Kathua rape-and-murder: The plot thickens

The bone-chilling rape-and-murder of an 8-year-old Muslim girl in Kathua in January could be an ominous reply of the same old script: alter demography of Jammu region, yet again

By Bilal Handoo

The moment lip-chewed and bone-crushed body of an 8-year-old Muslim nomad girl was found in Kathua on 17 January, a trucker silently picked up his walking stick, staggered through zigzagged alleys of downtown Srinagar’s Safa Kadal area, before stopping and stepping inside a local mosque. He took time to return home. When he returned, he told his family — amid sighs and silence — that the minor’s rape and murder brought back the haunting memories of the “highway horrors.”

“I felt as if I was in the midst of my life-tormenting moment, again,” says Ali Mohammad Mata, a onetime prosperous trucker who returned home at the peak of 2008 Amarnath land agitation—then fiercely countered by Jammuities through an economic blockade of Kashmir Valley—with severe concussion.

The rape-and-murder of the minor nomad girl reinforces the long-held impression that Kathua and its adjoining belts are major ‘Hindutva’ laboratories

Inside his rundown home, Mata has been grappling with his dark world from the past 10 years now. On the fateful day, he was returning from Delhi when caught by an agitated mob at Kathua. “I somehow managed to run and drive my truck towards Udhampur, where another mob mounted an attack on me,” Mata recalls as his distraught wife and daughter give him a quiet company.

The vicious beating left him with partial paralytic body and faint eyesight. His medical treatment cost him a fortune, consuming his lifetime savings and forcing him to avail a loan. His poverty-stricken wife, now spinning wheel for living, hardly manages his monthly medicinal bill of Rs 2000. His son and daughter are now caught between pathos and poverty.

But that’s just one part of the story.

That year, on 19 August, Bashir Shalla of Dangerpora, Nowgam, had left home on the government’s assurances that “everything is normal along the Srinagar-Jammu highway.” While driving his fruit-laden truck (No. JK01F-3747), towards Delhi, he along with many Kashmiri truckers faced a mob attack at Kathua.

Mohammad Yusuf, the victim’s father
Photo: Kashmir Narrator

His truck almost turned turtle when attacked with petrol bombs. He was dragged out, severely beaten with iron rods and knocked unconscious. When he regained his senses in a hospital ward, he recounted his highway horror.

Inside Srinagar’s Parimpora Mandi, Shalla’s co-workers recall their death-defying experiences while plying in and around Kathua belt. “We hardly pull over our trucks there,” says Javaid Ali, a fresh-faced trucker from Parimpora. “If we do, then anyone can pounce on us. The problem with those men is that they use muscle over mind. How can you reason with such men?”

Based on these horrific experiences, Kashmiri truckers have long understood what the police’s Crime Branch sleuths have lately found in the rape-and-murder of the minor from Rasana village of Kathua: the grisly crime was committed “to drive out the local Muslim population.”

But between the beginning of the “highway horrors” and the minor’s rape-and-murder, the dynamics of the region where the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) is now openly coming out with sword rallies has been completely changed.

On 18 May 2016, when a Gujjar community from Udhampur met him to seek his intervention as then Forest minister in some prohibitory official notice, Singh shouted at the delegation at the top of his voice: “O Gujron, 1947 pulligaya hai tuse ge.” (Gujjars, have you forgotten 1947? Why have you come here?)

This changed mood is now emboldening many people, like the retired Revenue official Sanji Ram, to whip up the communal passions in the polarised region. As the ringleader of the rally carried out in support of the rapist, 60-year-old Ram had even united the BJP and the Congress leaders under the banner of his outfit, Hindu Ekta Manch.

Before his surrender in wake of his son’s sensational capture in Yogi Adityanath’s UP backyard, Ram had accused the PDP-BJP government of allotting land and forests to people belonging to one community—Muslims—“so that demographic character of Jammu is changed fast and jihad succeeds in Jammu as well.”

It was this “jungle order” that Ram and his accomplices wanted to change. He was planning his moves to drive out Muslim Bakerwals from Rasana. Most of these nomads migrate to Jammu in winters with their cattle.

Over the years, as J&K’s traditional gypsies gradually settled across Jammu, Ram and his ilk felt threatened. As per the Crime Branch sleuths, he needed a pretext to act. Months before the crime, he would accuse the Muslims of harbouring ‘separatist sympathies’. His hate campaign mainly stemmed from his objection to the Muslim social symbolism like construction of mosques and graveyards.

Eyeing to grab the land occupied by these Muslim nomads in Rasana, Ram soon hatched a plan to execute the rape-and-murder in connivance with his accomplices. One of them was Deepak Khajuria, a Special Police Officer. 

