Activists took to New Delhi’s streets to protest Asifa’s rape and murder [Cathal McNaughton/Reuters]
A retired government official and four policemen in northern India have been charged over the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in the country’s troubled Jammu and Kashmir state.
The retired official, Sanji Ram, ordered his nephew and a policeman to kidnap the girl, Asifa, in January to terrorise members of her nomadic Bakerwal community into leaving Kathua district in the 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 Asifa 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 Asifa’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.
The police, in the court filing, said conflict between local Hindus and Muslim nomads have increased in recent years, with the two communities filing police complaints against each other.
Most of the disputes centre around land.
WATCH: At least seven killed in India protests over caste discrimination (02:03)
The Bakerwals, 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 Asifa’s abduction, was “against the settlement” of Bakerwals in Kathua and “always 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 Bakerwal, the police said, adding that ultimately, Asifa, being a child, “became a soft target”.
‘Rein in the mob’
The police’s account of Asifa’s killing has prompted widespread outrage from activists.
Talib Hussain, a member of the Bakerwal community, said Asifa’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”, he told Al Jazeera.
There have always been divisions between the Muslim and Hindu community in Jammu and Kashmir, he told Al Jazeera, but the “situation has worsened” since the BJP, led by Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, won the national elections in 2014.
Several BJP officials have 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.
|Hindu nationalists have protested against the arrest of the suspects in Kathua [File: Reuters]|
“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 Asifa’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”.
He told Al Jazeera that supporters of the Hindu nationalist party only want the federal Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) instead of the state police to handle the investigation.
Silence at the centre
While the BJP’s defence of the accused has been “loud” at the state level, at the centre, 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 centre 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 Asifa’s murder, Mehbooba Mufti, the chief minister for Jammu and Kashmir, whose PDP party rules Jammu and Kashmir 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 said he would lead a “silent, peaceful, candlelit vigil at India Gate” monument in New Delhi 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 lamented what they called a muted response.
They noted how another brutal 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.
Is Asifa not India’s daughter?
A child brutally raped inside a temple.
To terrorise nomadic Muslims into leaving.
Crime driven by religious hatred.
Yet, MLAs, local lawyers & Hindutva brigade try to prevent even filing of complaint & publicly support rapists!
— Rakesh Sharma (@rakeshfilm) April 10, 2018
#Asifa another Nirbhaya: We need collective disobedience against rape in India – If these cases don’t shake the conscience of this nation what will? Is beti bachao just a slogan? When will we become intolerant to crimes against women? India has failed me.
— Shaili Chopra (@shailichopra) April 11, 2018
Asifa, an 8 year old Muslim girl who was tortured, raped and killed inside a temple by Hindu men – Hindutva groups protect theses barbaric criminals because they are Hindus. There is no national outrage. India has become a land of bigots and hypocrites. https://t.co/gmnjsJQ1Vr
— Ashok Swain (@ashoswai) April 10, 2018
Rifat Fareed contributed reporting from Srinagar