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Neha Dixit is an independent journalist who was covering Muzaffarnagar riots when they broke out in 2013. She had met and spoke to women at the camps across Shamli and Muzaffarnagar districts.
The women shared how they had been subjected to sexual violence by the people from the Jat community. Out of some hundred women who were brutally raped and gang-raped, only 7 mustered the courage to file FIR against their perpetrators. But even after 5 years, there has been no convictions in a single case. In the following interview, Neha Dixit talks about her experience while reporting on the riots and why there has been no justice even after five years.
How would you describe the condition of the people at the camps?
I first went to Loni which is a town in Ghaziabad. Close to 500 people were inside the camp. This is the first time I found testimonies of children and women. Most people living there were still trying to locate other family members. Some were trying to locate their children. A lot of the women I spoke to were in a state of shock. There was nothing to eat. There were no places where they could cook food. I spent next 10 days in different relief camps to find out actually what had happened and stitch the sequence of events. It was very challenging because everyone had a different version.
What was the process that you underwent to write ‘Thread Bared’ and ‘Shadow Lines’? How difficult was it to speak to the survivors about the sexual violence perpetrated against them?
Nurses who were providing medical aid to the people at the camps told me that they found some women had scars on their breasts. And they had been attacked with knives and swords on their breasts. It was the nurses who gave me this information. When I reached Shamli and some parts of Muzaffarnagar, I had to spend a lot of time with the women for them to trust me enough to open up to me. A lot of the women hadn’t even told their family members that they had gone through sexual violence.
I can’t ever forget one woman’s account of what had happened to her. She told me while she was running away she forgot to pick up one of her children who was disabled. She later found out that he was burnt alive. She was still looking for her other son and husband when I met her. While she was narrating this, after every few sentences, she would also say “meri bhains ko bhi jala diya” (The burnt my buffalo too). Each time she spoke about her animal she would break down. While these stories were heartbreaking they were also very revealing. It says so much about the kind of relationships women have with their animals at home.
There were several such cases and close to a hundred women were raped or gang-raped during the riot. In fact, a lot of them said, when the mobs were moving around, they were targeting women. Some of the women recounted that the mobs were loudly shouting, ‘‘Pick up Muslims’ mothers and sisters.’’ They played dhol and DJ almost like celebrating their act of sexual violence against the women of the Muslim community.
Out of the many who were raped only seven could muster the courage to report about their rape and gang-rape. Who were these women?
‘Shadow Lines’ was published in July 2014. It was about the seven women who had actually mustered the courage to go to the court and file cases of rape against their perpetrators. All these women were from Shamli and Muzaffarnagar districts. Most of them worked as labourers in the fields of the accused. One of them recounted that while she was being raped by a Jat landowner, on whose field she worked, the person told her while he was raping her, “You used to ask for your wages on time. How dare you? Now we will show you your stature.”
There is a clear class angle. All these women who filed the cases still live in the same vicinity as those who were accused of their rape. The police officers provided by the Supreme Court for their security were from the same community as those of the accused. When these women went to file a case or get some information, policemen accompanying them would go and inform the accused about the kind of testimonies that they were going to give and which could work against them. The accused, because they were more powerful and socio-economically better off than the complainants, they would often come and try to threaten them.
In fact, one among the seven women who filed the case, her son was actually threatened in the middle of a market in Shamli where a pistol was pointed at him and the woman was told, “If you do not withdraw the case, we are going to kill you.”
There were daily threats, despite the court having given them security. The policemen who were responsible for their safety weren’t acting. And that is why, as of now, out of the seven cases only one woman continues to fight her case and the rest of them have withdrawn.
You have been following these women and their cases since 2013. How do you feel that out of the seven who filed only one continues to fight the case and the rest have withdrawn?
When it comes to these particular cases of sexual violence, it makes one realise we are all cogs in a wheel. To think that the onus lies on one person to go and seek justice is wrong. If you expect one person who has faced this kind of violence to also have the determination while they are struggling for their livelihood to go to the court and take it to their logical conclusion, it is I think too much to ask.
As a journalist one can report a story. As a complainant one can muster the courage to actually go to a court. And lawyers can take that up. All that cannot happen if you don’t have the support of the society. And it’s the responsibility of the state government to provide rehabilitative measures and ensure one has enough avenues to find justice.
A crucial amendment – Section 376(2)(g) – was added to the Criminal Amendment Act, 2013 drafted by the Verma Commission set up in the wake of the protests following the Nirbhaya gang-rape. It was introduced to deal with systematic violence against women during communal riots. These seven cases were the first to be tried under this law. What do you have to say about their legal trajectory?
The clauses were added after the Nirbahaya anti-rape movement, where an urban woman was raped. Thankfully there was a movement which led to the changes in the law. For the first time a clause was introduced where sexual violence during riots was being addressed. All these seven cases were a precedent. They were the first cases which were filed using that clause.
The way the cases have turned out show the kind of privileges and majoritarian privileges one has even as a rape survivor. An urban woman from an upper caste does get some kind of hearing in the court. But these working-class Muslim women, who are not so articulate in the way they say things, who do not have social capital or cultural background that could generate a movement, have only got disappointment.
It is also a failure for the entire society. I am not being moralistic when I say this. I am saying this because of how things have turned out without any civil society support without any support of the administration or the government. It says a lot about the kind of privileges, even as a rape survivor, one can have and one cannot.
You reported in one your stories how there were delays both in the filing of FIRs and medical checks. And how the Allahabad HC used these to grant the accused bail. Vrinda Grover who was also representing the seven cases said the delays were deliberate. What do you have to say?
The maximum time to file chargesheet is three months but they took forever to file chargesheet. The court took a lot of time in providing the women with security. The investigation took a lot of time. And that was the time when the accused were out on bail and came back to intimidate the women. The investigation process was insensitive. In the middle of the crowd, they would ask, “Did anybody see her crying? Did anybody see her with bruises?”
The political nexus behind this kind of communal riot was responsible for making these women withdraw their cases and not seek justice. They do not want justice any longer because they were so fed up with the process. Even now, with the new government in UP, they are trying to withdraw cases against the many accused in the different crimes committed during the Muzaffarnagar riots.
It has been five years since the Muzaffarnagar riots broke out. There has been not a single conviction in any case. As someone who knows these women and has documented their ordeal, what do you have to say?
Five years is a long time. We haven’t seen convictions in most of the cases in Muzaffarnagar riots. And that is a big disappointment. In a political climate in this country where people are being lynched and there are hate crimes all across, this is not a good precedent. People are now beginning to believe that they have a free hand to kill anyone, rape anyone or hurt anyone, because they are from a majority religion, and they can get away with it. Even if there is a police complaint against them, nothing is going to happen in the court. And there will be no justice. As a country if we want to survive this cannot be the precedent to have.