On 12 January 2018, in a village at the foothills of the Himalayas, an eight-year-old girl took her family’s horses out to graze. Her father began to worry when at four in the afternoon, the horses came back without her. He went to the police in India’s northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. A week later, they found her mutilated body and purple face, her large eyes now turned to slits. The police say that the crime was entirely political: that she was a Muslim girl from a pastoral community called the Bakerwals, and that is why she was raped and murdered.
It became national news on 9 April 2018, when eight people were charged with the crime. According to the charges, a Hindu bigot decided he did not want the Bakerwal Muslims to live in the part of the state with a concentrated Hindu population. So much so, that he is said to have hatched a plan with seven others, including members of the local police, to kidnap, rape and then kill the girl to scare the community into fleeing the mountain steppes. After starving the girl and raping her multiple times, they allegedly decided she must be done away with. But the police say that before the final act of strangulation, a local policeman who was paid a bribe told the others to wait – allegedly wanting to rape her one more time before she was killed.
Once the story made the news, the accused found widespread support from a group of ultra-Hindu nationalists. They held a political rally attended by two local leaders from India’s ruling party – the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). This was quickly followed by a show of support from a posse of local Hindu lawyers, who tried to make their position sound officious by claiming to represent the Jammu High Court Bar Association (the organisation later confirmed it didn’t support their protest). These renegades tried to stop the police from framing charges and threatened a female lawyer who had decided to fight the girl’s case.
As television screens across India displayed pictures of Hindu lawyers burning tyres and agitating in support of the rapists, the rest of the country went into a state of collective shock and disbelief. Rallies in support of the eight-year-old girl were held across the country, demanding that the ruling party answer for two members supporting the rape and murder. Answers were demanded also from the Prime Minister – Narendra Modi. The outraged public wanted an immediate and strongly-worded condemnation from him, as a way of telling themselves this was still a country that believed in religious pluralism. Their demands were met with a deafening, soul-destroying silence.
Two days later, ruling party spokespersons added to the ignominy when they told nonplussed studio anchors to please stop going on about the rape in Jammu because it was a Muslim girl, saying they should focus on other rapes in other parts of the country. The party was hoping this would deflect attention from the real politics on brutal display, and follow their devious circular logic of taking religion out of the story by masking it with similar crimes elsewhere. Finally, Modi did speak, saying it was “a national shame,” but, by then, many felt the damage had been done.
Twitter trolls had already spent two days arguing that the government’s opponents were spinning a story of religious hate. They had chosen to ignore what the police said had happened: that on 7 January, Sanji Ram told his teenage nephew to kidnap the eight-year-old girl who often brought her family’s horses to graze in the forest. That he made Deepak Khajuria, a Special Police Officer part of the plan to dislodge the Bakerwal Muslims from the area. That they were asked by Sanji Ram to confine the girl to a local temple, where they knew her father would not come looking. That Sanji Ram and his nephew performed rituals before raping the girl. (The eight people accused have pleaded not guilty; the trial began on 16 April 2018).
The BJP and the Prime Minister have since condemned the rape, but failed to mention the religious bigotry behind it. After all, doing so would draw attention to Modi’s own track record as the chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 – a year when lynch mobs acted out against Muslims, killing a thousand. Modi was acquitted by the courts but the real battle in politics is about perception. Many still see him as a Hindu leader, as opposed to the head of a multi-cultural state.
The Prime Minister’s delayed condemnation, which made no mention of the alleged religious bigotry behind the murder, is now forcing people in India to ask the regime to explain the omissions. It’s also a way of deflecting attention from themselves – the everyday acts of excluding Muslims from the mainstream. The small choices that that are made: to overlook the banks that refuse to give credit cards to those in Muslim neighbourhoods and landlords who won’t rent space to Muslims. These choices that have stacked up over time to bigger political choices of a party and political dispensation that in turn echoes these silences, these omissions. Sometimes amplifying them and at others playing them down. But always, catering to the constituency of those who have begun to say out loud in the street, at rallies in support of rapists and in polite whispers in living rooms over cool glasses of Chardonnay, how this is really Hindu country.
The story of the eight-year-old blows the country’s secular cover utterly, completely and despicably. The unmasking has forced many supporters of the regime to waver, to ask themselves if this is indeed what they wanted. Elections are one year away, so these are not the kind of conversations Modi would like played out. Not in the country and not abroad, where he is forced to face protestors that will not let the questions die. His supporters may help steer placard carrying people away from Downing Street. But the ugly face is no longer hidden and it is making more and more Indians uncomfortable with the face they see and what it says about them.
Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker based in New Delhi, India. She tweets @revatilaul.