Exposing The Hindu Ekta Manch: Local Heroes or Opportunists?

"Around 500 members of the Hindu community congregated at the Parsurama temple on National Highway 44 on 23 January, to voice only one demand – that the case of the Kathua rape victim be moved to the CBI. This is how the Hindu Ekta Manch was born,"  said Hindu Ekta Manch vice president Kant Kumar.

The Hindu Ekta Manch was first formed in the aftermath of the death of Muslim Gujjar Bakarwal minor – her body was found in the Rasanna village forest in Kathua, Jammu. The girl was just eight years old, and, as the chargesheet filed by the Jammu and Kashmir Police later revealed, was sedated and gangraped multiple times. The main accused in the case, Sanji Ram, was the caretaker of of a Devasthan here –  a place where families who pray to a particular Kul Devta (family God) come to seek blessings. This holy place was the scene of the abduction and gangrape.

The Hindu Ekta Manch agitating on National Highway 44 in Kathua, Jammu.

All of the eight accused in the case, including a juvenile, were Hindus hailing from the same area. The members of the Hindu Ekta Manch were also, unsurprisingly, all Hindus – the family members of the accused as well as the current and former village heads were members of this group.

The already communal nature of the Hindu Ekta Manch was brazen, but when asked why the name had to represent people from just one community if the purpose was to demand justice for the Bakarwal girl, Vijay Sharma, the president of the organisation, said, "Of all the names that were suggested on 23 January, this name had the most backing among the people."  Another member, Purushottam Singh, who was the sarpanch of Barmal village, was more agitated. His volume increased with each word, each word enunciated as if to leave no room for doubt.

"To be a Hindu is not a sin or a crime. What’s wrong with the name?"

The Quint spoke to the members of the manch – who were hailed as heroes even as they were asked to resign from political posts – to decode what the organisation stands for.

Kathua Bar Association and Hindu Ekta Manch

One of the three windows of the Devasthan, where the 80-year Kathua rape victim was confined for 6 days.

The demand of the Hindu Ekta Manch was also the primary demand of the Kathua Bar Association, which came under sharp scrutiny after they obstructed Jammu and Kashmir Police's Crime Branch officials from filing the chargesheet in the Kathua court on 9 April.

Interestingly, the head of the organisation, Vijay Sharma, was a resident of Kathua and an advocate by profession. "I have been working as an advocate at the Hiranagar court for over 30 years," he told The Quint. He was also, till about a month ago, the president of the Hiranagar Bar Association, which comes under Kathua district.

We asked him if he was present in court when lawyers blocked Crime Branch officials from filing the chargesheet. He replied instantly that he wasn't. And did the Hindu Ekta Manch and the Kathua Bar Association synchronise their efforts? "No," said Vijay, but went on to concede that he had "jaan pehchaan (acquainted)” with the lawyers from the bar association.

Hindu Ekta Manch and Its Links to the BJP

Vijay not only has acquaintances at the Kathua Bar Association, but has also shared a decade-old relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He was, till recently, the BJP Jammu and Kashmir state secretary. It was, therefore, natural for the head of the Hindu Ekta Manch to approach BJP ministers in the Jammu and Kashmir government to be part of the protest rallies. "We had approached BJP ministers Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga to join our rally to demand the case be moved to the CBI," Vijay told The Quint.

Both Ganga and Singh complied, putting their weight behind the already communal tone of the organisation and its demands. The locals had alleged that the J&K Police Crime Branch wasn't conducting their investigation properly, and more than 40 Hindu children from across villages were picked up, brutally hit, and their testimonies manufactured. Ganga and Singh supported the claims – Lal Singh is reported to have told members of the manch:

"Police are not arresting people who chant anti-India slogans, who burn the tricolour, but they have arrested people here. I want you to stay put on your resolve and I am with you. I support you for your demand of transferring this case to the CBI." - Lal Singh

A speech made by representatives of the Hindu Ekta Manch to mobilise support in Kathua.

