The prosecution and conviction of those who committed the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu in January 2018, and others who helped the perpetrators and abetted the crime, is welcome, especially because the investigative and judicial processes took place in very difficult and adverse circumstances. A special court in Pathankot in Punjab has sentenced three main accused to life imprisonment, and three others, all policemen, were given five-year jail terms for destruction of evidence. The sentence may have brought some closure to a case which had evoked widespread national opprobrium and international attention, and justice may have been done. One accused has been acquitted on the basis of benefit of doubt, but the prosecution is filing an appeal against it. Another welcome feature of the case is that the trial, which saw the testimony of 114 witnesses, was concluded in a record time of 14 months.
The case stands out as much for its communalisation and politicisation as for the cruelty and brutality done to a nomadic girl. The girl was abducted, kept in detention for days, drugged and raped and killed, ostensibly to drive away from the region the nomadic community of Bakarwals to which she belonged. An openly communal organisation called the Hindu Ekta Manch and the state’s BJP leaders opposed investigation into the horrific crime by the state crime branch, and BJP leaders and even ministers supported the culprits. The then deputy chief minister of the state, who was from the BJP, called the crime a “minor incident’’. Lawyers in Jammu tried to prevent the filing of the charge-sheet and even public rallies and demonstrations were organised to protest against the investigation and in support of the accused. Two BJP ministers joined the protests but resigned after the prime minister condemned the incident. The dastardly incident in which the victim was a Muslim and the perpetrators were Hindus was used to polarise society on communal and political lines. The Supreme Court had to shift the case to Pathankot for a fair trial.
The question whether rape and murder should be seen in terms of the religion of the victim or the culprits was lost in the political frenzy in Jammu. The orchestrated popular response there showed how communal politics could lead to moral depravity and make people blind to the working of the rule of law. Even now, the BJP spokesperson for Kashmir says the judgement is “flawed”. While the judgement is reassuring and shows that justice has prevailed even in adverse circumstances, the case also shows how politics has degraded itself and has corrupted and endangered even basic social values.