"I will never forget how I was abused in 2018 and also how I was awarded and supported – all of which began at that first meeting," Lawyer Deepika Singh Rajawat vividly recalls how she welcomed the 8-year-old Kathua rape-murder victim, Aafreen*'s, parents to her home in Jammu. It was exactly a year ago in February 2018 that Rajawat began representing the family of the Kathua-rape murder victim.
The first thing that caught Rajawat's eye? That Aafreen and her mother had the same eyes.
Little did Rajawat know that this would be her biggest case yet. That she would both rise to fame – and hit rock bottom – over a mere year was unfathomable.
She had decided to reach out to Aafreen's parents through a journalist friend, all because of a Facebook post. Today, as she speaks to The Quint in an emotionally charged conversation, Rajawat does not hold back.
Her interest in the case had peaked months before the gruesome details of the charge sheet captured the collective conscience. The police charge sheet which was only submitted mid-April 2018 stated that the Gujjar Bakarwal girl, from the Muslim nomadic tribe, was abducted on 10 January 2018. She was sedated and repeatedly raped while being kept hidden in a Hindu prayer hall (devasthan). Her body was found in Kathua's Rasana forests on 17 January.
From a Facebook Post To Meeting Aafreen’s Parents
One winter evening after the sun set early, Rajawat was scrolling through her Facebook feed when she came across multiple posts about Aafreen. Gruesome details on her newsfeed left her unsettled. "Aafreen was eight, my daughter Ashtami is six years old, " said Rajawat, who has single-handedly raised Ashtami after separation with her husband.
Overnight she had decided she wanted to help them. She didn't waste time to put her thoughts to action, "I called a journalist friend of mine and asked him to help me meet them. Through him I was connected to a local Gujjar activist who knew where they lived."
Within days she had achieved what she'd set out to do. Rafeeza* and Aarif* were sitting across from her, albeit nervous and withdrawn. Rajawat broke the ice, "First, I condoled the death of their daughter, I tried to feel their pain and be with them. Legally, I already knew what the next step should be. The whole system was supporting the accused, rallies were being taken out too. I told them since the investigation is being conducted by the crime branch it is important that we get the investigation monitored by the high court. They were both unaware of the law, so I did struggle to explain the rationale of this step to them," she said. In fact, this was the first thing Rajawat did as Aafreen's parents' private counsel. She said she knew if it was not a monitored investigation it would not be conducted properly. The same month, she filed a writ petition in the Jammu High Court.
Betraying the pride in her eyes, she said, "Orders were passed so seriously by the honourable high court that all the arrests, except one or two, were done only after high court passed the orders.".
By now Rajawat had become synonymous with the Kathua rape case.
How and Why the Case was Transferred to Pathankot
While her popularity increased, the police completed their investigation and went to submit the charge sheet in the concerned court in Kathua on 9 April, 2018. "This is when we saw how the Kathua Bar Association lawyers hindered the crime branch from submitting the charge sheet," Rajawat says. She was not present in Kathua but heard about it from her colleagues. How they had gotten together in big numbers and chanted slogans against the police inquiry.
Simultaneously, unhappy with the crime branch conducting the inquiry, the Jammu Bar Association called for a bandh. They also demanded a CBI inquiry. Rajawat, however, continued to appear for her cases. During that time, she recalls meeting Jammu Bar Association head, B S Slathia, who told her, "If you won’t stop (appearing for cases), I know the means to stop you. Gandh felane ki zaroorat nahi hain (There’s no need to spread filth)”. She remembers feeling scared and intimidated. Simultaneously she was receiving hatred on social media, "They told me I was working for the Hurriyat, that I wanted Kashmiri pandits to be driven out of Jammu as well, that I was not a Rajput," Rajawat says.
When contacted by The Quint, Slathia denied these allegations stating that while he did ask Rajawat to stop working, he was polite.
