Kathua: When Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, senior Congress leaders and hundreds of protesters marched to the India Gate holding candles, seeking justice for the eight-year-old Kathua rape victim, Bhanwari Lal in one corner of Jammu city remained glued to his television screen, watching in disbelief.
Surprised by the late night protests in the heart of the country’s capital, Bhanwari, a man in his late fifties who runs a textile shop in the Jammu city, called his friend Om Mahajan to check what was happening. When the march was over, the two friends got into a late night discussion over the brutal rape and murder case that jolted the conscience of every common Indian three months after the incident took place.
“Congress is trying to make it a political issue. These things happen all the time,” Om remembers his friend Bhanwari telling him over the phone.
Ten hours later, both Om and Bhanwari were again discussing the midnight protests while sitting inside a small makeshift dhaba and enjoying their morning tea.
Bhanwari was still stuck to his belief. “It’s a witch hunt against us. Why doesn’t the CBI probe this?” Bhanwari suggests.
On the other hand, for Om, Thursday’s midnight march meant a lot. He sees the continuous outpour of solidarity for the victim and her family as a “ray of hope”.
“It was a manifestation of the fact that something is rotten in the system and that culprits who commit such heinous crimes need to be punished according to the law,” said Om, a pharmacy owner.
Listening to the two friends and their opinions on the brutal rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl belonging to the minority Gujjar community in Jammu, the two extreme narratives playing out in the region is quite noticeable.
However, the reason behind these responses are varied.
For Bhanwari Lal, the issue is nothing more than a well-hatched conspiracy to “make Jammu like Kashmir and create a law and order situation here” while others call the probe “motivated” and meant to “target the majority community of Jammu”. Some even say “the incident was bound to happen given the fact that the Gujjar community would take part in cow slaughtering and drug trafficking in the area.” Much of these opinions stem from a section of lawyers at the Jammu Bar Association (JBA).
One lawyer who wished to remain anonymous, went to the extent of saying, “Gujjars deserve this.”
“If they thought they can walk like kings over our land, then they are mistaken. They must have done something that the accused took such a drastic step,” the lawyer added.
Jammu-based tribal leader Talib Hussain has been at the forefront of demanding forest rights for the Gujjars in line with Central Forest Rights. He had earlier voiced concerns over the alleged discrimination and harassment of the Gujjar community in Kathua.
He believes, “The gruesome crime could be a result of the hatred some people have against the Gujjar community.”
A young professor at Jammu University agrees with Talib. He says that since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed the government in alliance with People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the tribals of Jammu have been threatened and intimidated.
“Last year we saw Gujjars being troubled by some BJP leaders. Even the chargesheet in the Kathua case has mentioned that the crime was carried out to instill fear among the Gujjar community,” the professor said.
However, people at the other end of the public discourse don’t buy this argument.
Himanshu Kumar, a 21-year-old Hindu Ekta Manch member rubbishes the claims. He was part of the rally carried out by the Ekta Manch on March 4, which demanded the case be transferred to the CBI, alleging that the Crime Branch probe was concocted and unfair.
“The people who have been arrested were tortured and beaten up. How can so many people rape one girl?” Himanshu questioned.
A similar argument was presented by the Hindu Ekta Manch president and BJP State Secretary, Advocate Vijay Sharma. He claimed the police has written a made-up story in the charge sheet, which can never be established on ground.
“This is a conspiracy. You want me to accept that a father and son planned the rape and murder of a girl? We don’t accept this investigation,” Sharma said.
He also questioned the facts that were presented by the Crime Branch in the chargesheet. He claimed, “It is impossible to keep a minor girl at the ‘Devisthan’ given the number of people who visit the temple every day.”
“Some Kashmir-centric parties want to make this an issue. Why is the government fearing a CBI probe?” Sharma added.
Interestingly, Hindu Ekta Manch was launched only in reaction to an agitation by the Bakerwal community that the rape victim belonged to. This was a day after her dead body was found on January 17.
Arguments such as these have largely angered the people from the Gujjar community. Many students from the community when asked about these opposite narratives, said that this is a “continuous harassment by some people who want Gujjars to be driven out from Jammu”.
“Eight people were involved in raping and killing a minor girl. People who are supporting them or calling the probe a conspiracy are no less than the accused,” said Saleem Beigh, a tribal student from Kathua who studies history at Jammu University.