The Jammu Bar Association’s Actions in the Kathua Case Reflect the Region’s Politics—Not Of the BJP-RSS Combine Alone

The Jammu Bar Association's president BS Slathia (second from left in the front row) at a rally organised by the group. Slathia is one of many in the bar association who are known to have strong political affiliations. Naresh Bhagat
17 April, 2018

On 16 April, the Jammu High Court Bar Association temporarily suspended an agitation that it had been leading for over ten days. Members of the bar association had been staging a strike citing several issues, the most controversial of which was their demand that the investigation into the rape and murder of an eight-year-old in the Kathua district be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation. BS Slathia, the president of the association, told the press that the protestors had “changed the mode of the agitation” and would be continuing their protest on two issues—the demand for the deportation of the Rohingya refugees residing in the state, and against the withdrawal of the minutes of a meeting during which the chief minister Mehbooba Mufti allegedly instructed the government officials to not act against any members of nomad groups residing in the region.

The bar association’s decision followed widespread and severe criticism it faced for its stance on the Kathua investigation. The Supreme Court issued notice to the association, seeking a response to allegations from a group of advocates that the bar association was obstructing justice. Observers, activists and other civil society members, as well as journalists, alleged that the bar association was acting at the behest of the BJP, and fomenting a communal divide in the Jammu region. But this is not the complete truth—a look at the political affiliations of the members of the bar association suggests a more complex background to its controversial stances. In particular, it illustrates the involvement of several other political parties that are active in the region, such as the Congress, the Panthers Party, and various right-wing outfits.

On 7 April, the Jammu High Court Bar Association called a meeting of its members, civil society organisations and politicians in the region. At the meeting, the bar association proposed a Jammu-wide bandh, on 11 April. The aim of the bandh, Sachin Gupta, the vice-president of the bar association told the press, was to ensure the state government met its demands regarding the Rohingyas, the tribal-affairs ministry meeting and the Kathua investigation.

Various members of the prominent political parties in the region attended the meeting—these included the Congress leaders Ravinder Sharma and RS Chib. Sharma is the chief spokesperson of the party, and Chib was formerly a minister in the Omar Abdullah government.

Slathia’s affiliation with the Congress has been reported widely—the president was formerly the chief election agent for Ghulam Nabi Azad, the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha. He was also a member of the legal cell of the Pradesh Congress Committee in 2014—the committee directs the party’s strategy in each state. Azad had appointed Slathia a spokesperson for the Congress’s campaign committee. (After news of Slathia’s role in the Congress’s 2014 campaign was reported, Azad told members of the press that the senior advocate had since “turned communal.”)

During its protest, the bar association appointed Gagan Basotra the incharge of its media cell. Basotra served as the additional advocate general during the rule of the Congress-PDP coalition government in the state.

But the Congress is not the only party to which members of the bar association are affiliated—the general secretary Prem Sadotra is known to be closely associated with several right-wing groups.

Several functionaries of other political groups were present at the 7 April meeting, and were seen at the bandh as well. Prominent among them were Professor Hari Om Mahajan, Rajiv Chunni, Dr Agnishekher, Ajay Chrungoo, and Harsh Dev Singh. Professor Hari Om, who earned his moniker from his tenure as a professor at Jammu University, is well known as a staunch right-wing ideologue—he was expelled from the BJP in 2015, when he criticised the party for forming an alliance with the PDP. Mahajan was earlier a political adviser to the BJP MP Jugal Kishore Sharma. He has repeatedly accused Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti of joining hands with extremist and fundamentalist forces in Kashmir valley, and of hurting the religious sentiments of the minority Hindu community in Jammu. A strong advocate of Hindutva, Mahajan is also the chairman of Jammu for India, which demands a separate Jammu state. “We unequivocally demand liberation from this Islamic dispensation,” he said during a seminar in 2016, asserting that a separate state of Jammu was the only alternative for nationalists.

Agnishekhar and Charangoo are leaders of Panun Kashmir, a group comprised of Kashmiri Pandits that advocates for the community. Harsh Dev Singh, the chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party, was a member of the state legislative assembly. He previously held the post of the education minister in the state. Chunni leads the SOS International Jammu, an organisation that works with refugees from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. The meeting to call the bandh and the subsequent rally also saw participation from members of organisations such as the Dogra Front, the Shiv Sena, Ram Sena and Shiv Sena (Bal Thackeray).

On subjects such as the autonomy of the state, the demand to revoke Articles 370 and 35-A of the Constitution, and the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, the views of most of these groups—and consequently, their leaders—align with those of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. For instance, Panun Kashmir, which represents the interests of the Kashmiri Pandit activists in the region—nearly all of whom migrated from Kashmir during the insurgency in the 1990s—demand the removal of Articles 370 and 35A. The groups hold that these provisions have only helped the growth of secessionism, separatism and terrorism in the state.

The JKNPP, the Dogra Front, the Shiv Sena, the Ram Sena and other groups also demand complete integration of Jammu and Kashmir with India. These groups have also been at the forefront of the campaign for the expulsion of the Rohingya refugees in Jammu. In late February, Bhim Singh, the head of the JKNPP demanded that the Rohingyas be deported as they are “posing a threat to the peace in the region.”

