Shamli, Uttar Pradesh: On 9 May 2023, when a court in the western Uttar Pradesh district of Muzaffarnagar held two men guilty of gangraping her a decade ago, the 36-year-old survivor, a tired but determined Muslim woman anonymised in court records as X, could not stop crying.
“These are tears of happiness and justice,” said X, who cannot be identified by law. She sounded cheerful at times but was visibly fatigued, found it hard to keep her eyes open and found it difficult to stand for prolonged periods of time.
“In 10 years, we have seen a lot,” she told Article 14, after first offering namaz following the verdict. We compromised our children's school for court dates. We were pushed into poverty. Our child had to work to support us."
A Muslim, X was 26 when she was raped by three Hindu men during communal riots that swept Muzaffarnagar and its neighbouring district, Shamli in August and September 2013. At least 62 died, including 42 Muslims & 20 Hindus. More than 50,000, the majority Muslim, fled their homes.
Recalling the day when she was raped while her first child, then three months old, was held at gunpoint, she said, "That day my child gave me strength. My child who was just an infant then is now grown up (he is now 10).”
“I fought these 10 years for my children,” said X, who now has two more children, aged 13 and six. “So that no one has to face what I faced. Now I just want to focus on my children and their education. I just want to be their mother."
It’s been almost a decade since the riots, but the memories of that day traumatise her still. When Article 14 met her in April 2022, she wept as she recounted what had happened. More than a year later when this reporter spoke to her, the emotions were as strong as ever.
"What have those men seen in the last 10 years?" X asked, referring to the convicted men. "They were out on bail. Enjoying their lives. Now they should pay for their crimes. Then they would understand what I have gone through. What my family has gone through."
On 9 May 2023, additional district and sessions judge Anjani Kumar Singh sentenced two men—Sikander and Maheshveer—to 20 years and a fine of Rs 10,000 for rape and another two-year term for criminal intimidation. under the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
‘I Am Not Ready To Take A Step Back’
"I have a lot of strength in me,” X said in April 2022. “Even now I am not ready to take a back step. I am ready to fight this even further. I am fighting so that no woman has to face what I faced.”
"I did not get any support from the community,” said X. “Only my husband helped me in my difficult time. Often people told me that we have filed a false case. It ripped my heart. Why would I file a false case? People said we have done this for money. Today we don't even have anything to eat. Where is the money?”
The judgement was pronounced four months after X approached India’s Supreme Court in X vs State of Uttar Pradesh, pleading for day-to-day hearing on 8 February 2023, after the judge in her case was transferred for the third time.
The clashes between the Hindu and Muslim communities in UP’s sugarcane belt, populated by Hindu Jat farmers and Muslim farmhands, resulted in at least 62 deaths, the majority of them Muslim. More than 50,000 people, mostly Muslims, were displaced.
How many Muslim women were raped is not known because many rape survivors do not come forward out of fear and social stigma. Independent journalist Neha Dixit’s report published in Outlook in August 2014 said 100 Muslim women, were raped, but only seven women filed police complaints of gang-rapes during the riots.
Six women lived in Fugana village in Muzaffarnagar. X lived in Lakh village in neighbouring Shamli. It was reported that all seven women were married at the time of the incident and came forward with the support of their husbands and families.
Despite the threats, intimidation and her reduced circumstances, X was the only woman who persisted with fighting her case in the lower courts of Muzaffarnagar, seeking shelter with different relatives year after year and relocating three times for her safety.
Her legal battle went for almost 10 years since she attempted to file a police complaint in October 2013, succeeding five months later, in February 2014, after the Supreme Court’s intervention.
The Long, Legal Haul
After filing the chargesheet on 10 September 2014, and two supplementary chargesheets on 19 September 2014 and 23 December 2014, it took four years for charges to be framed against the three accused men on 8 December 2018.
The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013, mandates that rape trials must conclude within two months of filing the chargesheet
While Maheshveer was arrested in June 2014, Sikandar and Kuldeep were arrested in September 2015, spending a few months in prison before securing bail.
Seven prosecution witnesses were examined for another three years until November 2021. During the final arguments for six months from July 2022 to January 2023, three judges were transferred.
One accused, Kuldeep, died in November 2020, the cause of his death unclear.
“The events which have unfolded from the time of the gang rape committed upon the complainant during communal attacks, show a narrative of a blatant and deliberate violation of rule of law with impunity,” said Vrinda Grover, a Delhi-based human rights lawyer who is representing X.
