My mother gave birth to me at Kud in Udhampur when our nomad family was migrating to Kashmir, herding the caravan of its livestock. I lost my parents in the 2014 floods when their tents were swept away in the night.
I am an example of the rarest of the rare, someone belonging to the Bakarwal community, a pastoral nomadic tribe in Jammu and Kashmir, who could avail higher education. Good Samaritans funded my education and helped me complete my LLB.
Though I got traineeship in New Delhi, I had to return home within a few months. A sudden surge in cow vigilantism had made it almost impossible for my family to ferry livestock. Everyday one or the other member of my community would get roughed up by gau-goons or the police. That’s when I decided to return to fight for the rights of my people who belong to the most marginalised section of the society in Jammu and Kashmir.
This is how the All Tribal Coordination Committee (ATCC) was set up to spearhead a civil rights movement for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act and Prevention of Atrocities Against SCs and STs Act in my state that has its own constitution.
We held our first protest when the brutally battered body of the girl was recovered on January 17 in Hiranagar. After we found that the local police were trying to shield the perpetrators, we started mobilising more people.
On January 21, we had organised a protest demonstration. I was arrested and kept in the Hiranagar police station for two days. Police even threatened to book me under the Public Safety Act. It was only after my arrest that Opposition legislators raised the issue in the state Assembly and drew the attention of the Chief Minister.
This is not the first time I was placed under police custody over a rightful demand. I was taken into custody in 2013 too when I was studying law at University of Jammu. A group of students including me were holding demonstrations on campus, demanding Gojri and Pahari research centres in the varsity. We had a clash with ABVP activists as they manhandled women activists who taking part in the dharna with us in favour of our demand.
Police filed an attempt to murder case against me and eventually the university rusticated me for two years.
Another FIR was filed against me in 2013. Police had killed a driver in Nagrota and I held a protest demonstration, seeking action against the accused cops. Police kept me in the lock-up for eight days.
But such incidents never demoralise me from standing up and speaking up for the rights of my people. Of late, I was manhandled by local BJP leaders during a TV debate at Dabhar Chowk in Udhampur. As I began to describe how the police violated guidelines of the Supreme Court when the girl went missing and her parents tried to file a report, local BJP leaders and RSS activists started jostling me. They just wanted to make sure that I don’t reveal the real facts and dispel all the false propaganda which was being spread by the right wingers.
I am being dubbed as Pakistani by the Hindutva elements. The Muslim fundamentalists are asking me as to why I took the case to a Hindu Kashmiri Pandit lawyer. Ironically, none of the Muslim advocates I approached earlier had stepped forward.
Thankfully, the media picked up the story and brought it to the notice of the international media.
When I saw the battered body of the little girl, I had pleaded that I would not stop till the family gets justice. I will continue to walk barefoot till the case reaches a logical conclusion.
The real tribute to the girl would be implementation of Forest Rights Act and Prevention of Atrocities Against SCs and STs Act in Jammu and Kashmir.
Now even the High Court-monitored Crime Branch has established what we had been reiterating all the while: She was brutalised in the worst possible way with the intention to terrorise the nomadic families and drive them out of the village. In the absence of both these legislations, there is every possibility that poor nomads can be targeted again and again in different ways.
(As told to Ashutosh Sharma)