Srinagar: The right-wing Hindu Ekta Manch, along with the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party’s state secretary, recently carried out a protest march in Jammu’s Kathua district to demand the release of a special police officer (SPO) accused of raping and murdering an eight-year old nomad girl.
As if that is not unusual enough, a video clip of the rally that was held on February 15 shows the protestors carrying the Indian tricolour while marching through streets in support of the accused, Deepak Khajuria.
Twenty-eight year old Khajuria, posted at Hiranagar police station in Kathua, was arrested by state crime branch on February 10 after “clinching evidence” was found against him in a gruesome crime that shook Jammu and Kashmir last month.
The victim, Aasiya, who is from a Gujjar family, went missing from outside her home in Kasana village on January 10 when she had taken the family’s horses to a nearby pond.
A week later, with the police coming under severe criticism for doing little to find the girl, her body was spotted by locals in a nearby forest. Subsequent investigations led to the arrest of Khajuria.
The Manch-led protests demanding his release evoked a sharp reaction from chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, who termed the use of the flag during the protests in support of the rapist “as nothing short of desecration”.
“Appalled by the marches & protests in defense of the recently apprehended rapist in Kathua. Also horrified by their use of our national flag in these demonstrations, this is nothing short of desecration,” Mehbooba tweeted. “The accused has been arrested & the law will follow its course.”
Led by the Manch and BJP members, the protestors marched from Ghagwal to Hiranagar in Kathua, Rising Kashmir reported. “We are against the murder of the minor girl but we don’t want our men to be framed. If such things continue, people will come out on the roads,” they threatened. A picture shows J&K personnel escorting the protestors.
Vijay Sharma, who according to information on the state BJP’s website is the party’s state secretary, defended the protest. “He (Khajuria) has been falsely implicated. More than 5,000 people participated in the rally,” Sharma claimed, talking to The Wire on phone.
According to him, the Hindu Ekta Manch was formed last month to “defend people from police harassment”. Sharma said he heads the Manch in the Hiranagar constituency of Kathua district, which is represented by BJP MLA Kuldeep Raj. Kasana and its adjoining villages are part of Hiranagar constituency.
“Members from BJP and other parties have come together under the banner of Ekta Manch,” asserted Sharma.
The organisation has threatened to continue their agitation if the accused man isn’t released. It has also demanded that the case be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
“We are in touch with many incumbent and former MLAs and local leaders from different constituencies. We will continue with our demand…we want the case to be handed over to the CBI because we don’t trust the investigation by the crime branch,” said Sharma.
The BJP is part of the ruling coalition in the state.
A horrific crime
The girl’s body was found right when the state assembly was in midst of its budget session last month. It took several protests by the victim’s family and uproar by opposition members to shake the government which, in a knee-jerk reaction, first suspended the local SHO and then tasked a special investigation team (SIT) of the police with probing the horrifying incident. A magisterial probe was also ordered separately.
The police first arrested a minor boy for his involvement in the crime. But after it was alleged that the investigation had been botched up, the case was handed over to the crime branch, which then set up an independent SIT.
It was the crime branch team that finally arrested Khajuria. Surprisingly, he was part of the police team that searched for the missing girl following registration of the case in Hiranagar police station.
He was later also part of the police team that handed over Asiya’s body to her family, which had been demanding his arrest from the first day and had even accused him of harassing them and members of the Gujjar community.
According to the crime branch report, the girl was raped and murdered to create fear among the members of the Gujjar community so that they would leave the area. That may explain why the family wasn’t allowed to bury the body in the village by locals. They had to take the body to a nearby village for burial in a community graveyard.
The girl’s parents, which met the chief minister last month to seek justice, had alleged, by pointing to the nature of wounds on her body, that their daughter was abducted, held captive for a week and raped before she was murdered.
“She had torture marks on her entire body and there were burns on her arms. She even had bite marks on her face,” advocate Talib Hussain, a Gujjar activist, told The Wire.
According to Hussain, people from the Gujjar community living in Kasana and adjoining villages have been living in fear since the killing.
“People are facing constant threats ever since the police arrested those involved in the killing. Some days ago, the water supply to some houses was snapped in Kasana and Kootah villages,” said Hussain.
Hussain was arrested by the police last month for leading the protests that sought justice for the girl’s family, and was released only after opposition parties mounted pressure on the government in the assembly.
National Conference legislator Javed Rana, who had raised the issue of the water supply being cut by some “goons”, said: “There is an insecure atmosphere in the villages and the girl’s family and people from the community are feeling vulnerable. We also came to know that some goons have asked people to boycott the nomad families.”
On its part, the government has reiterated that justice will be done. Following the protests on Thursday, senior PDP minister Choudhary Zulfikar said those who are taking to the roads against the arrest by the “impartial investigator are virtually supporting criminality and opposing humanity”.
“The ongoing investigation carried out in a free, fair and transparent manner into the rape and murder of Kathua girl is a fight for justice against criminality… the culprits would be brought to book and justice would be delivered,” said Zulfikar, who is the PDP’s Gujjar face from Jammu.