The rape and murder of an eight-year-old tribal Muslim girl in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir has become an issue of national outrage. The child, who belonged to the nomadic Bakerwal community in Rasana village of Hiranagar, was found dead inside the jungle on January 17, a week after she went missing while grazing her ponies.
After the members of tribal Gujjar-Bakerwal community resorted to protest, a juvenile was arrested on January 19. As the demands for more suspects’ arrest gained momentum, the case was handed over to the State Crime Branch (CB). The specialized crime investigative agency of the police made eight arrests, with half of the detained belonging to the police team that had previously probed the case.
The incident brought back the memories of the 2012 incident in Delhi, when a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern was gang-raped and murdered.
"NOT IN MY NAME": Outrage over 8-year-old girl's brutal rape and murder spills on to the streets of India's capital as protesters gather in New Delhi. https://t.co/w2JEanb87C pic.twitter.com/ANyNJaM5m6
— Good Morning America (@GMA) April 17, 2018
Like six years ago, protest rallies, candle marches, and silent sit-ins are being organized for the child victim across the different regions of the country. After the incident got more media coverage, politicians and film stars, who were mostly silent for three months, started posting messages of condemnation on social media.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter on Friday to assure the nation that people behind the murder will be punished.
“Incidents like this, wherever they occur in the country, shock our sense of humanity. I would like to reassure the nation that none of the guilty persons will be spared. Justice will be done. All of us will have to work together to end this evil within our society,” Modi tweeted.
The incident was initially neglected by mainstream media, but it came under the spotlight on April 9, when the Kathua district court lawyers blocked the main entrance to the building and prevented the Crime Branch from filing the first charge sheet with the gruesome account of the crime to the Chief Judicial Magistrate.
A number of civil society groups, including the Jammu Bar Association, had also called for a Jammu-wide shut down on April 11, accusing the state police of falsely implicating the Hindu community members in the case and seeking its transfer to the Central Bureau of Investigation, a federal agency.
Plot to Instill Fear Among Tribal Muslims
The charge sheet filed by the state crime branch provided gruesome details of the incident. The eight-year-old girl was kidnapped on January 10 and kept hidden in a temple. She was starved, sedated, repeatedly raped for a week, and later choked to death with her scarf, her head crushed with a stone, before being thrown into the jungle.
According to the charge sheet, the crime was preplanned by Sanji Ram, a retired revenue official working for the state government, in coordination with a local police officer. He used his juvenile nephew to abduct and choke the girl to death to instill fear among the tribal Muslim community and dislodge them from the area.
“In the first week of January, accused Sanji Ram decided to put a plan to dislodge the Bakarwal Community from Rasana area, which had been brewing in his mind for quite some time, into operation and in pursuance to that he made accused Deepak Khajuria, an SPO in Police Department and JCL as part of conspiracy and assigned them tasks separately and individually,” reads the 15-page charge sheet.
The document has also revealed that four members of the local police team that was earlier investigating the case, were involved in the plot, and one among them even participated in the rape and murder of the girl.
According to Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, a political analyst and the executive editor of an English daily, Kashmir Times, the tribals have always been looked upon with suspicion and targeted in the region due to their religious affiliation.
“Because of the religious affiliations of tribals (mostly Muslim), they are accused of harboring militants which has no evidence and Jammu division is a militancy free region. Also, they are accused of being land grabber which is also propaganda against them,” Jamwal told The Globe Post.
After the Crime Branch made the second arrest in the rape case, three weeks after the dead body of the girl was found, the locals in Kathua district formed Hindu Ekta Manch, a right-wing group seeking the release of the accused.
During one of the rallies on February 15, the members of the right-wing group marched holding the Indian national flag, shouting slogans in the favor of rape-accused and seeking a federal probe.
On March 1, two state ministers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – Minister for Forest, Chowdhary Lal Singh and Minister for Commerce and Industries, Chander Prakash Ganga, participated in the right-wing group rally, extending their support and questioning the investigation into the rape case.
“A girl has died, while there are many other girls who have disappeared and no one knows about them,” Lal Singh told the crowd, asking them to continue their agitation with full force.
While Ganga said “We will not allow this jungle raj, under which they (police) are picking up people at will, to continue. What kind of investigation are they doing?”
According to Essar Batool, a social worker and human rights activist, the support extended by different political leaders and lawyers to the accused was, in a way, an attempt to normalize rape and sexual violence in the state.
“Rape has always been used as a weapon of war in Kashmir, but in this particular case, rape was used an outright bid to terrorize and force a particular community to migrate,” Batool told The Globe Post.
“The leaders and lawyers who should have stood for the victim rallied behind the accused, which not only leads to the travesty of justice but also normalizes rape and sexual violence,” she added.
Deepika Singh Rajawat, the lawyer who appears in the state High Court on behalf of the victim’s father, feels that people rallying behind those accused of rape and murder can set a wrong precedent in the society.
“The way they (political leaders and lawyers) have rallied behind the rape accused gives a wrong message to the society and in a way sets a precedent that people are going to stand behind you if you rape,” Rajawat told The Globe Post.
She asked for an immediate end to the politicization of this case. An eight-year-old girl has been raped and murdered, Rajawat said, noting that if the accused are innocent, they will be acquitted. “Let the court take its own recourse,” she added.
The elections to Lok Sabha – the lower house of the Indian Parliament – are due in 2019. At the same time, political parties in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir are also bracing for 2020 state assembly elections. The politicization of the case is seen in the region as an attempt by the political parties to polarize the communities before the elections.
“The right wing has been spreading the propaganda against Muslims that they (Tribal’s and Rohingya refugees) are changing the demography of the Jammu division,” Talib Hussain, a 27-year old tribal activist, who is spearheading movement seeking justice for the victim, told The Globe Post.
“As they have run out of the issues, now they are using it as an election ploy to pit the members of both communities against each other so as to polarize and divide the vote,” he added.
Jamwal said there was obvious interest “and motives to perpetuate this kind of crisis to inject communal hatred within the community.”
“There is a clear motive [based on] the way this entire campaign has been building up, turning the issue of sexual violence into an issue of us and them,” she said.
Others feel, however, that the attempts made by the right-wing BJP to polarize the atmosphere and divide the vote bank into communal lines in the region have boomeranged.
“The issue was being used to set the ploy for communal clashes, but that has backfired,” 32-year-old Hassan Babur Nehru, an advocate and social activist from the region, has observed.
“The blood of the victim girl has awakened the conscience of the masses, be they Hindus, or Muslims, or Sikhs, or Christians. Masses are seething with anger against the politicians and the Bar Association of Jammu and Kathua, the way they were trying to communalize the issue. All the parties and associations who supported the rapists for their vested interests are in damage control mode,” Babur told The Globe Post.
On Friday, both ministers from the BJP, who had participated in the right-wing group rally seeking the release of the accused, tendered their resignations.
Meanwhile, the state Chief Minister and New Delhi loyalist, Mehbooba Mufti, commended the people of the region for not falling prey to communal propaganda.
“Together the people of J&K inspire secular unity and righteousness,” she said while addressing a meeting of party leaders in Srinagar on Saturday. She said that the state could become a beacon of hope for the whole country amid harshly polarized discourse.