People gathered in Amritsar town of Punjab to protest the rape and murder of a Muslim girl in the Jammu area of Jammu and Kashmir state. (Photo from IANS)
As national outrage over the rape and murder of an 8-year-old Muslim girl gains political significance, Indian bishops have joined a chorus of civil leaders and rights activists demanding justice for the victim.
The reaction to the 3-month-old crime has many questioning India's secular credentials after two leaders of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state reportedly justified the crime committed in the Hindu-dominated Kathua area of Jammu in India's northern Jammu and Kashmir state.
The BJP leaders also supported protests by pro-Hindu group Hindu Ekta Manch (Hindu unity forum), which demanded the release of nine people, including two police officers, who have been arrested in connection with the crime. Media reports said the arrested men have confessed and told investigators that their motive was to drive the young victim's nomadic Muslim community out of the area.
The girl was reported missing on Jan. 14 after she went out to graze horses. According to police, an unknown man took her and force-fed her with sleeping pills. She was then locked up in a deserted temple and two men repeatedly raped her. Her head was smashed in with stone and her remains were found in a forest on Jan.17.
The dead girl's mother Rafeesa Bano told ucanews.com that her daughter was the "most innocent and wise of the entire clan."
Once her daughter's remains were found, local Hindus did not even allow the body to be buried in the village, she said. "We had to take her crumpled body to a distant location where she was laid to rest forever," said a distraught Bano.
Secular tensions over the crime have forced hundreds of nomadic Muslim communities in the area to move to other parts of the state. One of them, Shafiq Ahmad, told ucanews.com that he now fears for the safety of his three children.
"We herd cattle from one place to another and have nothing to do with the politics of the place," said Ahmad. "Our family comes first. The only reason we are being persecuted is because we are Muslims."
For generations, nomadic groups and their herds have wandered across the plains and hills of northern India. During the winter, they lease pastures from Hindu farmers for their animals to graze. In recent years, Hindu groups have been carrying out intimidation campaigns against the nomads in Jammu.
Protests against the arrests
The Hindu Ekta Manch group — with the support of other pro-Hindu parties — launched protest marches against the police arrests, claiming the authorities have framed Hindus and fabricated evidence.
Several pro-Hindu lawyers stopped police on April 10 from filing charges against the accused in court and demanded that they be released. The lawyers said their protests were the beginning of a Hindu versus Muslim battle.
BJP members in Jammu and Kashmir state have also supported the accused. Two senior BJP ministers — Lal Singh and Chandra Prakash Ganga — joined Hindu Ekta Manch in a show of support for the accused. After public outrage, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who is a Muslim and the president of the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party allied to the BJP, accepted the resignation of both ministers.
On April 14, Mufti announced that the case would be fast-tracked to punish the culprits and said the death penalty will be sought.
Vijay Sharma, president of Hindu Ekta Manch, told ucanews.com that he felt sorry for what happened to the girl but the state government "cannot make some innocent Hindus mere scapegoats in the process."
Sharma said they want the case given to India's premier Central Bureau of Investigations, which works under the federal government, run by the BJP. "We will keep protesting until then," he said.
The Catholic bishops' conference of India said on April 16 it has been "deplorable" that "certain sections of society" attempt to justify what has occurred.
"The very people who should uphold the rule of law have either become the alleged perpetrators or the defenders of the indefensible," it said, alluding to leaders of the BJP, which is part of the ruling coalition in Jammu and Kashmir state.
Activists like Dhruv Rathee said that notorious crimes and politics in India are now being seen through the prism of religion.
"This is what the BJP has given to India, which is an otherwise tolerant and harmonious society," said Rathee.
"Rallies were held openly in support of the rapists, and participants carry the national flag in their hands as if they were supporting a national cause," he said.
Hard-line Hindu groups have intensified campaigns against Muslims in Jammu region in preparation for the 2019 polls.
For the BJP, which came to power in 2014 mostly placating Hindu nationalist sentiments, the national election next year is crucial to sustain power amid opposition criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi failing in his electoral promises of economic development and job creation.
Opposition parties allege increasing sectarian tension across India is engineered to divide Indian polity on the lines of religion and caste to help the BJP.