Dedicated police team resisted odds to crack Kathua rape case

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R K Jalla, the police officer who led the team which cracked the case of the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, Jammu.  Photo: Courtesy Majid Hyderi

The gruesome rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in India’s conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir may have been buried but for a police officer who dug in his heels despite enormous opposition.

The brutal attack on the child has sent shockwaves throughout the country after details of the police charge sheet emerged. The charge sheet is a key document in the investigation and lists all the evidence collected by police for a trial in court.

The gruesome details revealed how the child was abducted, drugged and repeatedly raped before being killed and came after massive opposition to the case in the state. Groups of people, calling themselves the Hindu Ekta Manch, protested against the arrests of the accused.

Two BJP ministers in the state government, Chowdhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga, also attended rallies in support of the accused. The local lawyers’ association also reportedly opposed the registration of the case. Under these circumstances, police were under tremendous pressure during the investigation.

Fresh investigation

Undeterred by the communal hatred unleashed by the case, a Kashmiri Pandit police officer continued to investigate until the accused were allegedly caught with circumstantial evidence of their assaults. Investigators now claim the child was assaulted inside a temple in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir.

Ramesh Kumar Jalla, the Senior Superintendent of Police (Crime Branch) and his team completed their investigations in what was described as “record time,” and submitted the charge sheet in the court on April 9. This was at least 10 days ahead of the 90-day deadline fixed by the High Court, amid protests from groups including a powerful lobby of lawyers from Jammu.

The charge sheet against the accused, which included four policemen and a retired government official, who allegedly masterminded the crime, contains grisly details of a gruesome crime. The charge sheet contends that the crime was aimed at forcing the nomadic Bakerwal community to flee the area dominated by Hindus. The girl had gone missing from near her house in Rasana on Jan. 10 and her body was found seven days later dumped in a nearby forest.

According to the charge sheet, the child was drugged and raped numerous times inside the temple after the alleged mastermind, Sanji Ram, performed “rituals.” The charge sheet also says one of the accused was “invited” from the state of Uttar Pradesh to “satisfy his lust” and some local police were also involved.

Officially appointed as supervisor of the case, Jalla, who heads the Jammu region for the state’s Crime Branch, was supported by a Special Investigation Team headed by Naveed Peerzada, a young police official with an “extraordinary track record of solving tough cases.”

Initially, however, both Jalla and his deputy Naveed had no idea that their juniors from the police department were allegedly accomplices in the crime. Official sources told Asia Times that the plot was supposed to be “foolproof.” The accused were already in police custody for questioning, but they did not reveal anything about the role of the local police. In fact, they tried to give the impression that a local boy had committed the crime out of “childish lust,” sources said.

Major breakthrough

It was only after the case was handed over to the Crime Branch that the Special Investigation Team team made an important discovery by closely checking the first picture of the Bakerwal girl’s body, which provided key leads. “The first picture revealed mud stains on her clothes, but the mud didn’t match with the spot where the body was found lying. So it was obvious that she was killed elsewhere and we had to figure out where this mud came from,” a police official told Asia Times on the condition of anonymity.

To explore the “mud-angle” further, the Special Investigation Team sought more pictures from previous records. “But to our shock, the other pictures had no mud stains. So it was the first clue that someone from within the police had tried to destroy evidence. And finally it was established that the clothes were washed to destroy evidence.”

The charge sheet states that the mastermind was retired land official Sanji Ram, who was among the eight arrested, along with his son Vishal Jangotra and a “minor” nephew, who was initially projected as “the sole child behind the crime.” Another police official said the investigations into the “blind case” literally had “divine assistance.”

“On a visit to the temple, we couldn’t initially find any tangible evidence that the girl was kept captive there. Finally in a locked room, the keys to which were with Sanji Ram, we managed to collect eight hair strands.” These were sent for DNA testing. The team hoped the hair strands would help establish the girl’s presence in the room. “Only one of the hair strands bore fruit and that one strand finally matched with the victim.”

When contacted by Asia Times, Senior Superintendent Jalla declined to share any details of the investigation. However, he ruled out coming under pressure from any quarter. “Fortunately, I didn’t have any pressure from anyone. Nobody approached me, nobody pressured me. No minister, no politician ever talked to me about this,” Jalla told Asia Times.

Jalla said his Special Investigation Team worked around the clock to complete the investigation as early as they could while there was a call for a city-wide strike and other efforts to rack up support for the accused, in a bid to delay the filing of the charge sheet.

A Srinagar native, Jalla, who joined the police as an inspector in 1984, said that filing the charge sheet gave him peace of mind. “I had a sound sleep after over two months,” he said.

Others arrested in the case include Special Police Officers Deepak Khajuria and Surinder Kumar, Assistant Sub Inspector Anand Dutta, Head Constable Tilak Raj and Parvesh Kumar, a local. Dutta and Raj were arrested on charges of attempting to destroy evidence, including washing the victim’s clothes. According to the charge sheet, the accused paid Rs150,000 as a bribe to local policemen who knew where the girl was kept and initially helped cover up the crime.

The charge sheet describes the murder as: “After committing the barbaric act of rape on the minor victim, the accused Khajuria kept her neck on his left thigh and started applying force with his hands on her neck in order to kill her … Khajuria was unsuccessful in killing her, the juvenile killed her by pressing his knees against her back while strangulating the girl by applying force on both the ends of her chunni, or scarf. Thereafter, the accused, in order to make sure that the victim is dead, hit her twice on head with a stone.’’

The killing had sparked massive outrage, prompting the government to hand the case to the Crime Branch. However, the case took a communal twist in Jammu province when the Hindu Ekta Manch, a self-styled outfit in league with politicians from the ruling BJP and the Opposition Congress, rallied in support of the accused.

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