'She was just a little girl. She didn't understand religion. Who is Hindu, who is Muslim.'
'She was just 8! Why punish her?'
The family of the eight-year-old girl who was gang-raped and murdered in Jammu's Kathua district say everything has changed since that horrific crime.
Rediff.com's Swarupa Dutt reports.
In December 2017, in Rasana village in Jammu's Kathua district, a 15-year-old boy with a smartphone asks his sister to smile.
He takes her to the area demarcated as the kitchen in their one-room home and with her standing before a backdrop of utensils, he takes a picture.
The girl dressed in a purple kurta with yellow flowers, crosses her arms and smiles tentatively.
Big, beautiful eyes, brown hair and a trace of mischief.
It is the first time the little girl is being photographed.
On January 17, 2018, seven days after she went missing, her body was found face down in the woods, clad in the same purple salwar kameez.
That is the second time her photograph is taken.
The first is the only photograph of her alive and is everywhere, appearing in newspapers, magazines, television debates and news bulletins, Web sites, demanding justice for the little girl who was abducted, gang-raped and murdered.
Her body dumped in the scraggly forests behind the temple where she was allegedly confined.
Her father describes her as "khoobsurat" (beautiful), with laughing eyes, and "masoom" (innocent).
>> January 17: The eight year old's body is found with marks of physical violence; her lips were bitten and there were signs that she had been tortured.
>> January 22: Once the FIR was lodged, an initial arrest was made, post which the case was shifted to the crime branch because the Bakerwal community protested that the local police and government were not handling the case effectively.
>> February 15: The Hindu Ekta Manch holds a protest march in which Hindu residents of Rasana, Dhamiyal and other villages take to the national highway, waving the Indian flag, to demand the release of special police officer Deepak Kajuria.
>> April 9: Lawyers from the Jammu high court bar association prevent the police in Kathua from presenting before the local court a chargesheet in the gang-rape and murder.
>> April 11: The lawyers call for a bandh, saying the crime branch probe, which forms the basis of the chargesheet, is biased and the case needs a Central Bureau of Investigation probe.
>> April 16: The Supreme Court directs the Jammu and Kashmir government to provide security to the family of the eight-year-old victim, the lawyer and a family friend assisting them in pursuing the case. It also takes note of a plea by the victim's father seeking transfer of the trial of the case from Kathua, preferably to Chandigarh and seeks the state government's response.
"She was such a pretty girl, intelligent and spoke well (batein achchi karti thi)," her mother says wistfully. "She was perfect."
Her aunt calls her loving, warm and beautiful.
Her neighbour, who lives five minutes from her home in Rasana village, says he knew her since she was an infant and always thought she was meant for better things, a better life.
"Maybe that's why she was taken away from us," he says.
Her parents have come to terms with her death.
"How long will you grieve? We will fall ill. I have already lost two children (to a road accident eight years ago), so we find it difficult to understand why we have to bear another loss."
"We miss her, beshak, of course, but our grief is personal. What we have to do is bring the culprits to justice," the father says.
He is actually her mamu, though she called him kaku, abbu, whatever pleased her. He has two biological sons, but he always wanted a daughter.
"We adopted her when she was three months old. She was our daughter, not our niece," says his wife.
They are on their way to Patnitop, which is just a little over four hours by car, but will take them over a week on foot.
It is one of the pit stops before Panikhar in Leh-Ladakh where they will spend the summer months.
"We always leave for the mountains in April," her father says, rubbishing reports that he was forced to leave their village out of fear from the Dogras, the majority Hindu community in Jammu.
Just as the state assembly moves from Srinagar in Kashmir to Jammu every winter, so do the Bakarwals (the nomadic shepherd community they belong to) move home from the mountains in Kashmir to their villages in Kathua every winter.
The journey to the mountains is their only constant, everything else has changed since the incident, says the girl's uncle who lives a five minute walk away from her home.
"Mahol bilkul badal gaya hai. (The atmosphere has completely changed after the girl's death)," they say.
