He is back in Rasana village in Jammu’s Kathua district. He returned in December, accompanied by his wife and a domestic worker. Like every year, they had trekked for miles through the Kashmir Valley, herding their flocks of sheep and goat, as is the custom in their Bakerwal community. While the Bakerwals spend the summer in the Valley, they go down to Jammu to escape the bitter winter, as do the Gujjars, a fellow nomadic community.

But Kathua does not feel like home anymore. “My heart is not at peace,” said the father of the eight-year-old girl whose bruised and battered body was found in a forest near Rasana on January 17 last year. “My land and house are here, otherwise I wouldn’t have come. After a month and a half, we will go to Samba. I hope there is someone who can buy my land and house. Even if the government gives me alternative space, I will leave.”

Their teenaged sons did not accompany the famiy to Rasana this year. “I know they will feel disturbed here after what happened to their sister, but there’s the fear factor as well,” said the father, who is being guarded by the police round the clock.

A week before his daughter’s body was found, she had gone out to tend to the family’s horses and never returned. A chargesheet filed by the state police’s Crime Branch on April 9 said she had been held captive in a “devasthan”, or temple, in the village, drugged, raped repeatedly, strangled to death and then bludgeoned.

The chargesheet concluded that the motive was to “dislodge” the Muslim Bakerwal community from the Hindu-dominated area of Hiranagar, where Rasana is located. The police arrested eight persons for their alleged involvement in the crime, including a juvenile and four police officials.

A year after the girl’s death, her family can only pray. The father had his brother-in-law who lives in neighbouring Samba district, to organise special prayers. “I told him to hold Fateh Khwani for my daughter there. Since we were only three here, I asked him to invite relatives and hold prayers in Samba,” he said. “Three of us also read Fateha for her here. We prayed for her soul.”

In isolation

It is a lonely existence for the family in Rasana. When they arrived, the father quickly realised how much discomfort their presence caused to the local residents. It became clear when he approached them to buy fodder. “They outright refused to sell pattis to me this year,” he said, referring to the shrubs fed to livestock. “All of those who refused to sell me fodder are relatives or family members of the accused. They have boycotted me. I had to go to another village to buy pattis.”

Their daughter’s murder became a communal flashpoint last year. All the accused were Hindu, and a newly launched group called the Hindu Ekta Manch rose up in their defence. They held rallies and meetings to protest against the arrest of the accused and called for a social boycott of the Gujjars and the Bakerwals, branding them “anti-nationals” who shouted pro-Pakistan slogans, asking Hindus not to sell land to them, give them fodder or trade with them.

The group’s founder was a former district president of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Kathua and its meetings were attended by BJP leaders and legislators.

The matter also strained the coalition between the BJP and the Peoples Democratic Party, led by then Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. While the BJP called for a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry, Mufti resisted. In April 2018, two BJP ministers – Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga – were sacked for participating in rallies in support of the accused.

The agitation also added to the polarisation between Hindu-majority Jammu and Muslim-majority Kashmir. In the Valley, there were protests demanding justice for the murdered child. In Jammu, local bar associations called strikes to push for a CBI inquiry and even tried to stop the police from filing the chargesheet in the Kathua district court in April. Jammu’s lawyers also offered free legal aid to the accused.

The chargesheet

The police’s investigation and April 9 chargesheet ran into controversy. It stated that the crime was planned by Sanji Ram, a retired government employee in Rasana, who collaborated with Deepak Khajuria, a special police officer, and a nephew said to be a juvenile. Ram’s son, Vishal Jangotra, was allegedly called home from Meerut a day after the child was kidnapped.

Khajuria, Jangotra and the juvenile, the chargesheet said, repeatedly raped the girl before killing her. Another special police officer, Surinder Kumar, was charged with direct involvement in the crime.

Ram was also alleged to have paid off two investigating officers in the case to leave deliberate gaps in the probe and destroy crucial evidence. The juvenile’s friend, one Parvesh Kumar, was also named as an accused.

