Lok Sabha Polls: Kathua rape and murder case casts shadow over BJP’s prospects

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]N 2014, when former Jammu and Kashmir minister and two-time MP, Chaudhary Lal Singh quit the Congress and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it gave a boost to the saffron party in the Jammu province. But in the 2019 parliamentary elections, he has become a major headache for the BJP.

The former forest minister in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-led state coalition government and his party and cabinet colleague Chander Prakash Ganga were forced to resign over their support to the accused in the Kathua rape and murder case last year. An eight-year-old girl, from the nomadic Bakarwal community, was abducted, gang raped and murdered after being kept captive in a temple for a week.  

Even though Ganga was silent about the incident, after their forced resignations, Singh went on to launch his own outfit, Dogra Swabhiman Sangthan and holding rallies, demanding a CBI probe into the case and exploiting the state’s diversity as a fault line for political mileage.

While both the BJP and PDP had fought the state assembly elections against each other in 2014, the “North Pole-South Pole” alliance was formed and as anticipated, it remained unpopular in both the regions as none of the agreements in the “agenda of alliance” were ever implemented.



While the PDP faced a severe backlash in the Kashmir Valley for allegedly betraying the mandate of the Kashmiri voters, the BJP faced the heat in the Jammu region for going soft on separatism and playing a subservient to the Kashmir-based party. The Kathua rape and murder case proved a flashpoint between the two warring coalition partners and divided the state on communal lines. The BJP outplayed PDP by pulling out of the government, suddenly and dramatically in June last year.


A game-spoiler for BJP


The former BJP strongman is now all set to queer the pitch for the BJP in the region, contesting as he is from both the parliamentary constituencies, Jammu-Poonch as well as Kathua-Udhampur-Doda. The BJP had won both the Lok Sabha seats in 2014, besides all its 25 seats in the 87-member state Assembly from Jammu.

The ruling party is repeating its sitting MP Jugal Kishore Sharma from the Jammu seat and Jitendra Singh, who is also a union minister from the Udhampur seat. Sharma had won by a record 2.26 lakh votes by defeating the Congress candidate Mandan Lal Sharma, whereas Singh had defeated Congress stalwart Ghulam Nabi Azad by a margin of 60,976 votes in the previous parliamentary elections.



However, it is looking nearly impossible for the BJP to repeat 2014 this time. While the National Conference (NC) and the Congress have entered into an alliance in the Jammu region’s Udampur-Doda and Jammu-Poonch Lok Sabha seats, the PDP has also not fielded any candidates in the twin seats. This has further consolidated votes in favour of Congress candidates Raman Bhalla in Jammu and Vikramaditya Singh, who is the grandson of erstwhile Sadr-e-Riyasat and senior Congress leader Karan Singh, in Udhampur.

Lal Singh represented the Udhampur Lok Sabha seat from 2004 to 2014 as a Congress leader. On the Jammu-Poonch seat, even though Lal Singh enjoys comparatively lesser public support, he is again likely to encroach into the vote share of the BJP. On this seat also, BJP has a direct fight with the Congress.

Interestingly, the BJP on April 4 declared that Singh was no longer a member of the party for violating party discipline. “Any vote in favour of Lal Singh will be considered a vote against the BJP and (Narendra) Modi ji,” BJP’s chief spokesperson in the state Sunil Sethi told the media in Jammu.

Singh’s departure is being viewed as a second blow to the state BJP, following Ladakh MP Thupstan Chhewang’s resignation from the party and House in November last year.


Relying on regional aspirations


Harping on the motive slogan of “Jai Duggar, Jai Dogra”, Lal Singh has been demanding the delimitation of Assembly constituencies, claiming that the current seat distribution was “unconstitutional and discriminatory against Jammu and Ladakh regions.”

Jammu, according to him, needs additional seats, six for the Pakistani refugees, two for Pandit migrants and one for Kashmir Muslim migrants, settled in Jammu: “Kashmir region with comparatively lesser area, has 46 assembly seats whereas Jammu has only 37 and Ladakh region only four seats.”



Singh has proclaimed that Dogra Swabhiman Sangthan would fight for rotation of the Chief Minister’s post, creation of two constitutional posts for the Deputy Chief Ministers and restoration of Dogra certificates, which would give Jammu youth preference in the armed forces.

A powerful player in Jammu’s political sphere who commands a considerable influence among Dogra-Rajputs, Singh soon after founding his outfit, had demanded the bifurcation of state’s resources and institutions like Public Service Commission.

Before filing his nomination papers for the general elections, he had even declared not to contest the elections, provided the BJP lent support to a separate statehood for Jammu, among other demands.

He has also raised the issue of border residents of Jammu who frequently fall prey to ceasefire violations, and has promised townships and flats for them.


Not new to controversies


During his tenure as state’s health minister, he frequently courted controversies over his public spat with the doctors.

In 2017, Singh was accused of invoking the 1947 massacre of Muslims in Jammu, to threaten a delegation of Gujjars. Soon after the assassination of senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari, he had allegedly threatened Kashmiri journalists of “Shujaat-like incidents”.

Before joining BJP in August 2014, Singh had compared choosing Modi as Prime Minister to selecting a dog, in a video interview.

He has accused the PDP of “masterminding” Kathua rape and murder case.



Singh has also slammed the BJP for “hurting Dogra pride” by not firmly supporting the demand for a CBI probe into the Kathua case. He blamed the party for sending him to a rally held in support of rape and murder accused even as Singh’s brother was arrested for allegedly abusing Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti during a rally which was aimed at garnering public support for the CBI probe.

Jammu and Udhampur Lok Sabha constituencies will go to polls on April 11 and April 18, respectively.


Justice still awaited for 8-year-old girl


Amid growing acrimony, the trial of Kathua rape and murder case was transferred by the Supreme Court to Pathankot in Punjab in June 2018 following Senior Advocate Indira Jaising’s intervention.

In Pathankot, the day-to-day in-camera trial is ongoing. The prosecution has examined 114 witnesses so far.

Special public Prosecutor JK Chopra has said he is confident that the prosecution has established its case beyond any doubt. The prosecution case, he said, was based on scientific, forensic, medical and circumstantial evidences besides the “last seen theory” evidence.

He further stressed that “the evidence relating to judicial confessions by two of the accused persons, Parvesh Kumar and Shubham Sangra, naming all others involved in the crime and revealing the entire conspiracy and the evidence related to the motive, is also on the record.”

Claiming that the evidence adduced by the prosecution is of “the conclusive and definite nature”, he said, the next stage of the trial in which the explanation over all the evidence on the record against the accused persons is recorded, had started in January 2019.

Till date, the statements of the accused persons including Deepak Khajuria, Surrender Kumar, Parvesh Kumar and Vishal Jagotra have been recorded. The questioning of Sanjhi Ram is also ongoing.



The court, with the help of prosecution, had put about 400 questions regarding the evidence on record against the accused persons, he said.

The prosecution is aiming to record the statements of the remaining accused persons by the end of April following which the court which witnesses will be produced.

The accused persons, according to Chopra, are likely to produce about twenty witnesses and their statements would get recorded by the end of next month. Thereafter, the final arguments will be heard by the court. h

Dr. Tejwinder Singh, is the district and session judge, Pathankot, who is hearing the matter. Kamaldeep Bhandari, his wife, was among the three candidates picked up by the BJP government in Haryana, out of 229 applicants, for the post of information commissioners to the State Information Commission. The appointments came just two days before the model code of conduct took effect ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha elections on March 8.


(With inputs from Sangeeta Malhotra)

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