New Delhi: The gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl, a member of the Bakerwal nomadic tribe, in Kathua last January seems to have redrawn the political landscape of Jammu, a traditional Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stronghold.
According to the Jammu & Kashmir Police, the child was allegedly the victim of a temple custodian’s conspiracy to eject her community from the area, and the crime soon assumed communal overtones that were intensified when the eight suspects, all Hindus, were arrested.
As a minister in the erstwhile Mehbooba Mufti government of Jammu & Kashmir, Lal Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) triggered a major controversy when he came out in support of the accused.
The BJP was initially supportive of him but soon forced him out under pressure from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), then its ally in the coalition governing J&K. This decision could now cost the party in its traditional stronghold of Jammu.
Lal Singh, who floated his own political front, the Dogra Swabhiman Sangathan (DSS), last year after his exit from the BJP, is contesting the upcoming election from both of Jammu’s two Lok Sabha seats.
Udhampur and Jammu — two of the state’s six Lok Sabha seats, both with a Hindu majority — are currently with the BJP, and Lal Singh’s entry as a rival force is expected to queer the pitch for the incumbents, especially Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office Jitendra Singh (Udhampur).
Campaigning for Lal Singh, who is fighting the polls on the pitch of Dogra pride, is Madhu Sharma, daughter of temple custodian Sanji Ram, who is currently under arrest in the Kathua case.
Videos of Madhu addressing political gatherings and making fervent appeals in favour of Lal Singh are going viral.
In one such video, Sharma is heard narrating the “ordeal” her family is going through and ruing how the BJP, despite being a “Hindu-centric” party, hadn’t come to their aid.
“I wish no one goes through what we went through… Lal Singh and his family supported us throughout,” Sharma goes on to say, accompanied by Lal Singh’s wife and addressing a group of women. “We have always supported BJP, but what has the party done for us?”
Further in the video, she alleges that the state police had “tailed her” to keep her away from a rally addressed by the Prime Minister in Jammu’s Samba district.
“Whenever there is a PM’s rally, CID keeps tailing me… During Modi’s Samba rally, there were 15 CID personnel to track my movements,” she says. “Why would I have gone for his rally? He has never listened to us till now. They (BJP) would not even bother if our houses were on fire.”
Also read: Kathua anti-rape crusader accused of rape by JNU student
Lal Singh, a three-time MLA from Basohli, wields considerable influence in Jammu’s Kathua district, especially among the Dogra Rajputs.
Amid the furore kicked up by his participation at rallies organised in support of the Kathua accused — where demands were raised to shift the investigation from the J&K Police to the CBI — he had to resign from the state cabinet.
The BJP, however, is dismissive of Singh’s campaign, saying it is unlikely to affect the party’s performance.
“BJP had raised the demand of CBI inquiry in the assembly but it was dismissed by the court,” said Jammu & Kashmir BJP chief Ravinder Raina. “There is no need to politicise the issue. As far as the impact of the case and Lal Singh are concerned, the people of the region have decided to vote for the BJP. There is enthusiasm among the cadres. We are sure of our victory.” he added.
The Kathua case became a turning point in the politics of Jammu & Kashmir, and is believed to have been one of the reasons the BJP withdrew support from the state’s coalition government, which led to its collapse last June.
This election, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the National Conference (NC), the two major Kashmir players, have decided to not field their candidates from both the Jammu seats to give the Congress a clear field. However, with the entry of Lal Singh, the contest seems to have become tougher.
Also read: Kathua rape-murder victim’s family dumps lawyer-activist Deepika Singh Rajawat