The 34-year-old was scared and dizzy with fever on February 18, the day she had to go to the Muzaffarnagar district court. But she felt she had to go.
“I wanted to show my face to the judge as the final arguments in my case were being heard after nine years,” she said.
In 2013, as communal riots spread across Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh, she had been beaten up and raped. Her son, then three months old, had been held hostage. If she protested, her assailants had said, they would kill her son. The 34-year-old said she knew the three men who had raped her – they lived in her village and were frequent customers of her husband, a tailor.
Back in 2014, months after several women filed rape cases in Muzaffarnagar, the Supreme Court ordered that the cases to be tried in fast track courts and completed within two months. Over the years, however, most of the cases were withdrawn. The 34-year-old making her way to the Muzaffarnagar district court on a cold February day was the only rape survivor who refused to drop her case.
As the taxi bore them towards the court, she and her husband – who belong to the Muslim community – kept looking over their shoulder to see if the accused were following them. For months, as the case inched towards the final hearing, the three accused men had been trying to intimidate her into making “peace” and settling the matter out of court.
But the woman was determined to get a court verdict. “The time I was waiting for has finally come,” she said.
Four months after the final arguments began, she was still waiting, as hearings were cancelled or stayed. With each delay, she increasingly fears that the legal battle she has waged for close to a decade may come to nothing.
“I hope this is the end,” she said, as yet another hearing got postponed. “I have waited long enough.”
The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 had left 62 dead and over 60,000 displaced. Some people remain missing nearly a decade later.
The conflagration had started with allegations of sexual harassment. On August 27, 2013, 29-year-old Shahnawaz was allegedly stabbed to death by eight Jat men, who accused him of harassing a Jat girl. Shahnawaz’s family rejected the claim, saying the scuffle had broken out over some bicycles. Minutes after his death, two of his assailants, Gaurav and Sachin, were killed by a Muslim mob.
In the rioting that spread across western Uttar Pradesh over the next few weeks, pitting Jats and Muslims against each other, several cases of sexual violence were reported. Of these, only seven police complaints led to first information reports. But a year later, most of the cases began to collapse.
Threats were made, money was exchanged and women were compelled to withdraw their statements. An affidavit filed by one of the rape survivors in September 2015 gave details of the intimidation faced by the women who tried to press charges. It said: “There is pressure and threats being extended to the victim and her husband continuously by all the accused persons to change their statement… and make compromises with the accused persons… Victim and her husband are fearful that the accused person can cause harm to their life and well-being.”
The husband of the woman in question had been the “perokaar”, or unofficial record keeper and spokesperson for the sexual violence cases. After they dropped the case, most of the others followed suit. Men from both communities ensured women went to court and changed their testimonies to become hostile witnesses, ostensibly to maintain social harmony. They told the court that the men they had named in their FIRs had not raped them.
“That time was the hardest,” said the 34-year-old who had stuck to her statement. “Everyone was so angry at us for not taking money and compromising. I had drawn courage from the other women. If we had all stayed together, it would have been good.”
A dash to the fields
The violence that had started in Kawaal on August 27, 2013, reached her home nearly two weeks later. On September 8, her husband had taken their eldest son to the doctor. She had stayed back to take care of their three-month-old.
As Muslim households in her village were torched and looted, she made a dash for the fields and lost her way. “Three men started following me and I ran for my life,” she said. Eventually they caught up with her and separated her from her son before assaulting her. “They used my son as a pawn,” she recalled.
The moment the men let go of her, she picked up her son. “I thought he had died,” she said. “He had cried so much and then fallen unconscious. I took water from one of the naalis [water channels meant to irrigate the fields] and sprinkled it on his face. He opened his eyes.” Holding him close, she kept running.
She knew all three accused men. Kuldeep Singh had owned a small electrical repair shop but stopped working after he was named in the case. He developed a drinking problem and died in 2020 in his early sixties. Thirty-six-year-old Sikander Malik worked at a sugarcane factory while 60-year-old Maheshvir works at a government-owned alcohol shop in Muzaffarnagar district.
“My husband would stitch clothes for them and their families,” the 34-year-old woman recounted. “Even when he was not home, they would enter the compound and say they had come to pick up clothes.” She had tried to tell her husband to keep his dealings with them outside their home. “He would say they are good people,” she said.
The violence left them among the thousands who were displaced from their homes and crowded into relief camps. She did not tell her husband about the rape. So the first FIR, filed in September 2013, only complained of loot as the family had lost all their possessions in the riots.
But for weeks, she kept crying and was in immense pain from the assault. “He kept asking me what had happened, kept telling me everything was fine,” she said. “I was in love with him and I know he was in love with me, too. I did not want to keep such a thing from him anymore. So I told him.”
