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How Mehbooba averted whitewash over Kathua

The BJP appears to have stepped back from demanding an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the Kathua gangrape-murder case. While ordering that the trial be shifted out of Jammu to Pathankot in Punjab, the Supreme Court did not even consider the question of a CBI inquiry. If the BJP was disappointed, it did not show it.

Why did the BJP backtrack? Its new deputy chief minister in Jammu, Kavinder Gupta, as well as the party’s principal mischief-maker in Kashmir, PMO minister of state Jitendra Singh, had thrown their weight behind the demand.

A right-wing “Group of Intellectuals and Academicians” had been sent on a fact-finding mission to raise doubts about the police investigation and its findings were received by Union home minister Rajnath Singh himself.

Mr Jitendra Singh posed for a picture with the group and announced that its report would be forwarded to the Supreme Court. A pliant media, both print and television, helped to create an alternative narrative that no rape had taken place, let alone in a temple. The Hindu EktaManch and members of the Kathua Bar Association obstructed the police from filing a chargesheet. They later received support from the Jammu Bar Association. Even a committee set up by the Bar Council of India on the Supreme Court’s direction to investigate the role of local lawyers in obstructing the police went off at a tangent to suggest that a CBI inquiry was needed.

Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh of the BJP, who had stood with chief minister Mehbooba Mufti on the Kathuagangrape issue, was replaced by the party with Mr Gupta. He had supported two BJP ministers who had marched in support of the rape accused and were subsequently ousted. The state BJP unit president, Mr Sat Sharma, who had directed the two ministers to go to Kathua, was elevated to the Cabinet. And for good measure, Kathua MLA Rajeev Jasrotia, who had also supported the rape accused, was made a minister.

The party did everything it could to convey its backing for the Hindutva constituency in Jammu. However, it also had to contain the damage it suffered outside the state.

Nationally, the party was seen as supporting rapists. Across the country, there was condemnation of the ghastly act and an outpouring of support for the victim’s family. On the international stage, where Prime Minister NarendraModi had got used to unadulterated adulation, he was suddenly confronted by anti-rape protesters. From the Secretary General of the United Nations to the head of the International Monetary Fund, a host of world leaders spoke out against the Kathua rape.

A favourable CBI inquiry could have helped to limit the damage. Its “findings” would have been useful in the coming election campaigns to “expose” anti-national plots.

Ultimately, the BJP’s hand was forced by the realisation that Ms Mehbooba Mufti could bring down the government in the state on this issue. In an interview on the eve of the Supreme Court hearing, she had questioned the BJP’s intentions. She bluntly asked whether the accused could be allowed to choose the investigating agency and why the accused were so convinced about the outcome of a CBI inquiry?

She in effect exposed the BJP’s gameplan — to hand over the case to the CBI and get the “caged parrot” to declare that no rape had taken place. It is a pattern that the government has followed of using the investigative agencies to give a clean chit to murderers and terror accused of the saffron ilk.

Had a CBI inquiry been ordered and the chief minister resigned, the state could have witnessed communal turmoil. The situation in the Kashmir Valley has already become unmanageable, then even Jammu would have become polarised. After losing support in the Kashmir Valley, the Peoples’ Democratic Party would have lost even the Jammu Muslims.

Even more important, President’s Rule would have to be imposed in the state on the eve of the annual AmarnathYatra. The Amarnath pilgrimage requires extensive security arrangements at the best of times, and is a prime target for militant attacks. Should something go wrong with the AmarnathYatra, with no elected government in place, the entire blame would fall on the Centre. In the unforeseen event of Hindu pilgrims being killed, Mr Modi would have found it difficult to face his constituency in the coming elections.

President’s Rule would have to be ratified by Parliament within six months, something that the NarendraModi government would see as a complication. Inevitably it would entail a debate on the government’s failure in Kashmir.

The Modi government has been reluctant to allow Parliament to discuss its failures, most recently when a no-confidence motion was sought to be introduced against it.

An additional problem would be the appointment of a governor for the state as the present incumbent’s term ends in June. In the midst of the AmarnathYatra, the government would have to decide whether to let the 82-year-old governor, Mr N.N. Vohra, continue or to replace him.

In the end, perhaps the BJP felt that it was better to continue with a bad marriage with the PDP rather than precipitate a divorce. If the state government does not fall, the BJP gets to keep its communal base by keeping Jammu simmering.

Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti can claim victory, although a pyrrhic one. By standing up to the BJP’s machinations, she might hope to retain credibility among the Jammu Muslims and shore up her declining support in the Valley.

However, since the Modi government lacks a strategic vision for Kashmir and the instrumentalities at the disposal of the chief minister of the state are limited, she can do precious little. The Kashmir issue cannot be resolved between her and the people of the state. As the manager of a situation that is exploding around her ears, she has become a mute witness to the slow demise of her political career and that of her party.