The decades old relationship between the Bakarwal Muslim community in Rasana village in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua district and fellow villagers who are predominantly Hindu, was neither acrimonious nor has it become bitter now after the alleged gang-rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl from the Bakarwal community, allegedly by eight individuals, including one juvenile. This flies in the face of what is being portrayed by the international media and a very large section of the national media.

According to Kant Sharma, who was until recently the sarpanch (head) of Kota panchayat in Kathua district under which Rasana comes, every villager in the panchayat was sad over the misfortune that the girl and her family members had faced.

Woh hamari bhi bachchi thi (She was our child too). We are all in shock. In our community, we treat every child, every member as part of one big family. I am more than 50 years old and the Bakarwals have been living with us from a time even before I was born. You can come and check if there have been any instances of dispute between the two communities all these years. The media is turning this whole incident to suit its narrative and no one is interested in talking to us. We (Bakarwals and Hindus) have been living together since ages and even today we met each other and shared our pain over this horrific crime. Why is the media painting this whole thing to suggest as if a section of the villagers are defending the crime just because it was perpetrated against the Bakarwals?” he asked.

According to him there was not an iota of truth in the story that was being peddled by the media, including BBC, that the Hindu villagers did not allow the parents of the girl to bury her in the limits of the village. “This is absolutely wrong. I implore you to come to this place and see for yourself what the truth is. She was buried in a graveyard located in Bandinaal mohalla, which is the local graveyard of the area. Why would anyone do such a thing to a family which is facing so much trauma? It is a fabricated story and we are so upset over the way the propaganda is being spread regarding this village community,” he said.

“We are not defending the crime. I also have children and the murder has happened in my panchayat and I am as affected as the parents of the girl. There is absolutely no truth that we (Hindus) want to scare them away. We have been living together for so many years. It is we who have sold them land on which they have built houses and settled. Why are people alleging that they are trying to take away our land due to which tension is happening between the two communities? Sale and purchase are done mutually as in any other village of India. They are as much part of the community as we are. At least 200 Bakarwals live with us. The Kashmir based leaders are fanning this propaganda and making it a Hindu-Muslim issue as they want to drive a wedge between the two communities so that they can take electoral benefits,” Kant Sharma alleged.

He confirmed that the parents of the deceased girl too had bought a plot in the village and were living in a pucca house for years. He said that the parents are in touch with Rasana residents and are now presently in Udhampur, headed for Kargil with their cattle.

Another local, who did not want to be identified, claimed that the media and the information wing of the J&K government were behind the whole “propaganda”. “We have been sitting in protest for the last two weeks seeking an impartial probe in the matter, as we do not trust the police team that carried out the probe. We have very strong reasons not to trust their work. The main objective of our protest is not to save the criminals who killed one of our daughters, but to see to it that the real accused who are still roaming free are caught. However, the media and the local government are trying to portray it as if we are protesting the arrest of these eight individuals since they are from the Hindu community. It is not about Hindu or Muslim, as the politicians are peddling it. We just want an inquiry from the CBI and let them arrest whoever is involved in this heinous crime, even if they are from our village,” he said.

The locals are asking why officers from Kashmir conducted the investigation when the crime took place in Jammu. “So many rules and regulations were not followed in this case. Why were officers from Kashmir assigned the case? Why was a tainted police officer, who is himself facing rape and murder charges (Irfan Wani) made a part of the team? Was not Ramesh Jalla, the SSP who headed the team, just a face while the real investigation was being carried out by another officer of the Kashmir Crime Branch? And Jalla went on protest leave because of this”, a local school teacher claimed to this newspaper over phone.

According to the locals, the Devisthan (temple) where the police is claiming the girl was confined and raped before being murdered, is a place which is open to public view. “It is a local community place of the size of 20×20 feet with doors and windows. The keys of the temple are with three different people from the Jangotra community who take care of the temple. It is impossible that such a heinous crime was being perpetrated over there for so many days and no one noticed. The state government wanted to fan a riot in this place. This is all an elaborate plan in which they are using the death of the child,” a village elder said.

Jammu based lawyer Ankur Sharma, who has filed several PILs against the J&K government in the past and is going to represent the accused in the present case along-with another lawyer, said that knowingly a wrong narrative was being cooked up by the media that Hindus were supporting the accused.

“We are not even asking why only Hindus are being arrested. Our only demand is that the government should order an impartial probe under CBI, as villagers and locals of the affected area believe that the wrong individuals have been arrested by the local police. Is that a big thing to ask for? Even a novice lawyer will tell you that the charge-sheet filed in the case is very weak and it will not stand judicial scrutiny. A murder has been committed and we want the real accused to be arrested,” he told The Sunday Guardian.