As protests over the rape of a child in Kathua rage across India, doubts have arisen

As protests over the rape of a child in Kathua rage across India, doubts have arisen

By Chitleen K.Sethi/ThePrint

New Delhi, April 17: As the trial of the Kathua rape case involving a child of eight began in a local court on Monday, the sharp divide in public opinion over the heinous gang rape and murder became clear with local Hindus arguing that the charge sheet has several loopholes and a fresh probe by an outside agency is needed.

On the one side stand angry citizens from across the country who have risen up in protest against the brutal crime, while on the other, there are adamant protesters, including the families of the accused, who are demanding a CBI probe into the crime, contesting the J&K police crime branch chargesheet.

ThePrint brings you the lay of the land from the village where the crime took place, and presents the allegations in the chargesheet as well as the counterpoints the supporters of the accused have made.

The scene of the crime

The crime was first reported at Hiranagar police station a day after the girl went missing on 10 January. Hiranagar is a small town almost midway between Kathua and Jammu, and the police station is heavily guarded, having been attacked by militants at least three times.

The local police team led by investigating officer Anand Dutta and including special police officer Deepak Khajuria (both later added to the list of accused) began searching for the girl. After her body was found, they picked up a 15-year-old juvenile as the only accused.

A few days later, when the girl’s community, the Gujjar-Bakerwals, alleged that the juvenile could not have committed the crime alone, a special investigation team was constituted under an assistant superintendent from nearby Samba. Soon, the case was shifted to the crime branch on 23 January, following major protests by the opposition in the assembly.

Rasana village, where the crime took place, is mostly forest land, owned privately by locals. Less than 50 people live there in 15 households. The victim lived here with her parents and two siblings, having been adopted from her father’s brother. Unlike other nomadic Gujjar-Bakerwals, this family lived permanently in Rasana, in a small, isolated house about a kilometer away from the nearest habitation in the village.

One of the prominent households in the same village is that of 60-year-old Sanjhi Ram, accused of being the main conspirator in the case. He is a retired patwari of the irrigation department, and owns over several acres of land and a large house in the village. His son Vishal, who studies in a college in Meerut, is also an accused.

The crime is alleged to have taken place over a week in the devisthan (literally, place of the goddess) a fair way down the village link road. Built in the middle of a forest clearing, the devisthan is a big room with doors on three sides, all of which have locks.

Inside, idols of the kul devi — the goddess of local families settled in the village and nearby areas — are placed on a raised platform. In one corner lies a small table, under which the accused had allegedly kept the victim rolled up the mats.

Nearby stands a shed, where a weekly bhandara (religious offering of food to the deity, later offered to the public as prasad) takes place. The utensils for the bhandara lie on the parikrama path around the sanctum sanctorum, while the supplies for it lie in another corner of the room where the victim was hidden.

Apart from the village link road, there is a half-kilometre long dirt track that connects the devisthan to the side door of Sanjhi Ram’s house. The victim’s mutilated body was recovered from this dirt track on 17 January, almost halfway between the devisthan and Sanjhi Ram’s house, and barely 10 feet into the forest.

Sanjhi Ram and Deepak Khajuria, the prime accused. The former is retired government servant and the latter a serving police officer.

The main contentions

On the devisthan

Chargesheet: The girl was kidnapped, tied and kept captive in the devisthan. Here, she was drugged and gang raped for seven days before being killed.

Contention: Locals question how the victim could have been kept captive inside the devisthan. They claim that different families have the keys to the locks on the three doors, and it is opened for prayers twice a day. Everyone participates in the bhandara every week.

The families of the accused say the devisthan could have been opened by anyone (apart from Sanjhi Ram) when the victim was confined there, so why would the accused use it to hide the child?

On the spot where the body was recovered

Chargesheet: As per the conspired plan the dead body was to be transported and disposed of in the canal at Hiranagar, however, as the vehicle could not be arranged in time, the accused decided to dump the body in the jungle.

Contention: Sanjhi Ram’s family says the body of the girl was found at a spot where only he and his son could have been suspected of the crime. The area where the victim lived with her parents is surrounded by almost 30 acres of thick forest strewn with large pits — the body could have been thrown anywhere and no one would have found it for weeks.

“Had our family members committed the crime, why would they throw the body on the dirt track that connects only our house in the village to the devisthan?” said Darshana Devi, Sanjhi Ram’s wife.

Role of Vishal

Chargesheet: Sanjhi Ram’s son Vishal, a student in Meerut, was called by the juvenile accused to rape the victim and “satisfy his lust” on 11 January. He reached Rasana by 6 am the next day. He then stayed in Rasana, raped the girl along with the other accused, and later helped in disposing of the body. He left for Meerut on 15 or 16 January.

Contention: Vishal’s family claims that he was appearing for his examinations on the days mentioned. “Did he have a helicopter that he reached Rasana from Meerut within hours of the call? His exam attendance and answer sheets are available. He withdrew money from an ATM there. The CCTV footage of that can be retrieved,” said Darshana Devi.

A report in The Hindu suggested that Vishal, along with three friends, did not appear in the exam; proxy candidates wrote for them.

Others not questioned

Chargesheet is silent on questioning any neighbour of the victim’s family.

Contentions: The family of the accused alleged that a Gujjar/Gaddi family which lived close to the victim’s family was not questioned by the crime branch.

“That man had a fight with the victim’s father a few days before she went missing. He was called for questioning by the local police and left the same day. Also, a night before the body was recovered, the electricity transformer on the main road burnt down and the village went dark. Around midnight, a motorcycle with two men with blankets wrapped around them came into the village and left after a few hours. Who were those people?” questioned Darshana Devi.

Constitution of the SIT

Fact: The crime branch SIT was led by additional SP (crime branch Kashmir) Peerzada Naveed, and included deputy SP (crime branch Jammu) Nisar Hussain, deputy SP (crime branch Jammu) Shwetambri Sharma, SI (crime branch Jammu) Urfan Wani, and ASI Tariq Ahmad. The SIT was supervised by Ramesh Kumar Jalla, SSP, J&K Crime Branch, Jammu division.

Contention: Locals allege that the SIT had an officer who was himself accused of rape and murder (later acquitted), and was thus “tainted” and should not have been a part of an SIT dealing with rape. They add that the SIT team was “Kashmir centric” and had no officers from Jammu. They allege that the SIT “terrorized” and tortured the accused and their friends, made them sign on blank papers and recorded false statements.

(The featured image at the top shows Madhu Sharma, daughter of the prime accused Sanjhi Ram)