A Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the murder and alleged rape of a nomad child in Jammu’s Rassana village has acquired urgency with the arrest of Talib Hussain, the man who publicly dictated who was guilty and should be arrested for the crime, and instigated the communal polarisation in the region. His arrest on August 1, 2018 for the alleged rape of a married woman follows allegations by his wife, Nusrat Begam, that she was tortured and harassed for dowry after giving birth to a girl child (June 30, 2018).
Briefly, the eight-year-old girl from a Bakkarwal family went missing on January 10 after taking the family horses for grazing in the jungle behind the village. Her adopted father (an uncle) informed the police the next day and an FIR was registered at Hiranagar police station, Kathua, on January 12. The villagers helped search for her; she was found in bushes near the village’s Devsthan on January 17, 2018.
Initially, the police arrested a 15-year-old boy who knew the victim and said he had confessed to the crime. According to this version, the accused kidnapped the child, hid her in a cowshed and attempted to rape her; when she resisted, he strangled her. But this theory was quickly abandoned and the probe widened to ensnare a specific target, though the boy remains an accused.
Thereafter, the case developed along two parallel lines: the forensic evidence and the charge sheet, which did not converge. The first post-mortem report (January 17, 2018) noted that rigor mortis was “partially present in upper and lower limbs” (meaning she had been killed a few hours before discovery). It mentioned some wounds and abrasions, but no injuries consistent with rape, much less gang rape (as alleged later). There was no injury to the neck. The viscera and vaginal smears were sent for analysis, and opinion regarding cause of death was “kept reserved”. The fact that the charge sheet was written in English instead of Urdu, the official language of the administration, suggests that powerful forces were pulling strings from the start.
On February 17, the J&K Forensic Science Laboratory Jammu reported the presence of an anti-convulsant drug, Clonazepam (Epitril), in the viscera. On January 30, the J&K Forensic Science Laboratory Srinagar ruled out sexual abuse (NO SPERMATOZOA WERE DETECTED ON THE EXHIBIT No. M-01-2018). The second post-mortem report, also dated January 17, 2018 but prepared after the laboratory results had been received, made no mention of rape (or gang rape) and concluded, “After conducting the autopsy we are of the opinion that the deceased died because of asphyxia leading to cardiopulmonary arrest”. It was signed by a three-member board on March 19, 2018.
This creates a genuine mystery about the cause of death; there seems to be no sexual activity at all. The dumping of her body near a village track far from home indicates foul play, but there was no injury to her neck. Perhaps she was drugged and gently suffocated with a pillow; certainly there is cause for a more professional inquiry.
Disregarding these scientific reports, investigations followed a different track. The police team was changed thrice in a span of ten days, and charges of rape and multiple rapes added. A new theory emerged wherein the child was drugged and kept under a small table in a corner of the Devsthan. But during the time she was missing, the festivals of Lohri (January 13) and Makar Sankranti (January 14) drew large crowds to the Devsthan, abode of the Kul-devatas of three villages. The celebrations ended with a feast (bhandara) on January 15. It is impossible that a child could have remained undetected in those small confines for three days when the place was inhabited virtually round-the-clock. It will be a challenge for the Crime Branch to explain how she was given food, water and fresh doses of sedatives on these three days, where and how she performed her ablutions, and so on. When the body was found on January 17, her clothes did not stink or bear traces of urine or faecal matter; even her hairband was intact.
The critical issue in Jammu revolves around State-sponsored moves to change the demography and force an exodus like that of Kashmiri Pandits in 1989-90. Already the Rohingyas have flexed their muscles and triggered the flight of Hindus in several villages. To further buttress the Muslim population there, the PDP-dominated government encouraged tribal and nomadic communities to grab Jammu forest lands. At a meeting on February 14, 2018 Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti directed the Tribal Affairs Department not to act against Gujjar-Bakkarwal encroachers and told the Police not to help any official agencies in evicting such settlers. News of the meeting caused a furore in the coalition and contributed to the BJP pulling out on June 19, 2018.
Sanjhi Ram was at the centre of the politico-demographic storm in Kathua. He began a movement to persuade Jammu residents not to sell their property to outsiders and not to abandon their ancestral homes under demographic pressure. When the Chief Minister’s directive of February 14, 2018 became public, Sanjhi Ram urged the villagers not to permit the nomads to graze their cattle on their fields. Villagers suspect that Sanjhi Ram, his family members and friends were implicated for this reason.
Talib Hussain, a self-styled social worker who initially pretended to be a lawyer, revealed his hand on the day of the chautha ceremony on January 20. The villagers all attended, regarding her as a daughter. To their dismay, as the ceremony ended, hundreds of outsiders rushed in, raising pro-Pakistan slogans and rampaging through the village, banging doors and terrorising them.
Talib Hussain led the protesters in blocking the national highway and demanding the arrest of Sanjhi Ram and special police officer Deepak Khajuria. How could he name them as guilty persons even before investigations had begun? Yet the Crime Branch followed his signal and arrested persons named by him and framed charges accordingly.
With Hussain now badly discredited and the State under Governor’s rule, it remains to be seen how long the storyline invented by him will hold. It will not be enough to exonerate the innocent. If justice is to be done to the victim, the true killers must be identified and their motives exposed.
(The writer is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; the views expressed are personal)
The Pioneer, August 7, 2018