Students take part in a candlelight procession on April 13, 2018, as they protest over the rape and murder of an eight-year-old nomad girl, in Kathua, near Jammu. Photo: Reuters/ Mukesh Gupta
Students take part in a candlelight procession on April 13, 2018, as they protest over the rape and murder of an eight-year-old nomad girl, in Kathua, near Jammu. Photo: Reuters/ Mukesh Gupta

The brutal rape and murder of a young girl from a nomadic community in India’s far north has sent shockwaves across the world. But for the family at the center of the tragedy, a numbness and overwhelming sense of loss is what they struggle with every day.

Three months have passed since Sahima Bano* found the broken body of her eight-year-old daughter in the woods of Kathua district in the strife-torn state of Jammu and Kashmir. With haunted eyes, a haggard look and trembling lips, she narrates her encounter with the horror that befell her child.

“The world stopped when I heard the news. Her body was crumpled, and her angel-like face was dark and dreadful. It was her purple dress though, which I recognized, [and realized] that the dead girl was my daughter,” she said.

A charge sheet submitted to the court by Jammu and Kashmir police revealed unspeakable horrors that were perpetrated on the child, allegedly as part of a ploy to force the Muslim nomads out of the area.

Drugged, repeatedly raped in temple

They said the child was kidnapped, then drugged and raped repeatedly while held captive in a Hindu temple for a week, before being strangled and battered to death with a stone.

Eight men accused of being involved in the girl’s rape and murder appeared in court for an initial hearing on Monday. The accused have claimed innocence and sought a narco-test analysis (agreeing to allow chemicals to be used to induce the truth).

The gruesome nature of the crime and the national government’s limp response has sparked outrage with protests by Indians across the world.

Criticised over his silence for months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally issued a statement on Saturday to say that the perpetrators would not be allowed to get away. However, with evidence of lawmakers from his party supporting the rape accused mounting, many people have described the PM’s statement as “inadequate”.

Mother’s vivid dream before the child went missing

A day before the child went missing from her hut, Bano saw her girl in a dream – joyful, happy and carefree.

“There was not even a trace of fear on her innocent little face. She was laughing out loud when suddenly a white bird took her into the skies and disappeared. I wondered whether it was a dream or a nightmare,” she recalled.

Known in her clan as a child close to nature, the girl refused to go to school when she turned four. She wanted to play with the herd and make paper boats that she would sail down a nearby stream and chase them as far as she could. “She was the wisest and the wittiest when compared to her two elder siblings,” her mother said. “You could see her true nature sparkle in her deep, dark eyes when she’d smile.”

The child wore a purple dress when she left home on January 10 to graze the herd in nearby forests. She didn’t return at lunchtime and as dusk fell, her family had begun to worry. A trembling Bano said her heart began to beat worryingly for her daughter.

“During the entire night, we tried to find her but to no avail. We went to all relatives living nearby and then to her friends – she was nowhere. I looked up to the skies and began praying for her safety,” she said.

The next day, the family went to the nearby Hiranagar police station to register a first-information report about the child going missing. The child’s disappearance was raised in the state assembly. Then, on January 17,  police said they’d discovered her body.

Six days later, the case was taken over by a Special Investigation Team. Inquiries revealed that the girl was kidnapped, raped and drugged for days before being killed.

‘Worse than wild beasts’

The child’s family belongs to a community of nomadic shepherds who crisscross the Himalayas with their livestock. In the winter, they often travel from the Kashmir Valley to Jammu, where they graze their cattle and horses on public forests. This had brought them into conflict with some Hindu residents in the region.

But for Bano, the people who raped and killed her child have committed an unspeakable atrocity. “Setting religion aside, would you call them humans? They are worse than wild beasts. How could they do this to a little girl?” she cried.

When the child’s body was handed over to her family, Hindu extremists in the area refused to allow them a small piece of land to bury her.

“They didn’t even allow us to bury her here,” the child’s father Mukhtar Yusuf* said. “This place was her home. She grew up here, learned to crawl and play. We had to take her body to a distant location for burial,” he told Asia Times.

“There are fanatic Hindu groups who do not want us here. There have been threats and intimidation for some time, but we didn’t even imagine in our dreams that our little child would become the victim of their brutality one day,” he said.

Forget money, ‘I want them hanged’

For the child’s mother, life has come to a standstill.

“I can never be happy again. It is her face and the torture inflicted upon her that will hound me till death. I don’t know, was that angel-like face my daughter or a dream?” she asks. “If the Hindu groups wanted us to go, they could have simply threatened us. Why did they do this to my child? Can any human being do this to a little girl?”

Bano has rejected financial compensation from the Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP-BJP state government, saying the only solace the distraught family can seek is stern punishment for the culprits.

“I want them hanged and then I will catch them by the neck on the day of judgment and drag them to God’s court. I will tell God everything,” she weeps as her relatives try to console her.

We met the family after they fled north from Jammu for Kashmir. “They could have killed us, and I don’t want my other family members to suffer,” Yusuf explained.

(*Names of the girl’s family members have been changed to protect them).

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