The gang rape, torture and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Indian-controlled Kashmir has sparked growing outrage and religious tension across the country.

Eight men, all of whom are Hindu, have been arrested in connection with the death of Asifa Bano, who was part of the nomadic Muslim Bakarwal tribe.

Bano was grazing her family’s horses in Kathua, a district in Jammu and Kashmir state, when she was kidnapped, drugged and sexually assaulted by different men over the course of three days.

She was eventually strangled and hit over the head with a stone. The attack took place in January, but the details were only released by police this week.

On Thursday night, the president of the opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, let a candlelit vigil in New Delhi demanding justice in the Asifa case, as well as a separate case involving rape allegations against a politician from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“Like millions of Indians, my heart hurts tonight,” Gandhi wrote on Twitter after addressing an estimated 5,000 people at the vigil at the India Gate war memorial.

“India simply cannot continue to treat its women the way it does. What happened to Asifa at Kathua is a crime against humanity. It cannot go unpunished,” he wrote.

“What have we become if we allow politics to interfere with such unimaginable brutality perpetrated on an innocent child?”

Six of the men arrested in Jammu-Kashmir, including two police officers, are accused of being directly involved in the attack. Two other policemen were arrested for attempts to destroy evidence.

Shortly after the men were arrested, protests spread across Kathua as right-wing Hindu activists and nationalists defended the accused, arguing some police officers who worked on the case are Muslim and cannot be trusted, The New York Times reported.

Two ministers from the Hindu nationalist BJP were in attendance at a protest in support of the men arrested. Dozens of women in Kathua organised a hunger strike in support of the accused men.

On Monday, Hindu lawyers attempted to prevent police from filing their investigation report at court, saying the inquiry was flawed and the six men accused of direct involvement in the attack were innocent and set up.

Police were only able to file the charges after calling for backup.

Anger has erupted against those who have supported the accused men, with the hashtag #JusticeforAsifa picking up momentum on social media across India.

Some have likened the case to the 2012 rape and murder of student Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi, which sparked nationwide demonstrations against India’s pervasive problem of sexual violence against women.

According to investigators, the girl’s assault and murder was an attempt to force the Muslim Bakarwals to leave the area. 

They also allege the attack was planned by the custodian of a local Hindu temple, Sanji Ram, who was an opponent of the nomadic tribe.

The Times of India reported Mr Ram had been “motivating” some members of the Hindu community in the area not to provide the Bakarwals land for grazing.