"There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children," said Nelson Mandela, lovingly called Tata or father by children of South Africa. If that be the touchstone, then society's soul has been long dead.
History of child maltreatment – an umbrella term used to cover a host of colours and costumes child abuse wears, is as old as history of humankind. It tells us that society through ages has been grossly unfair, nay cruel, to its most innocent and vulnerable section.
Child maltreatment respects neither geographical nor political boundaries. It has been there through all ages. It runs across all races and regions and all communities and civilizations. The situation is no different today. Only a year back- in March 2107, a child was sacrificed in Karnataka to cure a paralysed man, a year before in October 2015 in West Bengal little Preeti was taken to altar by her family to please the goddess. While in Barha UP, Sumitra Bushan sacrificed three year old Akash to get cured, in Assam Hanuman Bhimj slaughtered a four year old girl to find his lost cell phone— unimaginable! Child sacrifice though only a minuscule of crime against children, all the same reveals the extent of child vulnerability and extreme form the crime can take.
While the nations across the globe find their moral fibre strong enough to fight gender bias to achieve the goal of gender equality, it does not show similar will to make juvenile justice a reality. No wonder then, there has been of late a spurt in crime against children. In India there has been 300 pc increase in crimes against children between 2009 and 2015. Post 2015 data is more frightening because of numbers as well as frequency. Crimes against children range from assault, child labour, internet crimes, child pornography to rape and murder. The last on the list has in recent times assumed alarming proportions.
Rape and murder like other crimes against children are not restricted to a community or region. In last few weeks such sordid incidents have been reported from Oman, Jordan to White City Inn, Gaborone and Kasur, Pakistan to Hissar, India. The "Justice for Zainab" slogans were still reverberating through globe that yet another painful incident of rape and murder surfaced – this time in our own backyard. The rape and murder of a girl child at Kathua has robbed us of our oft repeated claim that ours is a place free from such incidents and that children and women are safe here like nowhere else.
Zainab, a seven year old girl from Kasur Pakistan was kidnapped on 4th January 2018 while on her way to a local school and 5 days later on 9th January her corpse was found in a dump of garbage. Zainab was 12th victim of child rape in Kasur in last two years. The harrowing tale of Kathua victim has many similarities with the wretched incident of Kasur.
Kathua victim, an eight year old girl from a nomad family stationed at Rasana went missing on January 10, 2018 when herding her team of horses to a local pond. No effort worth the name was made by those required to trace the missing girl. A week after her dead body was found outside the village. The victim like a daffodil had just opened her eyes to the spring of life and to borrow from Wordsworth "dwelt among un trodden ways" and like Lucy of Solitude was child of nature. She nursed no grudge and had no enemies. Yet the poor soul was drugged, raped, administered electric shocks, her three ribs broken, leg fractured and brutally killed.
There are many similarities between heart rending incidents of Kasur and Kathua. Both the incidents occurred in first fortnight of January 2018 and the victims of the two incidents were below 10 years of age. The incidents came close to the fifth anniversary of distressing Nirbhaya incident. But notwithstanding similarities there is huge difference in background facts and our response to the two incidents. Zainab incident "cut deep into the heart of people" irrespective of caste, community, region or religion. People while expressing their anguish over the dastardly act were unconcerned with religion of the victim or the perpetrator (s) of the crime. The heart wrenching act evoked widespread condemnation. Not only did people pour in streets in large numbers to protest and support "Justice for Zainab" but the social media was all fire. # Justice for Zainab was used over 600,000 times on Twitter and its variation 30,000 times on Instagram. Alas! same is not true about Kathua victim. The Kathua incident exposes cracks in our polity that make escape odour of subterranean hypocrisy and hatred, stinky enough to bring us shame.
While Zainab was victim of a maniac's perversion, Kathua victim fell allegedly to a deep rooted conspiracy hatched by those having an eye on land of nomads shockingly with the so-called protectors of life and liberty. The object of the heinous crime allegedly was to scare away and force the nomads leave the area en masse and to occupy their land. The nomads intended to be thrown out belong to a particular community and the incident therefore was pregnant with political and communal overtones.
