Muzaffarnagar, India – It has been three weeks since two men accused of gang-raping a woman in 2013 were jailed for 20 years – a rare sentencing for sexual assault during a communal riot in India.
Congratulatory calls to celebrate the courage and requests to interview the rape survivor, 35-year-old Aafreen*, have ebbed since. Worse, her decade-long fight for justice – that should have brought her a sense of closure – is not over yet.
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“Someone let my name slip out while talking about me here in Muzaffarnagar. So people who had no idea this was my case got to know,” Aafreen told Al Jazeera, adding that she feels more vulnerable than before.
“People from the village and other parts of Muzaffarnagar kept calling my husband and asking him why he did not tell them it was his wife’s case,” she said.
Saif*, her 37-year-old husband, has kept his phone on silent mode for a few days now.
Aafreen was among at least seven women who alleged they were raped during the riots in Muzaffarnagar, a district in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, in 2013.
The violence began on August 27, 2013 after a 29-year-old Muslim man was stabbed to death over allegations of harassing a Hindu girl. Minutes later, the two men who stabbed the Muslim man were caught by a mob and beaten to death.
The incident triggered large-scale rioting between Hindus and Muslims for two weeks and even spread to the neighbouring Shamli district. More than 60 people – most of them Muslims – were killed and nearly 60,000 displaced from their ancestral homes. Rights groups say the number of dead was higher.
The Muzaffarnagar riots deepened the fissures between the two communities and helped the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) polarise voters in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.
In the crucial general elections in 2014 that brought Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power, the BJP won 71 of the 80 seats in the state. The party also won the regional polls in 2017 with a thumping majority.
Experts say the BJP’s dominance in the state and at the federal level slowed the process of justice, frustrating the Muzaffarnagar victims.
Aafreen told Al Jazeera the Uttar Pradesh government withdrew cases against BJP leaders accused of making inflammatory speeches during the violence.
“They are not interested in justice. It is always about politics. So when Yogi [Adityanath, state chief minister] came back to power in 2022, I was worried what would happen with my case,” she said.
“I had belief in Allah and myself,” she added.
Threats and intimidation
On September 8, 2013, Aafreen’s husband had taken the elder of their two sons to a doctor. She was at home with the infant son when some men reached her doorstep. Her dash to the nearby fields to protect herself failed.
“The men said they would kill my son if I moved. They raped me one after the other. I begged them to stop, but they kept abusing me,” she told Al Jazeera.
Aafreen knew the accused. Her husband, a tailor by profession, stitched clothes for them.
The attackers – 62-year-old Maheshvir Prakash and Sikander Malik, 37 – were sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Muzaffarnagar court on May 9, while the third accused, Kuldeep Singh, died in 2020 of health issues.
After her home was burned down and looted in the riots, Aafreen lived in a relief camp for eight months. It was here that she finally gathered the courage to tell her husband she was raped by three men.
The couple decided to fight the case in a court of law. But the police in Uttar Pradesh refused to register their complaint. “They told me I had come one month later, so my case is false. I was distraught,” Aafreen said.
They went to the Supreme Court, which in February 2014 ordered the police to file charges against the three men accused of raping Aafreen.
That is when the pursuit of justice got delayed, and threats and intimidation began, she told Al Jazeera.
The other six women assaulted during the Muzaffarnagar riots also went to the top court. For five years, the trials in the cases did not move due to one or the other application filed by the accused.
“The Supreme Court in March 2014 itself issued specific directions for providing security, compensation, as well as investigation and trial of the rape cases,” New Delhi-based lawyer Vrinda Grover, who represented the seven women in the top court, told Al Jazeera.
One of the women withdrew her case after her son was allegedly threatened by the perpetrators. The other six cases were assigned to fast-track courts but constant delays plagued them.
I want to tell other women to keep fighting their fight. It is the only way. I had a passion, a stubborn streak to see my case through. Women should not let society shame them.
Pressure to ‘compromise’
Meanwhile, the women also faced pressure from their “well-wishers” who blamed them for the continued hostility between Hindus and Muslims in Muzaffarnagar and kept asking them to reach a compromise with the accused.
One of the husbands of a rape survivor told Al Jazeera it was important to strike a deal with the attackers to “maintain peace in the society”.
But Aafreen’s refusal to compromise with her attackers caused hostility with her Hindu neighbours at their Lank village in Muzaffarnagar and triggered concerns over the safety of her loved ones.
After the 2013 riots, the couple moved 15km (9 miles) away to a small town in Muzaffarnagar and built a new home.
“People would wonder who we were. They would ask us all sorts of things. It took me years to make this place my home,” she said at her two-room home.
The accused, however, followed her to her new home. Threats came in various forms. Saif began to lose clients who started going to other tailors. Her relatives and friends stopped speaking to them after their attempts to make her reach a compromise with the attackers failed.
In 2015, help came from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that relocated them to New Delhi. For three years, Aafreen felt she got her life back. “No one knew here. My sons were getting educated it was all going well,” the mother of three sons – aged 13, 10 and six – said.
Grover said Aafreen’s relocation to the national capital enabled her to fight the case in the Supreme Court where the trials finally began in 2019.
