As politicians try to hijack the incident, the girl’s family says there is no animosity between the Dalits and Muslims in the village.
Barmer: All of seven years old, a Dalit child was found last week in a 13-foot dried-up underground tank in Unrod village in Rajasthan’s Barmer district. She had allegedly been abducted, raped, and then strangulated lest she identify her attacker.
The body was discovered on the morning of 22 June, the day after she was abducted, and the ensuing anger has manifested in candlelight marches and demonstrations to seek justice for the seven-year-old, taken away as she slept outside her grandparents’ house.
Shocked by the brutality, Barmer’s residents, including the victim’s family and their neighbours, want nothing less than a death sentence for the suspect, a 40-year-old local named Rashid Khan.
Rashid, who was arrested while reportedly boarding a bus to flee to Gujarat, has allegedly confessed to the crime. Among other sections, he has been booked under the POCSO Act and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
On account of an amendment passed by the government earlier this year, Rashid faces the death penalty if convicted. There is now also a two-month deadline for police to complete the investigation.
The girl, a member of the Meghwal community, lived with her parents and four siblings in Barmer’s Balewa village.
She was in Unrod, a Muslim-dominated settlement 31 km from Balewa, to stay with her maternal grandfather while her mother attended a wedding in a nearby village. Her grandmother had accompanied her mother too.
Her grandfather is a grocer. The child was asleep on the lawn outside his shop, which is attached to their house, on the night of 21 June when she was abducted by Rashid.
“He (Rashid Khan) had come to buy some gutka from my shop that night and left. I shut the shop and went to eat food inside the house around 10 pm and that’s when he took her,” the girl’s grandfather told ThePrint.
Rashid has reportedly told police in his testimony that he was drunk at the time. While the grandparents claim they only knew him as a customer, their neighbours said he and the grandfather often drank together.
Asked about the neighbours’ claim that he drank frequently, the grandfather swore he was sober the night of the abduction.
Perma Rao, a neighbour, heard a scream later that night from the direction of the tank, which is located just 250 metres from the house of the victim’s grandparents. However, by the villagers’ own admission, belief in spirits and black magic runs deep here and he chose to ignore it.
“I thought it was a ghost, so I didn’t check at night. But I went to check the tank in the morning and found the body of the girl,” Rao told ThePrint.
The villagers discovered a set of footprints near the tank that looked like an adult’s and approached a local clairvoyant, Maluka Khan, who they believe can identify people through their footprints.
He identified them as Rashid’s, and the crime was reported to police. Rashid, who stayed in Jaisalmer for the better part of the year but visited Unrod from time to time, has a criminal record for theft.
Once they got word, a police team led by superintendents of police (SPs) Gagandeep Singla, Ratan Lal (for the ST/SC cell), and Surendra Prajapat, set out to retrieve the body and look for Rashid.
“Rashid’s name came up while talking to the villagers,” Pushpendra Verma, the station house officer (SHO) of Girab told ThePrint. “We tried to find him in the village but couldn’t… A team found Rashid preparing to board a bus for Gujarat. We got him off the bus.”
“The convict confessed… and told us that he was under the influence of alcohol while it happened,” SHO Verma said.
On Tuesday, Rashid was presented in court and remanded in judicial custody.
“We will try to present the charge sheet in court within five to six days,” Verma said. “Under the new provisions in the POCSO Act, the convict is liable for a death sentence and our effort will be to present the charge sheet at the earliest and get him the death sentence.”
The news of the crime has led to a complete boycott of Rashid’s family, who have been driven away from their home.
Verma said no lawyers were willing to represent him. “But there are many lawyers who have showed their willingness to represent the girl… They have even issued newspaper advertisements.”
Mukesh Jain, an advocate from Barmer said the Bar Council of Rajasthan, Jodhpur, had decided against taking up the suspect’s defence “on humanitarian grounds”.
“We have decided that we won’t represent a criminal like Rashid Khan,” he added, saying they were hoping for a death sentence.
The autopsy report for the child, accessed by ThePrint, suggests a struggle with the suspect, with bruises on her knees and other body parts.
Dr Amrit Lal, a medical officer on the board that conducted the autopsy, said the child’s body bore “signs and symptoms of recent sexual intercourse”. There were “several fresh tears” in her private parts as well as clotted blood.
Talking about the bruises on her body, Dr Lal said they may have been sustained when she fell on rocks near the crime scene while resisting the perpetrator, and from the fall into the tank.
All I saw was a distorted figure, with the limbs and the face as the “only distinguishable features”, the girl’s father told ThePrint.
Shockwave across Barmer
“Everyone is shocked to know about this incident, it is a big stain on Barmer,” the Barmer zila pramukh, Priyanka Meghwal told ThePrint.
“Nothing like this has ever happened here before… The government should take action against the increasing crime against women, and make sure that the perpetrator in this case gets a death sentence.”
The crime, involving a suspect and a victim from different communities in deeply polarised times, comes five months after the Kathua rape and murder of an eight-year-old, and efforts seem to be underway to politicise this crime as well.
Local Rajputs, who their Dalit peers accuse of discrimination on other days, have been at the forefront of the protests, as have members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the RSS’ student wing, and their Congress-affiliated peers from the National Student Union of India.
Manvendra Singh, a BJP MLA from Barmer said the crime was “equivalent to cow slaughter”.
“The Rajputs who are lighting the candles are the ones who carry out the most atrocities against Dalits in Barmer every day,” said Dalit rights activist Uda Ram Meghwal, a Congress member who heads the Dalit Atyachar Nirvaan Sameti. “It’s only because the convict is a Muslim this time that they are standing up (for the victim).”
According to RTI queries filed by Meghwal, a former pradhan, there had been over 530 cases of atrocities against SCs and STs in Barmer between 26 January 2016 and September 2017 alone, with at least 17 under the POCSO Act.
“This is the first time in the history of Rajasthan’s border areas that a Muslim has committed a crime against a Scheduled caste or Tribe,” Meghwal added.
SHO Verma agreed, as did the girl’s family, who see the crime as just that.
“There is brotherhood among the Dalits and the Muslims in this village (Unrod), there is no animosity,” said the victim’s grandmother.
The victim’s father said there had been no communal feuds in their Meghwal-dominated village, Balewa, either.
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