Kathua girl’s family arrives in Kashmir fearing it will never go back, for no Hindu will now give land to any Bakerwal
Lower Munda: After two days’ trek from Jammu’s Suransar, where they stayed during transit with their livestock and entire household, the family of the slain Kathua girl entered Kashmir on Monday. The nomadic Bakerwal family travels to Kashmir at the onset of summer every year, and goes back to their house in Kootah village in Kathua at the onset of winter. This settled pattern may have been forever upset by this year’s horrific events. The family fears they may be killed if they ever return to Kathua, especially if the men accused of raping and murdering their 8-year-old daughter are convicted and hanged.
Deep in an unpopulated, mountainous region along the Srinagar-Jammu highway, the family has pitched its tents. They said they feel “safe” here. The family fled their home in Kootah village after communal tensions rose over the arrests made by police in their daughter’s rape-and-murder case. Mohammad Yousuf Pujawala, the slain girl’s father, said his family began its annual migration to Kashmir 15 days ahead of schedule because of “insecurity” and “fear”.
Pujawala said that for the first time in his life he has left his house in Kootah locked and his paddy fields barren this year. “We used to leave a person at our Kootah house. He would take care of the fields and the house in summers. This year, we have locked the house and left no one there because of fear in the village,” he said, squatted around a chulha under open sky where women were preparing salty tea for the evening.
Pujawala said that the nomad Bakerwals would get land, mostly owned by Hindus, in Kathua on patta(lease). There they would graze their flock of sheep, goat, cows and horses. This year, he said, the Bakerwals were told: “You won’t be given patte (leases).”
“Hum jaane ke liye majboor hain. Wahan humare makaan aur zameen hain (We have our houses and land in Kathua). Humein bahut ziyada darr hai (We are in extreme fear). Kaise jayenge jab un logon ko phansi ho jayegi (How will we go there when those men are hanged)? Aisa bhi ho sakta hai woh hamein kisi bhi time pe maar sakte hain (They can kill us any time),” Pujawala told Kashmir Reader.
He said that in the past the Hindu villagers only harassed them if their horses grazed on their farmland, but denying the Bakerwals land had never occurred – from his great-grandfather’s time, he said.
“Un logon se hum patte kharidte the, abhi woh patte nai denge (We used to buy land on lease from them, but now they won’t sell to us). Agar ghoda jayega usko rukne nai denge aur agar aadmi jayenge usko bhi maarenge (If our horse goes there, they will chase it away. If one of our men goes there, he will be beaten). Gaon wale humein bilkul patte nai denge (The villagers won’t give us leases at any cost),” he said and added, “We will have to rely on government’s forestland”.
“Paani bhi milna muskhil hoga. Talaab un logon ke hain (Even getting water would be difficult. The ponds belong to them). They won’t allow us to fetch water. Aaane jaane ki bhi mushkil hai (They won’t even give us passage). Maano ke woh dushman ke tarah humein dekhenge (They will look at us as if we are enemies),” he said, adding that the village has insignificant Muslim households.
“Not only us, no Bakerwal will be given land. If it were like Jammu (Muslims comprise 7.95% of population in Jammu district, according to Census 2011), we would not have been afraid,” Pujawala said.
Pujawala’s cousin, 45-year-old Reyaz Ahmad, who sat beside him, remarked, “Woh thode denge (They won’t at all give land). Woh to bilkul laal ankh se dekhenge jab unke phaansi hoge (They will look at us with bloodshot eyes when those men are hanged).”
“We earn through our livestock. If they are starved, we will starve, too,” said Reyaz, who lives in Jammu’s Samba but travels along with Pujawala for the seasonal migration.
Pujwala’s little daughter was abducted on January 10. Her body was found on January 17 in the forests near Rasana village, which is adjacent to Kootah village where Pujwalas have their house. According to police’s Crime Branch, the girl was kept captive, gang-raped, and finally bludgeoned to death.
The temple’s custodian, Sanji Ram, has been named as the mastermind of the crime in the crime branch’s chargesheet.
“They did not allow us to bury our daughter in the land owned by one of us. As soon as we laid spades on the land for digging the grave, Hindu villagers objected. We went to another village and buried her at 11 in the night,” Pujawala said.
He said that some Hindu neighbours visited his house for offering condolences when his daughter’s body was found. The “boycott” started after the Hindu Ekta Manch, an outfit founded with the support of BJP and Congress members, began defending the accused. “I remember we were living peacefully (in Kathua) since my childhood. Suddenly, this year, the situation turned grim – for the first time,” Pujawala said. “I never fought with anyone, never grabbed anyone’s money or did anything wrong,” he said.
“Taal-mel achha tha sab gaon walon se (Relations were good with the villagers). Achanak yeh sab hua (Of a sudden this hostility happened). They would visit us in the evenings. A few Hindus in Kootah village came to us but nobody from Rasana came to offer condolences,” Pujawala said, adding that after the Manch came into being, the Kootah villagers who had offered condolences also stayed away.
The situation worsened after BJP ministers Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga along with two BJP legislators, including the representative of Hiranagar (Rasana falls under this constituency), openly participated in the Manch’s rally to demand a CBI probe into the crime.
Pujawala is fiercely averse to a CBI probe. “Why should we give it (the case) to CBI? We are satisfied with the Crime Branch (investigations) and we trust the Mehbooba Mufti government,” he said.
He said he would now either settle in Kashmir or sell his flock to someone and start some other work.
Pujawala’s wife, coughing from the smoke billowing out of the firewood, is often “lost in thoughts” after her daughter’s death. She said her little girl loved the annual migration and travelling with her horses. “Bahut dukh lagta hai unke paas jaane mein (It is unbearably sad to go near the horses),” the mother said. Her daughter was abducted when she had gone out to see the horses. Sanji Ram’s nephew, the chargesheet said, had “led her to the jungle” on the pretext that he had seen her horses.
“Sanji is the mastermind. He misled me. Go home, he said to me, she (her daughter) is having roti somewhere and you will find her,” she said that Sanji told her when she went searching for her missing girl in Rasana village. “We want all of them to be hanged; that’s the only justice. But we know it will earn us more enemies and we won’t be allowed to go back,” she said, adding that is why she did not allow her two sons currently admitted in schools to stay in Kathua.
As the sun came down on the sparkling snowy peaks on which the Bakerwals would travel for their further journey as soon as the snow melts, their flock, scattered on the green hills, started bleating loudly. This stirred the entire family and they started making enquiries. “Oopar kisi jaanwar ne bakre ko khaya (Some animal has killed a goat up there). Humara to pehle se hi nuksaan hua hai. Kisi ki nazar lag gayee hai (We have already suffered so much loss. An evil eye has been cast on us),” said the girl’s mother in a muffled voice.