“The fact that we see before us is that of the seven women who went to the Supreme Court, only one was able to withstand the perils of time, and that too required her to be relocated to New Delhi to withstand all pressures, coercion, and intimidation that she and her family suffered,” the lawyer told Al Jazeera.
However, as money ran out in New Delhi and Aafreen could not support herself and her three children, she reluctantly returned to Uttar Pradesh to a more lonely life. She sais she felt isolated as her relatives and neighbours would not speak to her.
“It was the worst sometime in 2017 when we knew we were being followed whenever we went that side. He [my husband] had gone to court for some work when men came and hit him so badly I thought he would die,” she said.
The trial was straining their marriage too. “I remember at one point my husband told me he was getting tired of the threats and taunts. I told him he could leave me if he wanted, walk out of the marriage, but I was not going to stop fighting the case,” she said.
In Lank village where the two convicts also lived, their sentencing surprised the Hindu community, mainly because everyone there knew that securing a conviction in one of the 510 cases registered in the aftermath of the 2013 riots would be rare.
“This woman ended up getting influenced by lawyers and activists in Delhi. She also got out and stayed there for a few years. This impeded the [accused’s] ability to strike a compromise with her,” Sudheer Malik, who was the village headman in 2013, told Al Jazeera. His wife is the village head now.
Aafreen said she was shocked when her moneylender, a 60-year-old Hindu man who had been lending her money for the past three years, refused to lend her further.
“Instead he started telling me that what I did was wrong, that I should have struck a compromise and there was no use fighting my case. I told him the men should have thought of what they were doing when they did it, but he was not even making eye contact with me,” she said, recalling she later cried for hours.
“If people do not help us, then me and my children will die of hunger. I need to protect my children. We cannot live here any more,” she said.
‘State complicity and partisanship’
Author and activist Farah Naqvi said Aafreen’s case reflects a pattern of sexual violence in communal riots in India.
“Speaking more broadly, in India and even globally, women of the ‘other’ community are always central to the construction of all xenophobic and right-wing ideologies. So sexual violence against them is a natural outcome of a very violent, commodified imagination, in this case of the female Muslim body, where the intention is to denigrate, humiliate and dehumanise,” she told Al Jazeera.
“In many episodes of targeted communal violence, we have seen men hunt down women of a particular identity to assault and rape. In its symbolic, patriarchal language, it is signalling to the men of that ‘other’ community that we will take by force what you ‘possess’. Sexual violence in communal episodes, throughout Indian history, is a central part of the entire crime. It is central to how you wish to damage and harm another community,” she added.
Naqvi blamed the government for being partisan to hate crimes during such riots.
“In order to understand the delivery of justice for targeted mass communal crimes, one needs to recognise that such violence does not occur without a degree of state complicity and partisanship. Then naturally justice for these crimes is hard to seek, let alone get,” she said..
Meanwhile, in Lank village, there is an uneasy acceptance of the sentencing of the two men among many Hindus who say the couple cannot return to their ancestral home any more.
“What happened with her was wrong. I will be honest, many of us were satisfied when the verdict came. The courts found them guilty, we should all accept it,” said a 55-year-old farmer, requesting anonymity.
An older woman who also did not want to give her name said she may not believe what Aafreen alleges but she believed the courts. “If the judge has ordered conviction there must have been a reason. The courts know best,” she said.
A few hundred metres away, a group of men were smoking hookah. A 48-year-old farmer who had just returned from the fields, said: “The woman has gone through a lot. They cannot come back to our village ever but we wish her peace.”
In order to understand the delivery of justice for targeted mass communal crimes, one needs to recognise that such violence does not occur without a degree of state complicity and partisanship.
Aafreen says she has no interest in going back to her home in Lank. “It has been almost two weeks and no one from the village has called us,” she told Al Jazeera.
But Saif said he did not feel animosity towards the villagers. Over the last 10 years, he said, when the accused would try to visit or waylay them with threats, it was the other Hindus in Lank who would alert them about it to ensure their safety.
More recently, only days after the verdict, Saif recalled how he was sitting in a shared autorickshaw when he noticed some men from Lank sitting at the back of the vehicle. As soon as they got off and looked at him, he smiled and greeted them. They hugged.
“They told me I should take care of my children and live a good peaceful life. They wished me and my wife well,” he said.
‘Target on my back’
Aafreen says her main challenge now is to ensure the education of her children. Saif has health problems and had to be hospitalised 10 days after the verdict. He is on medication and there is little money, forcing Aafreen to borrow from moneylenders.
“Not all people are bad. There is goodness in the world too. I tell my children to see how much I am struggling to send them to school. I tell them they should also help people when they grow up and earn more,” she said.
When asked if there was anything she would like to tell other survivors of sexual violence, she replied, “I want to tell other women to keep fighting their fight. It is the only way. I had a passion, a stubborn streak to see my case through. Women should not let society shame them.”
But she worries that the families of the accused could attack her children. “I know I still have a target on my back. My fight is not over,” she said.
Aafreen said if the two men approach a higher court to appeal their conviction, she will still fight it. She said she never wanted the death penalty for her attackers but feels 20 years in jail is not enough.
“Still, I will do whatever it takes to ensure they stay in jail for these 20 years. People think my fight is over. They do not know,” she told Al Jazeera.
*Names changed to protect their identity