The bar’s protests have not received the support of district bar associations in Rajouri, Poonch, Doda, Ramban and Kishtwar. Many Muslim lawyers in Jammu did not participate in the call for the bandh, and have stayed away from the protests. Sheikh Shakeel, a senior advocate in the Jammu bench of the high court, said, “The current agitation of the bar is on communal lines. This is the reason that 99 percent Muslim lawyers in the province have disassociated themselves from it.” Shakeel contested the elections for the bar association in 2017, against Slathia. (My calls to Slathia for comment went unanswered.)

According to Shakeel, most political parties in the region are reluctant to take a firm stance against the accused. “Politicians cutting across the party lines are trying to project themselves as more Hindu than others with an eye on Hindu vote bank of Jammu’s constituencies,” Shakeel said. “Even the forest minister Chaudhary Lal Singh, who has to sacrifice his cabinet berth, knows that he has to contest in his Hindu constituency, where he will be encashing this loss of cabinet position by projecting himself as Hindu well wisher.” (Singh, a BJP politician, participated in a rally organised by the Hindu Ekta Manch that protested the filing of the chargesheet against the accused. He resigned from his post as forest minister after the party faced backlash for his involvement in the protest.) Shakeel said that few of the political leaders who, after they faced criticism for their demand for a CBI probe, began claiming that they were demanding justice for the victim, had visited the family after her body was discovered, in January. “None of them wanted to anger Hindu voters or to be seen as Muslim sympathisers. That’s the irony.”

According to the journalist and political commentator Anuradha Bhasin, who has covered the Jammu region extensively, the Jammu Bar Association has always leaned towards the agenda of right-wing organisations in the state, such as the BJP and the RSS. “With its current agitation, the Jammu bar is trying to achieve two objectives: one is self-projection by the leaders of the agitation to secure place in the state’s political scene. Second, reaping electoral benefits for the rightist forces especially BJP.” Bhasin added that the Congress was acting as the “B-team of BJP” in Jammu and Kashmir. “Before the candle-light march organised by Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi, the state Congress team remained silent for three months,” she said.

Bhasin felt that the BJP had not made good on its promises to the constituents in the state, and had little ground remaining to ask for support in the upcoming elections. “Both coalition partners are moving in opposite directions in the state. The communal polarisation of Jammu not only suits BJP in J&K, but across the country for larger political gains in the national politics.”

Members of the Jammu bar have long been involved in political agitations. In 2008, when protests erupted across the state after the government transferred land for the use of pilgrims of the Amarnath Yatra, leading to the imposition of the governor’s rule in the state, the bar association had played a key role in mobilising the protestors in Jammu. While Kashmir saw large demonstrations against the transfer, most Jammu protests favoured the allocation of the land. Leela Karan Sharma, a member of the bar association, became the face of the agitation in Jammu province. He was appointed the chairperson of Amarnath Sangarsh Simiti, a conglomerate of several political and civil society groups. Later, he unsuccessfully contested parliamentary elections from the Poonch district, on a BJP ticket. Sharma is now the head of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in the state.

According to Bhasin, after Independence, governments both at the centre and in the state, including those led by the Congress, contributed to building an “anti-Kashmir” sentiment in Jammu. The Amarnath land-row agitation, Bhasin said, was the first major result of this sentiment. “Anti-Kashmir narrative is actually anti-Muslim narrative and politicians have been playing this card,” she said. “Gujjars and Bakherwals”—the latter is the nomadic community to which the victim belonged—“are actually residents of Jammu and they are not land-mafia, but a projection is being created by politicians against them.”

Ellora Puri, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Jammu, questioned the timing of lawyers’ agitation. Puri noted that the tenure of the bar association’s office bearers had expired, and that elections were overdue. “The Bar is trying to whip up communal sentiments in the region to garner support for its own candidates in next elections,” she said.

In February, news spread through the region that the state government had decided that the nomadic Gujjars and Bakherwals would not be evicted from the forest area they traditionally occupy in Jammu. After minutes allegedly taken at this meeting were leaked, various groups in the Jammu region, including the bar association—which viewed the decision as favouring the tribal and Muslim nomadic residents—began demanding that the government roll it back. (The government has yet to confirm the authenticity of the leaked minutes—clarity on the subject is one of the bar association’s remaining demands.) Slathia declared in early March that there was a “deep rooted conspiracy hatched by certain elements to facilitate demographic changes in Jammu province,” and that this attempt would be defeated. These accusations—of a “demographic change” in Jammu—intensified after the crime branch suggested in its chargesheet that the rape and murder of the victim was part of a conspiracy to oust the Bakherwals from Jammu.

Puri rubbished the concerns of a “demographic change.” “The issue of demographic change is being raked by separatists in Kashmir—as far as issue of granting citizenship rights to West Pakistani Refugees, Hindus, in Jammu is concerned—and right-wingers in Jammu. This divisive sentiment is deeply ingrained in both regions,” she said.

She pointed out that the nomadic residents had been coming to Jammu for decades, and that after the situation in the Kashmir valley began to worsen in the 1990s, more people from Kashmir had migrated to Jammu as well, and settled there. “Nomads are citizens of the state,” Puri said. “No doubt, communal sentiment is there since decades but concerted efforts have been made in last few years,” she said. Puri added that at first, the media in Jammu had remained largely silent on the Kathua case, and that the Kashmiri media then began reporting on the subject. “This fuelled the polarisation in Jammu region as a counter reaction.”

According to Puri, the politics of the BJP and the PDP were at odds, which contributed to a “political vacuum” between Jammu and Kashmir. “It is because of this simple reason that local issues ... easily touch off political storms in state’s politics.”