How politics over Kathua rape-murder played out to Mehbooba Mufti’s advantage

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Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has had to face criticism from its core electoral constituency for “its surrender” to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the last three years. The politics over Kathua rape and murder of an eight-year-old Bakarwal girl seems to have changed this.

For the first time since the PDP joined hands with the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir, its leader has prevailed over the saffron party in no uncertain terms. Mehbooba Mufti succeeded in getting the BJP (of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and strategist Amit Shah) in forcing to remove two ministers of the state cabinet for “supporting rape accused persons”.

The BJP has never acceded to the PDP’s core demands in Jammu and Kashmir. These demands include resuming dialogue with Pakistan, de-escalation of border tension, holding talks with separatist leaders and going “soft” on stone pelters. Besides, the BJP has taken opposite stand on Article 370 and 35A.

There is a little history of bitterness.

In November 2015, the then Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed while sharing stage with PM Modi had urged the Centre to resume talks with Pakistan to resolve Kashmir issue. PM Modi, who spoke after Sayeed, did not give much significance to the chief minister’s demand. The Modi government has maintained that Pakistan must stop sponsoring terrorism before talks on Kashmir can be held with it.

Mehbooba Mufti has been vocal in her criticism of Centre’s “tough” military policy in Kashmir Valley. But the BJP has not climbed down from its stand on meeting militancy with iron fist.

Chandra Prakash Ganga, who was one of the ministers to resign – the other being Lal Singh – in the aftermath of Kathua rape and murder case, had once said that the stone-pelters in the Valley should be dealt with “bullets only”.

The PDP calls the stone pelters as “alienated youth” of Kashmir who need to be dealt with more humane approach. The BJP distanced it from the statement of Ganga but it betrayed deep chasm between the two parties running an uncomfortable alliance.

Another major embarrassment for the PDP came when top BJP leaders including general secretary Ram Madhav, who played a key role in stitching the ruling alliance, supported the Army officer’s decision to tie a stone pelter to an armored vehicle to prevent stone pelting and rescue soldiers.

What changed with politics over Kathua rape and murder of a minor girl?

First, what happened in Kathua. According to the FIR lodged by the father of the victim, the eight-year-old girl had gone to watch over grazing horses on January 10 at Rasanna village of Kathua district in Jammu and Kashmir. The horses owned by the family are the means of sustenance for them. The girl was last seen around 2 pm. The horses came back by 4 pm but the girl went missing.

Unable to find her, the father registered a complaint with the police. A week later on January 17, a dead body was found and identified to be that of the missing girl. Protesters came out on the streets suspecting foul play. Opposition parties raised the matter in the Assembly.

Five days later on January 22, investigation was transferred to the crime branch of the Jammu and Kashmir police. The crime branch filed its chargesheet on April 9 accusing eight persons of gangrape and murder of the eight-year-old girl. The ninth accused in the case a juvenile.

According to the chargesheet, the girl was abducted, held captive in a temple in Kathua, drugged, raped multiple times and killed. The crime branch concluded that it was a careful planning on part of the eight adult accused to drive out the nomadic Bakarwal community from the area.

Protests were held demanding justice for the victim and also for probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation. An outfit called Hindu Ekta Manch launched massive protests in Kathua and other parts of Jammu. It led demonstrations for CBI probe alleging that the police would not investigate the matter in fair manner.

In one of the protests, BJP leaders Ganga and Singh also participated. They demanded CBI probe in Kathua rape and murder case. The issue took a communal angle with polarisation taking place on the ground.

Why Mehbooba Mufti got cornered?

The Congress and the National Conference hit out at Mehbooba Mufti and Modi governments over Kathua rape and murder. Mehbooba Mufti was being seen as losing ground and cornered over the issue. Social media saw a sudden surge in digging Mehbooba Mufti’s statements after 2009 Shopian double rape and murder case.

In 2009, bodies of a woman and a minor girl were recovered. The family alleged that they were raped and killed by security personnel. A few days later, the police ruled out rape citing post-mortem report that said that there were “no marks on the dead bodies including private parts.” Widespread protests erupted.

Omar Abdullah government of the Congress-NC alliance found it difficult to defend itself in the face of staunch protests by Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP and separatists. Mehbooba Mufti demanded CBI probe. The matter was handed over to CBI, which gave clean chit to security forces. The protests continued and became the trigger point for massive stone pelting protests of 2010 when many protesters died.

Eight years later, Mehbooba Mufti was in the same situation. But she prevailed upon the BJP leadership.

With growing protests on both sides, Mehbooba Mufti raised the matter with PM Modi last week. Later on Friday, Modi said, “The incidents that are in discussion in the country for the last two days do not reflect good for any civilised country. This is shameful.”

A day later Lal Singh and Chandra Prakash Ganga resigned from the Mehbooba cabinet. BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi in New Delhi admitted that the two BJP leader were wrong in taking in the protests organised by Hindu Ekta Manch.

This was the first sign that Mehbooba Mufti succeeded in convincing the BJP leadership that party’s stand on Kathua rape and murder case was being seen as one of supporting the rape accused persons.

Having reclaimed some of the political ground that she lost to the BJP in three years in the wake of Kathua rape and murder case, Mehbooba Mufti took to Twitter to say, “I commend the manner in which the people of Jammu dismissed communal forces and were unwavering in their support for a little girl. It has strengthened my belief that Jammu serves as a model of inclusiveness and together the people of Jammu and Kashmir inspire secular unity and righteousness.”

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