“The matter at hand is a live testimony of an attempt to obstruct justice even after the Hon’ble Supreme Court took cognizance of the excesses committed, and the complete failure of the State machinery,” she said.
UP at the time of the riots was governed by the Samajwadi Party, with Akhilesh Yadav as the chief minister. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the national election, winning 62 out of 80 seats in UP, where the BJP candidates openly sided with the Hindu community and promised their support in the face of legal action. BJP candidates made a clean sweep in their western UP.
Three years later, in March 2017, BJP won the UP state assembly election, with Hindutva fundamentalist Yogi Adityanath becoming the chief minister.
‘My Children Give Me Strength’
When Article 14 asked her about the decade-long pursuit of justice, X said, “It appears as if it was longer than 10 years. We have faced so many things that have changed our lives—threats, desolation and loneliness. But all this while my focus was on my children.”
"They give me happiness. Around them I am just a mother. None of my children have an idea that their mother is a gang-rape survivor. How can I tell them?” she said. “That day in the sugarcane field, my child gave me strength. Even today they give me strength to fight.”
In August 2019, journalist Aishwariya Iyer reported for The Quint that five women from Faguna stopped pursuing their cases because of open threats of murders and economic boycott, and X was the only woman to have pursued her case.
“I first sent my complaint to the police in October 2013,” X told Article 14 in April 2022. “I got courage from the fact that I was not the only woman who was filing a complaint.”
"It's been a long time since I met other women,” she said. “I know they too faced a lot of pressure and threats. I felt very lonely when I got to know that they have left this fight. I felt very bad. But we decided to carry on."
It was only after X and six other Muslim women approached the Supreme Court in January 2014 for a fair investigation, an FIR was registered a month later by the UP police, directing the state government “to proceed against all the accused irrespective of their caste, religion and political affiliation”.
Within a week of the police registering an FIR, in March 2014, Hindu men from Muzaffarnagar organised a meeting in support of the accused men.
Police Derailed The Investigation
While the Muslim women and their families were already facing open threats of physical harm to them and their families, the police allegedly derailed the investigation.
A closure report was filed on 11 October 2014 in one of the gang-rape cases, with the special investigating team (SIT) inspector, Mala Yadav, giving a clean chit to the five accused. This was rejected by a local court in 2015.
The rape survivors accused Yadav of forcing them to compromise.
One of the survivors submitted an application to the National Human Rights Commission on 29 May 2014, asking for an impartial investigating officer. Following a contempt plea by the survivors in the Supreme Court, Yadav was removed as the investigating officer in November 2014.
The apex court, while admonishing the police and calling the gang rape cases “such a serious matter”, said, “Prima facie, it seems there is wilful disobedience.”
During the medical examination of one of the seven women, who was in her fifties, government doctors reportedly told her that she must be fabricated the gang-rape as she was “too old to have been raped”.
During a decade-long legal struggle, X, who relocated thrice amid fears of intimidation and calls for boycott, is now living in a village of Uttar Pradesh, with her husband and three children struggling to make ends meet.
Her husband, a tailor, said he had lost more jobs than he can count while dealing with the threats and harassment.
In their one room house with sewing machines on one side and a bed on the other, X said that it was still difficult for her husband to hold a job.
“At every other place where my husband works, someone comes to intimidate him. Who would employ my husband when they too are getting threats ?”
With little to eat, they sent their 14-year-old son to work as a daily labourer. He earns nearly Rs 200 per day. After the verdict, X said they would now focus on his education, despite their uncertain financial circumstances.
‘Slaughter These Mullahs… Rape Their Women’
Recalling the horror of the riots when Article 14 met her last year, X said, “Pistols, knives, carvers, fire torch and petrol bombs and the echo of an angry crowd shouting. We lost everything in those riots—our house, our belongings, our money.”
“I still remember the chants, ‘Slaughter these mullahs...rape their women…’ I remember running endlessly towards the nearby sugarcane fields to escape the violence, with my child,” she said.
On the night before riots broke out in Uttar Pradesh, X said, “We heard Sikandar (an accused in the rape case) making an announcement from the village temple at night. He claimed that Muslims have killed Hindus so villagers must get together to kill all Muslims.“
Sikandar was referring to killings in Kawal village, where a Muslim man, Shahnazwaz, was killed by eight Hindu men on 27 August 2013 based on a rumour that he was harassing a Hindu girl. This led to the retaliatory killing of two Hindu men, Gaurav and Sachin, by a Muslim mob.
