In September 2013, communal riots in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts killed 60 people and displaced thousands of Muslim families. While the riots were widely reported across the country, it took a while for the stories of sexual violence to emerge.
In the days after the riots, journalists and human rights activists working in relief camps came across scores of Muslim women who spoke of being raped or gang-raped by Hindu men during the clashes, but were unwilling to file police complaints because of the social stigma attached to sexual violence.
After a few days, seven women approached the police and reported being gang-raped by Jat men during the riots. They were promised swift justice and the Uttar Pradesh government set up a special investigative team to look into their cases.
More than three years later, swift justice seems like a pipe dream for these women. A new report by Amnesty India, the human rights organisation, reveals that ever since they approached the police, all seven women have faced threats, harassment and pressure to change their statements or withdraw their cases.
The report, titled Losing Faith: The Muzaffarnagar gang rape survivors’ struggle for justice, points out that the state government has failed to protect the women from threats and intimidation and has not even kept them informed about the status of their cases.
For the women who reported being gang-raped, the delays in justice delivery began with the very first step of filing First Information Reports. While one woman had to approach the police twice and then wait for a month for the police to file an FIR, another had to wait four months after her first complaint was ignored.
The court cases have also been proceeding far too slowly, with one trial underway, another still at the stage of recording evidence, a third concluding in an acquittal last year and a fourth yet to begin. And in August 2016, one of the women died during childbirth before she had an opportunity to testify in court.
The Amnesty report delves into the details of the case of one woman, Ghazala (name changed), whose trial is currently suspended because she petitioned the Allahabad High Court to seek a transfer of the case out of Muzaffarnagar. In this case, the High Court granted bail to the accused on three different occasions since December 2014, on the condition that they would not seek adjournments on the days of the hearings.
Despite this, the Amnesty report said, adjournments were sought and granted several times. Since 2015, there have been at least 20 hearings in Ghazala’s case, of which the majority could not proceed because one or more of the accused or their advocate was missing.
Death threats and bribes
While they struggle with delayed trials in the courtroom, everyday life at home has been far more challenging for these women. In most of the cases, the gang rape accused are free, moving around in the same villages and threatening the women with consequences if they don’t withdraw their cases.
Fatima (name changed), who reported being gang-raped in the presence of her young daughter in her own house, has been facing death threats from the accused since August 2014. In her statement to the police, she claimed her family was offered Rs 15 lakh to withdraw the case, failing which the accused threatened to kill her and her family.
While Fatima and her family have not yet given in to the coercion, survivor Chaman (name changed) ended up changing her statement in court in November 2015.
Since October 2013, Chaman’s husband repeatedly approached the police regarding the death threats he received from the men who allegedly gang-raped his wife on the terrace of their house. The family was given police protection in January 2014, but this was withdrawn four months later citing “election duty”.
Despite complaints of threats, the trial court adjourned several hearings at the request of the accused, even after Chaman’s lawyers pointed out that it would give the accused more time to pressurise the survivor. Finally, at a hearing in November 2015, Chaman claimed she could not identify the men who had raped her, even though she had clearly identified them at the time of filing her FIR.
Failed by the system
Another survivor who withdrew her complaint was Bano (name changed), who reported being publicly threatened with death a month after she was gang-raped. Bano was denied police protection and, in December 2013, three days before she was to record her statement before a magistrate, she claims she was accosted by three of the accused men while she was standing at a bus stop with her son. The men were carrying unlicensed pistols, held one of the guns to her son’s head and coerced Bano into agreeing that she had filed a false rape case.
Three days later, Bano’s case was closed after she told the magistrate that the accused men were not the ones who raped her. In March 2014, with her husband’s encouragement, Bano sought justice again. In a letter to senior police officials in Uttar Pradesh, she complained not only about the death threats she had received from the accused but also about the threats and pressure she had faced from a female investigating officer who wanted her to withdraw the case.
The Supreme Court then directed the police to have a woman magistrate record the statements of all the seven women again, and Bano recorded a fresh complaint in May 2014.
For Bano, this meant a renewed series of death threats for her husband and her only son. She did not receive police protection till June 2014. Since the trial in Bano’s case has not even begun yet, she now claims the accused don’t even need to threaten her anymore. “What reason do they have to threaten me?” she told Amnesty in January 2017. “It has been over three years [since the gang rape] and they are all roaming free.”