There was no empathy for the 8-year-old girl. It was as if she barely registered as a human being, as if her life didn’t count except to serve as a target.
Police investigators say a gang of young Hindu men chose her specifically to send a message that would terrorize her community of Muslim nomads. They stand accused of calculatedly kidnapping her from a meadow, stuffing drugs down her throat and locking her up for three days in a temple, where they beat her, raped her and eventually strangled her. She stood three and a half feet tall, completely defenseless.
While protests of outrage have erupted in cities across India, and even internationally, here in Rasana, the village in Jammu and Kashmir State where the girl was killed in January, the mood is different.
Rasana is tiny, about 20 homes, and walking through it takes just five minutes: past the dry, scratchy wheat fields that carry the whiff of cow manure, past the little brick houses that sit half-hidden behind walls, and, finally, past a small pink temple, now padlocked.
There seems to be little remorse or sympathy here. Few people in the mostly Hindu village are talking about the inhumanity of the crime or the fact that the girl’s traumatized parents have fled. Barred from burying their daughter near their home, the family had to take her body with them.
Instead, you hear things like: Our land and their land. Us and them.
“This is all a big conspiracy to demoralize the Hindus,” said an elder from a nearby village, who insisted that the eight men arrested in connection with the girl’s death had been framed.
Who was behind this conspiracy, he was asked?
“The separatists,” he grumbled, referring to Muslims in another part of this state, Jammu and Kashmir, who want independence from India.
Many Indians had hoped that after the last horrific rape case, in 2012, when a young woman was fatally brutalized on a busin New Delhi, things would change. But not much has.
Some laws have been tightened, and the Indian government now wants to apply the death penalty for rapists of young children. But rape conviction rates are still lowand dozens of Indian politicians accused of sexual abuse still get elected (though that is clearly not unique to India).
India remains so deeply divided along religious, ethnic and political lines that even a crime this awful instantly gets politicized, sucked into the vortex of a never-ending communal war. Many scholars blame the rise of the Hindu right, saying it has made it open season on Muslims, no matter where or how young they are.
After the girl’s death, PM Narendra Modi, whose party is rooted in Hindu nationalism, came under heavy criticism for not speaking out quickly enough to denounce the attack. Only after protests erupted did he address this case and another recent rape allegation, saying “our daughters will definitely get justice.”
Officials in Mr. Modi’s party deny that they mishandled this or that their politics have polarized India. All they had been trying to do after the girl died, they said, was “pacify the people.”
Still, some of the staunchest defenders of the suspects in the girl’s killing have been high-level officials in Mr. Modi’s party. Analysts said this was consistent with how the party has operated for years.
“Young people are taught that Muslims are a blot on this nation — do what you want with them,” said J. Devika, a historian at the Center for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram.
She accused Mr. Modi’s party and his allies of “weaponizing the Hindu faith.”
She pointed to another recent case, in which a Hindu fanatic killed a Muslim man with a pickax. The suspect posted a gruesome video of the attack on social media, where it went viral. Among Hindu extremists, theattacker became a hero overnight. And while many Indians were sickened, many others were enthused.
The list goes on: Muslims lynched for transporting cows, an animal Hindus revere. A Muslim boy stabbed on a train. Just last week, the police said that a youth leader from Mr. Modi’s political party bragged about burning down hundreds of homes of Rohingya refugees, Muslims from Myanmar.
Scholars say it is hard not to see the girl’s killing as part of an ominous pattern. According to a recent analysis, hate crimes have risen sharply on Mr. Modi’s watch. The victims are mostly Muslims and lower-caste Hindus.
The authorities in the Rasana area are struggling to contain the anger, on both sides. This area, like most of India, is religiously mixed, with Hindus and Muslims living close to one another and usually getting along, until someone stirs them up.
First it was Hindu lawyers physically blocking police officers from filing charges in the girl’s killing at a court. Then protests and counterprotests broke out, some violent and led by officials in Mr. Modi’s party who asserted that the suspects had been set up and were innocent.
