Eight men accused of involvement in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in India's Jammu and Kashmir state appeared in court on Monday for the first hearing in a case that sparked nationwide outrage and criticism of the ruling party.
The girl, from a nomadic community that roams the forests of Kashmir, was drugged, held captive in a temple and sexually assaulted for a week before being strangled and battered to death with a stone in January, police said.
Public anger at the crime led to protests in cities across India over the past few days, with outrage fuelled by support for the accused initially shown by ministers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.
The protests have also focused on another rape allegedly involving a BJP lawmaker in the crime-ridden, most populous, poor northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
The national outrage has drawn parallels with the massive protests that followed the gang rape and murder of a girl on a Delhi bus in 2012, which forced the then Congress-led government to enact tough new rape laws including the death penalty.
Yet India has long been plagued by violence against women and children - reported rapes climbed 60 percent from 2012 to 40,000 in 2016, and many more go unreported, especially in backward rural areas.
More rallies demanding action against rapists and violence against women were expected on Monday in the capital and Ahmedabad, the state capital of Modi's home state of Gujarat, where reports of the torture, rape and murder of another child emerged.
In that case, the corpse of a girl of around 10 was found a week ago, and on Sunday police revealed the body had 86 injury marks. They have still to identify the victim, and have offered a reward for information.
As the groundswell of revulsion gathered momentum, Modi assured the country on Friday that the guilty would not be shielded, but he has been criticised for failing to speak out sooner.
Before leaving for an official visit to Europe this week, Modi received a letter from 50 former police chiefs, ambassadors and senior civil servants upbraiding the country's political leadership over its weak response.
"The bestiality and the barbarity involved in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old child shows the depths of depravity that we have sunk into," the letter said.
"In post-Independence India, this is our darkest hour and we find the response of our government, the leaders of our political parties inadequate and feeble."
The letter went further by blaming the BJP and likeminded right-wing Hindu groups for promoting a culture of "majoritarian belligerence and aggression" in Jammu, and in the Uttar Pradesh case it blasted the party for using feudal strongmen, who behave like gangsters, to shore up its rule.
Threats against lawyer
Fallout from the 2012 case led to the resignation of Congress chief minister of Delhi. This time, Congress was quick to realise the mood of the country, with party leader Rahul Gandhi leading the first major protest in the capital last week.
On Monday, Gandhi tweeted that there had been nearly 20,000 child rapes in India in 2016, and urged Modi to fast-track prosecutions "if he is serious about providing 'justice for our daughters'".
Though the rape and killing of the girl in Kashmir had been known about for months, the public backlash erupted after the charge sheet giving gruesome details of the crime was finally filed last week.
It alleged that the attack was part of a plan to drive the nomads out of Kathua district in Jammu, the mostly Hindu portion of India's only Muslim majority state.
The alleged ringleader, retired bureaucrat Sanji Ram, looked after a small Hindu temple where the girl had been held captive and assaulted. Two of the eight on trial are police officers who stand accused of being bribed to stifle the investigation.
After Monday's initial hearing in Srinagar, the judge adjourned the case until April 28 while the Supreme Court considers a request from the lawyer representing the victim's family to have trial held elsewhere due to fears for her safety.
Ahead of the trial, she said she had been threatened with rape and death for taking up the case.
"I was threatened yesterday that ‘we will not forgive you’. I am going to tell Supreme Court that I am in danger,” lawyer Deepika Singh Rawat, who has fought for a proper investigation since the girl's body was found in January, said.
Two ministers from the BJP, which shares power in Jammu and Kashmir, were forced to resign after being pilloried for joining a rally in support of the accused men.
Activists say crimes of violence against women are often inadequately investigated, and in some cases accused with political connections have been protected.
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