He went to the police station to file a second complaint in October 2013, this time alleging rape. But the police did not want to register an FIR on the complaint. “They kept asking why I had not gone to them instantly afterwards,” she said.
She was forced to approach the Supreme Court, which then directed the state government to register an FIR against the three accused. Finally, in February 2014, Singh, Malik and Maheshvir were booked for gangrape and criminal intimidation. The chargesheet was filed at the end of 2014 and the case was assigned to the Muzaffarnagar sessions court in January 2015.
But for five years, the lawyers of the accused filed applications in the sessions court challenging the case.
The 34-year-old complainant said the accused used this delay to build pressure on her husband and her. “Several ‘well wishers’ would come and tell me that what we were doing was not right and that we must compromise,” she said.
Work suddenly dried up for her husband. “People turned him away as they did not want to associate with us,” she said. Even relatives cut them off, fearing harassment if they associated with the couple. When these methods did not work, the accused were more blunt: the couple were told they would be killed if they did not “compromise” and agree to an informal settlement.
The woman escaped to Delhi and lived there from 2015 to 2018, supported by relatives and a local non-governmental organisation. But it was getting hard to pay rent and other expenses in Delhi so after she recorded her statement with the police and a magistrate, she went back to Uttar Pradesh.
Her family had never gone back to their original home after the riots. After eight months in the relief camp, they built a new home in a different village. While she was in Delhi, her husband, who had stayed back with the children, also faced harassment.
“Sometime in 2017, he had gone to the local court when he was waylaid by four men on bikes,” the rape survivor recalled. “He was thrashed so badly his arms and ears started bleeding.”
The woman returned to a more lonely life than before. According to her, the accused had spread rumours about her among both Jats and Muslims so she was effectively ostracised. “No woman would allow her daughters near me,” she recounted. “I would hear loud music from weddings and other celebrations over the years but I was never invited to them.”
When she fell ill, her relatives refused to visit her. Her life is now centred on her three sons – the eldest is 12 years old, the infant who had cried in the fields is almost nine and a third son born in 2016 is five years old.
The trial finally started in August 2019 in the Muzaffarnagar sessions court.
Before it began the accused made another attempt to compel the woman into an out of court settlement – even though the Supreme Court has outlawed such settlements in rape cases, calling them a crime against the state and not just the individual.
Two relatives of the accused Tejpal Singh and Malkhan Singh Pal, visited the rape survivor’s home in November 2018 to talk them into an out of court settlement. The couple, who had been tipped off about the visit, had fled their home. So the men talked to their neighbours and left.
According to the complainant, efforts to derail the outcome of the case continued even after the trial started. An affidavit submitted by her lawyer said, “Relatives of the accused approached and pressurised a witness and another person related to the case. They have also been asked to convince the complainant’s husband to reach a faisla [compromise].”
The witness confirmed to Scroll.in that the brother of one of the accused had visited him twice and insisted that the case should not go to verdict.
The accused are candid about trying to pressure the couple into an out-of-court settlement. “We tried, we even spoke of money, but then if she is not listening at all what can be done?” Maheshvir told Scroll.in.
Tejpal Singh and Malkhan Singh Pal claimed they had visited the couple’s house in November 2018 in the interests of “peace”
As the final arguments are made by the accused, their lawyer, Brijpal Singh Dabas, claims the rape survivor’s case will not stand. “There are several contradictions in the statement of the survivor and other witnesses and we have pointed them out,” he said. “There was no rape whatsoever. The genesis of the case itself falls.” According to him, the “story of the survivor reads like a script of a film.”
The pressure to drop the case did not just come from the accused and their families, but also from various members of the majority community. The rape survivor’s family claims such attempts to intimidate them have political backing, although they will not elaborate further.
These days, the woman’s husband works at a tailor’s shop in a district neighbouring Muzaffarnagar. “At the place where I work, there is a Jat man who got to know that I had a case,” he said.”He asked me why we were doing this [pursuing the case], as if I was committing a crime. He said it was wrong and that he would get my case compromised.”
The recent assembly elections, where the Bharatiya Janata Party returned to power with a decisive majority, are also cause for concern. “The Jat man from my workplace, he had said that if the BJP forms government, nothing will happen in my case – and even if the BJP loses, they will also not let anything conclusive happen in the case,” he worried.
A lot of the time these days, he does not acknowledge that he is the rape survivor’s husband.“It is easier that way,” he said. He fears that a wrong word, a hasty retort, could put his job and life on the line.
His wife, however, is undaunted by the threats and taunts. “I know the verdict will not change the way society looks at me, but at least they will know that I was telling the truth all along,” she said.