In Jammu, Kathua Case Has Exposed Festering Wounds and Multiple Fault Lines

Emotions are running high in Jammu and a simmering discontent is evident about the perceived ‘hegemony’ of Kashmir.

Jammu: On the afternoon of April 15, hundreds of men, and three women, assembled inside a small stuffy hall within the premises of the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) high court here. Amidst the smells of smoke and sweat that went around the hall – aided by long-blade ceiling fans – the crowd chatted, as they waited for the meeting to begin.

Salathia sahab ne kuch galat nahi kiya. National media wale harami hain (Salathia sahab has done nothing wrong. The national media are rascals),” a man with large muscular forearms and a handlebar moustache said to another, who was similarly endowed. “Dilli mein baithe hue hain aur yahan ke haalat ke bare mein kuch pata nahi hai. Hum sabko rapists bata diya hai. Ab humein jawab dena hai (Sitting in Delhi, they have no idea what the reality is here in Jammu. They have categorised all of us as rapists. Now, we have to fight back,” the other responded, trying, agitatedly, to plug two of his smartphones into the charging point at the back of the hall.

They, along with many others said to be from the local ‘civil society’, had gathered for a meeting called by the Jammu Bar Association to discuss the ‘future course of action’. During the last week, lawyers in the Jammu region, led by the president of the Bar Association Bhupinder Singh Salathia, have faced severe criticism owing to their conduct in relation to the gangrape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua. Their core demand being that the Kathua investigation be transferred from the J&K police to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). According to them, the police’s investigation is unduly ‘influenced’ by officers from the Kashmir Valley.

To achieve that end, they have attempted to physically prevent the crime branch of the police from filing the chargesheet, burnt tyres and brought Jammu to a halt armed with sticks during a bandh (shutdown) protesting the alleged targeting of Dogras, and threatened to pick up AK-47 guns if their demands are not met. According to the Bar Association, the bandh was widely supported.

“We held a civil society meeting on April 7 and it was unanimously decided that we will call for a bandh on April 11,” Salathia told The Wire. However, a prominent organisation in Jammu, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, did not support the bandh. “Even if they didn’t, the traders were still with us,” Salathia said.

Civil society meeting called by the Jammu Bar Association. Credit: Kabir Agarwal

Civil society meeting called by the Jammu Bar Association. Credit: Kabir Agarwal

Whether that is true or not, emotions are running high in Jammu and a simmering discontent is evident about the perceived ‘hegemony’ of Kashmir over Jammu. Social media is being used to spread messages about the ‘unfair targeting’ of Hindus, which are being taken as gospel truth by some. The lawyers’ gathering may have been about the Kathua case, but reflected a wider resentment.

Inside the high court, eight rows of sofas extended across the hall facing a single row of sofas, presumably for the most prominent citizens of Jammu. Pictures of B.R. Ambedkar, Maharaja Hari Singh and India in the shape of Bharat Mata adorned the walls. A podium was quickly – and with much difficulty – carried in as the who’s who had arrived. As the hall overflowed with people, some stood wherever they could find space, others perched themselves precariously on arms of chairs.

Salathia was invited to speak first. After receiving loud applause, he began in Dogri. “Delhi has sided with Kashmir. They have maligned us, called us rapists. They have forgotten that we are the true nationalists. We protect the borders of this country. Every village in this region has martyred its sons for the country. Far away from receiving credit, Delhi has instead stabbed us in the back. This is the conspiracy of the deep state that operates in Delhi,” Salathia said as a loud chorus of “Shame, shame” was heard across the hall.

Two burly men seated next to me spoke to each other about the ‘conspiracy’ of Kashmiris. “The Kashmiri police has targeted innocent Hindus in this probe. I read on WhatsApp that the girl was murdered by her uncle for property,” said one. “Yes, these Gujjars and Bakarwals marry their sisters. So who is to say that they didn’t rape her themselves? And they are trying to malign us,” the other said. Allegations of this magnitude were made with a sense of confidence and air of innocent nonchalance.

The Kathua case has become a rallying point to make outlandish claims – with little evidence – and also express wider grievances unrelated to the incident itself. Unverified messages have circulated on social media alleging conspiracy theories and attempting to debunk the chargesheet filed by the crime branch. Some theories argue that the girl was ‘only’ murdered and not raped. They also note that it is ‘impossible’ to keep someone captive for eight days in a temple that is ‘always crowded’, as claimed in the chargesheet.

