Kathua rape-murder case: ‘Thank Allah for justice’, says family after court holds temple priest among six accused guilty

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE family of eight-year-old Bakerwal girl, who was kidnapped and gang-raped for a week before she was strangled and stoned to death in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua district in January last year, finally heaved a sigh of relief on Monday, June 10, 2019 after a court in Pathankot sentenced three of the perpetrators to life imprisonment.

“It’s impossible to forget the brutalities that she was subjected to and what befell our family thereafter… Still, we thank Allah for the justice,” said Saddam Hussain (19), brother of the victim, reacting over the phone to the verdict after a year-long trial at a fast-track court. The pastoral nomadic family is currently camping near Anantnag district in Kashmir, on their way to Kargil as part of their seasonal migration.

Elaborate security arrangements had been made in and around the special fast-track court in Pathankot in Punjab, where the case had been transferred by the Supreme Court amid growing acrimony in Jammu and Kashmir after the case acquired communal overtones.

The girl was kidnapped on January 10, 2018, in Rasana village near her winter home. Seven days later, her badly mutilated body was discovered on January 17. However, after the post mortem examination and other legal procedures, when the body was handed over to the aggrieved family, the local residents did not allow her burial in the village.

The police charge sheet detailed heart-numbing brutalities committed on her before she was bludgeoned to death. The motive behind the horrific crime, according to the 15-page police charge sheet filed by the Crime Branch — which had taken over the case from a special investigation team of the state police — was to scare and dislodge her community from the area.


The case verdict


Those convicted included Sanji Ram, the main conspirator and priest of the temple where the girl was held captive, repeatedly drugged and raped, Parvesh Kumar, a friend of Ram’s juvenile nephew (also an accused) and two special police officers Deepak Khajuria and Surender Verma. Besides, Head Constable Tilak Raj and sub-inspector Anand Datta, who allegedly took Rs four lakh from Ram and destroyed crucial evidence, have also been convicted.

While Sanji Ram, Deepak and Pravesh were sentenced to life imprisonment by District and Sessions judge Pathankot Tejwinder Singh, the remaining three were sentenced to a jail term of five years each.

However, Vishal Jangotra, son of Ram was let off by the court over lack of evidence. The trial against the juvenile is yet to begin as his petition on determining his age is to be heard by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court.



All the six accused have been convicted under Sections 201 (destroying evidence), 376 (gang rape) and 120-B (criminal conspiracy) and 363 (kidnapping) of the Ranbir Penal Codes’ (RPC). The court framed charges under the Ranbir Penal Code of Jammu and Kashmir as the Indian Penal Code (IPC) is not applicable in the state.

“Satyameva Jayate (truth alone triumphs),” advocate Mubeen Farooqui, who represents the victim’s family, said in reaction to the court’s judgement. “We will appeal for capital punishment to the convicts,” he said.


Politics over crime


Former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti welcomed the judgement. “High time we stop playing politics over a heinous crime where an eight-year-old child was drugged, raped repeatedly & then bludgeoned to death,” she wrote on Twitter, hoping that “loopholes in our judicial system are not exploited & culprits get exemplary punishment.”



The incident not only saw the state divided along the regional and religious lines but also became a bone of contention between coalition partners Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It saw hundreds of local residents — some of them holding the national flag —accompanied by some BJP MLAs taking out rallies in support of the accused when they were arrested. On another occasion, two state cabinet ministers of the BJP, Chandar Prakash Ganga and Choudhary Lal Singh, also addressed a gathering of demonstrators in Kathua. Speaking on the occasion, Ganga had publicly admonished a Senior Superintendent of Police at the protest site for unleashing “jungle raj” while referring to the arrests made in the case.

His cabinet colleague, Lal Singh was also seen inciting people to agitate against the probe. “One girl has got killed here….scores of girls have gone missing here without a trace,” he had told the gathering in Dogri, drawing huge applause.



Following widespread national outrage, the BJP was compelled to ask both the ministers to resign. The resigned ministers, however, had maintained that they had gone to meet protesting villagers on the party’s instructions.

Though Ganga had claimed that “he sacrificed his ministerial post to protect the party’s image,” Lal Singh parted ways with the BJP and kept holding rallies, campaigning for a CBI probe in the case. He eventually founded his own party, Dogra Swabhiman Sangathan and unsuccessfully contested the recently held Lok Sabha elections from both the parliamentary constituencies in the Jammu province.

In April last year, scenes of hooliganism played out on the premises of a court in Kathua as lawyers prevented the Crime Branch from producing a charge sheet against the accused.

Accompanied by the accused, the Crime Branch team faced stiff resistance from the members of Kathua Bar Association who chanted “Jai Shri Ram” and “go back Crime Branch” slogans.

Subsequently, the apex court had to intervene on the plea of Senior Advocate Indira Jaising and the case was transferred to Pathankot, about 30 km from Kathua and 100 km from Jammu, where an in-camera trial on a day-to-day basis with no adjournments ended on June 3, 2019.

Reacting to the judgement, Jaising lauded former Chief Justice of India Deepak Mishra and Justices DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra for transferring the case outside the state.



“I stand vindicated,” said Deepika Singh Rajawat, who gained much acclaim for taking up the case of the victim. “Those who created false and fabricated stories around the incident and issued threats against me, couldn’t convince the court.”

National Conference leader Omar Abdullah also lauded the verdict, demanding that “the guilty deserve the most severe punishment possible under the law. And to those politicians who defended the accused, vilified the victim & threatened the legal system.”



The road ahead for the community


There is growing distrust between the Muslim nomadic communities and local residents as they find themselves locked in conflict over growing population and shrinking natural resources, including drinking water, grazing land, fodder and forest produce. In recent months, several Hindutva activists in the region have publicly called for the economic and social boycott of Gujjars and Bakerwals.

The victim’s family have had to leave their winter home at Rasana village – which is predominantly a Hindu village — and move to an adjoining district, Samba. Muhammad Yousaf Pujwala (45), the father of the victim had earlier told this writer that his family was feeling “threatened” and facing a social boycott in the area.


Also Read: Kathua rape and murder case: Ostracised Bakerwal victim’s family stares at bleak future


“The judgement has cemented the faith of the nomadic communities in the justice system. But it is for the government to ensure that the rights of pastoral nomadic communities are looked after well as per tribal laws. Many policies and Forests Rights Act need amendment in the state,” senior journalist and executive editor of The Kashmir Times, Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, said.

“The verdict has far-reaching ramifications especially at a time when the state is headed for the assembly elections,” she remarked.

Corroborating her views, Talib Hussain, who was at the forefront of ‘Justice for Kathua Victim’ agitation and a community member, said, “even though the right-wing political forces are on the rise, this judgement has reassured us that judiciary is there to protect Adivasis, Dalits and minorities.”



“Those who got swayed and misled by the Hindu Ekta Manch, Ikk Jutt Jammu, Dogra Swabhimaan Sangathan and others will also understand now how the issue was politicised and communalised by vested interests,” he said, narrating how he was “victimised” and accused of “creating a communal divide in the region after getting funds from Pakistan” for spearheading the campaign.

(In August 2018, police had arrested Hussain in a rape case filed by the sister-in-law of his wife after the Jammu & Kashmir  High Court restrained his arrest in a case of domestic violence that had been filed by his estranged wife. A few months later, during the #MeToo movement in October last year,  Hussain was accused of rape by a student from Jawaharlal Nehru University.)