Dozens of Hindu housewives and grandmothers joined in, carrying out a hunger strike, saying they were ready to die. Several nearly did and had to be hospitalized.
The talking points among the Hindu protesters ring with a certain sameness: They accuse the state government of being manipulated by Muslims. And they are demanding that the Central Bureau of Investigation, a federal agency widely seen as a tool of Mr. Modi’s party, take over the investigation from the state police.
At the same time, Muslim protesters in other parts of this state have flooded into the streets — and clashed with the police — insisting that the suspects be hanged.
The state government in Jammu and Kashmir, an area mostly administered by India but the subject of a decades-long and very bloody dispute with Pakistan, is already on the brink. It is facing a stubborn insurgency in the Kashmir Valley and a heavy crackdown by the Indian security forces.
The government itself is an awkward alliance formed purely for political survival between a Muslim-led party pushing for autonomy and Mr. Modi’s party, the Hindu-right Bharatiya Janata Party, known as the B.J.P. (Neither party won enough votes to control the State Assembly on its own.)
Still, the ousted politicians doubled down and continued to protest, along with some lawyers. Across India, especially in big cities, many people, no matter what their religion was, were disgusted by the crime and the divisiveness that followed. But the instigating and abuse continued.
According to several accounts in the Indian news media, one prominent Hindu lawyer insulted a lead investigator, saying, “She is a girl, how intelligent can she be?”
This all plays well locally, even though the charge sheet reads like a script from a horror film.
The first sign of trouble came on the evening of Jan. 10, when five horses plodded back into a nomadic camp without their 8-year-old master, the girl’s father said in an interview. The girl, who loved her horses and would ride them without a saddle using her scarf as the reins, was nowhere to be found.
Her father felt something was deeply wrong. He immediately grabbed a flashlight and organized a search party, scouring all the ditches, drains and farms in the area. Nothing.
They went house to house. Nothing.
With panic rising, and dozens of fellow nomads joining him, they waded into the nearby woods. Still, nothing.
Then they came to a small Hindu temple. The nomads said they were intimidated by the man who presided over it, a former revenue officer known for his ability to read palms, horoscopes and, some even said, the future. He reassured the girl’s parents in a voice of authority: Don’t worry. Your daughter’s fine. Someone is looking after her.
According to the police, at that very moment, a group of young men, directed by this same temple custodian, was raping the girl in the temple. After three days they decided to kill her.
The motive for the crime, investigators say, was nothing less than ethnic cleansing. Investigators said that Sanji Ram, the custodian at the temple, hated the nomads for coming into his area and that he orchestrated the killing to drive them away.
The nomads come from a predominantly Muslim ethnic group called the Bakarwals. For generations, they have drifted across Jammu and Kashmir with flocks of sheep and goats, and horses and dogs, threading their way through rugged mountain valleys and clip-clopping down crowded roads.
They stand out, with their colorful tents pitched next to highways and their light eyes.
Several Bakarwal elders said they did not know how big their community was, maybe 200,000, nor were they sure of their origins. Some said they came from the Caucasus, others said Afghanistan.
“Nobody’s written our history,” said Talib Hussain, a Bakarwal elder.
But life is changing for the Bakarwals. A few families have begun to settle in the Rasana area, buying land from Hindu farmers, building sturdy brick houses and sticking around more of the year so their children can go to school, a big step forward for them. The dead girl’s family was among them.
This infuriated Sanji Ram, whom villagers described as a devout Hindu and a passionate Modi fan. Several villagers said Mr. Ram was happy to lease his farmland to Hindu nomads but never, as a policy, to Muslims.
Investigators said that Mr. Ram recruited a son, a nephew and a number of other young men from the village to kidnap the 8-year-old girl.
After she was killed and her body dumped in a ditch, investigators say two other police officers, both Hindu, destroyed evidence. Before the girl’s dress was turned over to a crime lab, the officers tried to scrub it clean.
