At a time when Pakistan has sentenced a man to death for the rape and murder of a six-year-old girl, politicians with India’s two biggest parties came out in support of two men arrested for raping a eight-year-old girl in Jammu and Kashmir, triggering a debate over justice and the handling of such crimes in the South Asian nations.

On February 17, when a court in Pakistan gave Imran Ali, a 24-year-old man, four death sentences for raping and murdering Zainab Ansari last month, politicians from the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party and Congress took part in a rally demanding the release of two state policemen held for the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl from the nomadic Muslim Bakerwal community in the Hindu-majority Jammu region.

Sources within the northern state’s Crime Branch which took over the case say the two Special Police Officers now behind bars, Deepak Khajuria and Surinder Kumar, have confessed to drugging the Bakerwal girl continuously for a week while they took turns raping the girl “lest she makes noise”. She was finally killed by the group, which included other members “all enjoying patronage of some political parties and senior police officers.”

Jammu’s Inspector General of Police, SD Singh Jamwal, and Senior Superintendent of Police, Kathua Muhammad Sulaiman Chowdhary, have already been accused of mishandling their initial probe into the case. The pair had told the state government that the Bakerwal girl was murdered by an underage boy who was arrested and sent to a home for juveniles.

But with the victim’s family and community unconvinced about the outcome of the investigation, the case was handed to the Crime Branch, which arrested the two police. The bereaved, however, continue to demand a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

‘Pro-rapist’ rally, call to boycott Gujjars

And, if the staging of “pro-rapist” rally was not enough, the right-wing Hindu Ekta Manch appealed to people in Jammu to boycott the Gujjar community, saying locals should stop buying milk products and livestock from them.

“Appalled by the marches & protests in defense of the recently apprehended rapist(s) in Kathua. Also horrified by their use of our national flag… this is nothing short of desecration. The accused has been arrested & the law will follow its course.” – Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti

The district president of Kathua Congress Committee and ex-MLC Subash Gupta, and Vijay Tagotra, who is a close aide of Pradesh Congress President GA Mir, were part of such events. Tagotra was recently appointed as Convener for the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayat Samiti on the instructions of Congress heavyweight Rahul Gandhi.

The Zainab and Bakerwal cases share many similarities. The Pakistani girl’s body was found at a rubbish dump in the city of Kasur, south of Lahore, on 9 January. The Indian girl went missing a day later, while her body was found dumped on January 17. In Pakistan, the arrest of the suspect led to a speedy trial. But in India, officials were accused of deliberate delays even to confirm that the victim was raped.

Chairperson of the Women’s Rights Commission, Nayeema Mehjoor, who has been monitoring the case, told Asia Times she was puzzled by the mysterious delay in the forensic science laboratory (FSL) report.

However, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who is also Home Minister in Jammu and Kashmir, confirmed that the girl was raped in a tweet that aimed to condemn the political support for the eight-year-old’s killers.

Chief Minister appalled by protests

“Appalled by the marches & protests in defense of the recently apprehended rapist in Kathua. Also horrified by their use of our national flag in these demonstrations, this is nothing short of desecration. The accused has been arrested & the law will follow its course,” the Chief Minister tweeted on her official handle – calling the arrested police “rapist(s)”.

Meanwhile, the public response in the two neighboring countries has been shockingly different. While Zainab’s killing triggered outrage across the country, including riots over alleged police incompetence in which two protesters were killed, there has been an unusual silence in the Muslim majority Kashmir over the controversial initial probe and subsequent pro-police march in Jammu.

Not a single group from political parties to civil society staged any show of support of the Bakerwal girl, while business forums like the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries or the Kashmir Economic Alliance, known to react to almost every development, have been completely silent about the arrests over the young nomad girl. A KCCI member, who asked not to be named, said: “Basically, the incident happened in the countryside of another region, which is not our interest, so the government wanted us to be silent.”

The role of political parties, especially opposition groups such as the National Conference remained confined to the issuing of statements and some symbolic protests at the state Assembly. The NC said: “The case was filed on our insistence because we protested in the Assembly. If [the] need arises, we will take to streets. But as of now there’s no such need and statements issued to [the] media are enough,” NC leader and MLA Shamima Firdous, who protested in the Assembly told Asia Times.

Veteran Congress leader and former minister Taj Mohi Ud Din feigned ignorance about party colleagues attending “pro-rapist” rallies in Kathua, saying “it is neither in my information nor in the information of the party that any of our leaders attended that rally.”

Meanwhile, the girl’s family and their lawyer Talib Hussain insist that she was raped and killed as a “part of the larger design – to threaten the Muslim community to refrain from land jihad” – that is, claiming custodial land left by Muslims who went to Pakistan during partition of the two states 70 years ago.

“But the point is that our Gujjar community has no interest in ‘land jihad’, as we are nomads,” Hussain said.

Read: Rape, murder of 8-year-old in Jammu and Kashmir gets murkier