3 years after riots, Muzaffarnagar's gangrape victims no closer to justice
If the election manifestos going into the UP state assembly polls are any indicator, the spectre of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots has been laid to rest. The BJP manifesto steers clear of the riots, while the Congress manifesto too is bereft of any mention of it. The same goes for the Samajwadi Party, under whose watch the riots took place.
However, for 6 women, the ghosts of Muzaffarnagar still loom large thanks to state apathy. These 6 women, all victims of gangrape that occurred during the communal violence, are the subject of Amnesty International India's latest report 'Losing Faith'. The report chronicles what they were subject to during the riots, and how they are all, over 3 years later, still being denied justice.
The report makes for grim reading, painting a picture of a state where basic processes of law and order have been hijacked by class, caste and religion. Where mechanisms meant to protect victims have failed, benefiting rapists and making a mockery of justice. Now, on the eve of the 2017 state polls in Uttar Pradesh, Amnesty's report hopes to help bring these cases back into the spotlight, so that they may, at long last, receive justice.
The Muzaffarnagar gangrapes
In the aftermath of the riots that left at least 72 dead, journalist Neha Dixit exposed a spate of rapes that occurred during the riots. However, despite her report and accounts of activists mentioning that dozens of women had been raped, only seven FIRs were finally filed. On reading the accounts of the seven women who actually filed FIRs, this discrepancy starts to make a lot more sense.
Rather than being protected by the justice system, these seven women have faced obstacles at every step in their quest for justice. They have struggled to file FIRs (two had to do so twice), had their medical examinations delayed (in some cases by months), had their cases delayed by callous courts, and even been threatened by investigating officers.
All this in addition to the social stigma that comes with being a rape victim, the intimidation from the accused (all of whom roam free), and the struggle to rebuild lives that were shattered during the riots. One victim has since died.
Their stories make it clear why more rape victims didn't file FIRs - the system is not just inaccessible, but also hostile to their cause.
A struggle to file FIRs
Speaking at the release of the report in Delhi, lawyer Vrinda Grover, who has been working with these victims for years now, made it clear that the system was skewed against the victims. Just lodging their FIRs was a struggle.
While the riots raged from end August to 17 September, 2013, not a single FIR was filed before 22 September. This isn't to say that none of the women tried to do so earlier. One of the women, identified in the report as Fatima, attempted to register an FIR on 20 September. The police refused to file it. She had to approach them again, almost 20 days later, to get them to do the needful.
Another, Ghazala, had her complaint ignored by the police for months until the issue was raised in the Supreme Court some 4 months later. All of this despite Section 166A of the IPC stating that a refusal by police to file an FIR in a case involving violence against women is, in itself, a criminal act. In fact, as Grover recounts, it was only when the Supreme Court made this observation that the UP police finally saw fit to register Ghazala's FIR.
This lackadaisical approach foreshadowed the procedural delays that would follow.
Their testimonies, required by law to be recorded as soon as the offences are brought to the attention of the police, were delayed by up to two months in some cases. The shortest delay was 3 weeks, and that was in the case of Ghazala where the FIR was already filed a good 4 months late.
Even medical examinations, meant by law to be conducted within 24 hours of the offence being reported, were conducted weeks after FIRs were first registered. "What did they possibly hope to find after such a delay, especially considering most of the victims were married?" Grover asked incredulously.
But if the victims thought that once the wheels of justice got moving, things would speed up, they were sorely mistaken.
While all the FIRs were filed by Feb 2014, it would take months longer for these FIRs to translate to actual chargesheets. The first would come only in April, 2014, while the rest, between May and September.
However, despite fast track courts being set up to deal with incidents of riot and rape that occurred in Muzaffarnagar, the court proceedings were anything but fast. This is due to both the state prosecutors as well as the courts themselves.
Amnesty spoke to the Muzaffarnagar District Counsel (MDC) in January 2017 to find out why things were moving so slowly. He maintained that there were no delays on the part of the government, stating that the slowness on the prosecution's part was down to the "difficulty in finding the survivors". Mariya Salim of Amnesty, refuted this strongly, insisting they had managed to locate all the women on their first visit.
The real incompetence, or plain indifference, of the MDC though, shines through when he admits to Amnesty that he was unaware that one of the victims had passed away a year earlier. With a prosecution that unmotivated, it's no surprise that the courts have also not made much of an effort to ensure justice.
So far, two of the trials have not yet begun, while one case is moot given that the victim is deceased. In another, the victim retracted her statement under pressure from the accused who have since been acquitted. Of the remaining three cases, only one has truly begun, while the others are still at the testimony and evidence gathering stages.
Trials have been delayed repeatedly on various, all equally flimsy, grounds. These range from the accused not showing up, claiming to not have lawyers, their lawyers not showing up and even prosecuting officers taking leave. In one case, the court granted bail on the condition that "they will not seek adjournments", but have since granted numerous adjournments to the same accused.
Grover also, while reminding everyone that these were supposedly fast track courts, spoke of how the court officers were absent for months at a time, and when present, blatantly ignorant about proper legal procedure.
A lack of protection
"The best form of witness protection," stated Grover, "is a speedy trial." However, given that judicial proceedings have been anything but speedy, witness protection is an issue that is hugely important. Here too, the system has failed the victims.
While the victims had reported that they were facing threats from the accused when they filed their FIRs, the government didn't provide protection for a further few months. This lapse is critical as every passing day afforded the accused a chance to put pressure on the victims to withdraw their statements. The reality of this situation is especially visible in the case of Bano.
In Bano's case, she didn't receive police protection until June, 2014. In the meanwhile, living in the Muzaffarnagar badlands where tamanchas (country pistols) are all too common, Bano was accosted by her accusers. One of them put a pistol to her sons head to pressure her into withdrawing the case.
Under threat and despondent, she succumbed to pressure in December 2013, denying that the men she had originally accused were the ones responsible for her rape. After SC intervention, she eventually deposed again before a female magistrate, where she stuck to her original story.
Her story may seem shocking, but it is a reality most of the women share. Their upper caste attackers wield considerable power and make threats to match. With each day that the trials drag on, the possibility of the victims being attacked hangs like a sword of Damocles. Despite this, the government had withdrawn the minimal police protection offered (one male and one female constable) during the 2014 elections for two months.
It isn't just their attackers who are threats, the victims have had to deal with threats from other unlikely places. An investigating officer was even exposed for threatening, humiliating and trying to force the victims to accept settlements from their attackers.
The cost of being raped
"Honour" and dignity isn't all that was snatched away from these women during the riots. They lost their livelihoods, their land, belongings and, in some cases, their loved ones. Despite this, the only compensation they've been given is a measly Rs 5 lakh. This compensation came only on the orders of the Supreme Court, and even then, the government dragged its feet, overshooting the SC deadline by 4 weeks.
This money is meant for them to relocate, buy land, build a house, and support their families. However, it doesn't come close to the cost of everything they have lost. The government though, has been anything but concerned. Some of the victims' families have yet to receive compensation for being displaced by the riots, others no longer have the means to send their children to school.
Worse, as the case drags on longer and longer, their resources to fight it dwindle, while their accusers grow in confidence. No wonder then that Amnesty's report is titled 'Losing Faith', it's all the victims have left to lose.