But it didn’t work, and investigators said they had “clinching” DNA evidence. They also said that all eight suspects confessed.
Few, if any, Hindus in Rasana accept this. On a recent day, several Hindu elders took me to the temple, a little pink building at the edge of the woods. The floor was cleanly swept concrete, the walls decorated with wrinkled, brightly colored posters of Hindu gods.
“Look,” said Suresh Sharma, a villager who helped Mr. Ram at the temple. “There’s no way the girl could have been locked in here, people coming and going all the time.”
But that in itself seemed hard to believe. Only a few houses use the temple, and many were deserted.
The rape of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua’s Rasana village, which sparked outrage across the country, is a “minor issue” and giving the case “too much importance” is “not the right thing” to do, according to J&K’s new Deputy Chief Minister and BJP leader Kavinder Gupta. Speaking to reporters after his swearing-in Monday, Gupta said, “Yeh ek choti si baat hai Rasana. Is prakar ki ghatna dobara kabhi na ho, iss par humein vichar karna hai. Uss bacchi ko nyay mile, aise bahut se challenges sarkar ke samne hain. Mujhe lagta hai ki Rasana case ko hum itna bhav deke hum thik nahin kar rahe hain (Rasana is a small issue. We should think about ensuring that such incidents do not recur. Ensuring that the girl gets justice is among the challenges before the government. I feel that by giving so much importance to Rasana, we are not doing the right thing).” 2 BJP ministers removed in J&K for attending a pro-rapist rally & a MLA who is reported to have attended the same rally is promoted as a minister. Why are the BJP/ @MehboobaMufti confused about where they stand on the #Kathua rape?’’ The time was ripe to kill the girl, Sanji Ram told his juvenile nephew on a cold January evening, according to a police report.
The ritual had been performed and Asifa, an eight-year-old Muslim nomad girl, was taken to a culvert in front of a temple where she had been kept in captivity, and sedated, for four days in Rasana village of Kathua district in Indian-administered Kashmir.
But, before she was strangulated and her head hit twice with a stone “to make sure” she was dead, Deepak Khajuria, a special police officer, made a demand. He wanted to rape the girl before she was killed.
“As such”, the police investigation noted, “once again the little girl was gang-raped” by the accused police officer and then by the juvenile.
For the next three months, the rape and murder of Asifa seemed to be just another case of sexual violence that is rampant in India but rare in Indian-administered Kashmir, until the barbarity and the plot came to fore in a 16-page charge sheet presented by the crime branch – a local investigating agency.
The investigation revealed that the rape and murder were systematic, preplanned and rooted in religious hatred harboured by Sanji Ram, a Hindu, against the Muslim nomadic community of Bakarwals.
Asifa, the nomad girl, loved to take horses for grazing to the forest near her home in Rasana, a quiet village in Kathua district of Indian-administered Kashmir.
The reason Asifa was picked as a target by Sanji Ram, who knew she “often comes to the forest”, was simple; they wanted to drive the Muslim community out, according to the investigation.
In captivity inside a temple, Asifa was drugged and raped, according to the police investigation. The police report described Asifa as an “innocent budding flower, a child of only eight years of age, who being a small kid became a soft target”.
The crime, however, was rooted in a sinister conspiracy and Asifa’s rape and killing were the means to an end – create fear among the Muslim nomadic Bakarwal community and force them to leave.
Rafeeza Bano, Asifa’s 55-year-old mother, recalls the horror she saw on her dead daughter’s body. “There were scars on her cheeks,” she told Al Jazeera at their camp in Udhampur.
“Her lips had turned black and her eyes had bulged out. It was a scary scene for a mother to see,” she said. “She was my youngest child. It was horrific. She had faced a lot of barbarity.”
The mother now fears for her two surviving daughters, one of them aged 13. “They did this with an eight-year-old girl, imagine what they can do with a 13-year-old,” she said.
The tough life of a nomad had cast its shadow on Mohammad Akhtar and he looks older than his 45 years. He now lives with a more damning burden – the elusive justice for his daughter, Asifa.
