“Did she think in terms of Hindu and Musalman?” he asks, over the phone from somewhere in the hills of Sanasar.
As the brutal rape and murder of his eight-year-old daughter becomes a political tool in Jammu and Kashmir, the Bakherwal nomad and his family quietly packed their bags and set off on a 600-km journey with their livestock up into the hills, like they do every summer.
Speaking to The Indian Express, the 35-year-old cries, “If they had to take revenge, they could have picked someone else. She was an innocent child. Usey apney haath aur paun mein pata nahin tha, ki mera daayan haath kaun sa hai aur baayan haath kaun sa hai. Kabhi usney yeh nahin samjha ki Hindu kya hota hai aur Musalmaan kya hota hai (She couldn’t tell her arms from her legs, couldn’t tell which hand was right and which left. She never thought who was a Hindu, who a Muslim).”
She was the youngest of their three children. The boys are in Classes 11 and 6, and during the family’s time in Kathua, went to schools in neighbouring villages.
The 35-year-old adopted the girl from his sister when she was one, after he lost two other children, to an accident. “The girl would give company to her mother when we would all be away,” he says.
He recalls how she helped her mother with the chores, and how fond she was of animals, including the family’s horses, their two newborn lambs, and a dog she fed daily. “Whenever I went out of the house, she insisted on accompanying me.”
But a visit to Samba town with her mother in the first week of January, where she got clothes stiched for a cousin’s wedding, would be the last time she left home on a trip. On January 10, four days before the function, she was abducted. The clothes she was wearing were recovered before her body was.
This summer, her mother had insisted, they would get the eight-year-old admitted to a “private academy”. “Humney yeh nahin socha tha ki hum apni bachchi ko doctor banayenge, teacher banayenge. Humney itni badi soch rakhi nahin thi. Humney to yeh socha tha ki padh jayegi to apney ko dekh legi, apna waqt guzaar legi, rehney ka tariqa aa jayega. Khoobsorat thi, kisi achchey ghar mein chali jaayegi (We never thought we would make her a doctor, a teacher. We didn’t have such big ambitions. We thought that if she studied, she could look after herself, learn how to live well. She was so pretty, we thought she would find a good groom)… We never thought we would lose her to beasts before that.”
Nothing like this had ever happened to any of the nomads in Kathua, during the generations they have been coming to the region, the father adds. “Our daughters would go to schools in the area and we would live with our Hindu neighbours like brothers and sisters… We would even visit each other’s home and attend their wedding functions.”
Things had started changing in the past few years, the 35-year-old adds. “The accused incited people against us, making wild allegations, that we smuggle cows from Jammu to Kashmir for sale, that we sell drugs, that our cattle damage their standing crops… that our settlement would create problems for Hindus. However, we had no such thing in mind.”
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The father especially blames ex-revenue official Sanji Ram who, after retirement, took over the role of an elderly at the village where they stayed for the winter. He accuses Sanji Ram of threatening them. “They would not allow us to even walk on the road passing through the village… They would not hand over our goat or sheep that strayed over.”
Still, they never expected such a crime. “I thought Sanji Ram was just angry over some of our cattle damaging crops. Nuksaan hoga, humein thappad marengey, FIR laga dengey, ya phir zurmana bharna padega. Humney nahin socha tha ki itni ghinoni harkat karengey yeh (At the most, we thought we would face losses, they would hit us, slap FIRs on us, make us pay fines. We never thought they could do something like this).”
It breaks his heart to think his daughter was tortured in the devasthan (prayer hall) nearby, that he passed by every day. “Policemen, including SPO Deepak Khajuria (one of the accused), would be always outside it. We never thought of searching inside the prayer hall itself as we knew it to be a pious place.”
Moving with his family, their 200-250 sheep and goat, besides over a dozen horses, to Kargil, where they will spend the summer, he adds, “Humari sab se wadi adalat woh Allah ki adalat hai, jisme har kisi ka faisla hota hai. Humney usi adalat pe chorh diya hai. Jo mera Rabh karega, bas (Our highest court is that of Allah, in which everyone is put on trial. We have left the matter to that court, whatever my Allah will decide is final).”
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And he is hopeful, the father adds. “You can see it for yourself, whoever does a crime, leaves a trail.” He points to the fact that the accused dumped his daughter’s body in the village itself. “If they had taken her elsewhere, how would we have ever come to know?”
The accused could have never imagined the matter would become this big either, the 35-year-old adds. “They must have thought I am the weakest target and will, at the most, go to the police station… Rab kisi ko nahin chodta. Haq aur nahaq, jaayaz aur naajayaz ko dekh raha hai woh (The God does not spare anyone. What is right and wrong, He watches everything).”
He hasn’t lost his faith in humanity either, the father adds. Expressing satisfaction with the J&K Police probe as “fair and impartial”, he says it’s only a handful who have been protesting against it, making the point that the state Chief Minister and investigating officials are Muslims. Most Hindus and Muslims of the region, he insists, condemn the murder and want the accused punished.
“We would have come on the roads seeking justice if this had happened to a Hindu girl,” he adds. “Humanity comes first, before one’s religion as a Hindu or Muslim.”
That is why, he says, he will return to the Kathua village come September, like he does every year, when it’s winter in Kargil. “Why will we not return? We have a home there. At the most, they will kill us as well.”