(This story was first published on 17 September 2018. It is being reposted from The Quint's archives to commemorate six years to the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.)
She was raped. She took the accused to court. She was repeatedly threatened. She told the court, yet it kept extending the trial.
One year later, she took her statement back. And just like that, six rape accused were off the hook.
This is the story of 35-year-old Muslim rape survivor, Aafreen*, who was raped in Fugana village during the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots by six Hindu men. After the riots, Aafreen and four other Muslim women filed rape cases against 22 Hindu men.
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In Part I of The Quint's investigation, we revealed a rare case of Hindu-Muslim 'unity'. We found out how a rape of a Hindu woman by 10 Muslim men in 2014 was seen as an opportunity to 'save' the 22 Hindu rape accused from the riots. A compromise was struck by men of both communities. Women changed testimonies after being 'convinced', and money was exchanged. The result? The rape accused across both communities, 32 of them, were let off the hook in the name of 'societal harmony'.
In Part II, we expose how the path to this ‘societal harmony’ was a lie, replete with threats, pressure and bribes. A trial that should have ended within two months stretched for three to five years. The delay enabled the rape accused to influence the case, and they emerged successful when all five Muslim rape survivors changed their testimonies in court.
The One Case That Broke All Five
Aafreen's case holds the greatest significance of them all. Her husband Najeeb* was the perokaar (advocating) on the case.
He was locally in charge of all rape cases. When The Quint met him at his new home in Kairana, he showed us all the FIRs . He used to travel regularly with these women to meet senior advocate and human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover in Delhi, and on some occasions, even accompanied them to hearings in the Muzaffarnagar trial court. However, with time, Najeeb and Aafreen's will to see justice done, faded.
Persistent threats shook Najeeb and over time, he turned a blind eye to the remaining rape cases – including his wife’s.
Without Najeeb, there was no glue to bind these women together, and each of them gave up on their fight for justice.
Vrinda Grover, who brought the case to light, had met them several times. She said, "Najeeb and his wife wanted to fight the case. The cases came to the fore because of Najeeb. These women were standing together because Najeeb was giving them confidence."
But what compelled Najeeb and the rape survivors to give up?
Amongst the 60,000 people who were displaced during the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, Aafreen and Najeeb had crucial issues to tend to. Rooted out of their homes, they had to relocate, earn a livelihood, send their children to school, and fight a court case. And if that weren’t enough, multiple threats came their way and needed resistance.
The Quint accessed an affidavit submitted by Aafreen in court on 18 September, 2015.
The Quint also accessed two complaints written by Aafreen's husband to the DGP Lucknow, in January and October 2014. These again underline how threats had begun to pour in in months after the alleged rape, "Agar aapne faisla nahi kiya toh hum tumhe paanch din ke andar andar maar denge (If you do not settle the case, we will kill you within five days)."
Najeeb says 8 'fake’ cases were filed against him.
“One was about how I was messing with water lines, and another about me burning their fields. The pressure was persistently mounting.”Najeeb, Aafreen’s Husband
It was in this context that the compromise between two unrelated rape instances was hatched. "I had to explain to my wife, as she was against it. We were supposed to be paid Rs 6 lakh as there were 6 rape accused in the case, but only got Rs 3 lakh. After this, Aafreen changed her statement,” Najeeb said.
With the rape survivor changing her statement, the case against her rape accused collapsed.
Rs 3 lakh changed Aafreen’s testimony. In a span of around 3 years, the 22 Hindu rape accused along with the 10 Muslim rape accused in the other case were in the clear.
One by One, Four Rape Survivors Compromised
The remaining four rape survivors told The Quint that once they were paid, they compromised as well. However, none of the women were involved in either brokering the deals or deciding how much money they would get. In all the cases, the women weren't sure about how or when the transactions took place, as the deals were effected by the men.
While Najeeb giving up on the rape cases was a blow to their confidence, these women were waging a war everyday.
Taureena* can't stop recalling the day she changed her testimony in court. Someone who prefers just a salwaar kameez for everyday commute, settled for a burqa on that sweltering afternoon two and a half years ago. She remembers sweating profusely in a rented car on the way to court. And as her children fought to sit on her lap, she harked back to the day horror struck her.
How four men forced their way into her home and took turns raping her. How she fell unconscious midway and was woken up by her mother-in-law. And how they made their way to the relief camps in deafening silence, like nothing ever happened.
She told The Quint, “Today, my mother-in-law is happy that my husband decided on a settlement, as threats to kill her son increased over time."
On reaching the court, her husband whose life she was ‘protecting’ for this compromise, didn’t accompany her to the courtroom. He was absent when she took the witness stand.
"I needed to take care of the kids. How could I take them inside?" he explained. Aafreen had walked to the stand alone that day and changed her testimony.
While Taureena remains bitter over what transpired, Shama* and Fatima* have left their past behind.
Thirty-eight-year-old Shama has a heavy build, speaks loudly, gesticulates often and is very emotive. "Why would we agree to a compromise at all? It had been five years, we were sick of the threats and adjournments," she said as she forced her daughters out of the room. Shama was raped by four Hindu men.
A few minutes later, in fleeting moments of silence, her voice softened, "Yes, I was raped, but now it doesn't hurt anymore. I am sick of living in the past fighting for a case, when everyone else is compromising. I am living for my children's future from now on, not for myself."
She got Rs 3 lakh and she settled around Holi earlier in 2018. "I am glad the matter is over, it is behind me."
Like Shama, Fatima, who had filed a rape case against five Hindu men, got Rs 2.5 lakh to swallow her angst. She changed her testimony in court around two years ago.
"My husband died more than a decade ago. I was already alone. I have three sons who are married and don't contribute to my existence. I have six daughters to raise. Do you think I have the money to keep fighting? I don't even have the emotional support to go on," she said.
