From the heights of Kargil, he and his wife have been walking with their livestock non-stop for the past month, down hilly terrain, to reach their home in the plains of Jammu’s Kathua district. But having covered nearly 600 km as part of their annual winter migration, the parents of the Bakerwal girl raped and killed in Kathua district in January have stopped a few miles short of their destination, apprehensive of what they will find in the village that had closed its doors on them following the incident.
Two of the girl’s distant relatives too haven’t returned to the Kathua villages they normally head for in the winter, camping in the forests of Samba district since the past fortnight.
Of the nearly 20 Bakerwal families who would stay in the area where the girl’s family did during winter, nearly a dozen who have built permanent homes there may be the only Kathua victim’s parents trek back, delay return ones who will return, says an uncle. According to him, the others who usually rented out land from the villagers are no longer sure they would be welcome.
It’s already a tough year for the Bakerwals as the forests in the area do not have adequate leaves for their livestock.
Saying that he might stay away from the village for one more month, the 45-year-old father of the girl says, “The local people at the moment are not prepared to sell us leaves nor allow our livestock water from the village ponds and tanks.”
This is the first time they are delaying their return, he adds. Having taken the same migratory route to Kargil and back for decades — like the other Bakerwals, who have set routes — he had built a pucca house in the Kathua village as well as bought land.
“Pehley to hum seedey chaley jatey they. Is bari jidbazi hai lokey di (Earlier, we used to go straightway. But this time, people are angry),” he says, adding that he doesn’t want him and his wife to be the only two Bakerwals staying there and is waiting for other community members to join them. At the same time, he points out, “Jaana te hai, chahey jeeye ja marein (Have to go home, whether we live or die). Our land is there.”
The mother of the girl adds that they can’t discount the “threat”. Seeking 24X7 police presence, she says, “Family members of those arrested have been instigating the villagers.”
In the six months they had been away, the 40-year-old says, they hadn’t been able to even call someone back in the village to find out the condition of their home. “Earlier, we used to ask local villagers, but this time everybody has been avoiding us.” Their younger son now studies in Samba district, while they have admitted the elder one to a school in the Valley.
Following the rape and murder, the Crime Branch had arrested eight people, including four policemen, a former revenue official, his son and a nephew in the matter, with local BJP leaders rallying behind the accused. On a petition by the victim’s family seeking transfer of the case from Kathua in view of the hostile atmosphere, the Supreme Court had shifted the trial to Pathankot.
The father of the girl has been travelling from Kargil to Pathankot for the hearings. Even then, he says, he never visited the Kathua village. “I would stay for the night at my in-laws’ house in Samba district and take a bus to Kargil from Jammu the next morning.”
Ankur Sharma, the counsel for the main accused, says that the Crime Branch is presenting evidence in the court currently and 93 prosecution witnesses have been examined so far.
Sharma also claims that the atmosphere of distrust is continuing in the area due to a February meeting of the Tribal Affairs Department where then chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had directed the administration not to dislocate nomads from their present places of stay until the formulation of a formal tribal policy. “People feel it will be difficult to evict nomads if they sit on their land,” Sharma says.
“I have apprised the Governor about it by sending a representation on his personal WhatsApp number also, but the State apparatus wants the communal tension to flare up so that vested interests can reap political benefits,” he claims. “They are sowing seeds of communalism by creating a parallel regime for people belonging to a particular religion.”
Away from the politics that has dogged the rape and murder from the start, the parents say they continue to be haunted by the memories of the girl. A relative says the father often gets up at night thinking of what the eight-year-old would have gone through while she was gangraped, allegedly over several days, and says he is on anti-depressants.
A couple of days ago, the parents were at Sanasar, where they halted for four days. Recalls the father, “We found her shirt and shoes there. She had discarded them on way to Kargil last year.”
About the case, the father says he has been keeping track and bears “no ill-will towards anybody”. “What I am seeking is justice for my girl. While the court will decide whether those arrested are guilty or not, humney faisla Allah ki adalat par chod diya hai. Woh hamari sabse badi adalat hai (We have left the matter to the court of Allah. It is our highest court).”
When they finally make it to the village, the father adds, the first thing they would do is visit their daughter’s grave. They could go there only once before leaving for Kargil. He hopes to replace the temporary grave with concrete, and to arrange a feast in her memory.