Kathua: Month on, rape & murder split a village down the middle

The girl’s body was found on January 17, seven days after she went missing. She had been allegedly raped and strangled, said police.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Kathua | Updated: February 23, 2018 8:29:41 am
kathua, kathua Rape & Murder case, 8-year-old sexual molestation, sexual assault-murder of kathua girl, syed ali shah geelani, kathua girl sexual assault, bjp, congress, mehbooba mufti, india news The storeroom where the victim was allegedly kept, in Kathua near Jammu. (Express Photo: Nirupama Subramanian)

IT’S BEEN over a month but the chalk marks outlining the spot where the small body lay face down between trees have not yet faded. And so is the grief and despair at the home of the seven-year-old girl who was found dead that morning in the woods behind Rasana village in Kathua near Jammu.

“I adopted her from my sister when she was just two months old, and brought her up as my own. She was a part of my family for seven years,” says her father, who hails from the Bakherwal, a Muslim community of nomadic grazers.

The girl’s body was found on January 17, seven days after she went missing. She had been allegedly raped and strangled, said police. Within a day, a minor boy living with his uncle in Rasana was arrested and placed in a juvenile home. This month, two Special Police Officers from the area, Deepak Khajuria and Surinder Verma, were held on charges of rape and murder.

Read | Kathua rape-murder: Separatists accuse BJP of trying to trigger communal flare-up

With the crime and the arrests widening communal faultlines across Kathua, on the International Border with Pakistan, prohibitory orders were quickly put in place. Today, the divide is all too apparent in Rasana, where 13 Brahmin households stay in closely packed homes on either side of a 200-metre-long, eight-feet-wide lane.

What is under severe strain here are links that go back at least 40 years, between the residents and the Bakherwal, who annually set up camp on the forest and private land around the village in winter.

“Now people are floating all kinds of stories, that she was not my daughter, that this crime was committed by Bakherwals themselves because of a fight between us. They are all lies,” says the girl’s father.

Read | Prohibitory orders in Kathua days after march by Hindu manch

Located on a rise off NH 44, the “Srinagar-Kanyakumari highway”, Rasana is part of Kootah panchayat. Kant Kumar, Kootah’s ex-sarpanch, says there was “a little tension” over where the girl’s body was to be buried. “The family wanted to bury her in Kootah. It was private land, but I helped defuse the matter, and managed the funeral in a graveyard in nearby Kanah village,” he says.

Both Kumar and the girl’s father deny rumours of a “social boycott” of Bakherwals in the area. But clearly, the incident has left an indelible scar.

“Rasana has never known a crime like this… When I heard about what had been done to the girl, I cried. Girls that age, whatever their religion, are deviroop (like Goddesses), we pray to them,” says the aunt of the teenager who was arrested.

It was from around 200 feet behind her house that the girl’s body was discovered. “But he is innocent. He is too small to have taken part in something so brutal, he was even scared of stepping out in the dark,” she says.

The aunt says the boy was left in her husband’s care by his sister three months ago because “he had fallen in bad company”. “But he is a good boy… we are Hindu Brahmins, we don’t commit such crimes,” she says.

Pointing to a cow shed across her home, she counters police charges that the boy had kept the girl hidden in a storeroom in the compound. “We go in and out of this room daily. There are houses on both sides and across. How did no one notice something was amiss? Someone would have heard her crying or seen her,” she says.

“If police are investigating us, they should also investigate them. Bakherwals have a lot of ranjish (enmity) between themselves. One of them might have committed this crime,” she claims.

According to the girl’s father, he is among the 20-odd Bakherwal families that have bought land on the outskirts of the village from Hindu owners and constructed homes. He bought a 14-kanal plot for Rs 12,000 per kanal around 10 years ago and constructed a four-room house. “Some people in Kootah have been saying that Bakherwal animals are trespassing on their fields, and eating up their crops and trees,” he says, adding that he owns 50 goats, 50 sheep and around 20 horses.

Residents say Khajuria, the SPO who was arrested on February 8 by the Crime Branch which took over the case following protests, was among those who objected to the grazing of Bakherwal cattle. And Khajuria’s family, based in Damiyal about 2 km away, insists that he is being framed.

“Four months ago, Deepak had an altercation with a Bakherwal, a neighbour of the girl’s father, over animals grazing on his property in Rasana. I have known the girl’s father for 40 years. He is a good man, but there are others who have pressured police to frame Deepu to take out their grievances against him,” claims Updesh Khajuria, the accused’s father and a havildar in J&K Armed Police in Jammu.

“Deepak became an SPO four years ago, and used to do night shifts at the checkpost on the highway at Kootah. He had some run-ins with some of the Bakherwals over cattle smuggling,” claims the father.

Updesh, who is set to retire in two months, alleges his son was taken to the Crime Branch office in Jammu “on false pretences” and “beaten for hours”. “Even if I have not committed any crime, I would admit to it under third-degree methods. I know my son, I have faith in my blood, he could not have done this,” he says.

“That girl is everyone’s daughter, it’s a horrific crime, and the guilty must be given exemplary punishment. But the police have to catch the right person… Deepak was to get married in April. The girl’s family are convinced that Deepak is innocent because every one in Damiyal has given him a clean chit,” says the father.

According to the Crime Branch, there is strong evidence against the accused. And police officers familiar with the investigation say it was a pre-meditated crime, planned over weeks. Detailed findings from the post mortem and forensics are awaited, and police are planning to move court to conduct DNA tests. There might be more arrests, say officers.

But as demands grow from supporters of the accused for a CBI enquiry, word has spread among the Bakherwals that the girl was killed to allegedly “terrorise” them and drive them away from lands on which they have traditionally set up camps.

(Tomorrow: Across party lines, all stir the communal pot)

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