Two fearless women from J&K, one a lawyer, the other a police officer, have taken up cudgels for the raped and murdered 8-year-old from Kathua, standing up to and fighting off every opposition with their spines of steel.
In the deafening din of token outrage across the country over the brutal rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kashmir in January, are two very loud voices that have never wavered in pitch or intent ever since the crime came to light. Deepika Singh Rajawat, award-winning lawyer, and Shwetambari Sharma, deputy superintendent of police, Crime Branch, Jammu and Kashmir, have stood rock solid against threats, abuse and derision, continuing their battle to ensure that the perpetrators of the heinous crime are brought to justice. The two women are all too aware of the religious overtones of the abominable crime in India’s most volatile state, but have steadfastly refused to back down or give up their fight for the young girl.
Deepika, 38, was born in a Kashmiri Pandit family of Karihama, a village tucked away in the frontier district of Kupwara. Her family migrated to Jammu in 1986, four years before the Pandits fled their homes en masse to escape violence in the Valley. She earned a degree in law at the National Law University, Jodhpur and has since been an avid campaigner against human rights abuse. Deepika is married to a former army officer and has a five-year-old daughter.
It was her burning sense of justice for everyone that saw her approach the eight-year-old’s family soon after the crime came to light, offering to fight their daughter’s case. And, this was long before a somnolent India had even heard of the crime. “When I learnt about the gruesome incident, I simply could not just sit and not do something about it. Now, I will not stop until I get justice for the child’s family. I have full faith in the police investigation and delivery of justice,” says Deepika. “I’m not scared of threats. I will fight this case and make sure our child gets justice. If I go, at least, you will say I died for a just cause. Fighting against injustice is not only what my profession calls for but it is in my blood too,” she says.
Shwetambari was born into the Dogra Rajput community and grew up in Jammu. A post graduate in management, she is now a high-ranking police officer, of the 2012 batch of the Jammu and Kashmir Police (Gazetted) Service. “I appeared for the IPS exams in 2012 and succeeded and haven’t looked back since,” she said.
She is married to a chartered accountant and has a son who is the same age as the murdered child. She strongly believes in karma, the premise of which is, you will reap exactly what you sow.
Shwetambari is the only woman in the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Crime Branch, J&K Police, which probed the incident despite vociferous opposition from various quarters. “My uniform is my religion when I’m on duty,” she insists.
She bravely faced allegations by vested interests that the arrest of the eight people involved in the crime was an “anti-Hindu” move by the J&K police under a Muslim chief minister, saying she was confident that the Crime Branch would crack the case.
While Shwetambari, like other members of the SIT, faced intense “humiliation and harassment” at the hands of Hindu groups and individuals, Deepika was threatened for appearing in court on behalf of the victim’s family and was openly ridiculed for supporting the “traitor” Muslim community and thereby ceasing to be a Hindu and a patriot. It was only after Deepika filed a writ petition, that the J&K High Court started monitoring the case, leaving little room for manipulation at the local level, albeit two Kathua-based police officers, too, have been arrested for destroying evidence before the case was handed over to the Crime Branch.
She said that the families and supporters of the accused directly or through emissaries tried to influence her with the plea that both she and they belonged to the same religion and same caste (Brahmin) and that the victim was a Muslim. “I told them while in uniform, the only religion I know and am committed to is my duty,” says Shwetambari.
Deepika, too, was subjected to intense trolling on social media over her move to fight for the eight-year-old, to which her reply was, “Nationalism runs in my blood. No certificate required.” Many people, including Bopinder Singh Salathia, president of the Jammu High Court Bar Association (JHCBA), allegedly tried to dissuade Deepika from fighting for the child. “I was openly threatened and he (Salathia) told me that he knows how to stop me from appearing in the case,” she said.
Deepika is no stranger to threats and censure from those in power. In 2012, her bar membership was cancelled after she took up the case of a 12-year-old girl who had died under mysterious circumstances at the residence of a senior advocate, Surinder Singh.
Deepika, in her plea before the Supreme Court (SC) on April 16, said she, in the face of brazen threats to her life, didn’t know how long she would be alive. Earlier in an interview, she had said, “I can be raped, my modesty can be outraged, I can be killed.”
Ahead of the trial in the case in Kathua’s Chief Judicial Magistrate’s (CJM) court she was threatened with, “We will not forgive you.” She had said at the time, “I am in danger”.
The SC, on Monday, ordered the state government to provide security to Deepika as well as to the family of the murdered child and those assisting them in the case. “I’m extremely thankful to SC,” said Deepika. Later, in a tweet, she had said, “Well begun is half done. A big salute to the Hon’ble Supreme Court. More power to us.”
Deepika says she is not fighting the eight-year-old’s case for a fee but as a matter of principle, for her passion to be on the side of someone who has been so deeply wronged. “I was told not to appear in the case. I was even abused by the HCBA president. But I put my foot down,” she says. Some lawyers, too, had tried to persuade Deepika to stay away from the case on the plea that those arrested by the police had been ‘framed’. “I told them if that is true and they are innocent they will be acquitted by the court. Don’t try to bring the profession to disrepute by forcing me not to appear on behalf of the victim,” she says, adding, “some people tried to use the religious card to influence me but I told them crimes as heinous as rape have no religion.” Shwetambri said she and her colleagues in the SIT investigated the case dispassionately and strictly as per the mandate of the law. “No threats, no intimidation and no nuisance was allowed to come in the way of it,” she said.
Inspector General of Police (Crime Branch) Syed Ahfadul Mujtaba says about Shwetambari, “She has worked very hard on this case. In fact, she was at the forefront and has been upright and God fearing. She has a lot of sympathy for the girl’s family.”
Kiran Bedi, the first woman to join the Indian Police Service and who is now Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry, tweeted about Shwetambri, “We salute her and those like her. May her kind increase.”
Shwetambari says of her profession, “There are many ups and downs in my chosen line of work but overall the fact remains that police officers still enjoy respect in society. If you are honest and dedicated, being in the belt can be fun.”
Deepika, meanwhile, continues to fight against human rights abuses and is chairperson of ‘Voice for Rights’, an NGO working for human rights. She also works with ‘Child Rights and You (CRY)’, a Delhi-based NGO for protection of child rights. For her work in juvenile justice, she has won the Charkha and Ladli awards. In 2014-15, she was picked by Indira Jaising, former Additional Solicitor General of India, to be among 15 lawyers to work with her on women’s rights....