Nine-year-old Mahek stood calmly amid a crowd of approximately 1000 protesters, as a flock of press photographers furiously clicked her pictures. The white chart-paper she held up read "I am Nirbhaya and I am [the Kathua victim]". Occasionally, when the loudspeakers around the stage fell quiet, she and her six friends chanted, "We want justice. We want justice."
Mahek had accompanied six friends and two teachers from a story-telling and theatre group in old Delhi to join the nation-wide protests organised on Sunday in response to the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu and Kashmir's Kathua district and the sexual assault on a minor girl in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh.
"I want the people who hurt and killed her to be punished," Mahek said.
On 17 January this year, the body of an 8-year-old girl was found in the woods in the Rasana area in Kathua. She belonged to the nomadic Muslim tribe Bakarwals, who had settled on the fringes of the area. Reports revealed that the girl had been gang-raped multiple times, strangled and beaten to death. Eight people, including a former revenue department official, four police officers and a minor were accused of holding the girl captive in a temple, raping and killing her. A chargesheet was filed against the accused; the chargesheet indicated that the perpetrators had planned the rape and murder as a ploy to drive the Muslim tribe away from Kathua. A right-wing group, Hindu Ekta Manch, led by a state secretary of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), demanded the release of the police officer held for the child's rape and murder.
Meanwhile in Unnao, the Adityanath government is under fire for shielding a BJP legislator, accused of allegedly raping a minor and intimidating her family.
These incidents, as 9-year-old Mahek's hand scrawled posters suggest, could become the Modi government's Nirbhaya moment – revealing itself as incapable of performing the basic law-and-order functions expected of any government. The involvement of BJP leaders in both crimes has chipped away at the government popularity amongst women – a constituency assiduously cultivated by the Prime Minister.
On Sunday, protesters turned up at the venue holding placards demanding the arrest of those obstructing the process of justice. Speakers criticised the government's delay in responding to the incident – the usually voluble Prime Minister issued a statement only on 14 April -- and sought to debunk theories that the Kathua rape should not be 'communalised'.
Soon after the first wave of outrage had washed over social media, 'viral' media (like the one below) surfaced on Facebook and Twitter demanded that the communal angle in the crime not be discussed. According to eye-witness accounts, protesters in Mumbai's suburbs, for instance, held up posters saying 'A rapist is a rapist, doesn't matter if Hindu or Muslim'. Protesters in Bengaluru also said they faced some resistance when they furnished signs condemning 'Hindutva fascism' and condemning the government for its silence.
At the protest in Delhi, journalist and activist Arfa Khanum Sherwani said that the Kathua incident was a communally motivated act of violence and saying religion doesn't have anything to do with the incident was misleading.
"She was targeted because she was a Muslim," Sherwani said.
Sherwani said that ignoring the communal muscle flexing, evident in the Kathua incident, obscured the wider context of the communal polarisation of Indian society.
Later, lawyer Deepika Singh Rajawat from Jammu, who is representing the victim, joined the protest and said she had been threatened by various Hindutva groups for taking up the Kathua case, she refused to be intimidated.
Speaking at the #NotInMyName venue, lawyer and activist Vrinda Grover reminded the crowd that the quest for justice for the Kathua victim, was separate from a larger conversation about capital punishment.
But in the crowd, it was clear the the violence in Jammu and Uttar Pradesh, had spawned its own blood lust.
When asked what punishment the rapists should get, Mahek and her 10-year-old friend Ilma, didn't blink before replying.
"Hanging," they said.