Aafreen's parents were unaware of the commotion at the trial court or the run-ins Rajawat was having with other lawyers. They were on their way to Kashmir with their goats, sheep and horses for the summer. They were around 120 km away from Jammu at Patnitop when all hell broke loose. "My team went up and brought them back. We needed their consent to move the case out of Jammu," she said, exhibiting the sense of urgency she must have felt that evening.
Within a few days the paperwork was brought in order. But, Rajawat wanted to get a big Supreme Court lawyer on board, so she reached out to Senior Advocate Indira Jaisingh. "I wanted the case to be transferred out of Jammu and a big name on board would have helped. That is what happened when the case was transferred to Pathankot on 7 May last year."
Despite the mounting hate Rajawat was at the receiving end of, this was her highest point yet. However, while she stood talking to media persons outside the Supreme Court in her "peace pose”, she was unaware that the elation was momentary. While she was away in Delhi she remembers Ashtami calling her, "Mumma when will you come back?" Ashtami's studies had suffered over time. "I had to hear a lot from her school teachers, that she would often not do her homework. But not once did she complain," she recalls, adding that Ashtami is doing better at her studies now.
Rajawat believed she had pulled out all the stops, she believed her work was done. "For me the case had ended with the SC order. I was not appointed as a special public prosecutor by the state in this case. I did not have the authority to conduct the trial," she said, adding that reliable senior public prosecutors were already fighting the case.
The Trial at Pathankot and Her Eventual Dismissal
During the initial days of the Kathua rape-murder trial in Pathankot, when the charges were being deliberated upon, Rajawat recalls the case she was working on in Jammu. "A 14-15 year old girl who was raped by her own three brothers needed my help. That is why I could not be there in Pathankot during the initial days."
Meanwhile, even while she thought she had insulated herself from the case, after playing her part, the hate on social media continued to gain momentum. So did the number of awards she was felicitated with at national and international forums.
Not in her wildest dreams had Rajawat anticipated the next move. Six months later, on 15 November 2018, an application was filed by Aafreen’s father, Aarif, to seek her dismissal from the case. “She never bothered with the case once it was moved to Pathankot. She did not come to court,” Aarif said adding that the lawyers advised him to file the application and he agreed.
Rajawat’s removal from the case hit her hard. While she was coping with the everyday hate, she derived strength from the fact that she played an imminent role in the case speedily moving to trial. However, now she was legally and categorically dumped from the case that she brought to light; she felt abandoned.
"I had done no wrong. I was clean. Yet, there continued to be accusations like – 'She has taken so much money' 'She was there for the money' 'She was there for fame', et al. It hurts me and your morale falls," she said. While speaking to The Quint Rajawat repeatedly broke down. Now even one comment on social media is enough to rile her up and cause her anguish. She is struggling to recover.
From Fighting Accusations to Being Asked to Vacate Her Home
To make matters worse, she has been asked to vacate the government accommodation she was provided by the then J&K CM Mehbooba Mufti. An already dejected Rajawat is struggling to find a place to live.
She says soon after the PDP-BJP government fell on 20 June 2018, government officials have been asking her to vacate.
'Madam you please vacate the house or we will tell the police to evict you,' she recalls the several times officials have appeared on her door-step. Her daughter promptly asked her one day, “Amma, where will we go now?” Her daughter's questions have ripped her core. She repeatedly asks the officials to give her some time to vacate.
"There is no one here in Jammu who is ready to give me accommodation on rent because the message of my being corrupt, anti-national, of not supporting the people of the community has spread everywhere," adding that many times the property dealers she has engaged with say that when they hear that the accommodation inquiry was for Deepika Singh Rajawat a prompt no comes in response.
Rajawat says she is stunned that meeting Aafreen's parents – something she herself initiated a year ago on a cold February afternoon – had catapulted her life to such extremes. "I had no clue I would experience everything I have had to. I had no clue this case would take me up and then take me down like it has," she says. The Kathua lawyer continues to wonder at the roller coaster her life has been in the one year that saw her rise to fame and hit rock bottom.
(*Names changed to protect identities)
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