Two days before the first phase of polling begins in Uttar Pradesh (UP) on February 11, Amnesty International India (AII) released a report on Thursday highlighting the failure of UP’s police, judiciary and state machinery to deliver justice to women who were gangraped during the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. “Every one of the seven women gang-rape survivors from Muzaffarnagar and Shamli who sought justice reported that they had faced harassment, threats and intimidation from the accused men and their relatives after they filed their complaints,” the report notes.
Titled “Losing Faith: The Muzaffarnagar Gang-rape Survivors’ Struggle for Justice”, the report focuses on the plight of six women who have been locked in a legal battle for justice for the last three years. Although seven women had come forward and filed First Information Reports (FIRs), alleging they had been gangraped, one survivor died in August, 2016 during childbirth. Executive Director of AII, Aakar Patel said, “The Uttar Pradesh government has failed the seven women who have fought enormous odds to pursue their cases.” The report was released at the Constitution Club of India, Delhi.
Patel said that it was a “deliberate” decision by AII to release the report close to UP polls. Human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover pointed out the hypocrisy of politicians “across the spectrum who say they’re all committed to women’s rights”. She was scathing in her criticism of the political establishment’s “stunning silence on this issue”, describing it as “a clear indication they don’t have either the commitment or the political will to ensure women’s dignity, bodily integrity and respect” are safeguarded.
Explaining how the report was compiled, AII’s Mariya Salim said, “From July 2016 to January 2017, we met the survivors, we met the lawyers, activists who are working on the ground and others in the area. We studied court documents, police documents, media reports, fact finding reports etc. and started working on our briefing.” AII found that survivors faced obstacles at each step – from filing of the initial FIR to the framing of charges by the court and subsequently to repeated adjournments of the court as delaying tactics by the accused.
One survivor, 42-year-old Fatima, who was gangraped by four men inside her house in Fugana, Muzaffarnagar on September 8, 2013, reportedly received a threatening message from two of the accused. The message made it clear that if “she [Fatima] did not comply with their demands to withdraw the case […] they would ensure that she and her family members were killed”. Another survivor, Ghazala, filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court stating that “the applicant along with her family were being forced and threatened time and again to withdraw from the criminal prosecution”. Ghazala eventually filed a petition in April 2016 to have the trial transferred out of Muzaffarnagar, which is still pending before the Allahabad HC. She has said that she is “extremely apprehensive of coming to the Muzaffarnagar District Court” because the accused in her case belong to “the dominant community” and wield “considerable influence in the area”.
Owing to inadequate police protection to survivors (despite repeated requests), more than one has been forced to change their testimony due to intimidation. The Amnesty report discusses the cases of three survivors – Chaman, Bano and Dilnaz – who succumbed to threats to their families and altered their testimonies, saying the accused men were not the rapists. There were even allegations from some survivors that the Investigation Officer first appointed to lead the investigation herself threatened and harassed them. When a team from the National Commission for Minorities visited Muzaffarnagar in June 2014, it took cognisance of complaints “specifically against the Investigating Officer”, following which the state government removed the officer from the investigation in November 2014.
On the matter of compensation, the report finds that “the UP and central governments have failed in their duty to provide adequate reparation” to the survivors. “All of the survivors we met told us they received very little assistance from the authorities in helping the rebuild their lives, the lives they completely lost in the riots,” said Amnesty’s Makepeace Sitlhou.
After a writ petition was filed in March, 2014 the SC directed the state government to provide each survivor with a compensation of Rs 5 lakh within four weeks along with “additional benefits”, she said. However, the survivors not receive any additional benefits and even the compensation given to most came eight weeks after the SC order, that too after repeated requests. “One of them [received compensation] more than seven months later,” Sitlhou said.
Speaking at the event, Rahana Adeeb, founder of Muzaffarnagar-based non-profit Astitva, related the difficulties of supporting the cause of the survivors.”We work in an atmosphere of threats,” she said. “More so because we try and record statements of these women and get them to the court. We try to build their courage and wipe their tears.” A lot of her efforts are expended in fighting the state authorities and the police, she told Newslaundry. “We get into a daily tussle with the police on issues like FIRs not being lodged or the accused not being arrested. So we protest against such things by taking out processions and distributing pamphlets against the police.”
Grover, on the other hand, pointed out the legal difficulties, especially the reluctance of the state to invoke Section 376 (2)(g) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which was introduced in March, 2013. “These were the first cases in the country in which a new provision of law [was applicable],” said Grover. “Section 376 (2)(g) … provides that if a woman is raped during communal or sectarian violence, it is a specific form of aggravated rape under the IPC. It was included because we’ve seen from experience that women’s bodies are targeted during communal and caste atrocities.” Yet this section was excluded from the original FIRs, Grover said, and was only introduced by the state police in chargesheets after March 2014, after the issue was raised before the SC. Explaining the importance of this section, Grover said that if a woman can prove before the court that there was sexual intercourse during communal violence, “the law will assume that in the middle of a communal riot when her family and property are being attacked, she is not going to consent to have sex with the man who is attacking her”. As a result, “these cases are very strong when they go to court” and the “chances and likelihood of conviction are real”, she said.
Despite all these challenges, Grover found a silver lining in the fact that cases have at least been filed and are being pursued despite social stigma and apathy from the authorities. “These women have shown immense courage by filing cases,” she said. “When people say that ‘where is the change in the country?’, I feel we can see the change when these women came to us with their husbands and spoke of their experience in front of their husbands. And along with their families and communities, they said we want justice.”