Reporter’s diary: Inside a rape survivor’s 30-year battle from secrecy to justice

Beyond the rape, a survivor also battles the secrecy around the crime.

WrittenBy:Nidhi Suresh
A silhouette of the survivor with a map of UP and one of the accused's picture in the background.

Savita* was at her office when she got the call. A local journalist informed her that she had won the case. He wanted her to comment on it. 

“I didn’t know how to put 30 years of my life’s pain into one comment. I just laughed and cried at the same time,” she said. 

On May 20, the Shahjahanpur Sessions Court sentenced Mohammad Razi and Hassan Naqi to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment for raping Savita for two years between 1994 and 1996. She was just 12 years old when it first happened. 

The only evidence in the case was Raju*, Savita’s son, born out of the rape when she was barely 14 years of age. His DNA samples proved that Hassan Naqi and Savita were his natural parents. 

Raju, who was taken away from Savita at birth, reunited with her after over a decade. He would demand to know who his father was. In 2021, when Savita finally told him about the rape, he insisted on filing an FIR. 

In an exceptional turn of events, after 30 years of the rape, the two perpetrators were located and arrested, leading to their conviction. 

The shape of secrecy 

Rape often happens in secrecy. Women are thus encouraged to speak about it. However, very often, once it is exposed, the violence ends up existing as a public secret. 

In the book Public Secrets of Law: Rape trials in India, author Pratiksha Baxi quotes cultural critic Walter Bejamin who emphasises that it is the “task and the life force of the public secret to maintain that verge where the secret is not destroyed through exposure, but subject to quite a different sort of revelation that does justice to it”. 

Unfortunately, the stigma and discomfort around speaking about sexual violence only succeeds in furthering trauma. 

The shape of Savita’s memory tells us a story about the complex relationship between jurisprudence and cultural performances of justice. 

Savita has a blurred memory of the rape itself. All she remembers is how her hands were often tied, how the men mostly smelled of lithium grease, a kind of grease used in mechanic shops, and how she rushed to wash her blood-stained clothes after the men left. 

“What I remember with a lot of clarity is everything that unfolded after I told my family about the rape. Most of my memories are about how I was treated,” she said. 

The first time the men raped Savita, they threatened to kill her and her entire family if she ever spoke about it. 

Eventually, when she got pregnant and told her family, they confronted Naqi and Razi. The men “put a country-made pistol into my sister and brother-in-law’s mouths and threatened to shoot them,” she said. 

Savita’s most vivid memory is of when she was 14. She had just given birth to her son, she was exhausted and asked for her child. “My mother told me not to ask any questions and never speak of any of this again. My mouth had been sealed shut that day.”  

For the next 20 years, Savita quietly held on to the secret. 

She was not allowed to go back to her village because of the shame it would bring on her family. She got married, had another son and eventually when whispers about her first son reached her husband, he left her. 

Her sister’s husband also abandoned the family. He could no longer bear the stigma that came with what had happened to Savita. 

Even when she decided to file a complaint, for months the police refused to lodge an FIR. 

“It was an unbelievable story. It happened 25 years ago. There were no witnesses, or any crime scene. In fact, she didn’t even really know their names. What was I to investigate?” asked Mangal Singh, who later became the investigating officer in the case. 

It wasn’t until a court order compelled the police to investigate that the investigation began.

During the trial, the defence relied on the lack of witnesses, the passage of time, and the inability of the police to locate the doctor who delivered Raju. They eventually argued that since Savita had maintained this secret for a very long time, “the physical relationship” between the accused and her “was established on the basis of mutual consent”. 

Thus, while the incident altered Savita’s sense of self, what broke her was the shame and neglect she faced from her family, her husband, the police, and sometimes even in the arguments held in court.  

On justice

A few years ago, when I first spoke to her, Savita was extremely sceptical. “I want to be very clear with you, I don’t want you to write about me like I am a victim. I survived this.” Those were her first words. 

Savita had read far too many stories where victimhood and shame defined the stories of women who had survived sexual abuse. To her, such reportage stripped women of any agency they have in their own stories. 

It is one of the reasons why she is insistent on using the word ‘survivor’. 

She means that she is not just a survivor of rape but she also had to constantly survive the secrecy around what happened to her. 

Rape trials, Pratiksha Baxi said, are far from destroying secrets, are privileged sites for the production, negotiation and management of public secrets.

Over the last few years, during our multiple conversations, I often asked Savita what justice would mean to her. 

“The men threatened me into silence, but when I did tell the people around me, they also asked me to keep quiet,” she said. 

Today, the men have been charged with criminally intimidating her into silence. But the managers of this secrecy, the ones who let it thrive go scott-free. 

“Conviction is the beginning,” she said. “And then my healing can somewhat begin. Maybe my family will call me more, maybe I can sleep better.” 

In cases of sexual violence, conviction – considered the final touchstone of justice – is merely the very first step towards repair. 

Savita’s journey is an extraordinary one. She wants to no longer keep quiet about her story. 

In a conversation with Newslaundry, she spoke about her battle with stigma, journey to justice, her hopes, and how the incident has altered her life. Here is a teaser of the interview, exclusively for subscribers.

The verdict has surely brought her some peace. But even today, while talking about the case, she pines for her lost girlhood. 

“Which court of law will return my childish innocence?”

*Names have been changed to protect their identity. 

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Also see
article image‘I’ve lost 30 years’: How a rape survivor fought stigma, got justice with son as ‘proof of crime’
article imageHow a son helped nab his mother’s rapists after 30 years


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