In the last decade, the 36-year-old has lost a great deal – from the home that was set ablaze in the 2013 riots in Muzaffarnagar to neighbours who turned their backs on her when she refused to withdraw the cases against her rapists.

What she did not give up was the desire to fight for justice. “I would pray to God for justice,” she told a small gathering of journalists in Delhi on Thursday. “I am happy I got it.”

On Tuesday, a trial court in Uttar Pradesh convicted two men for gangraping the woman – the first conviction for gangrape in the riots cases.

The two men – Maheshvir and Sikander – have been convicted under Indian Penal Code provisions dealing with gangrape, unlawful sexual contact and criminal intimidation. They have been sentenced to 20 years’ rigorous imprisonment. Another person accused in the case, Kuldeep, died during the trial.

The woman was gangraped by the three men from the Jat community, when large-scale communal violence erupted in western Uttar Pradesh in September 2013.

At least 60 people were killed and thousands of Muslim families were displaced in the riots. There were several reports of sexual assault and abuse in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts.

On a September evening that year, a call went out from a temple in her village, urging revenge against Muslims over the alleged harassment of a Jat woman by a group of Muslim men, the rape survivor recalled. Some Muslim families fled the village. But her family stayed back after some elders from the Jat community reassured them that they would not be harmed, she said.

The next morning, her elder son complained of fever. Her husband took him to the hospital in Shamli, leaving the woman alone with her child, then a few months old.

But as violence erupted again in the village, the Muslims who had stayed back decided to flee.

With the baby in her arms, the woman ran out in panic from the house on the edge of the fields.

“I ran into the sugarcane fields and got lost,” she said. “I somehow reached a road.”

While she waited for a lift from a vehicle, three men arrived.

She had seen them before. Her husband was a tailor and they would often come to their home to get their clothes stitched.

The three men, who were armed, grabbed her and took her to the sugarcane fields. “They snatched my son from me and placed him on the ground. I am unable to forget that,” she said. “Then they behaved like beasts. I could not see any humanity in them.”

The men warned her against speaking to anyone about being raped. “They told me they would kill me if I told anyone,” she said. “They said my husband would leave me.”

People displaced in the Muzaffarnagar riots taking shelter at a camp. Credit: AFP

Eventually, she found her way to a camp in a neighboring village set up for riot survivors. For several days, she said nothing about the assault.

She spoke about it first to her husband, who she met five days later, when the violence had largely subsided. “He was very supportive.” she said. “He said it was not your fault.”

She did not report the rape to the police because, she said, she was afraid that her rapists would harm her.

A few days later when she met Shabnam Hashmi, a veteran civil society activist from Delhi, she came to know that more women had been subjected to sexual violence in the riots. She then decided to report the incident to the police.

She wrote a complaint and sent it to the Fugana police station by post but there was no response.

With the help of human right lawyer Vrinda Grover, she, along with six rape survivors, filed a writ in the Supreme Court.

While the court was hearing the matter, the police filed a first information report under Sections 376-D (gangrape) and 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code – five months after the assault. A week later, the Supreme Court also directed the Uttar Pradesh police to provide security to the survivor and ordered the state government to pay her Rs 5 lakh as compensation.

The battle in court

But in the subsequent years, the other rape survivors withdrew their statements, allegedly due to pressure from the men accused of the crimes.

The 36-year-old refused to do so, despite offers of compromise as well as threats and intimidation.

In 2016, she moved to Delhi with Hashmi’s help to get away from the daily harassment. She lived there for two years.

The dislocation, however, hurt the family economically and hampered her children’s education. “My husband had difficulty finding work,” she said. “My children had to start [their academic year] afresh.”

She returned to Shamli, and now lives 15 km away from her old village. “I will never return to that place,” she said.

In 2013, CRPF personnel patrol the streets of a village in Shamli to control the riots. Credit: AFP

In the courtroom, the legal battle was a demanding one for her and her lawyer.

She recalled: “They [the lawyers representing her rapists] raised questions about my private life.They called me a characterless woman. They asked me questions which were not related to the case.”

Grover said that defence lawyers used many tactics to delay the case proceedings and wear them out. “But she showed huge commitment” and did not relent.

Grover had to make her final arguments on three different occasions because the judges kept getting transferred. The arguments took one year. Eventually, they had to secure an order from the Supreme court for hearing on a daily basis.

“Nobody in the village supported me,” the rape survivor recalled. “But I had support from my husband, my family, and my mother from day one.”

She has a message for women like her struggling for justice. “They should never lose hope and stop fighting. They will get justice.”