The Bakarwals live in two villages -- Rasana and Kuta -- in Kathua in Jammu, first arriving here in the 1940s, they say. It is a Hindu majority area, but the two communities have always lived together peaceably.
After the girl's death, water supply to the few Bakarwal homes that get tap water was stopped.
The Hindus also prevented the Bakarwals from getting water from dhabas or from the hand pump at the chauraha.
"If we were in a Muslim majority area like Srinagar, or anywhere in Kashmir, we would have been safe," the girl's uncle says.
He mentions the "minister in Gujarat" who was burnt alive (referring to former member of Parliament Ehsan Jafri who was killed in the 2002 Gujarat riots), and says the Bakarwals are insignificant in comparison.
"They could do the same to us. So we think we should go where we have a majority," he says.
According to the state crime branch investigation, the child's abduction, rape and murder was meant to strike fear among the Bakarwals in order to drive them out of the area.
Thoughts of leaving Kathua have preoccupied the community ever since the girl's death. "We know they want us to leave, they want our land back. We don't want to stay here either, but it is not practical to leave."
"We have bought the land, built our houses, spent our money, why should we leave?!"
"We would have to leave our occupation because our animals cannot stay in the mountains in winter. We have to come home to Kathua, where else can we go?" the child's uncle asks.
The sense of alienation began the day the girl's body was found.
A gaddi (a Hindu shepherd) told them that she had been found.
"That terrible night 10 to 12 men from our community were digging her grave when a large group of their men came and told us we could not bury her in the graveyard as the land did not belong to us. They accused us of land grabbing," the family's neigbour says.
"We were in no mood to argue so we buried her 8 km away. You can imagine what the parents went through? First the shock, then the grief, and then this."
The child's aunt says they buried her at 8 in the night.
The entire Bakarwal community was there, but not a single Dogra.
"Hum rote pithte the, us waqt kisne gina. We were crying and beating our breasts, we did not realise it then. But now, when I think back, they didn't come. Not a single person."
Her uncle (father's brother) concedes that never in the last 50 years have they ever felt insecure or frightened. They always lived peaceably with their Hindu neighbours.
But the child's rape and murder has changed everything.
The Dogras did come to express their condolences, the uncle says, but feels their concern is not genuine. The Dogras feel the Bakarwals are getting undue publicity with this incident and the Dogras are being shown in bad light, he says.
The girl's mother says they love the land and don't want to leave.
"This is the first time something like this has happened. We now live in fear, but we will never leave our villages. We have bought land here, built our houses here, where will we go?"
"And why should we go? Hum nahin hatenge," the mother's sister adds.
"Some of our children are buried here, our parents, our grandparents, why should we leave? Hum toh idhar hi baithenge."
This determination also stems from the thirst for justice.
"It gives us some purpose in life," says her mother. "We loved her so much. She was everything to us. She was naughty, but not disobedient or irresponsible."
Which is why when she did not return home on the afternoon of January 10, the family did not panic immediately. They simply believed she would come home.
Her parents started calling neighbours by 6 pm. By 7 pm, everyone in the community knew she had gone missing. They spent the night looking for her, but poorly-lit roads and dark patches of shrubbery yielded little.
The feeling of community is strong among the Bakarwals.
It wasn't one family's missing child, it was their missing child.
They looked for her every single day. She was their child, not livestock, they say. And they did not want to depend on the police.
Some even thought she had been abducted by the phantom barbers who had struck fear in Haryana and Rajasthan in 2017. The girl had pretty, soft hair, they said.
Retrospection can be debilitating, but the girl's uncle says he wished they had insisted in having the Dogra houses or the temple where she was allegedly held captive searched.
"I now know that the police were hand in glove with the culprits, nothing could have been done," he sighs.
Till her body was found, not once did her parents or her relatives think she was dead.
"You have to understand this kind of thing has never happened to us. We even thought she could have gone away to the hills with some other Bakarwal family, but she was responsible, so we really couldn't find an answer," her father says.
