NEW DELHI — In early January, Asifa Bano, an 8-year-old girl in a purple dress, was grazing her horses in a meadow in northern India. A man beckoned her into a forest. She followed.
According to the police, he grabbed her by the neck and forced her to take sleeping pills. With the help of a friend, they say, he dragged her to a nearby temple and locked her inside.
For the next three days, the police say, the two men and at least one other raped her, again and again. They told investigators that their motive had been to drive Asifa’s nomadic community out of the area. In the end, she was strangled, after one of the men allegedly insisted on raping her one last time.
Days later, Asifa’s crumpled body was found in the forest, in the same purple dress, now smeared with blood.
Eight men have been arrested in connection with the case, and several have
confessed, according to the police in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, where the killing took place. Two of the accused are police officers said to have accepted thousands of dollars to cover up the crime. One of the arrested suspects said he was 15, though police officers, based on a medical examination, believe he is at least 19.
It seemed another isolated, horrific episode of sexual violence in India, perpetrated against a powerless girl by brutal men. But in the months since Asifa’s murder, the case has become another battleground in India’s religious wars.
Hindu nationalists have turned it into a rallying cry — not calling for justice for Asifa, but rushing to the defense of the accused. All of the men arrested are Hindu, and Asifa’s nomadic people, the Bakarwals, are Muslim.
Some of the police officers who investigated the case are also Muslim, and for that reason, the Hindu activists say, they cannot be trusted.
This week, a mob of Hindu lawyers physically blocked police officers from entering a courthouse to file charges against the men. The officers retreated to a judge’s house later in the evening to complete the paperwork.
Protests and counterprotests are now spreading. On Wednesday, much of Kathua, a small town in northern India near where Asifa was killed, was shut down by demonstrators, including dozens of Hindu women who helped block a highway and organize a hunger strike.
“They are against our religion,’’ said Bimla Devi, one of the protesters. If the accused men aren’t released, she said, “we will burn ourselves.’’
Police officials say they have physical evidence and DNA tests linking the defendants to Asifa’s death. They also say they have interviewed more than 130 witnesses, who “unequivocally corroborated the facts that emerged.’’
Several prominent members of India’s dominant political force, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, are pushing to have the case taken out of the hands of the state police, arguing that the Central Bureau of Investigation would be a better, more neutral agency to handle it. Many suspect this is an attempt to win leniency for the accused, noting that the bureau is an arm of the central government, which the Bharatiya Janata Party controls.
That a Hindu temple is at the center of the crime makes this case even more combustible. The police say that Sanji Ram, the temple’s custodian, devised the plan as a way to terrorize the Bakarwals, and that he enlisted a nephew and some friends to kidnap and kill Asifa. The police say the culprits selected Asifa simply because she was by herself and “a soft target.”
For generations, Bakarwal nomads, who drift with their herds across the plains and hills of northern India, have leased pastures from Hindu farmers for their animals to graze in winter. But in recent years, some Hindus in the Kathua area have begun a campaign of abuse against the nomads. Villagers said Mr. Ram was their ringleader.
“His poison has been spreading,’’ said Talib Hussain, a Bakarwal leader. “When I was young, I remember the fear Sanji Ram’s name invoked in Muslim women. If they wanted to scare each other, they would take Sanji Ram’s name, since he was known to misbehave with Bakarwal women.’’
Feelings between the two communities are so bitter that when Asifa didn’t return from the meadow, her parents immediately suspected that something terrible had been done to her.
They enlisted the police and went to the small temple run by Mr. Ram works. He insisted that he had not seen the girl. The temple was locked. According to the police, at that moment Asifa was being starved inside, hidden under a table and some plastic mats.
Mohammad Yusuf Pujwala, Asifa’s father, said his daughter was killed for one reason: to drive the Bakarwals away.
“But we have land here and life here,’’ he said. “This is home for us.’’ He sounded almost too tired to grieve.
He said Asifa had never been to school, even though her brothers had. Her favorite thing to do was play in the meadow.