In January this year, several men brutally gang raped and murdered an 8-year-old girl belonging to the Muslim Nomadic Tribe, Bakarwal. I have no interest in listing down the gruesome details of how the crime took place. However, a single incident is enough to highlight the barbarity of the rapists. The chargesheet submitted by the police in court says that as one of the accused rapists was about to kill the girl, another accused asked him to stop so that he could rape her for one last time.
Looking at this case simply as a rape and murder case would not be wrong but would definitely be inadequate. Because then how would we make sense of the large crowds of ‘locals’ in Kathua gathering at the police station to prevent any action being taken against the accused? How would we make sense of the fact that the lawyer community of Kathua region, represented by the Kathua Bar Association, gave a call for a strike to protest the arrests of the accused rapists in this case? What will explain the fact that the local ‘civil society’ chose to not stand with the victim of rape, but with those accused of rape?
A much wider frame is needed to understand the answer to these questions.
The state of Jammu & Kashmir is historically, geographically and now, politically divided into 3 regions – Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. The Jammu region has a Hindu majority and Muslims in minority. In Kashmir, Muslims make up the majority. And the Ladakh region is equally split between the Shia Muslim dominated Kargil region and the Buddhist dominated Leh region.
The above demographics have played out politically ever since Jammu & Kashmir became a part of the Indian Union. ‘Hindu’ political parties and organizations have always had an appeal in the Jammu region. Historically, it was the Praja Parishad which conducted various political campaigns in the Jammu region, and stated – “Ek Desh mein do Vidhan, do Nishan, do Pradhaan, nahi chalenge (We cannot have two constitutions, two Prime Ministers and two symbols in a single country),” while mobilizing public opinion against the Special Status of Jammu & Kashmir and Article 370. Later, the Jan Sangh (which became the BJP), managed to conduct successful political campaigns in the Jammu region.
Similarly, the Kashmir region was the main area from where ‘Sher-e-Kashmir’ Sheikh Abdullah, the founder of the National Conference drew his support. Later, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) founded by Mufti Mohammad Saaed, which is considered more radical on the issue of autonomy for J&K from India, also developed its support from the Kashmir region. In comparison to Jammu & Kashmir, the Ladakh region is under-populated and thus rendered politically insignificant.
Politics between Jammu and Kashmir regions have always remained competitive, with Jammu region complaining that it constantly loses out to Kashmir when it comes to fund allocations from the Centre or pointing the fact that the Chief Minister of the state is always from the Kashmir region – from Sheikh Abdullah to the present CM Mehbooba Mufti. Many organizations have, on multiple occasion, given the call to carve out an independent and separate state of Jammu.
However, the politics of polarisation between Jammu and Kashmir regions have reached new heights in the past couple of years with the unlikely alliance between PDP and BJP after the most recent state elections. The BJP had earlier accused PDP of practising ‘soft-separatism’, whereas the PDP had seen the BJP as a rabid Hindutva party which should not be allowed to gain a foothold in J&K. With the PDP sweeping Kashmir and BJP hauling votes in Jammu, both had no other choice apart from each other, if they wished to form the government.
However, supporters of respective parties felt the need to consolidate their voter/supporter base in their respective regions, so that they could exert pressure on the coalition state government and fulfil the demands of their respective regions. The PDP lost its legitimacy amongst its support base in the Kashmir region as it fumbled in the handling the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s death in an encounter. From July 2016 onwards, militancy returned to the Kashmir valley in a big way. On the other hand, the BJP was able to, and still continues to, consolidate its base in the Jammu region under the overarching narrative of ‘Hindus under siege’ in a Muslim-majority J&K.
The Kathua case marks the culmination of the hardening of Hindu Jammu vs. Muslim Kashmir narrative and identities. Though the Hindu-ness of Jammu and the Muslim-ness of Kashmir was always self-evident, historically the conflict between Jammu vs. Kashmir was a conflict between two regions of the state, not religions.
To explain the situation with more historical accuracy, here’s an example. The Cabinet of Raja Hari Singh, who ruled over J&K before it merged with the Indian Union, was packed with representatives belonging to Hindu Dogra community, which was concentrated in the Jammu region. The transformation of J&K from a monarchy to a democracy meant that the Dogras not only lost their privileged political status of belonging to royal nobility, but also the social status that came with such royalty. What was worse for the Dogras, who were also wealthy zamindars under Raja Hari Singh, their economic dominance vanished after Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s first elected leader, decided to pursue a dedicated Land Reform Policy.
The ownership of land passed from Dogra Zamindars to the actual tillers of the land, many of whom happened to be Muslim peasants. Indeed, the land reforms in Kashmir are supposed to be the most whole-hearted effort across India, some historians rating them even better than Kerala’s or West Bengal’s land reforms. In reality, it was the former Dogra nobility who experienced a relative disempowerment, but as is often the case, the identity or self-perception of the dominant community automatically becomes the self-perception of the whole society. The loss of power of the former Dogra nobility was automatically understood as the loss of power and pride of the entire Jammu region.
