The case taps into some of the most stubborn issues India faces in the abuse of women and girls and the deep divisions between Hindus and Muslims.
The rape and killing of an 8-year-old girl is provoking major political fallout for India’s government, with an explosion of outrage reminiscent of the reaction several years ago after a young woman was brutally raped on a bus and later died of her injuries.
In the past few days, as protests erupted across the country, two high-level officials from the governing party have resigned, the Supreme Court has stepped in and opposition leaders have tried to push India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, into a corner.
Modi issued brief remarks Friday about the rape case and another recent one, but only after opposition leaders spoke out, criticising his silence. His statement that the country was ashamed about the rapes and that “our daughters will definitely get justice” hardly doused the growing anger.
What happened to this one little girl, whose crumpled body was found in a blood-smeared dress in January, is now the biggest news in India. It taps straight into some of the most stubborn issues this country faces in the abuse of women and girls and the deep divisions between Hindus and Muslims.
The girl came from a nomadic Muslim community in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Police say a group of Hindu men lured her into a forest, kidnapped her, drugged her, locked her in a Hindu temple, gang-raped her and then strangled her.
According to investigators, the culprits confessed after being arrested and said that they had targeted the young girl as part of a plot to terrorise her nomadic community and drive them away.
As more sickening details have emerged, the horror has grown. Some of India’s biggest film stars have staged a social media campaign to share their disgust. Many Indians say the revulsion they feel — and their anger at their government — is similar to that after the 2012 rape of the young woman on the bus in New Delhi, the capital, when all of India paused for a moment.
“A rape is a rape. This one may be even worse,” said Deepa Narayan, a social scientist who recently published a book on how women are treated in India. “The bus rape was a bunch of drunk men looking for a good time who lost all control. This was a very deliberately planned-out crime, using the rape of a little girl over days as a political weapon.”
In January, when the crime occurred, the girl’s death barely registered beyond local news reports.
But the case roared back to life this past week after a mob of lawyers surrounded a courthouse and tried to block police officers from filing charges (police eventually filed the charge sheet at a judge’s house). Some of the lawyers were aligned with Modi’s nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, known as the BJP.
Two BJP ministers in the Jammu and Kashmir state government who had participated in the protests resigned Friday under widespread criticism, facing accusations of obstructing justice and fanning religious divisions.
One of them, Choudhary Lal Singh, denied that he had quit under pressure from the BJP. “I did it because there was pressure from the country,” he said.
India’s ruling party seems to have failed to learn the painful political lessons from the 2012 rape. At the time, the Indian National Congress, now the leading opposition party, was in power, and it was severely criticised for its slow and tone-deaf reaction.
Those same criticisms are now being levelled against Modi and his party.
The Supreme Court has issued an order to the lawyers involved in the protests to explain why they physically blocked police officials from entering the courthouse. The lawyers have said they were stirred to action by a right-wing Hindu group that is pushing for the investigation to be taken out of the hands of the state police, which they say has a pro-Muslim bias, and given to a national crime bureau they say is more neutral.
This latest rape case is rapidly becoming another low point between India’s Hindus and Muslims; politicians have often stirred the two communities against each other, with fatal consequences. The victim was Muslim, all eight men arrested were Hindus and some of the investigators are Muslim. On the other side of the gulf, Muslims generally distrust the governing party and its Hindu nationalist philosophy.
And this is not the only big rape case the governing party has to deal with right now.
A powerful governing-party lawmaker in the Uttar Pradesh state Assembly has been accused of raping a teenage girl and then conspiring with his brother to help kill the girl’s father after the family complained.
Opposition leaders have turned the coincidence of these two cases to their advantage, holding a midnight vigil and accusing the governing party of protecting rapists and killers. But they might not have had the chance, analysts said, had Modi showed a little more concern, a little earlier.
“Mr Modi definitely spoke too late,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, vice chancellor of Ashoka University.
Narayan, the author, agreed. “Modi is always a slow reactor,” she said. “He waits for an issue to go away and when it doesn’t and he’s in a corner, he speaks up and makes platitudes.”
She added: “I think the BJP will suffer from this. They will pay a price for the impunity they’ve unleashed by not treating crimes as crimes but by politicising them.”