While the Kathua Bar Association was accused of physically obstructing the filing of the chargesheet, members of the Hindu Ekta Manch had continuously undermined the investigation and the investigating officials. The BJP, on the other hand, did not take the statements made by Ganga and Singh well, and both were asked asked to resign.

On the same day, Vijay's association with the BJP also ended. "I was asked to resign the same day senior BJP leader Ram Madhav announced Singh and Ganga's resignation, and I did," he said.

However, one thing is clear: Despite being asked to resign, the former BJP leaders were all being celebrated as local heroes. They resigned after Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence on the Kathua and Unnao rape cases, but locals pinned their 'forced resignations' on Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and the PDP government.

Bagmal Khajuria listens as Kant Kumar, the vice president of Hindu Ekta Manch, speaks.

Bagmal Khajuria, a former panchayat head of the adjoining Satura village from where the three accused were picked up, had been part of the agitation since the beginning. Defending the BJP leaders, he said:

"The two BJP ministers did nothing wrong whatsoever. We are protesting their resignation. They had to resign due to the pressure by Mehbooba Mufti and the PDP. They came to us when we left our village because we were stressed. Now, they have to resign for the good work they did. They stood by us. No one from the PDP government showed up, why?" - Bagmal KhajuriaThe Hindu Ekta Manch's Many Attempts to Discredit Inquiry

While members of the Hindu Ekta Manch may not openly say that they believe the accused are innocent, in their vehement attempt to discredit the Crime Branch inquiry, their lies were exposed.

The daughter of main accused Sanji Ram, 30-year-old Madhubala, was certain her father was not the culprit.

"We want the case to go to the CBI because we know the investigation will prove that my father, or the other accused, have not committed the crime. The real case is something else entirely. Someone from the Muslim community has killed her." - Madhubala, Sanji Ram’s daughter

Purushottam, from a few feet away, chimed in in his unmissable voice. "There is a possibility that the Muslims have committed the crime themselves. We know they used to keep fighting amongst themselves.”

Purushottam Singh chants slogans demanding a CBI inquiry.

One of their issues with the Crime Branch's inquiry was that Irfan Wani was a part of the investigation team. Wani had been accused of rape and murder in 2007.

Kant Kumar, vice president of the Hindu Ekta Manch, said, "People have told us that the man (Irfan Wani) has a separatist bent and is close to the Hurriyat leaders." When asked if they could produce any evidence for their claim, they said they couldn't but "everyone here knows this."

When he was told that Wani was acquitted of all charges in 2017, as reported exclusively by The Quint, and that the woman who slapped him with rape charges never attended the court proceedings, Kumar said, "The man had rape and murder allegations against him. Why did they need to choose him for such a sensitive high-profile case anyway?"

Kant Kumar speaking into the microphone at a Hindu Ekta Manch gathering.

When The Quint spoke to SP Jalla, who headed the Crime Branch investigation into the 8-year-old’s rape and murder, he said he never knew or needed to know of the charges against Wani. "I chose my team well and they did well in ensuring a reliable chargesheet could be produced in front of the court. His past is of no consequence after he has been acquitted," Jalla, who is a Kashmiri Pandit, said.

The investigation team also comprised a Jammu-based Deputy Superintendent of Police, Shwetambri Sharma, a Brahmin.

On the other hand, Shwetambri told The Quint how she was pressurised during investigation by members of the Hindu community.

"As most of the accused were Brahmins, they overemphasised their surnames. They particularly tried to influence me and communicated through different means that we belonged to one religion and one caste, and I must not hold them guilty of rape and murder of a Muslim girl. I told them that as an officer of the J&K Police, I had no religion and my only religion was my police uniform." - Shwetambri Sharma, Deputy Superintendent

Therefore, the issue the Hindu Ekta Manch was trying to stir by bringing up Irfan Wani's rape charges held no merit. The man had been acquitted and reinstated into the force after a decade-long inquiry. In addition, two senior officials of the probe, who are Hindus themselves, had also named the same eight accused.