Two J&K cabinet ministers, Chander Prakash Ganga and Chaudhary Lal Singh (from left) in the rally of Hindu Ekta Manch, demanding the release of SPO Deepak Khajuria, who allegedly raped and murdered the nomad girl
Photo: Twitter

As key accused and paedophile killer in the crime, Khajuria was initially a part of the police probe. On 10 January, he kidnapped the minor girl when she was playing in her native village.

Inside the facility run by Ram, the SPO drugged and raped the minor girl for a week. He would chew the minor’s lower lip in a sheer display of his monstrous lust. To choke her voice, Khajuria would give her diazepam. The drug can be orally taken, inserted into the rectum, injected into muscle, or inserted into a vein. It’s still a matter of investigation which method he used to give that tranquillising muscle-relaxant drug to the child.

A week-long torment ended on a brutal note. Her tiny body was crushed with stones before being dumped in Rasana forests on 17 January.

After post-mortem, as her body was brought to her native village, a group of Hindu youth armed with tridents did not allow the family to bury her in their ancestral graveyard. “They came out with hockey sticks and threatened to dig out the seven graves that are already there,” Ali Jan, the child’s uncle, told the web portal Scroll. “We went, overnight, to a relative’s village (eight km away) and buried her on his land.”

“Not allowing burial in her ancestral graveyard conveyed the message that the tribals have no rights in the village or on their own land,” says Nazakat Khatana, vice chairman of All Tribal Coordination Committee (ATCC). “They [Hindu mob] actually want to drive all the nomads away from Hiranagar-Kathua belt.”

Amid outcry, the Crime Branch cracked a whip on the accused and made some quick arrests, including Ram’s ‘juvenile’ relative, who later turned out as an adult. With each arrest, Ram-led Manch would fan communal tensions in Kathua, accusing the police of “wrongful arrests” and demanding a probe by India’s premier investigation agency CBI. Along with some local BJP leaders, even Jitendra Singh, a junior minister in Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi’s Office, questioned J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s judgement and manner of the probe. Deepika Singh Rajawat, the counsel for the victim’s family, says pressure is clearly being mounted on the investigating officers. The lawyer’s fears turned true when some cops were found botching up the probe by erasing evidences of the crime.

After the anti-Muslim violence in 1947, many Muslims of Kathua migrated to Doda and other areas. With the result, 43 Muslim majority villages turned into ghost towns overnight. Among them, 31 were completely depopulated

Behind the pressure, many name Kathua’s own leader and MLA Basohli, Chaudhary Lal Singh, as a silent sparkplug. Singh’s brazen past speaks for him.

When the body of the victim was brought to her native village, a group of Hindu youth armed with tridents did not allow the family to bury her in their ancestral graveyard. It was later taken to their relative’s village, 8 km away, and buried there
Photo: Twitter

On 18 May 2016, when a Gujjar community from Udhampur met him to seek his intervention as then Forest minister in some prohibitory official notice, Singh shouted at the delegation at the top of his voice: “O Gujron, 1947 pulligaya hai tuse ge.” (Gujjars, have you forgotten 1947? Why have you come here?)

What happened in 1947 in Jammu remains the least reported genocide of the world. Around 230,000 Muslims from Jammu, as per reports appearing in the British media that time, were butchered, and the Hindu communal rioters drove out an equal number.

In 1947, Kathua was home to around 45,000 Muslims. As it became one of the killing fields—where lorry-loads of scared Muslims would be brought for slaughter, it threw one of the first mass-graves in the post-colonial world. “Near Kathua town,” says Khalid Bashir, an author-historian, “as many as 8,000 Muslims were massacred on 20 October 1947, and only 40 survived in the carnage.” One of those survivors was Obaidur Rehman.

Hailing from the present day Lal Singh’s constituency, Basohli, Rehman was a Revenue official like Sanji Ram. When Hindu rioters attacked Muslims in his hometown, Rehman was out of the town. “There was a mohalla of Kashmiri shawl workers whose inhabitants were slaughtered,” Bashir says. “In Rehman’s own mohalla everyone was killed including 15 members of his family and 10 of his father-in-law’s family.” About 500 people of all ages, the historian continues, were butchered while crossing the shallow waters of Ravi river.

Shattered by the slaughter, Rehman fled to Bhaderwah. When he returned a year later, he saw houses of Kathua Muslims demolished on directions of Tehsildar of Basohli, Pandit Yog Dayan. “The officer wanted to remove the Muslim past of Kathua,” Bashir says.

The bloodcurdling campaign changed the demography of the district. “Only in urban Kathua district, Muslim population ratio decreased by 2887 per 10,000 (28.87%) from 3114 in 1941.” By 1961, following gradual Muslim migrations, only 227 Muslims were left in the belt.

SPO Deepak Khajuria, one of the accused in rape-and-murder case
Photo: Twitter

In Kathua’s Billawar area, Bashir says, “Muslims were killed and womenfolk raped and abducted by Hindu communalists, which forced many to migrate to Doda and other areas.” With the result, 43 Muslim majority villages turned into ghost towns overnight. Among them, 31 were completely depopulated.