“After hearing the announcement, just as my family was planning to escape our house, our Hindu neighbours came and reassured us that we would not be harmed,” said X. “On that reassurance, my family stayed back.”
‘They Threatened To Shoot Me If I Told Anyone’
On 7 September 2013, communal violence broke out in villages across Muzaffarnagar and Shamli including Fugana Khutba, Kutbi, Lank, Lisad, Bahawadi, Mohammadpur Rai, Singh, Kakra, Kharad, Mohammadpur Modern and Atali.
That morning, the throat of a Muslim man, Abdul Hassan, was slit, and he was shot dead in X's village, Lank.
When she heard of Hassan’s murder, X fled with her family, leaving everything behind, as per the court filings. While running X, who was carrying her three-month-old child in her arms, got separated from the rest of her family. She went to the nearby sugarcane fields to hide.
As her child was crying loudly, Kuldeep, Maheshveer and Sikandar managed to find her in the fields.
Kuldeep, who was armed with a small pistol, snatched her child from her and put him on the ground, as per the court filings. Sikander held a knife to the child’s throat while Kuldeep disrobed X and raped her. After Kuldeep, Sikander and Maheshveer raped her, each one taking turns to hold a knife to the child’s throat.
“After raping me, they threatened to shoot me if I told anyone about the rape,” she said.
In deep physical and mental trauma after the men left, X quickly dressed herself and left, as per the court filings.
“I was afraid that they might attack me again,” said X.
The Battle For Justice
After keeping this horror to herself for a few days in a relief camp in Mallakpur village, nearly 100 kms away from Lank, she confided in her husband.
There, the couple heard that more Muslim women had been raped, and some of them had filed a police complaint.
Initially scared of the humiliation and intimidation, after knowing that she was not alone, X decided to lodge a police complaint.
X sent a written complaint through registered India Post on 22 October 2013 to the station house officer of the Fugana police station in Muzaffarnagar for registration of an FIR, naming Kuldeep, Maheshveer and Sikandar.
In 2014, at least 25 people had been booked in connection with gang rapes during the Muzaffarnagar riots.
In X’s case, the Allahabad High Court granted bail to the three accused men in December 2014, January 2015 and February 2015, on the condition that they "shall not seek adjournments on dates fixed for evidence when witnesses are present in the court."
A 2017 report "Losing Faith: The Muzaffarnagar Gangrapes Survivor's Struggle for Justice” from Amnesty International, an advocacy group, found that within a span of two years, from 2015 to 2016, at least 18 adjournments were sought by the defence and granted by the Muzaffarnagar district court.
According to the Amnesty report, the defence sought at least six adjournments because "advocates were not at work”, while 12 adjournments were sought because "either one or all of the accused were not present" and at least two adjournments were sought "without any reason”.
In 2016, X and her husband were facing so many threats that they had to relocate to Delhi from western Uttar Pradesh for their safety.
“My family has faced a lot. So many people came to our house to threaten us, forcing us to compromise,” said X’s husband. “So many people called not just us, but also our extended family asking us to bow down. Villagers used to tell us that 'something might happen to us, or our kids.' I can't even recall how many times money was offered to us to settle the case.”
“I never continued the conversation thinking that what happened with my wife was very wrong,” he said. “The situation became so difficult that we decided to move to Delhi.”
In April 2016, X filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court pleading that the trial should be transferred out of Muzaffarnagar because she felt unsafe going to the district court amid the threats and harassment.
Proceedings in the case were further suspended from May 2016 to April 2018. The Covid-19 pandemic caused further delay, and the examination of witnesses took three years. The statements of the two accused, Sikandra and Maheshveer, were recorded in December 2021.
The Final Push
The case was listed for final arguments for the first time in January 2022 before a court in Muzaffarnagar.
Arguments were concluded on behalf of X in February 2022 by advocate Vrinda Grover’s team, including advocates Ratna Appnender, Devika Tulsiani, Soutik Banerjee and Mannat Tipnis.
However, Sikandar and Maheshveer’s advocates, who refused to comment when Article 14 contacted them, took more than 10 dates before the first judge for their final arguments.
It was during their arguments that the additional district and sessions judge of a Muzaffarnagar court was transferred on 3 July 2022 for the first time.