The police filed a separate chargesheet against Ram’s nephew, although specific charges are yet to be framed. The other seven have been charged under various sections of the Ranbir Penal Code, for criminal conspiracy, causing hurt by means of poison, kidnapping, wrongful confinement, gang rape, murder, culpable homicide, causing disappearance of evidence of an offence, taking bribes as public servants.

A rally organised by the Hindu Ekta Manch in support of the accused. Photo via Twitter

To begin with, certain media outlets cast doubt on the Crime Branch’s claim that the child was raped, saying the postmortem report only spoke of injuries. Legal experts said that, according to government guidelines drafted in 2014, medical reports were not to speak of rape since that was a legal issue and not a diagnosis. Forensic experts said that, going by the injuries mentioned in the postmortem report, sexual assault could not be ruled out.

Then, Jangotra claimed that he was not in Kathua at the time of the crime but was writing exams at his college in Uttar Pradesh. The April 9 chargesheet alleged that Jangotra, a student at Akansha College in Mirapur, had tried to create an alibi by manipulating records to show attendance.

It was only in July 2018 that the Crime Branch “nullified” Jangotra’s claim in a supplementary chargesheet. “The Forensic Science Laboratory reports clearly indicate tampering of the attendance sheets and points to the fact that access to the attendance sheets has been given to the accused Vishal Jangotra and that the answer sheets of examination dated 12th and 15th of January were written by accused Vishal Jangotra subsequently,” the supplementary chargesheet read.

An analysis of his phone data showed Jangotra “was deeply perturbed”, the police said, and scared of being arrested well before the investigators had taken any step against him.

The trial

In spite of the controversies, the trial began at the Kathua sessions court on April 16. The government appointed two Sikh special public prosecutors for the trial – a move many saw as an attempt to avoid charges of communal bias.

But the child’s family petitioned the Supreme Court for the case to be transferred outside Jammu and Kashmir. On May 7, the court shifted the case to Pathankot in Punjab. According to the order passed by a bench headed by then Chief Justice Dipak Misra, the trial was to be held in-camera, fast-tracked, and conducted on a day-to-day basis.

JK Chopra, a special prosecutor in the case, said the prosecution finished examining 114 witnesses a few weeks ago. “At this stage of the trial, the statement of the accused is being recorded under Section 342 of Jammu and Kashmir Code of Criminal Procedure,” he added. “Under this provision, all evidence collected and presented by prosecution against the accused is put before him/her, in order to explain his/her stand. The examination of the defence’s witnesses will start after the conclusion of recording the statements of the seven accused.”

Chopra said the tension in Kathua after the incident put “huge pressure” on the witnesses in the case. However, none of them turned hostile or backed off from recording their statements.

The Jammu and Kashmir police also believe the case is moving in the right direction. “So far, we have presented 114 prosecution witnesses in the Pathankot court without a single adjournment,” said a senior police official involved in the investigation. “A hundred and fourteen witnesses doesn’t mean 114 days. There are witnesses who are examined for five-six days and we have to understand there are vacations also.”

According to Chopra, it will take another two-three months to complete the trial of the adult accused. The trial of the alleged juvenile is “on hold” because of the controversy over his age.

“It was the chief judicial magistrate in Kathua who had declared him a juvenile on the basis of some school record,” explained a senior police officer. “But the Jammu and Kashmir High court, when we were investigating the case, said he should be examined by a board of doctors. We got him examined and it was found that he wasn’t a juvenile. We have gone for a review in the High Court and it’s still pending. Our plea before the court is that he’s not a juvenile and that he should be tried with them.”

Chopra said the plea regarding the alleged juvenile’s age would be heard in February.

In Rasana, meanwhile, the girl’s family lives in the hope that justice will be done. “Initially, they said we will get justice in 90 days but it has been a year now,” said the father. “Our statements have been recorded, and I am constantly in touch with lawyers. They have assured me they are doing their best. I am hopeful.”

Also see:

Kathua case: Irresponsible reporting is feeding religious polarisation in India

How India reacts to the Kathua perversion will determine if the nation’s moral slide can be arrested

Who’s most guilty of the Kathua barbarity? Modi, Sangh Parivar, ‘secular parties’ – and all of us

Kathua and the narrative of Good Hindus saving Good Muslims from Bad Muslims