NEW DELHI — Since taking on a case to represent a family who had lost their 8-year-old daughter to a brutal rape and murder, Deepika Singh Rajawat has seen it all.
She's been doxxed, her personal details shared on Facebook and Twitter. An Indian news channel accused her of being "anti-national." She's been cast out socially by fellow lawyers. Some of them, in protesting the case, have even threatened her with physical harm if she didn't drop her clients.
It's been a difficult three months ever since the crime branch in Jammu, the state where the girl and her family come from, released the charge sheet for the crime. The alleged premeditated nature, as well as the fact that the crime targeted a Muslim girl, have gripped India and brought thousands into the streets. While people across the country organized candlelight vigils, protest marches, and legal funds for the victim's family, a section of Hindu “truthers” believe that the entire crime has been fabricated to attack India’s Hindu population.
So Rajawat allowed herself a few smiles on the steps of India's Supreme Court on Monday when the court decided to move the trial — where eight men stand accused of involvement in the January rape and murder — away from Jammu and to Punjab, bringing some relief both to her and the girl's family. The case has already split the community in Jammu — largely along communal lines. In moving it and blocking media from covering the proceedings, the judges hope to head off the possibility that the trial would make things even worse.
"This is such a good day!" Rajawat said outside the court, flashing a victory sign at photographers. “I finally have some faith that justice is possible. ... The Jammu Bar Association has done what it can to try and disrupt this matter, but thanks to the Supreme Court’s judges, I know that the child will finally see a fair trial.”
Her enthusiasm wasn’t shared by everyone. Standing in the crowd of reporters around Rajawat was a young man who had sat silently in the courtroom, crushing a plastic water bottle smaller and smaller, until it was balled roughly the size of a fist.
“I bet you’ll have a party tonight, won’t you?” he shouted in Rajawat’s direction, his eyes filling with tears as he walked away from the crowd. “I swear, if I had a gun, I would kill myself, my mother, and my sister in front of these judges. I’d rather kill all of us than let these people touch my family.”
L. Singh is the eldest son of the man accused of engineering the entire rape, murder, and cover-up in Kathua, Sanjhi Ram. (He asked that his first name be withheld, as his lawyers say the case could threaten his career with the Indian Navy.) Singh and his family stand by the innocence of Ram and Singh’s younger brother, Vishal Jangotra, one of those accused of raping the 8-year-old girl.
Singh broke his silence to BuzzFeed News and said that since he first learned about the case, having returned from a mission at sea, lawyers and journalists have warned him not to get too aggressive or emotional — but he’s finding it hard to keep calm.
“Women are considered goddesses in our household,” he added, standing in the Supreme Court’s lush lawns, just a few yards away from Rajawat. “If I say something in anger to any of the women at home, even if she’s my own sister, I feel terrible later. I may not apologize to her, but I will always find a way to punish myself for it. Those are the kind of values we’ve been taught. No one from our home would ever hurt a girl.“
In his anger, Singh echoed the heated debate inside the court this afternoon about just what constitutes a “fair trial.” Before their judgment, the three judges listened to lawyers representing the victim, the eight accused men and the state of Jammu, as each side suggested names of alternative districts close to Jammu where the trial could be held. Through the process, it became clear that India’s communal fault lines will play a crucial role as the trial unfolds.
Several neighborhoods near Jammu were rejected on the grounds of being either Hindu- or Muslim-majority areas, or being spaces where the Hindu right had organized protests against the victim’s family – a tribe of Muslim nomadic pastoralists known as Bakarwals. When lawyers for the victim suggested the trial be held in Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab and Haryana – the lawyers for the accused responded saying that it was a hotbed of “insurgency and terrorism.” Finally, after consulting Google Maps on a borrowed phone screen, the judges agreed on holding the trial in Pathankot – about 17 miles away from Kathua, located in the state of Punjab.
“At least we are out of Jammu, away from the protesters,” Talib Hussain, the man who first drew the media’s attention to the rape and murder, told BuzzFeed News after the decision. “At least we know we’ll be safe.”
Outside the courtroom, as Rajawat began to give another set of soundbites to a fresh batch of television cameras, Singh grew more and more agitated. “There are no Hindu terrorists in the world, but these Muslims, they want us to pick up arms…They want to make us into terrorists. ... What are these Bakarwals if not sleeper cells of Muslim terror?”
The only news channel his family trusted, he said, was Zee News, the same channel that accused Rajawat of being “anti-national” – an Indian television channel that ran a lengthy program titled “The Truth of Kathua,” proposing an alternative version of events from the crime branch’s charge sheet. It is still unclear what the channel claims as evidence for its theory, but it's one that the Hindu truthers have run with. The channel is also owned by Subhash Chandra, the nominee from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party for the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s parliament.
“It’s all common sense. I can pick so many holes in the story,” Singh said. “How can a little girl be raped in such a small room? How is there enough space for so many men? Why would they dump her body so close to their home? Why would they choose a temple for something so terrible?”
Chandan Sharma, a lawyer representing four of the accused including Sanji Ram, came up to Singh and hurriedly pulled him away. “Come to Pathankot,” he said with a smile. “You will learn all the answers.”