Eight Hindu men accused of the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in a case that has fuelled vicious religious divisions in India have pleaded not guilty.

At the men’s first court appearance, the judge adjourned the case to hear a petition from the lawyer representing the victim’s family to have the trial held elsewhere because of fears for her safety.

Before the trial, the lawyer said she herself had been threatened with rape and death for taking up the case.

“I was threatened yesterday that ‘we will not forgive you’. I am going to tell the Supreme Court that I am in danger,” said Deepika Singh Rawat. She has fought for a proper investigation since the murder in January.

The Supreme Court in Srinagar also ordered security for the victim’s family after her father said he too feared for their safety.

The child’s body was found in a forest in Jammu and Kashmir state in January, a week after she went missing while taking her family’s ponies to graze. Police said she had been drugged, held captive in a temple, sexually assaulted, strangled and battered to death with a stone.

The case highlights increasing religious polarisation in India. The girl was from a nomadic community that roams the forests, and investigators say the accused men had plotted the abduction for more than a month to try to scare her Muslim tribe away from the area – Kathua district in Jammu, the mostly Hindu portion of India’s only Muslim-majority state.

The crime has prompted nationwide outrage, and criticism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for initially showing support for the suspects.

Public anger has led to protests in cities across India over several days. Demonstrators have also highlighted another rape case allegedly involving a BJP lawmaker in the crime-ridden, northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

In 2012, massive protests followed the gang rape and murder of a woman on a Delhi bus, forcing the then Congress-led government to enact tough new rape laws including the death penalty.

But last week thousands of members of a radical Hindu group, Hindu Ekta Manch – or the Hindu Unity Platform – marched in support of the eight accused.

At least two lawmakers from the BJP also spoke out in support of the suspects.

Hundreds of lawyers from the local bar association also tried to prevent police from entering a court complex to place their investigation before a judge and said the men were all innocent. 

The accused include a retired government official, four police officers and a minor.

One of the police officers involved had allegedly claimed to join in the search for her body. Two other police officers were arrested for attempts to destroy evidence or take bribes to stifle the investigation.

India has long been plagued by violence against women and children – reported rapes climbed 60 per cent from 2012 to 40,000 in 2016, and many more go unreported, especially in rural areas.

Reports of the torture, rape and murder of another child, believed to be about 12, have emerged from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s western home state of Gujarat.

As the groundswell of revulsion grew, Mr Modi said on Friday that the guilty would not be shielded, but he has been criticised for failing to speak out sooner.

Before leaving for an official visit to Europe this week, he received a letter from 50 former police chiefs, ambassadors and senior civil servants, upbraiding the political leadership over its weak response.

“The bestiality and the barbarity involved in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old child shows the depths of depravity that we have sunk into,” the former officials said.

“In post-independence India, this is our darkest hour and we find the response of our government, the leaders of our political parties inadequate and feeble.”

The letter blamed the BJP and right-wing Hindu groups for promoting a culture of “majoritarian belligerence and aggression” in Jammu, and in the Uttar Pradesh case it blasted the party for using feudal strongmen, who “behave like gangsters”, to shore up its rule.

The former officials said they held no political affiliation other than to uphold the values of India’s secular constitution that guarantees equal rights to all citizens. Some of the signatories have spoken out in the past against Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, accusing it of whipping up hostility towards India’s 172 million Muslims.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, led the first major protest over the murder in New Delhi last week.

Mr Gandhi tweeted today that there had been nearly 20,000 child rapes in India in 2016, and urged Mr Modi to fast-track prosecutions “if he is serious about providing ‘justice for our daughters”.

The alleged ringleader of the attackers, retired bureaucrat Sanji Ram, who was named in a police report, looked after the Hindu temple where the girl had been held.

The case is due to resume on 28 April.

Agencies contributed to this report