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(CNN) – The brutal gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl, in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, has inflamed religious tensions and sparked widespread protests, in a case that is threatening to further destabilize an already restive region.
The small, lifeless body of the girl, whose identity is protected by Indian law, was recovered from a forest in the isolated Himalayan district of Kathua in late January after an extensive police search.
But it was the horrifying details that emerged following a police investigation made public this month that have seen the case gain nationwide attention.
Police say the young girl, who belonged to a Muslim nomadic community known as the Bakarwals, was abducted while grazing horses in a meadow on January 12.
From there, it is alleged she was taken to a Hindu temple, where she was drugged and held captive for five days.
During that period, police say she was raped repeatedly by several different men, before being murdered and dumped in a nearby forest on January 17. Postmortem reports concluded that she had been strangled to death.
Police have arrested eight men in connection with the death of the girl, including a retired government official and three police officers.
But rather than quell tensions, the swift police action has had the opposite effect, transforming the case into a lightning rod for radical sectarian anger.
The accused, all whom are Hindu, have seen their case picked up by an unlikely coalition of religious nationalists and legal professionals, who together have launched a campaign to have the charges dropped and the case handed over to federal investigators.
At the center of the controversy is a debate over the impartiality of the local police investigators, who supporters of the accused claim are biased, owing to their Muslim faith.
Tensions came to a head last week when violent protests erupted outside the local courthouse, as members of the state bar association attempted to physically stop police from filing charges against the accused.
Backed by a right-wing Hindu nationalist group called the Hindu Unity Council, the state bar association is now demanding that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) take over the case.
“We want a CBI investigation. The investigation is not based on correct facts. The victim and the accused are being tied to religion,” said B.S. Slathia, president of the Jammu Bar Association.
The incident took place in the small town of Kathua, in the southern Jammu region where Hindus form the majority of the population. The northern part of the state is comprised of the Indian-administered portion of the disputed Kashmir region, which is dominated by Muslims.
The nomadic community the girl belonged to have traditionally moved between the two regions, traveling to Jammu with their livestock during the winter months, before returning to the Kashmir region when the snow melts in the spring.
The practice has continued for generations, but in recent years the nomads have faced growing hostility from Hindu residents in the region, who claim they are encroaching on their land.
In justifying the Hindu Unity Council’s defense of the accused, Vijay Sharma, the council’s leader, claimed the state government had adopted a soft stance on the region’s minority Muslim population.
The number of Muslims has grown in recent years, due to the arrival of several thousand Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
“We are already a sensitive state and they [Muslims] are a threat and their population is increasing,” said Sharma, adding that the case was complex and “a mix of four or five issues that concern the whole state.”
The police, however, maintain that they have concrete evidence against the accused, who they allege plotted the girl’s abduction as a means of scaring the predominately-Muslim nomads into vacating the region.
The volatile mix has taken a political edge in recent days, as outrage over the case grows, inflaming long held grievances within both Hindu and Muslim communities.
Complicating efforts to pacify the situation, local members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) have expressed a loss of faith in the Jammu police.
“Are there no local Hindu police officials who are capable? The girl is a Muslim and the investigators are Muslim,” said Rakesh Singh, a local BJP leader.
Singh insists that the men arrested are innocent and that a separate inquiry should be launched.
Amid the controversy, there have been growing calls for Modi to speak out on the matter. On Thursday, VK Singh, a junior foreign minister in Modi’s government, promised the victim would not be denied justice, announcing on Twitter that, “We have failed [her] as humans.”
Opposition parties have rounded on the BJP for not doing enough, with Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Indian National Congress, leading a candlelight vigil in New Delhi Thursday night for justice in both this case, and another ongoing rape case in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh state.
Gandhi was joined by more than a thousand people carrying banners and placards. “How can anyone protect the culprits of such evil?” said Gandhi in a statement released on social media.
The Jammu and Kashmir state government, led by chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti has staunchly denied accusations that proper procedures have been skirted during the investigation. Modi’s BJP is part of the state government.
“The law will not be obstructed by the irresponsible actions and statements of a group of people,” she said on Twitter.
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