Muzaffarnagar: As Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls this week, seven women who reported being gangraped in the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013 are still awaiting a fair trial. The state and the slow-moving judicial system have failed these women.
Soon after the riots, journalists and activists reported several instances of rape and sexual violence on September 8, 2013, after the mahapanchayat was held outside Muzaffarnagar city the day before. Eventually, seven women came forward and filed FIRs of gangrape. These were all Muslim women from rural UP. In all seven instances, three or more Jat men were allegedly involved in the gangrapes. The women named all the men in their FIRs, and in some cases, knew the accused well.
Fatima told us how her mother-in-law used to work in the sugarcane fields of one of her alleged rapists before the communal riots. She has now relocated to a colony with her five children, none of whom she can afford to send to school.
Most incidents of sexual violence that take place in the context of communal violence are usually bound together by a common thread – impunity, produced by the state and judicial system’s failure to investigate and process these cases. By one estimate, since India’s independence, only three cases of sexual violence that took place during Hindu-Muslim violence have led to convictions. This speaks volumes about the extent to which such crimes have gone unpunished and how survivors have been denied. The 2008 rape conviction in the landmark Bilkis Bano case was one of the first such convictions for a case involving communal violence in post-independence India.
Activist Rahana Adeeb told me how the narrative of women’s honour was stirred into the cauldron of communal tension in Muzaffarnagar.
“Slogans of Beti Bachao Bahu Bachao or Beti Bahu Izzat Bachao were made at the mahapanchayat, September 7, 2013, before the riots broke out, which stirred violence amongst an angry mob, being fed the fiction of Love jihad.”
Not a single one of the seven gangrape cases has seen a conviction yet – two of the cases haven’t even gone to trial. When I met Bano* in January 2017, as part of an Amnesty International investigation into the status of these cases, she said that all she knew about her case were the new dates on which she needed to appear in court. Nothing more. After reportedly being threatened by the accused in 2013, and having her requests for protection ignored, Bano retracted her statement and turned hostile in December 2013. Later, she requested for her case to be re-opened and filed a new statement, naming the accused and saying she had retracted her statement under pressure the last time.
A letter filed on her behalf to the investigating officer in March 2014 said that in December 2013, days before she was to record her statement, “[One of the three men] pointed the pistol at her son’s temple and the three men began threatening her saying they would kill her, her son and other members of her family if she gave statement against them…”.
As of January 2017, Bano’s lawyers have told her that her case is only likely to be heard after the elections.
Chaman, another survivor, who has been unwell since the riots, told a fast-track court in 2015 that the accused were not the men who raped her. This after she had filed an affidavit saying that the accused were delaying the trial deliberately and she was afraid that the adjournments granted by the court would give them an opportunity to threaten her.
Ghazala has requested for her case to be transferred out of Muzaffarnagar owing to threats made against her. The transfer petition, filed on her behalf by lawyer Vrinda Grover in April 2016, is yet to be decided upon by the Allahabad high court. The trial in her case is yet to begin. Grover said, “She has said categorically to me that even if her husband abandons her she will still go and speak in court because what was done to her she will not accept. The state is still nowhere in the picture . The state does not offer any support , does not offer any protection. Cases are being fought against odds that are too high for people to be able to overcome without state support.”
One of the survivors, Esha, died during child birth in August 2016, one month after I met her. The Muzaffarnagar district general counsel was not even aware of her passing away, even in December 2016, and said that the delay in trials was caused partly because of the difficulty in tracking down the survivors – all of whom had left their native villages and moved to colonies. Esha’s neighbour, Dilnaz, another survivor, was not aware that there had been an acquittal in her case in January 2016. When I broke the news to her in January 2017, she said “I just want justice to be served.”
Aarzoo, a widow, whose trial began in February 2016, works in a factory close to her new home. She told us that it was very difficult to pursue her case without any help from the government.
Help from the state
All seven women were given Rs 5,00,000 as compensation after the Supreme Court directed the state government to do so. But they have received no additional financial aid or support from the state, despite the court’s directions. The two police personnel appointed to protect each of them (one male and one female) were not present in four of the five homes I visited, once in July 2016 and again in January 2017. In the one case that the police was present, the survivors also said that they had been providing food to both and lodging to the male personnel.
In 2013, Section 309 of the Code of Criminal Procedure was amended to do away with unnecessary adjournments. The amended section reads:
“In every inquiry or trial the proceedings shall be continued from day-to-day until all the witnesses in attendance have been examined, unless the Court finds the adjournment of the same beyond the following day to be necessary for reasons to be recorded: Provided that when the inquiry or trial relates to [various forms of rape], the inquiry or trial shall, as far as possible be completed within a period of two months from the date of filing of the charge sheet”.
For all the seven survivors, the police only filed charge-sheets only six months after the FIRs were filed.
“The trial in my case has not begun. What reason do have to threaten me? It has been over three years and they are all roaming free,” Bano told Amnesty International in January 2017.
The state government and successive central governments have failed these women. Living in abject poverty, displaced by the riots and largely ignored by authorities, these survivors are still waiting for a fair trial for their cases, justice is a distant dream.
*All names of survivors have been changed.
Amnesty’s briefing report “Losing Faith: Muzaffarnagar Gang-rape Survivors’ Struggle for Justice” was released in New Delhi on February 9, 2017.
Mariya Salim worked as a co-researcher for the report.