The crux of this kind of messaging on social media is that ‘innocent Hindus’ are being implicated for the crime by the J&K police working on the directions of the J&K government dominated by the People’s Democratic Party’s ‘Kashmir- and separatist-centric’ leadership.

This sentiment was echoed in the meeting by several speakers. Speaking after Salathia, Ajay Charangoo of Panun Kashmir – an advocacy group for displaced Kashmiri Pandits – said, “People of the Jammu region have been harassed by the police. Everyone is ganging up against you. The police are working on the directions of the J&K government which is working on the directions of Geelani (Syed Ali Shah Geelani, former Hurriyat conference chairman).”

“You are being told that Hindus are rapists. This is an assault on Hindus. You are being told that those who ruled over you for centuries are not guilty. It is you who is guilty,” said Charangoo.

The deep sense of mistrust of Kashmiris, especially those from the government and police, stems from a feeling among the citizens of Jammu that the politics in the state has been monopolised by the Kashmiri elite, according to Rekha Choudhary, former head of the political science department at Jammu University. “Assertion of Kashmiri nationalism, especially during the last three decades of militancy and separatism has added to the feeling and consequently there has been greater assertion of regionalism in the Jammu region,” Choudhary told The Wire.

“We see that playing out through the reactions to this case. On the one hand, everyone is demanding justice for the girl. But on the other hand, people are being told that investigations have been fudged, they are believing that. In the context in which the ‘Jammu’s neglect’ narrative has been built over the last seven decades, they tend to believe that,” she said.

At the meeting, Thakur Narayan of the J&K Kshatriya Samaj organisation, vocalised those sentiments. “The media has pronounced those people guilty already, even before the trial has begun. They are baying for their blood. We also want justice for the girl. We want the guilty to be punished. There is no doubt about that. But we don’t have any faith in the police and the crime branch. There should be a proper investigation through proper forensic labs.”

Manu Khajuria is a writer and activist who heads ‘Voice of Dogras’, an organisation working to preserve and promote the ‘cultural and historical identity’ of the Dogra community. When I met her at her maternal grandparents’ home located inside the narrow lanes of old Jammu, she spoke about the sense of betrayal that the community has felt over the last week. “People have been saying ‘shame on the Dogra community’. We are being called pro-rapists. Why? Just because we want a fair and impartial probe? This has hurt people immensely.”

Khajuria also argued that ties between Gujjars/Bakarwals and the Dogra community have always been very strong. “In fact, Gujjars and Bakerwals are closer to us than they are to Kashmiris. They speak a language that is closer to our languages. And the media has made this out to be us versus the Gujjars and Bakarwals. It is absolutely not true. An entire community has been maligned,” said Khajuria.

Khajuria defended the bandh called by the Jammu Bar Association on April 11. “I don’t see how demanding a CBI probe is wrong. Then, there were other issues as well. The Rohingya issue is a very serious one. How have they come all the way to Jammu? They have become state subjects. That issue needs serious consideration,” she said.

The issue of Rohingya settlers in Jammu has found itself intertwined with the case in Kathua and also with the wider narrative of ‘Jammu’s neglect’ and the ‘hegemony’ of Kashmir. Several people I met believe that the Rohingya had something to do with the incident. “The Burmese Muslims are the cruellest race in the world. This is an established fact. And there have been reports that the Rohingya are also settling in that village where the incident happened. Isn’t it suspicious that the Rohingya settle there and this incident happens?” said a man representing a traders’ organisation after the meeting was over.

The Bar Association and several citizens of Jammu have blamed the national media for mixing up these issues. “The bandh on April 11 was not only about the CBI inquiry into the Kathua case. In fact, our main demand has been the expulsion of the Rohingya from Jammu. The national media misconstrued it,” said Yashpal Sharma of the Jammu retailers’ association, speaking at the meeting.

Arguing that citizens of Jammu are not communal, Sharma said that even the demand for the expulsion of Rohingya from Jammu has “absolutely nothing to do with their religion. Jammu is a pluralistic society. But these people are staying close to military camps. They are a security threat. They are not nationalist people.”

