Violence against women during Muzaffarnagar riots
Clashes between the Hindu and Muslim communities of the Muzaffarnagar district, Uttar Pradesh, India have claimed 50 lives and injured 93. 41,000 have been displaced in what is described as the ‘worst violence in Uttar Pradesh’ in recent years; for the first time in 20 years, the army has been deployed in the Indian state.
The original cause behind the rioting and violence is under dispute but according to some media reports, the violence was triggered when a Muslim youth was stabbed to death by two Hindu youth after being accused of harassing their sister. A Muslim mob then stoned the two Hindus to death. Since the stoning, police have failed to deal with perpetrators and a series of inflammatory speeches made by politician from various parties stoking tensions between Hindus and Muslims who have previously lived in this area in relative harmony since India’s independence in 1947.
The horror stories began surfacing from September 22 onwards as the police were sifting through the hundreds of complaints of riot victims living in relief camps. Reports of sexual assault, murder and looting started to surface. Many girls are missing, and so far, five criminal complaints of gang rape have been registered by the local police. According to Human Rights Watch, one woman described how she tried to escape an attack on her home by a mob of men, but five of them caught her and raped her. It took the victim three weeks to speak out due to fear. Another woman who was raped during the riots told media that the rape was so shameful she initially didn’t even tell her husband about it. Her rapists were from her village, some of them neighbours whom she had known for years.
In the village of Loi, homeless victims from nearby villages like Fugana, Lisarh and Bahawadi have taken refuge. A 50 year old woman tells reporters that while escaping from rioters in her village, she lost hold of her five year old granddaughter. As the woman turned to look for the five year old, she was taken away by the men who had initially attacked the family. They now fear the worst, and believe the five year old was thrown into their home, which was set on fire.
Indian activists who have visited riot-affected communities report that women may have suffered sexual assault, including rape, but have not registered criminal complaints because of the fear of reprisals, stigma, and a lack of faith in state institutions. They are therefore unable to access crucial services including psychosocial counseling, legal aid, emergency medical care, and reproductive health services responsive to the effects of sexual violence.
Instead of taking steps to create an environment that builds the confidence of rape victims, initial responses by police officers recording criminal complaints indicated the opposite. When Human Rights Watch spoke to two officers in charge of the police stations in Muzaffarnagar where the sexual abuse complaints have been filed, both of them raised questions over the legitimacy of complaints pointing to the delay in registering them.