On a hill in Udhampur district, nearly 150km north of Rasana, the family camps under the open sky with their herd of goats and horses. The journey is part of the annual migration of this nomadic community in search of grazing pastures.
“Her face was full of scratches and bites,” Akhtar described the marks of torment on Asifa. “I never knew they would do this to a child, her milk teeth were yet to fall out,” he said.
Akhtar is Asifa’s biological father as the girl was raised by her maternal uncle, Mohammad Yusuf, who adopted her when she was a toddler after he lost his three children in an accident.
“After she was killed it created more fear than before. We now take our daughters along all the time, all in our community became protective towards our daughters,” he said.
Akhtar said the family also faced threats in the aftermath of the incident.
A retired government official, his son who came from another city to “satisfy his lust”, the juvenile nephew and his close friend, and the special police officer were all part of the conspiracy and crime to kidnap, rape and killing of the eight-year-old girl, according to the police report. Three police officers were involved in destroying the evidence.
The incident, which initially appeared to draw a reluctant outrage, however, snowballed into a major crisis for India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the horrifying details and motives of the rape and killing came into public domain.
Human rights groups have repeatedly claimed that religious minority groups, particularly Muslims, face increasing “demonisation by hardline Hindu groups, pro-government media and some state officials” in India, and the frequency of such incidents appears to be increasing.
In a recent Amnesty International report, the London-based human rights group noted that dozens of “hate crimes against Muslims took place across the country”.
“At least 10 Muslim men were lynched and many injured by vigilante cow protection groups, many of which seemed to operate with the support of members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party,” it said.
While the outrage over Asifa’s rape and murder was muted – even missing – during the initial weeks, the eight accused men found a crusading force of lawyers and ministers from BJP in their support, some of whom insisted the police investigators were Muslims and had a bias towards the accused – all of whom Hindus.
In the second week of April, nearly three months since Asifa’s body was found in the forested foothill, a group of Hindu lawyers attempted to block police investigators from entering a court premise where they had gone to file the charges against the accused.
“It is shocking that the lawyers in Kathua so blatantly tried to obstruct justice in this case,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, said in her report last week.
“For the local lawyers and other BJP supporters, the Hindu suspects and the Muslim victim were grounds for blocking prosecution of the case,” Ganguly said.
As the pressure mounted on BJP, which administers Indian administered Kashmir in an alliance based government, its two ministers – who had attended a rally in favour of the accused – resigned.
“The investigation was completed within 90 days which makes it clear that there was no intervention or attempt to block the investigation,” BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav told reporters in the city of Jammu, 60km from here.
The fact that it took three months and the exposure of horrific details for the outrage to build against the rape and killing of the girl, who was just eight-years-old, has already instilled fear among the Muslim nomads.
Bakarwals, a poor tribe of nomads, tread across mountains during their biannual migrations from the meadows of Kashmir valley to the hilly forests of Jammu, where some pockets are dominated by ultra-nationalist Hindu groups.
Muhammad Yusuf, 45, Asifa’s uncle who had adopted her when she was a toddler, abandoned Rasana village with his herd of sheep, goats and horses soon after the girl’s body was found. The routine migration was still weeks away, but the new-found fear forced it earlier.
“We left home earlier than usual due to fear. There is a fear among all the Muslim families in Rasana and most of them have left now,” Yusuf said. “We are afraid to go back,” he said.
In the village, where Asifa was raped and killed and, later, not allowed to be buried, Yusuf said Hindus were always hostile towards Muslims. “Sometimes, they would object to our grazing of horses, sometimes they would block the water supply,” he said.
Zafar Chowdhary, author and political analyst based in Jammu, told Al Jazeera that there is a feeling among the Hindus in the state’s Jammu region that Muslims are involved in making demographic changes.
“There is unrest and distrust among the communities in the region particularly on the question of identity in the state,” he said.
The family members of accused in the village have launched a hunger strike demanding that the investigations be done by the federal investigative agency, CBI.