The most incriminating evidence was the latest Delhi Central Forensic Lab result. The report confirmed that the DNA of the accused was found on the girl’s clothes. While this was not known when The Quint went to Kathua, it suggests that the crime branch investigation was not a witch hunt against the accused. 

Desire to Impress That The Manch Is ‘Indian’

In their arguments, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was frequently mentioned. Bagmal Khajuria, without mincing words, said he doesn't want the CM to get involved in the Kathua rape case."We need Mehbooba Mufti to stop intervening. She is pressurising the narrative to appease separatists and cause disharmony in Jammu province. We know she wants to lure the separatists, it is so obvious," he said.

The link between CM Mufti not allowing the case to move to the CBI and her kowtowing to separatists was an accusation that not one of the members could prove. "We know, we can see what she is doing against us," Khajuria said in an authoritative tone, like there was nothing more to discuss.

The demand for the CM of the state – under whose ministry the investigation is being carried out – to remove herself from the case when she is the one charged with ensuring a fair and conclusive enquiry, is a bit of a stretch. 

Shanti Surup’s two decade long association with the National Conference came to an end after he took part in the Hindu Ekta Manch rallies.

Shanti Surup, who was associated with the National Conference for 20 years and till recently was the party’s Hiranagar block president, was expelled after he participated in the Hindu Ekta Manch protest. His expulsion, however, didn't affect him. "I am a Hindu before I am a member of any political party. I will do everything I can in my power to keep any injustice from happening first," he said with pride, aware of the attention he had gotten.

The vice-president of the manch, Kant Kumar, identified himself as a Congress supporter. "Yes, I am a Congressi. I have helped organise rallies for Congress leaders from this area. I am still in the party and haven't been asked to be resign yet."

Kumar told The Quint, "When the girl died, Muslims came from Kashmir and other parts of Jammu. They raised anti-India slogans like 'Pakistan Zindabad." When asked to share videos of such incidents, he couldn’t show any, despite keeping this reporter waiting.

A tricolour flag was hoisted by members of the Hindu Ekta Manch. When asked why there was a need to hoist the national flag when the issue was about the rape and murder of an 8-year-old, Vijay Sharma said, "The rally was happening and lots of people had taken part. You know, we consider ourselves desh bhakts (patriots) and that's why the flags came out."

The accusations of anti-India sloganeering and use of the national flag has polarised the Kathua rape case. In the twist the Hindu Ekta Manch members were trying to give to the issue, they attempted to sideline important concerns like the delivery of justice to the accused, the conflict with the Gujjar Bakarwal community about land usage, increasing instances of child rape, and deeply patriarchal mindsets.

Unintentional Signalling?

After speaking to the overwhelming male presence at the Hindu Ekta Manch, this reporter walked to the women sitting under a tree – but the women were fasting. Though the reporter tried to speak to Madhubala, the daughter of prime accused Sanji Ram, the conversation kept being interrupted. The men present repeatedly blocked the effort, saying that she shouldn't speak much as she was on a fast.

Only women are fasting at the Hindu Ekta Manch protest, and they’re being led by the prime accused, Sanji Ram’s, daughter.

The police chargesheet said that Sanji Ram had hatched the abduction and rape plot to dislodge the Gujjar Bakarwal community, who had begun setting up private settlements in the village. When Madhubala was asked about the tribals who settle in the area, she spoke about a particular Hindu nomadic tribe, the Gaddis.

The Gaddis are found in the lower districts of Udhampur, Doda and Kathua. "Gaddis have always lived close by and we have an understanding with them. They pay us some money to use our land for grazing and do menial work at home. This has been happening for a long time," she said.

When asked about the Muslim Gujjar Bakarwal community in particular and if things ever got problematic with them, she said, "Everything was alright. But, if someone comes into my home and tries to live there, then, of course, I will have a problem. Wouldn't you?" she asked, leaving this reporter with uncomfortable thoughts as she left the Hindu Ekta Manch members behind.

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