With the intense rivalry between PDP and BJP, the issue no longer remained Jammu vs Kashmir, it became a plain Hindu vs Muslim issue. And when such sharp lines have been drawn between two communities, the settlement of nomadic ‘Muslim’ Bakarwals in the Kathua region of Jammu, was seen as an act of transgression, an attempt to change the demography of the Jammu region.
They are a Muslim nomadic community, who practice ‘Transhumance’- the practice of seasonally migrating up and down the mountains depending on the season. The Bakarwals generally migrate up the mountains during the summers, when the ice has melted and there is enough grass available for their goats and sheep to graze. In short, constant movement and not permanent residence, is the determining feature of their life.
A decade back, the Bakarwals were included in the list of Scheduled Tribes of J&K. This enabled them to apply for rights over forest or grazing lands, which are traditionally government-owned or community lands.
According to social status determined by caste hierarchy, nomadic tribes rank low, just next to the scheduled castes. In a way, nomadic tribes are deemed unfit to have a permanent residence within the boundaries of the village. The nomads are condemned to a life of constant mobility by societal norms. Thus, even the perception that a nomadic community might be making an attempt to stake claim to a particular piece of land within the premises of a town/village, can be offensive to dominant sections of the local society. A similar trigger sparked the brutal gangrape and murder of the 8-year-old girl. Certain residents of Kathua feared that the Bakarwals are trying to permanently settle there by making a claim to the nearby forest land.
The deadly combination of Bakarwals being both nomads and Muslims, exposed them to a double vulnerability – of being an undesirable minority community and an undesirable caste. In an 8-year-old girl, the rapists found the weakest link of this highly vulnerable social group.
There is a reason why I call rape as patriarchy’s favourite tool is that it serves two purposes in reinforcing patriarchy. Number 1 – to satisfy the sexual desire of the rapist. And Number 2 – To establish or re-establish the dominance of the Patriarchy. Rape has often been used by men ‘to prove’ their superiority, not only over women, but also over other men. The implication being that if a man is able to rape another man’s daughter/wife/sister, the second man isn’t strong enough as he is not even able to protect the woman he is ‘responsible’ for. In other words, rape is supposed to ‘disprove the manhood’ of your male enemy.
On many occasions, especially during communal riots in India, rape has been used a medium to ‘send a message’. This is well captured in the documentary ‘Final Solution’ which shows how rape was systematically used during the 2002 Gujarat Riots.
In this case too, the men raped the young girl to send a strong message to the Bakarwal community that they are not welcome in Kathua. It becomes clear from this incident that, for men, women’s bodies are a battleground on which they fight for superiority. Patriarchy does not see women as living human beings, but as objects to be used, manipulated, and as in this case – destroyed – to achieve their goal. If patriarchy doesn’t even consider women to be humans, then why are we surprised to see that in a patriarchal Indian society, the Kathua victim was treated in such an inhumane manner?
We all may have different opinions about which form of social inequality is the greatest of all. Some, especially those belonging to so-called lower castes may argue that caste is the biggest monster that haunts Indian society. Others, especially women, might say that gender inequality is the biggest bane, as it affects at least 50% of our society. Still others, especially those belonging to minority groups may argue that Indian Society has done the biggest injustice to them, especially in the current context of increasing majoritarianism. However, from the above text we might discover that we all will most probably end up on the losing side if we continue to struggle for our own causes separately.
If today, the 8-year-old girl, who was a young nomadic Muslim, is denied justice, what is the guarantee that the next rape victim will get justice, even if she doesn’t suffer from the disadvantage of belonging to either to a minority community? Once rape has been normalised, women belonging to all social groups are vulnerable.
We need to get out of our ghettoed mindsets, where we only care for our kind of people. One is reminded of the famous poem by Martin Neumiller, who was writing in the context of how Nazi Germany eliminated all of Hitler’s opponents, as they were not united, The poem goes as follows….
First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me…..
What we need now is Collective Action. And for that, we do not need a perfect complete comprehensive theory which addresses all issues of caste, gender or minority concerns. We cannot wait for the ‘Perfect Theory’ or the ‘Perfect Organisation’. We simply need to participate in each others’ rallies for justice. We need to listen to each others’ stories of oppression and injustice with open ears and hearts. We need to help each other in every way possible.
We need to acknowledge that we are all in this together. And we need to understand a simple fact, unless the numbers at our rallies grow, governments won’t bow down to our demands.
May feminists join hands with the Dalits and Tribals in their struggle to demand their rightful share. May non-Muslims join Muslims in large numbers when they demand justice in cases of Akhlaq, Junaid and Pahlu, May men join women in large numbers in trying to create a society in which no girl will meet the same fate ever again.