Seventy years later, Kathua district is a Hindu-dominated belt with a population of 616,435—according to the 2011 census—comprising 87.61% Hindu, 10.42% Muslim and 1.55% Sikh population.

“It was this transformed landscape and its forced demographic change which made Lal Singh to invoke the 1947 again,” says a relative of the slain nomad girl, who lately saw Singh and his BJP colleague and minister Chander Prakash Ganga attending the rally of Hindu Ekta Manch at Hiranagar. BJP’s two more MLAs from Kathua and Hiranagar constituencies, Rajeev Jasrotia and Kuldip Raj, were also present at the rally.

Among other things, Lal Singh advised the agitators not to care about the law.

“If you launch an agitation,” Singh thundered in the rally, “do it with full force or sit at home. What’s this Section 144? This one girl has died and there is so much of investigation. There have been many deaths of women here.”

Much of this State backlash to drive out Muslims is taking place at hilly areas housing a large chunk of Jammu province’s 31 per cent Muslim population. The ghastly instance that lately put humanity at shame at Kathua happened in hilly-forest area of Rasana, sheltering a pocket of Pahari speaking nomads.

Singh’s colleague Ganga termed the police investigations ‘jungle raj’. “Where is the SSP of the area? I want to tell the police that this ‘jungle raj’ would not be allowed.”

In contemporary Jammu province, Ganga enjoys a rabble-rouser kind of reputation. An hour and a 15 minute drive from Kathua, Vijaypur’s Gujjar Basti housing 204 families fears a looming eviction. On this site, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) is coming up. Behind the AIIMS proposal, the Gujjars say, is Ganga.

In the run-up to 2014 elections, this BJP leader had sought votes to “bulldoze the Gujjar settlements”. After winning from Vijaypur, his henchmen arrived at Gujjar settlements and began hurling stones at them in fit of celebrations. Many say that was a beginning of the larger campaign against Muslims in the polarised province.

And much of it had to do with the advent of BJP-led NDA government at Delhi in May 2014 and BJP’s subsequent clean sweep in Jammu province in assembly elections later that year.

The twin victories boosted the large-scale political enterprise in Jammu and deepened the fault-lines between Hindu-majority Jammu and Muslim-majority Kashmir. “Jammu’s growing battle for spaces is behind these political tensions,” believes Amit Sharma, a Jammu-based real estate dealer.

As the conflict in Kashmir has made Jammu a type of ‘safe house’, Sharma says, the Sangh-affiliated outfits are now out to undo that social setup. “At the heart of this political crisis is the growing number of Gujjar enclaves across Jammu,” he says. “Years ago, most of these nomadic Muslims had fled hills, where they were caught between (militants’) demand for food and shelter, and army’s torture for playing a reluctant host.”

For the rising campaign against them, Gujjar and Bakerwal leaders blame Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s decision to ally with the BJP and his daughter’s subsequent second chance to BJP. “After the PDP-BJP alliance,” says Amir Paswal, a young Bakerwal from Rasana, “attempts to drive out Muslims from Jammu have increased manifold.”

On 20 April 2017, Paswal’s distant cousins were travelling with their cattle through Reasi district when a mob shouting “Jai Sri Ram” cut them short. Later a viral video showed a Hindu mob tearing down a makeshift structure at Reasi, housing a Muslim nomad family including two women and a nine-year-old girl. While attempting to save his family, a 70-year-old tribal man was beaten with rods and knocked unconscious.

For J&K’s 34-lakh strong Gujjar-Bakerwal community, the attack triggered existential crisis. Such attacks have already made somebody like Farooq Abdullah—whose mother had a Gujjar lineage—to sound like a doomsayer. “Members of the nomadic communities are being persecuted and harassed under an elaborate plan to sow seeds of fragmentation and communal animosity within the state,” Abdullah conveyed to Governor NN Vohra.

But as the Raj Bhavan continues to play indifferent, the “traditional counterinsurgents”—Gujjar-Bakerwals—are now increasingly being labelled as “terrorist guides.” Mindful of these tags, scores of nomadic Muslims have already warned the PDP-BJP government that “if Gujjars can crush militancy by becoming a shot in State’s arm, then they can also rise against the same State, on the style of Poonch Rebellion of 1947, in case the attacks continue”. But amid the BJP-led media blitzkrieg, these warnings are only creating a storm in a cup.

“All this underlines a fact that Jammu Muslims are currently beset with a multi-front offensive,” says a Jammu Muslim leader, who over the years witnessed an organised targeting of Jammu Muslims in the wake of insurgent strikes. When militants attacked the Raghunath Mandir in March 2002, he says, then VHP vice-president Giriraj Kishore blamed “some local hand” for acting “couriers for terrorists.” By ‘local hand’, Kishore meant local Muslims.

