It has been over two years since the Indian media wrote expansively on the brutal riots in district Muzaffarnagar of Uttar Pradesh in September 2013. According to Harsh Mander, part of a fact-finding team who submitted a report entitled, Muzaffarnagar 2013:Violence by Political Design, officially, about 39 people had died in the riots out of which six were Hindus or more specifically Jats and the rest, Muslims and about 25,000 people were displaced, out of which all, except about 700, were Muslims. However, unofficial counts the number as 53 killed on the basis of autopsies done in hospitals around the district and puts the displaced number as 53,000. Among the main accused were BJP leaders, Hokum Singh, Suresh Rana, Sanjeev Baliyan, Virendra Singh, Umesh Malik and Sangeet Som. An FIR was also lodged against BSP leader, Kadir Rana, for making an inflammatory speech. The riots not only marked the growing hate between two communities namely, Hindu Jats and Muslims but also highlighted how the vicious circle of violence and brutality ultimately leads to mass rapes and sexual violence against women.
According to Neha Dixit’s article, Shadow Lines, published in Outlook, officially, seven women were raped and few hundreds injured. But visits to Ground Zero and conversation in relief camps suggest that many hundred were killed, close to 100 women were raped and over a lakh were displaced from their homes forever.
In the latest report by The Indian Express (February 2016), another case related to Muzaffarnagar riots ended in acquittal recently. The same media report further explains how four men, accused of gang raping a woman during the riots in the Fugana police station area were acquitted by a Muzaffarnagar fast track court on January 21,2016 after the victim and key witnesses were declared hostile and did not support the prosecution during the trial. The key witnesses who included the victim’s husband, mother-in-law and a neighbour were being threatened by people on behalf of the accused which is why they claimed to be unable to pull it off further. Also, another report by The Indian Express, dated February 18,2016, said that at least three more cases, including a double murder, have also ended in acquittal since all the witnesses turned hostile.
It has been almost a year since I visited Muzaffarnagar and witnessed the turmoil that the victims were going through . Having spoken to several victims and lawyers who have been handling these cases, I observed how the delay in the trials because of regular strikes in Muzaffarnagar Court had already started the manipulation of victim’s families in form of threats received on behalf of the accused. “They asked me to take some money and do away with the case. Since the trial is about to start, these people are trying to scare me. They bribed my in-laws for the same as well. One police official has to give a statement which he isn’t making. He must’ve been bribed too,” said Namrata (name changed), a 19-year-old, who was gang raped during the riots. “I was going to cut grass with my mother at 9.30 a.m. on 8th September 2013. The boys came from the backside and raped me turn by turn. When I threatened them of revealing the same to my parents, they cut my throat and left me assuming dead. I fainted after this and was admitted in Meerut for two months,” she recalled the horror.
About seven women dared to come forward and register cases against the rapists. Although these women received a compensation of half a million by the state government and assurance of security on the direction of Supreme Court, there were serious loopholes in the legal trajectory. To start with, the victims statements which should have been recorded as soon as possible in front of the judicial magistrate were not recorded till about two months had passed. However, when they were recorded, it was done before a male judicial magistrate. “In cases of sexual offences, as per law, the statements are recorded in front of a lady magistrate,” said Ratna, lawyer working under Vrinda Grover who is the counsel for the rape victims of Muzaffarnagar riots. Further, the medical examination of the victims which ought to be done after recording FIRs was done much later. Also, six FIRs were registered under section 376(d) [provision for gang rapes], however, the correct section should have been the section (2) (g) of IPC which is rape during communal and sectarian violence. This section attracts 114(a) of the Indian Evidence Act which states that in certain situations of state violence or communal rape, it is assumed that the woman did not give the consent, thereby making the involvement of accused to be proved easily. A contempt was filed stating how the directions of Supreme Court were not being complied with. It was also brought to the attention of the Supreme Court that out of three arrested, one was given bail, whereas the judgement clearly said that in the case of heinous crimes if the bail is granted, the state should file a petition to cancel the bail. “The state did not make nay effort to file any such petition,” she said further.In fact, in May 2014, the security was withdrawn from the victims because of the general elections and one of the victims failed to receive compensation until September 2014.
Even though the riots ended two years back, the suffering for many of the victims, sexually assaulted or otherwise, remains the same. Recently, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader ,Sadhvi Prachi, who was one of the accused in the riots, surrendered in a court after successive warrants were issued against her for failure to appear. As per news website DNA, the court recalled the bailable warrant issued against her after she furnished a bond of Rs 20,000 and gave an undertaking that she will appear on the next date of hearing in the case.In December 2015, union minister Sanjeev Baliyan, BJP MLA Suresh Rana, BJP MP Bhartendu Singh and four others had surrendered in a court in Muzaffarnagar in connection with the case while BJP MLA Sangeet Som had surrendered on January 19,2016.
While in many instances, FIRs have not even been lodged, the current scenario of withdrawal of statements either by victims or their families , reflects how delay at every step trivialises the courage of those who at least showed the boldness to pursue these cases.
At one end we revere the law for the hope it instils in several lives, the other end only disappoints by exhibiting the effects of flaws in its implementation which are nothing more than additions to the vulnerability of the petitioners.
We need to ponder if these acquittals will mark the tragic end of Muzaffarnagar Riots, 2013. If yes, there wouldn’t be any situation sorrier than this.