Students participate in a candle light procession in protest against the rape and murder of 8-year-old Asifa, in Jammu Kashmir, India, Friday, April 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)
SRINAGAR: The girl, just 8 years old, was grazing her family’s ponies on a chilly January day in the forests of the Himalayan foothills when she was kidnapped. Her raped and mutilated body was found in the woods a week later.
In early January, Asifa Bano, an 8-year-old girl in a purple dress, was grazing her horses in a meadow in northern India. A man beckoned her into a forest. She followed.
According to the police, he grabbed her by the neck and forced her to take sleeping pills. With the help of a friend, they say, he dragged her to a nearby temple and locked her inside.
For the next three days, the police say, the two men and at least one other raped her, again and again. They told investigators that their motive had been to drive Asifa’s nomadic community out of the area. In the end, she was strangled, after one of the men allegedly insisted on raping her one last time.
Days later, Asifa’s crumpled body was found in the forest, in the same purple dress, now smeared with blood.
In 2012, the fatal gang rape of a young woman in the heart of India’s capital moved hundreds of thousands of Indians to take to the streets to demand stricter rape laws.
It seemed another isolated, horrific episode of sexual violence in India, perpetrated against a powerless girl by brutal men. But in the months since Asifa’s murder, the case has become another battleground in India’s religious wars.
Hindu nationalists have turned it into a rallying cry – not calling for justice for Asifa, but rushing to the defense of the accused. All of the men arrested are Hindu, and Asifa’s nomadic people, the Bakarwals, are Muslim.
Some of the police officers who investigated the case are also Muslim, and for that reason, the Hindu activists say, they cannot be trusted.
This week, a mob of Hindu lawyers physically blocked police officers from entering a courthouse to file charges against the men. The officers retreated to a judge’s house later in the evening to complete the paperwork.
Protests and counterprotests are now spreading. On Wednesday, much of Kathua, a small town in northern India near where Asifa was killed, was shut down by demonstrators, including dozens of Hindu women who helped block a highway and organize a hunger strike. according to NewYork Times.
“They are against our religion,’’ said Bimla Devi, one of the protesters. If the accused men aren’t released, she said, “we will burn ourselves.’’
Police officials say they have physical evidence and DNA tests linking the defendants to Asifa’s death. They also say they have interviewed more than 130 witnesses, who “unequivocally corroborated the facts that emerged.’’