Sharma has an alarmist view about Rohingya refugees coming to Jammu and sees a ‘Kashmiri conspiracy’. “These people are coming from Bangladesh. How have they settled only in Jammu? Why didn’t they go to Kashmir? Naturally, the Kashmiri parties stand to gain if the demographics of the Jammu region change and the Muslim population grows.”

The last speaker at the civil society meeting was professor Hari Om, a former BJP member, who gave an impassioned speech about ‘hurt’ Jammu pride. “They have said that the Hindu society of Jammu is siding with rapists. They have maligned us. Painted our faces black. Now, we will fight back,” Om said.

“This fight is not for water, or electricity or land. This is the fight for our life. Will we leave Jammu? No! We will fight till our death. We will live for Jammu and die for Jammu,” said Om to loud cheers and a standing ovation.

Other side of the coin

After the civil society meeting, I met Manu Srivastava, former president of the Press Club of Jammu, at a busy marketplace in central Jammu. He downplayed the sentiments that had been expressed at the meeting. “There are only some people like them who are talking like this. But in the last few days, they have increasingly found themselves isolated. Earlier, the RSS was supporting them. But now, after the backlash, the RSS is nowhere to be seen,” said Srivastava.

According to Srivastava, the Jammu Bar has been used by the BJP-RSS to further its political agenda and then left to its own devices when national outrage changed the discourse. “These people were working on the agenda of the RSS and BJP. They have created this constituency here in Jammu by continuously fanning communal tensions. Now, they have been used and thrown. They have nowhere to go,” he said.

The candle march held to demand justice for the victim. Credit: Kabir Agarwal

According to A.V. Gupta, a senior lawyer in the J&K high court, secularism is the ‘essence’ of Jammu. Inside a large office at his palatial bungalow in a posh locality of Jammu, Gupta criticised his fellow lawyers for their actions. “What Salathia and others are doing is completely wrong. Jammu is a pluralistic and secular society. Muslims from all over the country live here peacefully. We coexist happily. Jammu is not communal as is being portrayed by the media,” he said. “They have made it into a Hindu-Muslim issue, but it should be about justice for the girl.”

However, even Gupta believes that through the Kathua case, Kashmir is trying to further its ‘hegemony’ over Jammu. “Kashmir has always been the dominant partner. The narrative that the PDP is pushing regarding this case suits them. It is popular with their voters in the Valley,” Gupta said. “To what extent the allegations are true is a matter of investigation. But there is no doubt that Jammu feels it is being strangulated by the Kashmiri leadership.”

The evening of the Jammu Bar Association meeting, local residents held a silent candle march to demand justice for the victim. The gender ratio at the march was significantly different from that at the lawyers’ gathering. But the gathering was much smaller.

“Jammu has become very communal. While I was growing up, I saw so much hatred and venom against communities other than our own that for a long time I thought that was normal. That is what happens in all households here. People do not realise that they are doing or saying something wrong,” said Manik Raj, an activist who has organised several protests since January demanding justice in the Kathua case.

According to Raj, at the core of the demands for a CBI probe into the Kathua incident is a communal divide. “They say that they don’t trust the police. Why? Because there is a Kashmiri Muslim in the team. There is no logic to their demand. They have not been able to provide one reasonable, logical reason to ask for a CBI probe. All their reasons are communal,” he said. “The crime itself is a by-product of the hate and venom that has been spread all these years,” Raj added.

Also at the march was Anuradha Bhasin, senior journalist and political commentator based in Jammu. Speaking to the gathering after the march, she said, “This case is not only about sexual violence. But it also raises some very troubling communal questions. False binaries have been created and it is equally important to speak out against that also.”

“It is troubling that we can’t put up a united front to speak out against such heinous crimes. It is a question mark on our existence,” Bhasin added.

Poonam Singh, a school teacher who was also at the march, criticised the lawyers and citizens who had been talking about ‘hurt’ Jammu pride. “I think it is absolutely disgraceful that these people are talking about their own pride in times like these. An eight-year-old was brutally raped, tortured and murdered and they are more concerned about their own pride. They should hang their heads in shame.”

“Would they still be talking about this Jammu pride if she was their own daughter?” she asked forcefully.

Preksha Sharma, assistant editor at the Indian Quarterly, helped with the translations from Dogri to Hindi/English.