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Where 8-Year-Old Was Raped and Killed, Hindus Rally Around Suspects

Instead, you hear things like: Our land and their land. Us and them.

“This is all a big conspiracy to demoralize the Hindus,” said Bhagmal Khajuria, an elder from a nearby village, who insisted that the eight men arrested in connection with the girl’s death had been framed.



by Pakistan

Jammu and



by India

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 bus in 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 low and 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, Prime Minister 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.”


Women from a Hindu protest group held a hunger strike to demand that the Central Bureau of Investigation take over the killing inquiry. Credit Saurabh Das for The New York Times

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, the attacker 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.


The girl’s family is from a predominantly Muslim ethnic group called the Bakarwals, who drift across Jammu and Kashmir with flocks of sheep and goats. Credit Saurabh Das for The New York Times

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.)


A Bakarwal family at its home near Rasana. Life is changing for the Bakarwals, some of whom have begun to settle in the area, buying land from Hindu farmers. Credit Saurabh Das for The New York Times

In mid-April, two state ministers from the B.J.P. who joined protests in support of the suspects in the rape case were forced to resign to keep this shaky political alliance alive.

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.


Several Bakarwal elders said they were not certain of their community’s size or origins. Some said they came from Georgia, others Afghanistan. Credit Saurabh Das for The New York Times

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 handful of 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.


The Muslim girl’s unmarked grave, left, outside Rasana. Investigators say her killers aimed to drive her people out. Credit Saurabh Das for The New York Times

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 handful of other young men from the village to kidnap the 8-year-old girl.

(Her name is being withheld because an Indian court has threatened to jail journalists for revealing any information about her or her family. The court says this is necessary to protect the family’s dignity, though the girl’s name was already given out by police officers and is all over social media.)

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 handful of houses use the temple, and many were deserted.

Source: NYT > World

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