Amid controversial appointment of Kathua rape defence lawyer as J&K’s top law officer, civil society members urge PM Modi to address the culture of impunity for rapists

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]seem Sawhney, former Deputy Advocate General of Jammu & Kashmir High Court, and counsel for head constable Tilak Raj, one of the eight accused in the infamous murder and gang rape of eight-year-old Bakarwal girl in Kathua, has been elevated to the position of the Additional Advocate General by Governor NN Vohra-led Jammu and Kashmir administration. His appointment to the top law officer’s post in the troubled state has led to the political parties questioning the intent of the move.

Mehbooba Mufti, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and the chief of Peoples Democratic party, slamming the appointment, tweeted: “Ironic that a day after celebrating World Day for International Justice, the defence counsel in the horrific rape & murder Kathua case has been appointed as Additional Advocate General. 1/3”

Responding to Mufti, Aseem Sawhney tweeted, “Be nice to me, I may be your lawyer one day as a saying goes. @MehboobaMufti

Mufti went to say: “Rewarding those who defend alleged murderers & rapists is abhorrent & a shocking violation of the spirit of justice. Such a move will only serve to encourage the rape culture rampant in our society. Expect the @jandkgovernor to intervene. 2/2”

Ankur Sharma, one of the counsels of the accused in the Kathua case — who has been in the forefront of the Ikk Jutt Jammu campaign, agitating for a fresh CBI probe in the Kathua case, ban against cow slaughter and against “encroachment” of land by the tribals — criticised Mufti on her comment on Sawhney’s appointment. He told the ANI: “Mehbooba Mufti has just showcased her ignorance more profoundly through her tweets, Additional Advocate General doesn’t control public prosecutors.”

Ankur Shrama, launching the campaign Ikk Jutt Jammu said: “Hindus of Jammu are being targeted for a long time and have been hostage to Muslim communal hegemony”. Time and again, he has been pitching the order passed by Mufti while she was the Chief Minister — banning the eviction of nomads from any place without prior approval of the Tribal Affairs Department and asking officers to be careful while dealing with cases involving transportation of bovine animals — as to be against the “minority” Hindu community.

The accusation by Ankur Sharma is targeted against an already marginalised Gujjar- Bakarwal group which is a Muslim nomadic shepherd community who live in the high altitudes in Kashmir during summer and migrate to the plains of Jammu during winter. They have been classified as a Schedule Tribe. Most of them do not own land. Hence, they settle with their herd in the forest areas which is seen as encroachment. Conflict of land finds its mention in the charge sheet filed by the Crime Branch on the Kathua case.  The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 which is applicable in the rest of India aimed at “undoing historic injustice” meted against the tribals is still not applicable in the State of Jammu and Kashmir which grants individual and community ownership of forest land.

According to the government order no. 1906- LA(A) of 2015, dated June 22, 2015: “The Law officers shall not accept any brief against the State and shall not appear in any case against the Government interest.”

Aseem Sawhney said: “Had’nt been cndctng #Rassana_trial since July 2 due to preoccupations in HC, moreover having been a lawyer for one of accused does it make a lawyer an accused too. Lawyers are profls and can’t refuse briefs. As AAG will now not contest any case against State u/r.” He further tweeted, “My Vakatnama in Patahankote Court trying Rassana Court withdrawn. Henceforth not to conduct trial due to my appt as Law Officer.”

Defending his involvement in Kathua case he tweeted, “By this logic none should defend Kasab, Afzal, Dawood, Salman, Sanjay Dutt or any other accused.

However, Sawhney’s father, AK Sawhney who is a senior advocate is the main Counsel of the accused in the Kathua murder and gang rape case. Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, and the president of The National Conference said “the decision is both inexplicable & worrisome…”

Deepika Singh Rajawat, lawyers and activist, who has been in the forefront in bringing the Kathua case to the public attention said, “We should not react to this. We should focus on the trial.”

Asaduddin Owaisi, Member of Parliament and President of All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen Party, criticising the move tweeted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s talks in beti bachao, triple talaq and saving the Muslim women are “all lies”.



Meanwhile, esteemed members of the civil society in mainland India and around the world — particularly from the activist groups Apne Aap, Equality Now, among others — wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing their growing anxiety over the intimidation of witnesses and lawyers representing the 8-year old Bakarwal girl. The letter indicated the frightening acceleration in reported rapes of children, especially targeted towards Muslim, Dalits and Tribal communities. It said: “Between 2015 and 2016 alone there was an alarming 82% rise in reported rapes of children. Another 133,000 rape cases were pending trial in the same year.”

The letter also drew attention to the Unnao case in which a Dalit girl child was allegedly raped by a BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar. The father of the child was arrested and died mysteriously in the police custody. The letter commented that an “impunity for rapists, accompanied by sexist comments devaluing women, has created a vicious context for the rising rapes in India.”

Impunity for rapists, accompanied by sexist comments devaluing women, has created a vicious context for the rising rapes in India

In addition, the letter drew attention to the political patronage and the support extended to the alleged rapist and murders in the Kathua case. Hindu Ekta Manch in Jammu organised marches and rallies to defend and protect the accused and demanding fresh CBI probe on the case. These rallies were attended by two ministers of BJP, who later handed their resignation. A group of lawyers from Kathua Bar Association staged a protest and tried to obstruct the Crime Branch from filing the charge-sheet in the court of chief judicial magistrate against the accused. The letter says, “They have politicised the case by presenting it falsely as a case against the Hindu community. They are even hounding the entire nomadic shepherd community of Bakarwals that the little girl belonged to.”

The letter from members of civil society expressed fear that the ongoing attempts to subvert the trial and the politically motivated campaigns have created a hostile environment in the public domain against the victim’s family, her community and her lawyers. It urged the government to take necessary actions to ensure fair trial of Kathua rape and murder case takes place and protection to all associated with the case.

Read the full text of the letter.

Also read: Kathua rape defence lawyer Aseem Sawhney speaks to The Leaflet after his appointment as Additional Advocate General by J&K government

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