Every time she steps back into her house, Deepika Singh Rajawat double-checks the main gate. She fears for the safety of her own daughter, her husband and herself.
This heightened 24x7 alertness has become a part of her life ever since she took up the gang-rape and murder case of an eight year-old girl of Rasana in Kathua.
State police provided her with security after she expressed threat to her life earlier this year. This was after Rajawat spoke about being flooded with rape and murder threats.
So severe has the backlash and pressure been that ever since she picked up the case, she feels that they will "kill me one day".
In a conversation with News18, almost 10 months after she took up the case on behalf of the parents of the minor girl, the 38-year-old lawyer spoke about how lonely she feels in her fight for justice, and about the support that she’s got during this trying time.
“I feel threatened that my family or I might be harmed physically. Also, I feel my attempts will be made to damage my dignity,” she said. She fears that one day a narcotic substance could be planted at her house to malign her reputation. This is another thing she looks for every time she unlocks the main gate.
Back in a trial court in Jammu, Rajawat walks through the corridors attracting stares and prompting pin-drop silence as she passes through crowds of lawyers, police and petitioners. Behind her people start whispering. Some point at her murmuring that “she is the woman who appears on television and newspapers”, others remember Rajawat from the widely shared photograph of her walking out of the Supreme Court, flanked by her colleagues.
She had just attended another hearing in the ongoing trial against the eight men who have been accused of gang-raping and murdering the Kathua girl with a motive of 'driving out Bakarwals from Jammu', where the crime was committed. The alleged hate crime sent ripples of shock waves throughout the globe.
The crime was followed by a protest march in support of the perpetrators, part of which were even Rajawat’s lawyer colleagues. The lawyers at Jammu also tried to stop the Crime Branch police from filing charges against the accused before Chief Judicial Magistrate's office in Kathua.
After Supreme Court refused the demand for a CBI inquiry in the case, the case was transferred to a fast-track court in Pathankot, Punjab.
As soon as she became the face of the aggrieving parents’ in the quest for justice, Rajawat started receiving abuses and threats, apart from being trolled on social media. She was labeled an “anti-national” and suffered a boycott by her colleagues, relatives and neighbors.
“Serious allegations have been leveled on me since I took the case. My life has changed completely,” Deepika told News18 in at the Jammu court. She says she volunteered to fight the case as soon as she read the details of the incident in newspapers.
“I volunteered to take their case after coming to know the horrific details of the case. Though it goes against my profession to approach someone but I felt I must help the family to get justice,” she said. There is nothing extraordinary about what she’s doing, the lawyer adds, all one needs to pick up such a case is some “sanity”.
“I am a woman, a mother, a lawyer and an activist. These reasons are enough to fight this case. More than that I am a responsible citizen who can differentiate between good and bad,” she said, clarifying that she is fighting the case pro-bono.
Mother of a six-year-old girl, Deepika was born in a Kashmiri Pandit family which migrated to Jammu in 1986 from north Kashmir’s Kupwara.
After graduating in law from the University of Jammu, she became a journalist and was active in the profession for five years.
In 2008, she began working for a child rights group in Delhi and worked as a human rights activist for seven years, before moving back to Jammu where she started practising as a lawyer.
She never thought she will be mentally harassed for fighting for justice of the girl. The events, which unfolded after the case came into limelight, put pressure on Deepika and her family.
“At one point in time, my husband was furious about it when he saw people calling me an anti-national. Even my parents and brother told me that I should not put myself in danger,” Rajawat, who received the Vogue Woman of the Year 2018 award for taking up the Kathua case, says.
The campaign against her was so relentless, she says, that her neighbors stopped talking with her parents.
“People started creating distance with my parents and my family. I was called a traitor and anti-national just because I was fighting the case of a Muslim girl,” she says.
Her parents and family were upset with her but she had made up her mind not to abandon the eight-year-old’s family.
“I told my parents that they can disown me if they feel insulted,” she adds, “but I made it clear to them that I am not going to leave the case.”
She feels proud and says the situation has turned her stronger and made her learn a lot.
“Their abusing cannot weaken me, it gives me strength and keeps me motivated always,” she says. “Even my daughter is learning out of it. When she sees her mother working for a Muslim child, I think she gains a sense that we need to believe in humanity first.”
Deepika’s relations with her colleagues soured also. “At court most of people don’t talk to me even today. They feel I am their enemy,” said Deepika.
But some ice is beginning to thaw. “Now I feel there are fewer people who hate me. People from my own community now even appreciate me. Even some of my colleagues in Jammu have also begun supporting me.”
At the end we return to the theme of her personal safety.
“There are people after me with an intention to harm for sure. But the case is being watched internationally so they feel this is not the right time to harm me.”
But these people “will fix me at some time in future. Of that I’m sure,” she says with a smile concealing the mortal threat that she never forgets.
(The author is a Kashmir-based freelance journalist.)