SRINAGAR, India – The girl, only 8 years old, was grazing her family's ponies on a cold January day in the forests of the foothills of the Himalayas when she was kidnapped. His raped and mutilated body was found in the forest a week later.
In 2012, the fatal gang rape of a young woman in the heart of the Indian capital prompted hundreds of thousands of Indians to take to the streets to demand stricter rape laws. .
But the gang rape, torture and death of a Muslim girl in Indian-controlled Kashmir has seen very different protests: thousands of members of a radical Hindu group with ties to the ruling party have marched to demand the release of the six men accused of the repeated rape and murder of the girl inside a Hindu temple. Hundreds of Hindu lawyers have protested that the men, two of them policemen, are innocent.
The girl, who was wild in the attacks, had huge eyes, a calm smile and a name: Asifa. The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sexual violence, but its name has been widely publicized in Indian media.
There have always been differences between the Muslim minority of India and the Hindu majority in this constitutionally secular nation of 1.3 billion. Violence has soared sporadically over the decades since India gained freedom from Britain in 1947, unleashing bloody religious unrest as the subcontinent was divided to create mostly Hindu India and largely Muslim Pakistan.
For the most part, however, day-to-day interactions between Hindus and Muslims have been largely peaceful. But that courteous distance has widened to a schism since 2014, when the Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, was dragged into power in a decisive electoral victory. India's religious minorities, especially Muslims who make up 13 percent of the population, have felt increasingly isolated since then, as attacks by Hindu extremist groups increase.
So it was in Kathua, the small city in the state of Jammu-Kashmir where girl was attacked. Police say the attack had been planned for more than a month as a way to terrorize Bakarwals, a Muslim community of nomadic shepherds, to leave the area.
In recent years, conflicts between Muslim nomads and local Hindus have led to land conflicts. The Hindus claimed that the shepherds were invading their lands. There were fights after the nomad girls had been harassed by Hindu men.
Kashmir has more than 1 million nomadic herders, including the Bakarwals, who primarily care for flocks of sheep, goats and horses. For centuries they migrated every summer to the pastures and forests of the highlands and returned to the plains of Jammu in winter to graze their animals, living in temporary shelters.
But in the last 20 years some have begun to settle in permanent homes, usually built in forests, causing conflicts with people who already live in those areas.
"For some time tensions have been high among Muslims and some Hindus" in the area around Kathua, said Javaid Rahi, who runs the Jammu-Kashmir Tribal Foundation, a non-profit group that studies nomads of the state.
"The crisis has deepened especially since the BJP came to power and some Hindu fanatics in Jammu communally polarized the atmosphere," he said.
Police say the attack on Asifa was rooted in religious politics, with a group of local men planning to scare off the Bakarwals by simply kidnapping a girl. But once they had Asifa, that plan was quickly forgotten. Forensic reports say that she had been drugged with anti-anxiety drugs, repeatedly raped, burned, beaten with a rock and strangled. Finally, his body was thrown into the forest where it was found a week later.
While group rape in New Delhi in 2012 galvanized India to thoroughly examine widespread sexual violence and pressured reluctant police and politicians to take that violence seriously, the Kashmir attack is entangled in divisive religious politics that has emerged in the last four years.
Shortly after the suspects were arrested, members of the Hindu extremist Ekta Manch, or Platform of Hindu Unity, marched through the streets of Jammu, the largest city in southern Kashmir, carrying a huge Indian flag, singing "Long Live India!" and demanding that the police release the men. The group has links to the ruling BJP, and two BJP legislators have publicly defended the accused men.
On Monday, Hindu lawyers in Kathua tried to prevent the police from presenting their investigative report in the local court. They said the police investigation was flawed and claimed that the six Hindu men accused in the attack had been indicted.
The police were forced to request reinforcements before delivering the report of their investigation to the judge of their house.
Six men, including two policemen, are accused of being directly involved in the attacks on Asifa. One of those police officers also allegedly joined the search for his body. Two other policemen were arrested for attempts to destroy evidence.
The case has provoked strong reactions throughout the country.
"Too many BJP supporters seem willing to abandon their tough stance on sexual violence on the basis of religious prejudice." The police claim that the rape and murder of Asifa were part of an effort to alienate the Muslim community from the area. However, for local lawyers and other supporters of the BJP, the Hindu suspects and the Muslim victim were grounds to block the prosecution of the case. " Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Wednesday
The policy on the rape and murder of a child has annoyed many Hindu residents of the area as well.
"Politics aside, it is horrible that some people see this horrendous crime through a religious prism to gain a little mileage, it's a new minimum and I do not know if we can go down a little bit after this," said Girdhari Lal, a retired teacher in Jammu.