Such statements—although communal and criminal in nature—have been regularly coming from Jammu. At the peak of 2008 Amarnath land agitation, then BJP state chief and now the party’s MLC, Ashok Khajuria, had threatened to kick out Muslims from their homes. Even military seems to mind the ‘growing’ Muslim presence in Jammu.

A candle light vigil in Srinagar against rape-and-murder of Kathua Muslim minor

When Commander of 16 Corps, Lt Gen J.B.S. Yadava raised an alarm over the new Muslim-migrant enclaves “in strategically-sensitive areas” across Jammu in 2001, the mercurial Farooq Abdullah government binned his warning letter. Apparently, Abdullah knew how NC’s Jammu cadre was behind many of those Muslim enclaves and regularisation of forest encroachments.

Now when the eviction notices are being served to these encroachments, the common refrain in Jammu remains that the new party in power is only disturbing the old party’s votebank—and in the process, swelling its own ‘Hindutva’ voter base.

Much of this State backlash to drive out Muslims is taking place at hilly areas housing a large chunk of Jammu province’s 31 per cent Muslim population. The ghastly instance that lately put humanity at shame at Kathua happened in hilly-forest area of Rasana, sheltering a pocket of Pahari speaking nomads.

“People like Sanji Ram are known to equate the growing influx of these nomadic Muslims with escalated terror strikes in the region,” says Krishan Pal, a lawyer from Kathua. “His tribe argues that Kathua’s neutral role during Khalistani militancy to its south in Punjab and the Kashmir insurgency to its north was left torn asunder with the arrival of nomads in early 2000.”

These instigators keep reminding people of the 2002 insurgent strikes at a Kathua temple and on a bus at Hiranagar Morh, Pal says. “All this leaves a common Hindu with common aspirations in a vengeful huff.”

When armed-to-the-teeth insurgents attacked a police station—before driving a truck to attack an army camp in Samba—and killed four cops at Kathua in September 2013, the ground mood turned grim. Three months later, police sources say, Sopore’s legendary militant commander Qayoom Najar wanted to repeat Kathua in Jammu. But somehow the ‘master of disguise’ had come on security radar, forcing him to abort the attack.

These insurgent strikes, however, have had nothing to do with the presence of nomad Muslim pockets, says a senior intelligence officer. “Kathua district’s proximity with the Pakistan border makes it an obvious confrontational zone between militants and soldiers,” he says. “These security breaches take place despite the district having a significant Indian army presence since 1947.”

But in a mythical land called Kathua, where some historians even trace the footprints of “Alexander, Pandavas and Krishna”, the pockets of hostilities often manifest in communal flare-ups.

On 28 July 2014, Hindu mobs went a rampage, torching Muslim-owned kiosks and property over an alleged act of sacrilege in Kathua. The state government could only restore the ‘uneasy calm’ by calling Indian army for help.

In 1947, Kathua was home to around 45,000 Muslims. As it became one of the killing fields—where lorry-loads of scared Muslims would be brought for slaughter, it threw one of the first mass-graves in the post-colonial world. “Near Kathua town,” says Khalid Bashir, author-historian (above), “as many as 8,000 Muslims were massacred on 20 October 1947, and only 40 survived in the carnage.”

Again on 15 January 2017, a mob of about 4000 infuriated Hindus attacked the Muslim hamlet of Hariachak in Kathua and targeted the houses belonging to one Miskeen Ali and his relatives.

The local Muslims accused the “RSS-backed communalist elements” to provoke the local Hindu population by throwing severed head and limbs of a cow in Ali’s premises.

Even the Muslim womenfolk were manhandled and threatened of dire consequences in case they do not leave the present place. The mastermind of this attack was a local sarpanch Darshan Sharma who along with his accomplices “wanted to grab the huge land owned by the Muslim families.”

Exactly a year later, these communal tensions returned to haunt Muslims at Kathua when Sanji Ram and his accomplices designed a heinous crime to drive out Muslims. “The way they committed the crime makes it beastly,” says advocate Talib Hussain, who launched a justice campaign for the victim family. “They dumped the minor’s body with two broken ribs and a crushed leg. She was given electric shocks before clubbed by stones.”

First Miskeen Ali and now the shuddering rape-murder case, the plot—revolving around the land grab—is indeed thickening at Kathua.

Back home at Safa Kadal, the blinded Kashmiri trucker Mata is living another day of darkness. He turns to his distraught family, makes a long face and terms his assaulters and the culprits of the Kathua rape-murder case as “the tormentors of the humanity”.

The cover story appeared in Kashmir Narrator’s April issue. To subscribe to print edition, please mail here: KashmirNarrator@Gmail.com

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    By: Bilal Handoo

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