The horrific doping after kidnapping, sexual assault and murder a year ago of eight-year-old Asifa, a Muslim child of the nomadic Bakarwal community, inside a Hindu temple at Kathua near Jammu, had shocked the conscience of the nation. And yet, this had not deterred leading figures of the ruling party, among them two ministers of the then BJP-PDP government in J&K, from participating in agitations of the Hindu Ekta Manch in defence of the accused persons.
This had been done on communal grounds alone. Therefore, while the judgment in the case by the district and sessions court in Pathankot on Monday does bring a sense of emotional closure to the case, it may be hard to argue that we have seen the back of communal politics around a terrible crime.
Alas, very often a crime is not just a crime in India these days. Interested individuals and groups with strong political backing tend to whip up communal frenzy. Defenders of the faith attack or defend criminals, depending on what their religion is and what is the faith of the victim.
It’s in this highly prejudiced climate that judicial officers must perform their duty, and they are sometimes unable to live up to the best professional standards. In the Asifa trial, sessions judge Tejwinder Singh proved equal to the task in a surcharged atmosphere, and deserves kudos.
Some may quibble about the sentencing. Three of the accused were given a life sentence and not the death penalty. Three policemen who sought to tamper with evidence got off relatively lightly, being given five-year jail terms each. Possibly the alibi in the case of one of the accused was accepted too easily. On balance, however, the court did a difficult job exceedingly well.
However, precisely because of the unchecked communal conditions prevailing these days, it may be expected that when the criminals go in for appeal — and that is their right — political activists might spring up in an effort to influence the judicial system.
This apprehension arises from two factors. One, the state ministers who agitated in defence of the accused were not reprimanded and punished by their party. The standard line trotted out in such cases is that they acted as individuals and their action does not correspond to the party line — exactly the sort of thing one heard when Pragya Singh Thakur, now an MP, called Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin a “nationalist”, by implication turning the Mahatma into a traitor.
Two, hundreds of lawyers — who are technically officers of the court — in Jammu had prevented the police from filing the chargesheet in the Kathua case. This forced the Supreme Court to intervene (as it had done with several Gujarat cases relating to the 2002 pogrom) and transfer the trial to Pathankot in Punjab. In a civilised society, criminals must not be protected by politics.