That the victim was made a tool in evil plan of ethnic cleansing, polarisation and execution of political agenda is evident from post incident happenings. Soon after the investigation made some headway, efforts to unravel contours of conspiracy and identify conspirators started to show results that street demonstrations started in support of the alleged perpetrators of crime, under banner of a group calling itself unity platform of a community. This never happened elsewhere in the world. Be it Nirbhaya, Zainab or thousands of such victims world over, we don't come across a single instance when a demonstration was held in support of the accused. The object is to create confusion, derail investigation, see that alleged conspirators are off the hook and the modus operandi is to demand handing over of investigation to the CBI. The demonstrations prompted the Chief Minister to comment "Appalled by the marches and protests in defence of the recently apprehended …. in Kathua. Also horrified by their use of our national flag in these demonstrations. This is nothing short of desecration." It is painful that no less a leader of coalition Party than MoS in PM Office, apparently with an eye on his vote bank supported the demonstrations and their organisers by endorsing their demand. He remarked, "If people feel that they don't have faith in the police or Crime Branch investigation and the case needs to be handed over to the CBI there is no harm in handing over the Kathua rape and murder case to the Central Bureau of Investigation." The remarks indirectly cast aspersions on efficiency and impartiality of the premier investigating agency of the State that undoubtedly has proved its mettle. The demonstrations are an eye opener, in as much as these explode the myth of a vertical divide in political landscape between right wing party keen to paint the country in one colour and secular party advocating pluralism. The demonstrations were attended and lead by leaders of both the national political parties, without eyebrows raised by the central leadership. Both the parties are therefore on the same page when it comes to hounding minorities and consequent polarisation. The demonstrations also diluted positive impact of protests initially held by two communities together on 21st January 2018 at Chann Moria to demand probe into the incident.
The Kathua rape and murder incident also exposes insensitivity of a key component of our criminal justice system and its disregard for law and guidelines down laid by Supreme Court from time to time. The Police avoided to register the report for two long days and once the report was registered the matter was intriguingly handed over to an SPO for inquiry. The fact that three of the five accused arrested are police officers, explains why no steps were taken to trace the victim from 11 to 17th January. The autopsy reportedly indicates that the victim was alive till 16th January. Imagine pain and agony poor kid must have undergone at the hands of shameless brutes for almost one week. Had serious efforts been made to trace the victim, an innocent life could have been saved. Ironically "look out" notice was got published by police after her burial. See neck deep involvement of local police in the alleged conspiracy. When the body was recovered some of the officers got busy not in unravelling truth but allegedly in making the evidence disappear. An effort was thereafter shamelessly made to put the blame on the head of a juvenile and cover up the matter. But for relentless efforts of the Crime Branch and its in depth investigation, the strands of conspiracy would have remained unexposed.
The alleged role of Special Police Officers in the conspiracy once again draws our attention to hazards of creating an underpaid thirty seven thousand strong parallel force in the name of counter insurgency operations without adhering to normal eligibility criteria, caring for individual aptitude and mostly on reference of political activists. Let's recall that the Supreme Court in July, 2011 came down heavily on the Government for engaging SPOs in counter insurgency and anti Naxal operations and banned the practice. Though the order was later, at the request of Union Government restricted to a single State, the reasons for disapproval of a parallel force continue to be valid and are intact even today.
The incident that must make us hang our heads in shame has been converted by a few of us as an opportunity to divide people for cheap political gains. Blinded by lust for power they do not even desist from wearing shame as a costume of honour. To borrow from Jeremy Bentham it is more like parading shame on stilts as an achievement. What the incident calls for is a major attitudinal shift at all levels as regards rights of most vulnerable section of society comprising one third of population.
(The author is a former Judge of J&K High Court & Chair SCOC under JJ Act)