But in mid-April, when the police filed the results of the criminal investigation into the girl’s death, many Indians did a horrified double-take. Like Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee whose washed-up corpse made international headlines in 2015, this blameless victim, too, struck a chord with millions. Her messy ponytails and bright purple dress suddenly became inseparable from the gruesome details of her ordeal as revealed in the police report. Some anointed her #IndiasDaughter, a phrase also used in the outpouring of grief and anger that followed the 2012 Delhi rape. The Delhi crime had created not only a political backlash against lax governance and insufficient legal remedies, but a mood of mourning and fury that felt personal to many Indians. This time was different.
This was no isolated act of depravity, the police alleged. The suspects, all Hindu men, were said to have abducted the child in order to create panic in her Muslim tribal community and oust them from the area. One man, the alleged “mastermind,” was the custodian of the Hindu temple where she had been held captive in a hidden room. It got worse. The extent of her torture had been covered up by local policemen, two of whom were charged with destroying postmortem evidence. Most strikingly, the scene of the crime, the town of Kathua and its surrounding countryside, was in an uproar—not because residents were upset with the crime, but because they objected to the investigation. Local groups, notably an outfit called the Hindu Ekta Manch (roughly, “Forum for Hindu Unity”), were marching in support of the suspects. The town’s lawyers surrounded the courtroom on the day charges were filed, attempting to obstruct the proceedings. Among the protesters were two leaders from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
The involvement of Hindu fundamentalists, and the impunity with which the BJP’s representatives acted, situated the incident in a different kind of continuity from the Delhi rape. Kathua was quickly considered another example, perhaps the ugliest yet, of how the party and its affiliates are deepening divisions between the majority-Hindu population and marginalized communities around the country. Adding fuel to the fire, just before the police filed charges in Kathua, news broke that a man in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, had gone to a police station to report a crime, only to be arrested himself and die mysteriously in police custody. The man had accused a BJP lawmaker of raping his teenage daughter.
Last weekend, many protesters in India’s largest cities marched to demand justice for the eight-year-old, chanting “Not In My Name,” a slogan used in recent months to protest the lynchings and murders of Muslims and Dalits (formerly India’s “untouchable” castes). They needled Prime Minister Narendra Modi—whose election campaign had untiringly paid lip service to the cause of women’s safety—for his initial silence in condemning the rape in Kathua, and his refusal to assure the public that his party affiliates would be investigated and put on trial for the rape in Uttar Pradesh.