are not true. All her statements in relation to this case are fabrications.
She is being tutored by someone to do all this. She feels that she can become a celebrity by using this opportunity. But all her allegations are false.
The day before, at a civil society meeting you said that Jammu is now in a battle against Delhi. Please elaborate.
See, Delhi doesn’t support Jammu. We have been betrayed in this case. After the media portrayed the issue in a certain matter, we were left on our own. The media has created a narrative that all of us are pro-rapists, that we are supporting the accused. And Delhi has pushed this narrative. Is demanding a CBI probe the same as supporting the accused? Is it ground enough to malign an entire region of being communal and being pro-rapists?
The BJP has ministers in the J&K government from the Jammu region. They have 25 MLAs from this region. If the people of this region are protesting and demanding something, they should come to their aid. They are a national party. They should at least come and talk to them. But they have shrugged off their responsibility. They have sacked the two ministers who were making the right demands.
Those ministers had gone to Kathua and openly supported the accused and also made inflammatory comments.
They are representatives from that region. Why shouldn’t they go to their constituencies? When a militant dies in Kashmir, Mehboobaji also goes to visit. What is wrong with that?
So, the ministers did nothing wrong?
No. They were saying the right thing. They were demanding a CBI probe. BJP ne unko halaal kiya hai (BJP has sacrificed them). They have done this to continue in power. They noticed the media backlash and turned their backs on these two ministers. Ram Madhav came and sacrificed these two ministers on directions from Kashmir. They have bowed down to the wishes of the Kashmiris, of the PDP.
The day before also you spoke about a trust deficit between Jammu and the Valley.
Mufti sahab tried to bring the two regions together. But the experiment has failed. There is a lot of resentment in the Jammu region against the Valley. All the representation of the state comes from Kashmir. Jammu is totally neglected. There is no attempt to accommodate our aspirations and our demands. The entire discourse is about Kashmir and Kashmir alone.
Kashmiriyon ne apni bat chalayi hai aur humari kisi ne suni nahi (The Kashmiris have always had it their way, and nobody has heard us out). Delhi has sacrificed Jammu to support the hegemony of Kashmir. If people in sitting Delhi were truly nationalist, they would not have maligned us, the true nationalists, the way that they have.