It was a cold winter day in mid-January in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir when a disturbing news report about the rape of a young girl in the Kathua district of the state caught the attention of Deepika Singh Rajawat.
The story would change her life.
Rajawat, a lawyer and mother to a 5-year-old girl, was horrified as she read through the details of the case.
“I could feel the pain,” she says.
The 8-year-old victim, from the Bakerwal tribe, a Muslim nomadic community in the region, was kidnapped, and raped in a Hindu temple by a group of local men, sparking communal tension between locals. Her mutilated body was found a week after she went missing.
The eventual arrest of eight accused, many of them police officials, provoked a strong reaction of the Hindu community, and several political leaders affiliated to the Indian ruling party of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP).
As right-wing groups began mounting pressure on local police to release the accused men, Rajawat, 38, decided to approach the family to see how she could help.
Rajwat has spent her career in pursuit of cases that result in tangible social justice, but taking on the case of the Kathua rape victim propelled her into the national spotlight.
Today, she carries her 5-year-old daughter in one arm, even as she pours over the case files and documents, making notes and taking calls, mostly from Indian press who have developed a keen interest in Rajawat’s work and life.
Visible on her hand while she works is her rallying cry, tattooed onto the side of left palm: “Only the weak can be cruel,” it reads.
Joining the case has been an uphill battle for Rajawat. As an advocate specializing in cases of human rights violations, she has spent most of her adult life fighting for justice, and has often faced extreme threats and pressure from unsavory elements of Indian society.
However, this time her strongest opposition came from her own colleagues. Lawyers at the Jammu High Court Bar Association not only criticized her, but also started to issue threats to her.
“I was threatened openly on social media. ... I am still receiving threats,” she says.
Unhappy colleagues sent her messages accusing her of being anti-Hindu and questioning her nationality. “You will not be forgiven,” one of them wrote on her Facebook wall.
Overnight, she became a pariah in corridors of the the Bar association.
“They have brought disgrace to our profession,” Rajawat says of her colleagues, many of whom, in a move that was later deemed as obstruction of the judicial process, took to the streets of Jammu in support of those accused, alleging discrimination against minorities.
Earlier this month, she told Indian media outside the courts that she feared for her life.
“I don’t know till when I will be alive. I can be raped, my modesty can be outraged, I can be killed,” she said. The Supreme Court of India eventually ordered security for Rajawat as well as the victim’s family.
Not one to be easily threatened, Rajawat continued her work with increased fervor.
Threatened, maligned, and outcast, Rajawat says she is far from exhausted.
“As a citizen, as a lawyer and as a woman, I felt really bad that such things happen to women, to little girls,” she says. “Our role [as lawyers] is to be in the courts and work for the interest of justice. That is what I do.”
Rajawat has been equally overwhelmed by the support she has received.
“Many, many Indians have come out in support of my work and have helped me pull through difficult times,” she says. “I am receiving support from within communities that I never expected,” says Rajawat, who hails from a minority group that has seen relations with local Muslim community deteriorate over the last few decades.
Despite those who have protested her work, she says there are many in Jammu who are also seeking justice. “Those people who have opposed justice for this child are not the whole community. They are just fragmented few,” she says. “We believe in compassion. We don’t believe in brutish bullying,” she says, dismissing those who’ve called her “anti-national” for taking up a case against men who are Hindus.
Rajawat says ensuring a better future for her daughter, who she calls her “biggest support,” is what keeps her going.
“Every day you see news about girls below the age of 12 years being raped, molested and killed on the streets,” she says.
The numbers back Rajawat’s concerns over the safety of women and children. Over 100 women report rape in India every day, according to statistics by India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Of these, 43.3 percent, 16,863 cases, involve the rape of a female minor.