Fatima opened up about her difficulties, while fiddling nervously with the ends of her dupatta. She said earning a daily wage and getting her daughters married took precedence over every other priority. "I am alone, and someone can fight alone only for so long," she said.
While the four women have moved on with their lives, another died in oblivion. Fiza* succumbed in childbirth two years ago, when the case was on trial. But she had already changed her testimony in court. Her father-in-law, Haji Ali*, told us she wanted the trial to carry on. The men who raped her were her neighbours.
“She wanted to send them to jail but we explained that she would be saving 10 Muslims (rape accused) in the Hindu rape case. I also told her they were poor and that their children and wives would bless her.”Fiza’s father-in-law Haji Ali
The Delay in Justice, Deliberate?
While fingers are easily pointed at the women for changing their testimonies, the circumstances that compelled them to go against their will need mention. "The burden of being morally superior can not lie on the weakest," Vrinda Grover told The Quint.
Despite provisions in law which clearly underline speedy trials for rape, our courts do not follow them. Section 309 of the CrPC says a rape trial needs to be completed within two months of the chargesheet being filed. Chargesheets in all these cases were filed by September 2014, which means the investigation should have ended in each of these cases latest by December 2014. However, the trial for each case continued for years after that.
"Record evidence within two weeks of the trial. Why wait so long? If you give them time, they will break the women and that is why I hold the courts responsible. You give them time because it might work against the victims. If they had recorded their statements in the beginning, would they be susceptible to settlements and compromises?" Grover asked. Ratna Appnendar, who works with Grover, said, "It is the delay that enabled the accused to influence each of the cases."
Aafreen's husband, Najeeb told The Quint, "We wanted the case to move out of Muzaffarnagar. We knew there was no way we could get a fair trial here. But no one listened."
"The lawyers knew we were settling and asked us not to. But they live in Delhi and we live in Muzaffarnagar. They do not understand the pressure we live under," Haji Ali added.
As early as in March 2014, six months after the riots, the SC's directions pointed towards early concerns in the investigation. The top court directed the Special Investigation Cell to arrest and produce before the court all persons in a time-bound manner, to compensate rape survivors with Rs 5 lakh each, and to record the statement of the victims under Section 164 before a lady magistrate even if the statement has been recorded before. The court also directed the state to provide other schemes applicable for their betterment and to continue their normal occupation.
While the compensation was given and statements were re-recorded, these women continued to live in the same vicinity as their alleged rapists.
"Witness protection has to be formulated and implemented in a holistic manner so the most marginalised and vulnerable are able to withstand coercion and pressure. As the counsel for these victims of gang rape in 2015 and 2016, on the first two occasions that Aafreen appeared before the Court to give her evidence, I had accompanied her, but on both occasions, the Court granted adjournments sought by the accused. On the second occasion, I filed an application opposing the adjournments along with an affidavit by Aafreen where she clearly and categorically stated that she was extremely fearful that the delay being caused by the accused would enable them to pressurise and intimidate her.”
It was within a year of submitting this document in 2015 that she changed her statement.
“In such a situation, especially when the court has before it a sworn affidavit expressing such apprehensions, shouldn’t the court have been proactive in inquiring into the issue and digging below the surface? Shouldn’t the Special Public Prosecutor appointed for the riot cases have discharged his duty in light of the victims affidavit?”Senior advocate Vrinda Grover
The delay concluded with the rape accused getting what they wanted. “Why should there be a burden on the rape victims to stand and fight the entire system? You are not holding their hand, providing them with anything. Whose responsibility is it to create an accessible legal system and environment?” Grover asked.
Rape Survivors Not Told About Consequences of Perjury
While these women, some of whom were convinced by men, hoped changing their testimonies would be the end of it, they were unaware that it could be exactly what lands them in jail. These women have gone back on their FIR and Section 164 statement by saying these were not the men who raped them. If the police submits evidence to the court against these women, the judge could charge them for perjury which could mean seven years of imprisonment.
While senior lawyers say perjury cases against rape survivors are very rare, the fact that not a single lawyer told these women it was a possibility shows the apathy of the counsels.
Taureena, like two others, said, "We went to court. The lawyer said, 'say they were not the ones who raped you' and leave." And that is what each of them did. While for them it was a bitter liberation from a long-drawn case, they were never made aware of its implications.
Of all the rape survivors and their families, only Haji Ali claimed to know about this provision. When asked why he would let his daughter-in-law change her testimony when she could land up in jail for seven years, he said:
“Yes, that risk was there. Just like the Hindu woman was taking the risk by changing her testimony against 10 Muslim men, we also took the risk. So if Fiza would go to jail, we would have ensured the Hindu Jaatni went to jail too.”Fiza’s father-in-law, Haji Ali*
The Women Kept Out and the 32 Rape Accused Let Off
The women wanted the rape accused to go to jail, but either they were convinced otherwise, or decided to cut their losses and move on.
Deals were struck, money was exchanged – but all the rape survivors were kept out of it.
Whether it is Haji Ali’s willingness to take a risk at the cost of his daughter-in-law’s life, or Taureena’s bitter anguish to see her alleged rapist smile, the courts and lawyers failed the women.
"I know I was responsible for all these five cases. But why would I tell them to fight when I was pressured into not being able to hold the ground myself?" Najeeb, Aafreen's husband said. Aafreen regrets the compromise to this day. "There was no other way, we were alone then and alone now," Najeeb said.
While rape survivors struggle to keep their nightmares at bay, 22 Hindu rape accused and 10 Muslim rape accused from an unrelated case were let off in a compromise driven by money and threats.
*Names changed to protect identities.