The gruesome rape and murder of an eight-year-old in Kathua took place in January. That it took three months for a court monitored investigation to be completed, that lawyers from Jammu sought to prevent the police from filing the chargesheet and a crowd mobilised by the Hindu Ekta Manch shouted slogans in support of the accused even as counter protests were held in the Valley, speaks volumes for the steadily deepening jagged fissure that now exists between a so called ‘Hindu’ Jammu and a ‘Muslim’ Kashmir.
The Kathua mindset has spread beyond Kathua. Criminalisation of politics has long been a feature of Indian public life, but the Kathua case has shown a politicisation of crime, by which the accused are “normalised” by creating a surreal social equivalence with other crimes. Social media, an echo chamber of society’s baser prejudices, has unleashed communal whataboutery on why the media is silent about a rape in Assam in which the accused is a Muslim. But is a Muslim Ekta Manch shielding the Assam accused? AUDF MP Badruddin Ajmal has condemned the rape.
The Kathua mindset is marked by a frenzied obsession with Muslims. Bakherwals, staunch loyalists of India when Pakistan raiders attacked in 1947, are viewed as “Muslim” nomads. Rohingyas are not destitute refugees fleeing tyranny, they are only Muslims. Demolition of the Babri Masjid is not seen as the criminal act it was but an act of historical vengeance against 500 years of Muslim rule during which certain temples were razed. Tipu Sultan was not a freedom fighter against the British, but only a Muslim king. Aurangzeb was not an emperor of India but a Muslim bigot whose memory must be erased.
This mindset leads to the law too sometimes becoming subservient to religious identity. In 2002, those accused of burning the train at Godhra were swiftly arrested under POTA. By contrast in murder cases during the 2002 riots state police were reluctant to act until a Supreme Court monitored SIT probe was set up. The culture of “encounter killing”, abhorrent in any civilised democracy, is often legitimised. Sohrabuddin was “encountered” allegedly because he was involved in criminal activity, but then why was his wife Kausar Bi also killed and why are witnesses in this case turning hostile?
Those accused of terrorism in the Mecca Masjid blasts have been acquitted and the prime accused Aseemanand is now planning to campaign for BJP in Bengal. In Gujarat, a former BJP state minister Maya Kodnani has now been acquitted by a high court in the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre after being initially held guilty of instigating the mobs. These acquittals are not a moment for majoritarian muscle flexing but instead must lead to a thorough examination of continuing failures in police investigations, especially when governments change.
If there’s one lesson we must learn from Kathua it is the urgent necessity of strict equality before the law. The state must be and seen to be, rigorously neutral. Religious zealotry cannot be used to subvert the law. When the state is seen as weak and partisan the Kathua mindset gets emboldened. State agencies like police and law courts can’t have religious and political preferences and no maulvi or sadhu should be able to use religion as a weapon to influence the course of justice.
In the past there’s been a selective application of the law by “secular” dispensations too. Consequently there are gathering competitive demands for more inequality and preferential treatment. Victims of 1984 have struggled to get justice, Taslima Nasreen was not protected, progressive SC judgment in favour of Shah Bano was overwritten.
If Akhilesh Yadav shielded Muslims accused in crimes, Yogi Adityanath is withdrawing cases against Muzaffarnagar riot accused. When Mamata Banerjee didn’t allow Moharram and Durga Puja processions on the same day she ended up feeding into the Hindu victimhood on which the Kathua mindset relies.
Why are the residents of Jammu calling for a CBI probe when the J&K police is investigating the case? Why is the same J&K police which is hailed when it takes on militants in the Valley suddenly not trusted to handle a case involving Hindu accused in Jammu? Additionally, would the residents of Jammu have protested as energetically on the streets if the accused was a Rohingya Muslim, or any Muslim for that matter?
The Kathua mindset also reveals itself in the fact that groups like the Bajrang Dal and Hindu Ekta Manch, once called the “fringe” are now quite mainstream, while their detractors are now the fringe. The chief executive of India’s most populous state is a Yogi who once headed the Hindu Yuva Vahini or a Hindu youth militia. Where bans on cow slaughter were once the demand of sadhus and religious bodies today the ban on beef is seen as a “nationalist” consensus. Murderers of a cattle trader in Alwar have got away as have those who attacked Dalit cattle skinners in Una; nor has there been a swift and vociferous condemnation of such heinous acts by the ruling political leadership.
To combat the Kathua mindset, there must be an open acknowledgement of the “secular” mistakes of the past, and the manner in which these mistakes are being imitated and maximised by the Hindutva brigade. There must also be a recognition that there is only one state religion that India can have, and that is the rule of law. Above all else, Kathua calls for a moral leadership, one that is not measured by election victories but by a triumph of compassion and humanity.