Much before the story of the gangrape and murder of the eight-year-old from Kathua shook governments in Delhi and J&K, a 29-year-old lawyer-activist had become the face of the agitation seeking justice for the girl. In the three months that it took for the case to catch national attention, Talib Hussain, who belongs to the Bakerwal nomad community and studied till Class 4 in the same village as the victim, was arrested and allegedly intimidated by the local police to stop the protests.
Hussain says that after he completed his LLB last year, he moved to Delhi to train as a lawyer. “But soon, I started getting bad news from home. There was a campaign to harass our people (Bakerwals). The police and forest department started to target them, prevented them from moving with their cattle… The elderly would be beaten up on the mere accusation of cow smuggling. I left everything and returned from Delhi,’’ he says, adding that in Kathua, he set up the “All-Tribal Coordination Committee” to fight for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in J&K.
Hussain says he organised the first protest against the gangrape and murder of the eight-year-old on January 17 in Hiranagar. “By then we had already started suspecting that the local police were trying to cover up the case,’’ he said.
On January 21, Hussain said, soon after he had organised a protest, he was arrested by the police and taken to Hiranagar police station in Kathua. “I was arrested and kept me in Hiranagar police station for two days. A police officer told me that I should stop these protests. He said if I didn’t leave the area, police would book me under Public Safety Act,’’ he said.
SSP Kathua Suleman Choudhary, however, denied that Hussain was kept in custody for two days. “He was in custody for only four hours. He was arrested for leading a mob that had assembled to hold a protest march but started pelting stones,’’ the SSP said. The SSP also said that he was not aware of any police official threatening to book Hussain under the Public Safety Act. The girl’s case caught wider attention when Hussain organised a rally in Jammu on January 30.
Behind Hussain’s activism for the rights of his Bakerwal community is the story of his own life. “I know how difficult it is to be a Bakerwal. My parents were nomads. They were always on the move. We didn’t have a home. I was born in Kud (Udhampur) while my parents were on way to Kashmir along with their cattle,’’ he said, adding that his parents died in the 2014 floods after their tent was swept away.
“After my Class 4, my parents moved me to a school in Kathua. I would live in people’s homes and study. After my Bachlor’s, I joined Jammu University to study law. A professor in Jammu paid for my education,” he said.
Hussain admits his activism has landed him in trouble earlier too. “In 2013, we were demanding the setting up of Gojri and Pahari research centres in Jammu University. The police filed an attempt to murder case against me and I was rusticated from the university for two years. I finally finished my LLB in 2017. And in 2013, when a driver died in police action in Nagrota, I went to protest, demanding action against the policemen. Again, an FIR was filed against me and I was kept in police lock-up for eight days,’’ he said.On Friday night, Hussain was allegedly heckled and assaulted during a TV debate at Dabhar Chowk in Udhampur, where he had gone to meet the victim’s parents.
Hussain, who later lodged a complaint with the Udhampur Police, alleged that the assailants included BJP’s Udhampur district president Rakesh Gupta and his supporters Sushant and Arjun. “All of them were on the panel and had put across their points of view, but when I started speaking, Sushant pushed me and Rakesh said I was a Pakistani. Then others in the crowd started beating me,” he alleged, adding that he was rescued by some panelists and police.
Udhampur SSP Rayees Mohammad Bhat said they were looking into the complaint. “We have a video of the programme. From it, it appears that some people tried to out-shout each other. The accused denied any attack on Hussain took place during the discussion,” he said.