Lawyers for the accused made their final arguments over six dates before the new judge, but did not conclude them. They sought so many adjournments that a fine was imposed on them by the judge on 10 November 2022.
Less than a month after imposing the fine, on 1 December 2022, the judge was transferred again.
This time, the judge was transferred within the same court premises in Muzaffarnagar, from a POCSO court, dealing with underage sexual offences, to a fast-track court.
X then filed a petition that her case should be transferred to the fast track court in which the judge was transferred, so that no further delay is caused because a substantial part of the final arguments were already heard by the same judge.
On 22 December 2022, the case was transferred to the fast track court.
Within a month, on 21 January 2023, the judge was once again transferred, the third transfer within six months.
A new additional district and sessions judge for the fast track court was appointed on 27 January 2023, but no hearing took place as the judge was on a month’s leave for judicial training.
The delay went on till X approached the Supreme Court on 8 February 2023. After the Supreme Court intervened, the fast-track court in Muzaffarnagar started hearing her case daily from 3 April 2023.
Even after these orders, no arguments were advanced on behalf of Mahesveer and Sikandar on various grounds, such as court strikes and condolence meetings.
On 17 April 2023, the trial court, in oral observations recounted by Grover, X’s lawyer, said, “If arguments on behalf of the accused are not commenced from 18 April 2023 their right shall stand closed and the matter will be listed for judgement.”
Few others had the tenacity to doggedly pursue their cases. The result was tens of those accused of violence and rape in the riots got away.
Those That Got Away
Citing official figures, the Press Trust of India (PTI) in September 2021 reported that 1,117 people accused in 97 cases related to murder, rape, robbery and arson during the Muzaffarnagar riots were acquitted over lack of evidence.
In Februrary 2019, seven Muslim men were convicted in a murder in the village of Kawal, a killing that started the riots. In October 2022, 12 men including BJP MLA Vikram Saini were convicted of rioting and unlawful assembly. A few days after the conviction, Saini was granted bail by the Allahabad High Court.
In 2018, The Indian Express reported that the Uttar Pradesh government, under Yogi Aadiyanath would withdraw 131 cases relating to the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, after a delegation of Hindus from Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, including BJP member of Parliament (MP) and union minister Sanjiv Balyan, also accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots, met Adityanath.
The list of withdrawn cases involves those related to a mahapanchayat or gathering of village heads that allegedly provoked communal violence in 2013. The Mahapanchayat case had named Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Sadhvi Prachi, BJP MPs Kunwar Bhartendra Singh of Bijnor, Balyan and BJP MLAs Umesh Malik, Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana as accused.
Justice Vishnu Sahai Commission's report on the Muzaffarnagar riots, tabled in the UP assembly on 6 March 2016 on Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 put Som and 229 others on top of a list of “individuals responsible for the riots.”
In October 2022, the Press Trust of India reported that 77 cases were withdrawn by the state government under section 321 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), after “full consideration”. No other reasons were given.
Of the seven Muslim women who had alleged gang-rape during the riots, all except X withdrew.
The 2017 report by Amnesty International India found all seven women along with their families went through years of harassment, economic boycott, threats of murders and false cases, before they gave up.
For instance, the police refused protection to a 36-year-old gang-rape survivor who received a death threat in September 2013. The threats continued, and in December 2013, three days before she was to record her statement before a magistrate, men armed with unlicensed pistols confronted her at a bus-stop. Holding a gun to her son's head, they threatened to kill him unless she withdrew her allegation.
Similarly, the husband of a 50-year-old survivor registered at least four complaints—in October 2013, March 2014, April 2014 and May 2014—about the harassment before the survivor turned hostile in court.
The Quint reported in September 2019 that 32 alleged rapists, 10 Muslim and 22 Hindu, were saved when five Muslim women and a Hindu woman said they were not raped.
"When we got to know that a compromise was reached between other Muslim women and Hindu men, we felt now our case would also fail,” said X’s husband. “In a discussion with our lawyer Vrinda Grover, my wife said what those men did to her was horrible.”
“She said that she would fight till the end for her justice,” said X’s husband. “That is when I decided I would also support my wife till the end. I did not care if others have withdrawn."
“I understand the pressures on other women and their families. They are poor Muslims who are agricultural labourers,” he said. “The Jats are zamindars, their employers. Jats have powerful connections. They had no choice but to settle the case.”
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(Srishti is an award-winning independent journalist based in India.)