A retired government official and four policemen have been charged over the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Indian-administered Kashmir.
The retired official, Sanji Ram, ordered his nephew and a policeman to kidnap the girl in January to terrorise members of her nomadic Bakerwal community into leaving Kathua district in the region’s mainly Hindu Jammu division, according to a court filing.
The girl was heavily sedated, kept in a Hindu temple, and gang-raped by at least three men over the course of four days in mid-January, the police said in the charge sheet made public on Tuesday.
She was later strangled and her body was found in the forest near the temple.
One of the three suspected rapists was a policeman.
Another officer, Anand Dutta, who was initially in charge of the investigation, took more than $6,000 in bribes to cover up the crime, according to the police.
Dutta even washed the clothes of the victim was wearing at the time of her death to remove any blood or semen stains, they said.
He is among a total of eight suspects who have been detained over the girl’s rape and murder. All eight are Hindu.
Residents of Kathua’s mainly Hindu community, however, claim the men are innocent and have protested against their arrest for months.
Several officials of India’s governing Hindu nationalist BJP have also rushed to the suspects’ defence, organising marches against their detention, while lawyers of Jammu’s Bar Association blocked the entrance to a local court to prevent the police from filing charges against the suspects.
There have always been divisions between the Muslim and Hindu communities in Jammu and Kashmir state, Talib Hussain, a member of the Bakarwal community, told Al Jazeera.
But the “situation has worsened” since the BJP, led by Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, won national elections in 2014.
The eight-year-old’s murder was a “well-planned crime to create fear among the Muslims in Kathua and drive them away from their homes in the Hindu-majority area”, Hussain said, noting an increase in conflict between local Hindus and the Bakarwals over land disputes in recent years.
The police, in the court filing, also said rivalry between the two groups had grown, with members filing various complaints against each other.
The Bakarwals, who herd goats and sheep, spend the winter months in the plains of Jammu and migrate to highland pastures to graze their animals.
In recent years, some of them have started to settle in permanent homes.
Ram, who planned the girl’s abduction, was “against the settlement” of Bakarwals in Kathua and “always kept on motivating members of his community of the area not to provide land for grazing or any other kind of assistance”, the charge sheet said.
Prior to the attack, he imposed fines at least two members of the Bakerwal community for using a pond and a forest near his land for watering and grazing their cattle, the police said.
Ram had even campaigned against one of his neighbours for selling land to a Bakarwal, the police said, adding that ultimately, the victim, being a child, “became a soft target” of the growing rivalry.
Himanshu Sharma, a Jammu lawyer who has rallied in defence of the accused, called the state police’s investigation “flawed”.
He claimed Muslim policemen from Kashmir valley were involved in the probe, and demanded the federal Central Bureau of Investigation look in to the case instead.
The Bar Association, for its part, called for a general strike in Kathua on Wednesday, prompting a police investigation of disruption against them.
“There is only one reason men accused of such a heinous crime have widespread public support: like the majority of people in Kathua, the suspects are Hindu; the girl was a Muslim,” wrote Samar Halarnkar in the Scroll on Thursday.
He said the victim’s rape and murder marked a “defining moment” for India.
The BJP must “rein in the mob”, he said, adding that it “must stand for what is just and lawful, qualities they have frequently abandoned when minorities are involved”.
Sunil Sethi, a BJP official in Jammu and Kashmir, denied the charge, saying they too “demand justice for the victim”.
While the BJP’s defence of the accused has been “loud” at the state level, at the national level its silence has been deafening, wrote Monobina Gupta, managing editor of The Wire news website, referring to Modi’s lack of comment on the case.
The noise at the state level accompanied by the silence at the national level feed into each other, she said, “promoting [a] culture of impunity for law-breakers who target Muslims and other marginalised sections”.
Responding to the anger over the girl’s murder, Mehbooba Mufti, the chief minister for Jammu and Kashmir, whose PDP party rules the state in an alliance with the BJP, pledged on Thursday to introduce the death penalty for child rapists.
“We will never let another child suffer in this way,” she wrote on Twitter.
Many others also took to Twitter to question why opposition leader Rahul Gandhi’s had failed to comment, after which the president of the Indian National Congress party called for a “silent, peaceful, candlelit vigil” in New Delhi.
Thousands joined the vigil at India Gate monument on Thursday night to demand justice for women.
Dozens of women’s rights activists and students, already angered by what they called police reluctance to investigate a BJP politician over the rape of a 15-year-old in Uttar Pradesh, also took to the streets of New Delhi on Thursday in protest against the two cases.
But other Twitter users lamented what they called a muted response.
They noted how another attack in 2012, the fatal gang rape of a young woman dubbed Nirbhaya, had moved hundreds of thousands of Indians to take to the streets in protest.
The Kashmir girl is “another Nirbhaya,” wrote Shaili Chopra, a rights activist. “We need collective disobedience against rape in India – if these cases don’t shake the conscience of this nation, what will?”