There is little indication of the ugliness that unfolded within this small pink-walled temple to Ram, the Hindu deity, here at the center of a lush jungle clearing in the foothills of northern India.
Local police say in a formal charge sheet that an eight-year-old girl, who had been minding horses grazing nearby, was abducted and forcibly kept inside for several days in January this year.
The Muslim child, who cannot be identified under Indian law, was later found dead.
Investigators claim that while she was held for five days in this place of worship, where the small centerpiece altar for burned offerings is overhung by a prayer bell, she was drugged. And raped. Again, and again. By a group of grown men.
Her body was allegedly found close to the yellow mud road that leads to the holy site.
Page after page of the charge sheet details how the drugs were allegedly used to sedate the child. How, when the time came, she had been first strangled and then her head bashed in with a rock. The police claim that they have found the bloodied sandstone.
The seven men accused, all Hindu, deny all the charges. An eighth, a juvenile, will be tried separately.
Jammu and Kashmir on India’s border with Pakistan is a state facing an endless roiling insurgency over continued Pakistani claims to the territory. Military camps line roads choked with troop carriers.
But although the state is majority Muslim, Kathua, where the incident took place, is overwhelmingly Hindu.
That division, and all its accompanying complexities and grievances, has been forced back into the spotlight in the wake of the girl’s murder. Such is the friction over the case that the trial has been ordered to be moved to a neighboring state.
With the accused now awaiting a date in court, local Hindu leaders and activists have joined rallies in support of the men charged. Many claim there was no rape. Instead they insist that those arrested have been detained by police as part of a state-wide anti-Hindu plot.
“The chief minister (a Muslim) herself and the other people who just want to disturb the tranquility of the area,” says Vijay Kumar Sharma, president of the recently formed pressure group the Hindu Ekta Manch (Hindu Unity Forum).
“They are having some conspiracies. Definitely they’re having conspiracies. That is why they have targeted people belonging to one community (Hindu),” adds Sharma.
The child victim was buried on land given by other Muslims living nearby. The donor of the land told CNN that he had been harassed by once friendly Hindu neighbors, who warned the family to stay away from town and keep a low profile.
Abdul Jabbar, another local Muslim, was already packing up his belongings. Like the victim, he’s a member of the Barkawal, a semi nomadic Muslim group who would normally leave their children in school in Kathua while herding livestock further north. Now he’s taken his three children and their two cousins with him. He believes they’re in danger.
The girl’s rape and murder, he says, was intended to send a message to all of the nomads who come to the area for grazing – “stay away.”
“People don’t think it is safe for us to go to the village alone. (People in the village) say we should not go there alone because, at any point, a mob can do anything to us. And so (they tell us) it’s better to stay at home,” he says.
The tensions, he says, are new. He believes they’re fomented by India’s government which is dominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP.
The argument is that the party has ridden a populist wave by exploiting the frictions in Indian society other politicians have sought to solve, an accusation the BJP has repeatedly denied.
“We have been coming here for a long time and it has never happened before and ever since this new government has come into power, this is the BJP agenda that is being implemented here,” says Jabbar.
“These people are doing all this now (after BJP came into power). In the past, in previous government’s rule, the villagers never said anything… Now there is a mob standing everywhere waiting for a signal to attack,” he claims.
In 2012, in a case that prompted nationwide protests, Jyoti Singh Pandey, 23, was gang raped by six men on a moving bus in Delhi. It was one in just under 25,000 rapes reported across the country that year. By 2016, that number had shot up to about 40,000, according to government statistics.
The motives for such crimes can only really be understood by those who commit them. But the conditions that mean men feel empowered to attack have complex roots in India, a country of some 1.3 billion people.
“There is a direct link between the growing nationalism of politics in India, especially of Hindu nationalism, the gang mentality, the idea that the ‘other’ is a fair target and attacks on Muslims and Dalit (India’s lowest caste known as ‘untouchables’),” says Ruchira Gupta, the award-winning campaigner and founder of Apne Aap, an NGO that campaigns against sexual violence and trafficking in India.
“Once that is established you have toxic masculinity and then it’s open season on any women,” she warns.
The caste system entrenches a sense of ownership and superiority in those further up the social ladder.
And there is no doubt that a society which values sons over daughters – for every 107 males born in India, there are 100 females – there may be a feeling among some men that they own women and therefore their bodies.
Last week it emerged that, when a group of men allegedly gang raped a 16-year-old girl in Jharkhand province and took the case to the village council, the alleged rapists were sentenced to 100 sit-ups and a fine of 50,000 rupees ($750).
Outraged at being punished at all, they turned on their victim and her parents, attacking them and burning their home. The teenager died in the blaze, according to Ashok Ram, the officer in charge of the local police station.
Many of the crimes against women and children have also been hate crimes against Dalits and minorities, argues Kavita Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association.
“I won’t say that this is something kind of unique to India but of course it’s a huge problem because I think the question here is the sense of entitlement and impunity that is conferred not only by a masculinist culture but also by political economy and, you know, the whole structures of power,” says Krishnan.
“I squarely hold the government of India responsible, the ruling party responsible for creating an Islamophobia and anti-Dalit climate that justifies acts of sexual violence and other forms of violence against these minorities,” she adds.
‘I wish to deny’
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, India’s minister of law and justice, Ravi Shankar Prasad, bridles at the suggestion his party, or Hindu nationalism, is in any way connected to the issue of sexual violence.
“Our view is whoever commits (sexual assault), if anyone even in a political office commits, that’s wrong. That’s the view and what makes me happy is that there is a consensus in the polity of the country that we have to address this rising menace in a more and more effective way,” says the cabinet minister.
“And I wish to deny with all the authority at my command of the insinuation that Hindu nationalism has anything to do with it,” he adds.
He also points out, when asked, that two BJP ministers in the Jammu and Kashmir state government who had participated in protests in support of the men accused of raping and murdering the eight-year-old girl in Kathua were made to resign.
He does admit, however, that government efforts to address the problem of sexual violence in India were driven by public outrage.
“There was a commotion in the country and we responded to that and today we have changed the law by an ordinance. If under 12 years, you will be given death penalty. If with a gang rape, you will be given death penalty and your life imprisonment shall be for the whole of the life,” says Prasad.
The change in the law will become permanent once it gains approval by India’s Parliament, which is currently in recess.
The minister also talks of plans to establish 945 special courts, financed by close to $10 million in public funding, to reinforce the whole investigation mechanism.
But whether through the efforts of the government or the longer-term work of aid agencies and lawyers to seek help and justice for victims of sexual violence, there are signs that perhaps the rising number of reported rapes reflects a belief that they are worth reporting.