The family home is located just 500 metres from the temple.
"If you shout from her house it can be heard in the temple," says the uncle. "We never thought to look in the temple because till today we cannot believe that something like this can happen inside a temple."
"There is a god inside, how could they even think of doing something like this?" the uncle asks.
He has lived with Hindus for close to 50 years and says little girls are worshipped in the form of goddess Durga.
"She was just a little girl. How could they even think of her in any other manner? She didn't understand religion. Who is Hindu, who is Muslim. She was just 8! Why punish her?" he says.
Vijay Sharma, an advocate and president of the Hindu Ekta Manch, which held several protest rallies in support of the eight accused, rubbishes the mention in the chargesheet of the temple being used to rape the girl.
"The temple has three doors, the keys to the doors are given to the villagers so anyone can access the temple. From the ventilation windows you can peep inside the temple. It is impossible to hide anyone inside. This is why we doubt the crime branch investigation," says Sharma.
"She was our daughter too, we have daughters too. She was treated worse than an animal. The crime branch is trying to poison the minds of people against us to slander us," adds Sharma.
All this talk of the Hindus wanting the Bakarwals to leave Kathua or Jammu is nonsense, insists Sharma.
"We never supported the rapists. All we want is that the right people be arrested. We cannot comment on why the state ministers had to resign, all we can say is that they were there in the protest to lend their voice to the injustice that was being done to the accused," Sharma says.
On April 16, as the trial began, the eight men accused of raping and killing the girl pleaded not guilty and asked the judge for a narco analysis test.
Of the eight accused, some like Sanjhi Ram, a retired revenue officer, was known to the Bakarwals. As was special police officer Deepak Khajuria.
Sanjhi Ram always forbade the tribesmen from grazing their animals near his home.
They allege he was rude and abusive, and so they steered clear of him. "Hamara rasta hi alag tha. We went our separate ways," they say.
As for Khajuria, according to the crime branch chargesheet, he was the man who wanted to rape the girl, "one last time" before she was killed.
He had then allegedly tried to strangle the girl by placing his knees on her neck, the chargesheet alleges, but failed to kill her.
He had told the Bakarwals when they went searching for the girl that monkeys may have eaten her up.
"The day we went to file the missing person FIR on January 12, he was not helpful at all. We were around 40 of us and insisted he file the FIR. The only day we saw the police being proactive was when her dead body was found," her uncle says.
The Hindu Ekta Manch's Vijay Sharma says he does not want the killers to go scot free, but the probe should be handed over to the CBI.
"In the Pradhyumn murder case, the state police caught the wrong person. It was the CBI which apprehended the juvenile," says Sharma.
"Similarly, here too, we believe the state police have caught the wrong people. The accused confessed because they were tortured in custody."
The girl's uncle said they felt saddened to see the protest marches in support of the alleged rapists.
"During the Nirbhaya rape people hit the streets demanding action against the rapists. But today, lawyers in Kathua and Jammu and BJP ministers are protesting against the arrest of the rapists. Why? Because we belong to another community?"
Kathua bar association president Kirty Bhushan Mahajan said lawyers held protests demanding the right people be arrested in the case.
"Witnesses have told us that the accused have been brutally tortured and their confessional statements were made under duress. Which is why we want the probe to be transferred to the CBI," says Mahajan.
"Our protests have nothing to do with the girl's religion. What happened was heinous and cannot be condoned, but the crime branch has arrested the wrong people," he says.
The Supreme Court took serious note of the lawyers obstructing the judicial process and initiated a case against them.
The girl's father says he should reach Patnitop on April 18. With him are over 150 animals, mostly sheep, goat and some cows. The horses are pack animals. He makes around Rs 225,000 a year selling livestock and wool, and he can ill afford lawyers' fees.
"I am grateful that people have taken notice of what happened to an insignificant family of sheep herders from a small village," he says.
"I hope my daughter can rest in peace soon."