The arrest of a juvenile and two policemen in connection with the sexual assault and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim Bakerwal girl in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua district has triggered a communal face-off. Leaders of BJP, a partner in the ruling coalition, are participating in demonstrations under the banner of Hindu Ekta Manch to demand release of the accused and a CBI probe. Leaders from Opposition Congress, too, are participating in these protests. The Manch is headed by state BJP secretary Vijay Sharma.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeted on Friday, “Appalled by the marches & protests in defense of the recently apprehended rapist in Kathua. Also horrified by their use of our national flag in these demonstrations, this is nothing short of desecration. The accused has been arrested & the law will follow its course.” The girl came from Kargil in October with her parents and two elder siblings to stay at their pucca house in the forests of Kathua, located next to Rasana village that has nearly two dozen Brahmin households. Her father had bought two acres from a villager in 2003 and built the house. On January 10, she took over a dozen mules to graze in the jungle. The children accompanying her have reportedly told the family that she went after some mules that strayed away and did not return.
Her father said they looked for her in the nearby settlements before approaching Hiranagar Police Station the next morning. According to him, SHO Suresh Gautam asked them to come after two days, and filed an FIR only on January 12. Gautam has been suspended following protests by Bakerwals. On January 17, Jagdish Lal, who knew the girl’s family, informed them that he found her body in the forest. After the body was recovered, sniffer dogs led police to two cattlesheds, one belonging to Lal and another belonging to a former local patwari. Police took into custody Lal’s son, his domestic help and the former patwari’s 15-year-old nephew.
While Lal’s son and help were let off, the 15-year-old was arrested and sent to a juvenile home. While the former patwari denied the abduction charge against his nephew, police said the boy has confessed to taking the girl to his uncle’s cattleshed and strangulating her when she resisted rape.
With both Bakerwals and Hindu villagers expressing dissatisfaction over the police investigation, the state government ordered a magisterial probe and then handed over the case to Crime Branch. After questioning the juvenile, the Crime Branch arrested SPO Deepak Khajuria and SPO Surinder Kumar. Hindu villagers from Rasana, Kootah and other villages in Hiranagar tehsil have alleged that the accused were framed under pressure from the Bakerwals. On Friday, a protest rally at Parshuram temple at Ghagwal was attended, among others, by BJP MLA Kuldeep Raj, vice-chairman of State Board for Development of Other Backward Classes Rashpaul Verma, former Congress MLA Girdhari Lal and former Congress MLC Subash Chander. Threatening to intensify the agitation if the accused were not released, leaders at the protest said they condemn the incident, but won’t allow “our people to be framed’’.
The Bakerwals, who come to the Hindu-dominated villages every winter, say they are being barred from wells and ponds. The villagers, in turn, have accused Bakerwals of trying to usurp their lands. Such is the tension between the communities that the villagers did not let the girl’s body be buried in the local graveyard. It was eventually buried in Kannah village, about 8 km away.