There are, in the life of every nation, defining moments, thresholds or rubicons crossed, red lines violated, precedents set. One such defining moment is now unfolding in the town of Kathua (which is derived from a word in the local Dogri language that apparently means “scorpions”) in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Here, in what they call the Crown of India, hundreds of townsfolk have thrown in their lot with eight men, including four police officers and a teenager, suspected of repeatedly raping, drugging, brutalizing and, finally, battering to death with a stone an eight-year-old girl whom they confined for days in a temple two months ago; police officers later tried to destroy forensic evidence by washing the girl’s clothes. That, at least, was the sequence of events described in the chargesheet. Protest marches, with the national flag and two ministers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in attendance, wound through the town, lawyers screaming “Jai Shri Ram” tried to prevent the police from filing the chargesheet, the judge accepted the chargesheet only after superiors from the High Court intervened, and the town shut down on Wednesday in solidarity with the suspects. All the while, opposition political parties, including the supposedly secular Congress, and television’s talking and shouting heads ignored every new perversion and every move towards a new red line. On India’s normally angry, heaving streets, where thousands once raged against the rape of a young woman called Nirbhaya, “India’s daughter”, all was at peace.

There is only one reason men accused of such a heinous crime have widespread public support: like the majority of people in Kathua, the suspects are Hindu; the girl was Muslim.

Rarely before in 21st century India have such cruel and nakedly sectarian instincts been deployed to justify the murder and alleged gang rape of a child. Rarely before has there been such an insult to India’s flag – it was used earlier this decade to drape the coffin of a Hindu who murdered Muslims in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh – its traditions and Constitution. Rarely before has India so obviously faced its darkest side and refused to recognise it.

In other words, there is every evidence that the national shame of Kathua is a defining moment. How the justice system, politicians, media and the public at large react from here on as the case comes to wider national attention – mainly by force of social media – may define how India reacts tomorrow to similar crimes and situations involving religion and children, and if it will hold on to its modern, founding ideals, at a time of growing religious stress.

Towards an apartheid state

Former foreign secretary Nirupama Menon Rao spoke for millions of Indians horrified by the death of the young girl, the daughter of a nomad Muslim family who was abducted while grazing horses. The alleged rape was part of a plan by radicalised Hindus to drive Muslims from the area. The plotters represent many millions of such Hindus who have crossed many defining moments; and in doing so are reaching or already have reached – the conclusion that India must eventually become an apartheid state, a Hindu rashtra where the Hindu has first claim to everything.

Indeed, on the day Hindu (and some Sikh) lawyers – they want the investigation, which is almost complete, handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation – tried to stop the Jammu and Kashmir Crime Branch from handing over the chargesheet to the reluctant judge, a BJP legislator from Rajasthan urged Hindus to follow his lead and bar Muslims from their homes. In the cascade of depressing defining moments that have overwhelmed India this century – from killings in the name of love and religious purity to murders in the name of the holy cow – the Kathua case is particularly egregious because it involves a child, it involves a region where inter-religious relations are hanging by a thread, and it involves a nation more willing than ever to discard the rule of law.

There is no shortage of child rape in India. Every day there are reports, usually ignored, of infants and children violated, battered and, often, murdered. These rapes are sometimes so violent that there are calls for an automatic death sentence to the rapists. That demand was answered recently in three states, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, all ruled by the BJP, which is why it is ironic that the party has not just stayed silent about the child’s gruesome end but supported the alleged rapists and murderers.

Rule of the mob

Indeed, that is the difference between the horror of Kathua and other assaults on children – nowhere else and never have the perpetrators received official and public backing because they belong to a particular religion. The Kathua Bar Association in demanding a CBI inquiry argued that the state government had failed to “understand the sentiments of the people”.

This is an old and dangerous argument. Something must be done because the majority demands it. It is an argument used to justify a variety of Indian outrages, from the censorship of cartoons, films and books to the crippling of the justice system after pogroms, such as the Delhi anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and the Gujarat anti-Muslim riots of 2002. Implicit in this “sentiments of the people” position is that the law should cede authority to the mob. In volatile, rebellious Kashmir – where alienation from Indian authority is arguably at unprecedented levels and Hindu-Muslim relations tenuous – this stand is particularly dangerous, pushing the entire region towards a threshold of intolerance best kept at a distance.

If they have the best interests of India at heart, the BJP and the prime minister can pull Kathua back from the precipice. It is not difficult: they need only say the right thing and let the law proceed without hindrance. The mob – as mobs often are – is cowardly. But to rein in the mob, the BJP must stand for what is just and lawful, qualities they have frequently abandoned when minorities are involved. It will mean a loss of face for the party among its radicalised supporters and the erosion of that vote bank. This may be too much to expect of a party whose spokespersons have been defending the suspects and questioning the investigation. Those, apparently, are Modi’s views of the matter.

As India’s main opposition party, the Congress ended its strategic and disgraceful silence on Wednesday. But its leader, the otherwise vocal Rahul Gandhi, stayed silent, even as he spoke up about an alleged rape by a BJP MLA in Uttar Pradesh. It is not too late for Gandhi to say that he cannot accept the outrage in Kathua. In so doing, he will provide much-needed evidence that his party can – still – live up to the secular principles on which it was founded and of which it so frequently boasts. If there ever was a time for Gandhi to show he can be a leader for all Indians, and not simply imitate Modi in temple visits, it is now.

As for the rest of us, if we cannot unilaterally and whole-heartedly demand justice for the young girl, if we do not accept her as India’s daughter, we are condemned to live another defining moment in the great, moral decline of India and join its slow slide towards the darkness.

Samar Halarnkar is the editor of IndiaSpend, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit.