File representative photo of school students in Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: Courtesy Twitter
File representative photo of school students in Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: Courtesy Twitter

The government of the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has accepted the resignation of two ministers from the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) who rallied in support of men accused in the gruesome rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua. Incredibly, coalition partners in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) were still working hard to promote the tainted duo for prestigious initiatives weeks after they attended the rally.

Forest Minister Chowdhary Lal Singh and Industries Minister Chander Prakash Ganga resigned recently from the state Cabinet after public outrage over their presence at a rally organized by right-wing fringe outfit Hindu Ekta Manch a month ago in support of the eight accused held in connection with the rape and murder of the girl.

The Muslim nomad girl went missing on January 10 and her body was recovered a week later. Members of the state police Crime Branch, who investigated the case, told the District and Sessions Court in Kathua last week that the child was starved, drugged and raped inside a temple before being murdered – startling revelations which have rocked the subcontinent.

Lal Singh attended the controversial rally on March 1, yet he later emerged as the government’s choice to promote its prestigious sporting event named after PDP founder and former chief minister the late Mufti Muhammad Sayeed.

Singh inaugurated the 1st Mufti Muhammad Sayeed Memorial Gold Cup State League Football Tournament at Kathua Stadium on March 30, while people in the area were crying out for justice over the case. 

He was also the chief guest for a valedictory event held on April 12. A day later he resigned.

‘Event held in Kathua to divert public attention’

A senior official in the Sports Council told Asia Times that the event was deliberately held in Kathua “in a bid to divert public attention from the rape and murder case”, adding that around US$76,000 (Rs 5 million) was spent on the tournament.

He said the event was supposed to be inaugurated by Sports Minister Molvi Imran Raza Ansari but he stayed away for “personal reasons”.

While Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has accepted the resignations, Lal Singh attacked her government, claiming the Kathua case was being handled like “some innocents are labeled as militants, and killed.”

Singh mocked the PDP-led government’s “chameleonic” stand towards him and party colleague Ganga. In an exclusive interview with Asia Times, he said the state alliance was making a fool of everyone.

Referring to the ouster of Dr Hasib Drabu from the Cabinet in March, Singh said, “When they threw their closest companion of 20 years Drabu out, I was their lesser friend.”

Lal Singh who rallied in Kathua in favor of a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation went on to say he wants “justice for the child” but claimed that was only possible if the case was handed over to the CBI.

Those arrested are innocents, Singh claims

“Even Sanji Ram (the alleged mastermind) has told the court that he was willing to undergo narco-analysis but the case should be handed over to the CBI. Today I am fully convinced that all those arrested in the case are innocents. And I won’t take rest till the case is handed over to the CBI and justice prevails,” Singh told Asia Times.

“The real culprits are moving around freely… This case is like that of a common man who gets labeled as a militant and is killed, and they glamorize it saying ‘We arrested him for a blast and killed him.’ This is how these liars operate,” Singh claimed. He said separatist forces in Kashmir, particularly Syed Ali Geelani, were also a reason why the Kathua case was messed up.

While Singh was busy promoting Mufti’s football in Kathua, the government ensured his colleague Chandra Prakash Ganga got equal honors during state events in Kashmir.

On March 18, over a fortnight after the Hindu Ekta Manch rally, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) held the Kashmir Expo’s 7th International buyer-sellers’ meet in the summer capital of Srinagar. Ganga was guest of honor alongside Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti.

A KCCI member, while pleading to have hosted the “tainted minister”, said, “We were told by (the government) that the event couldn’t be held without the presence of the concerned minister.”

Nine BJP ministers resign from J&K Cabinet

All nine BJP ministers in the state government submitted resignations to the party president to pave the way for a cabinet reshuffle, days after its two ministers were ousted. The Cabinet reshuffle is expected later this week.

While the PDP is celebrating the ousting of the two “tainted” ministers and even hailed a right-wing ally for its support on the issue, the BJP’s chief spokesperson sought to defend them.

BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi said the ministers who joined the march against the police probe into the child murder case were “misled and misguided”. She blamed the opposition Congress for creating chaos.

But a Congress party spokesperson hit back, saying “BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi’s insensitive remark is an insult to the Indian citizens standing up for their rights. Her statement reflects her party’s regressive ideology. She must take back her words and apologize immediately.”

UN chief says the guilty ‘must face justice’

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has termed the Kathua gangrape and murder a “horrific” incident and asked Indian authorities to ensure that the guilty are brought to justice.

The girl from the nomadic Bakarwal community was abducted from Kathua’s Rasana village while going out to feed her horses. The charge sheet filed by the Crime branch says the attack was rooted in communal politics, with a group of local men aiming to scare the Bakarwals away by raping and killing the girl.

The heinous crime evoked sharp reactions from international human rights organizations as well.

The Human Rights Watch rapped the ruling BJP for apparent “religious prejudice” in shielding the accused in the case. Amnesty International said the “disgraceful” efforts by lawyers and right-wing groups to obstruct the investigation showed “how deep the bigotry around this case runs”.