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Justice vs pettiness in Kathua rape case: Why we need to separate good politics from the bad

The 8-year-old rape victim represents five layers of the underprivileged in India.

Updated: Jun 29, 2018, 22:33 PM IST

They say truth depends on which side of Jerusalem you are in. In India, we could say truth depends on which side of the Banihal tunnel you are on. The dark, 8.5-km-long passage that cuts through the Pir Panjal range and divides the predominantly Hindu Jammu region from the mostly Muslim Kashmir Valley to the north represents a dingy prism through with information passes to acquire a contrasting parochial hue -- on either side.

The gruesome gangrape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in the town of Kathua in the Jammu region has awakened the national conscience yet again in a quest for the safety of women and justice for all, and rightly so. But the run-up to the outrage that erupted last week and the developments since then carry the stabs and wounds of dirty politics. There is no doubt to my mind that the rape of the eight-year-old girl has become an issue that has been strung up with other concerns and the painful details of law enforcement in such a manner that we may lose sight of the core principles. Hence, it is important to separate the muddied eddies of the region from the human issues in a clear way to separate good politics from dirty politics.

Let us look at the oddities at stake and the peculiarities at hand. The rape took place sometime between January 10 and 15 in a town that is about 80 km from Jammu city but only 23 km from the Pakistan border. Tension is part of daily life in such a region, and the acrid smell of Partition riots linger in the fresh mountain air.

Why did it take a good three months for the nation to wake up to the incident? The answer lies in the fact that the chargesheet explaining the ghastly crime was filed only on April 10 and brought out details that shook the nation's conscience - although activists have been at it for a while. The murky fact is that lawyers from Jammu took part in an alleged attempt to stop the chargesheet against the crime and eight of them face an FIR against them on that count.

Why would a group of lawyers want to hustle a chargesheet against a child rape? It seems they wanted a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the matter. The inference: they did not trust the Jammu & Kashmir police. The J&K police reports to the PDP-led government under Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, but its coalition partner is the BJP, two of whose ministers resigned after they participated in a rally demanding a CBI probe. 

Question: why would the BJP support or take part in a government whose chargesheets it cannot believe and police it cannot trust? The deep mistrust between the BJP and PDP locked in an unlikely political embrace is at the heart of the whole matter. It seems the BJP is laying the ground for an open confrontation with the PDP as general elections near, and the Kathua incident is somehow tied up in the whole scheme of things. It is significant that the alleged perpetrators of the rape are now pleading not guilty, though the chargesheet reads like the screenplay of a horror movie.

Cut to an unrelated issue. Suggestions from BJP sympathisers now lead us to an influx of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar into the Jammu region that critics say is part of an Islamist plot to unsettle India. Even newspaper ads have taken up the issue, indicating a political time bomb. 

Jammu's lawyers have been protesting against Rohingyas and their bar association directly charges the state government of "active connivance" on the issues. 

There are big, unanswered questions: Why should the rape of an 8-year-old be tied up with a case against refugees? Can J&K, where no one but locals can buy property under Section 370 of the Constitution, be used so easily to alter the demographics? What does the BJP-led Union Home Ministry have to say on the issue? Why can't the BJP simply pull the plug on its coalition partner? What does a bar association, whose job is to consider matters of concern solely to the legal community, take up a larger political role unless to play an ideological game? (Lawyers nationwide have protested against this dubious role by Jammu lawyers).

More important, J&K's police team that probed the rape has both Hindus and Muslims who have been vocal about doing their duty well. The team included deputy superintendent of police Shwetambari Sharma, a devout Hindu who details attempts to intimidate her and hush up the case. Lawyer Deepika Singh talks of being called anti-Hindu and facing threats.

Nationwide demonstrations and Congress party president Rahul Gandhi's protests against Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the rape issue came after the chargesheet and the J&K bar association protests.

It must be noted that both the Kathua case and the Unnao rape case in UP, in which a BJP MLA is being accused, are not like the thousands of rape cases routinely reported across India because they involve allegations of abuse of power or misconduct by police and elected representatives. Some Congress politicians are also part of the Jammu protests. 

All in all, we are seeing partisan innuendos and local politics clouding out the case for justice of an 8-year-old girl.

Are we to be deflected by unrelated by Rohingya refugee concerns in examining the rape of an 8-year-old? If indeed, as critics say, the protests over the rape are a political response to deflect attention from the Rohingya issue, the questions are: Are you suggesting no-one raped that little girl (as in 'No one killed Jessica')? Strong forensic details suggest attempts at a cover-up of the rape investigation.

Consider the fact that the 8-year-old rape victim represents five layers of the underprivileged in the Republic of India. She was a child, a female, a tribal, a minority citizen and poor. Given these five layers, it is natural for activists and citizens to be outraged by the incident. Colouring the crime and linking it up with political rivalry will be less about justice and more about petty politics. And it must be remembered that the Muslim Bakerwal tribals were the ones who alerted India's army about the Pakistani intrusion into Kargil in the near-war that erupted in Kashmir in 1999.

It is true that the Kathua and Unnao cases do not constitute India's first rape, but the elements of politics and abuse of power make it a milestone. Clubbing it with other rapes looks like a despicable political counter-move. The parochial politics that runs to and fro on both sides of the Banihal tunnel should not come in the way of a national rallying point on an issue that concerns justice for all.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)