Muzaffarnagar, India – A young Muslim woman is waiting for the police to arrest the four Hindu men she has accused of raping her on September 8 last year in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
The 25-year-old – whose name cannot be mentioned under Indian law – told Al Jazeera she was cooking when her alleged attackers, Hindus of the Jat caste, barged into her house in the village of Fugana and gang-raped her.
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“I will carry this shame for all my life, but not one of them is in jail,” she said.
Six other Muslim women are also waiting for police to make arrests in their cases of gang-rape committed during the religious riots between the Jat community and Muslims in Shamli and Muzaffarnagar districts in western Uttar Pradesh.
The deadly violence claimed the lives of more than 50 people and displaced more than 50,000.
Mala Yadav, the investigating officer, said 22 out of 25 accused men in six rape cases have absconded. Yadav told Al Jazeera she had closed one case because the complainant was lying to take advantage of the Rs 500,000 ($8,300) compensation for rape victims.
However, Vrinda Grover, lawyer for the seven victims, said she had challenged the closure of the case because the woman felt compelled to change her story after her son’s safety was threatened.
Yadav said an award of 2,500 rupees ($41) had been offered for information about the accused who have disappeared and the police had seized their property. “They are not in the village,” she said. “We are checking routinely at their homes, but they have disappeared.”
|Many women found shelter in homes of other Muslims in a neighbouring village [Betwa Sharma/Al Jazeera]|
Two days of violence on September 7 and 8 last year shattered generations of peaceful coexistence between Hindus and Muslims in this sugarcane-abundant region.
Villagers said they clashed over reports that a Muslim boy attempting to seduce a Jat girl. While they admitted to occasionally feuding with each other, people on both sides blamed local politicians for stoking the violence, and the state government for failing to prevent it.
In an interview in Fugana village, Pushpendar Singh, 41, who is accused of rape, told Al Jazeera he had been hiding at home for the past year. “Running away doesn’t help. Will the police in Delhi not catch us? If we go abroad then the Interpol will be after us,” he said. “Our village is the safest place.”
The police said in August that 800 men accused for riot-related crimes have fled.
“Unless the police is not being allowed to do its job, I cannot imagine why these arrests are not being made,” Prakash Singh, who served as the top police official in Uttar Pradesh, told Al Jazeera. “The political pressure on the police in UP is especially stark, brazen and blatant.”
Political analysts say the failure to ensure arrests by the Samajwadi Party-led state government was linked to the religiously polarising politics being played out in India’s most populous state.
Ashutosh Misra, an analyst based in the state capital, Lucknow, said the ruling party could not risk alienating the Hindu majority by arresting Jats, especially after losing the majority of parliamentary seats in national elections in May.
“The minority is precious but not at the cost of a majority backlash and consolidation against you,” he said. “They want to sit pretty until time heals the wounds.”
Misra also described the police raids as “furnishing a formality”.
Villagers of Fugana, who are keeping a constant vigil on police movements, said they have used gunfire and thrown stones to prevent authorities from entering. “We have enough guns,” said Singh. “I would rather get shot than go to jail.”
Rajinder Singh said his 23-year-old son, who is accused of rape, recently injured his back after jumping off a roof to escape a police raid. “We had to be very careful to avoid getting caught when taking him to the hospital,” he said. “He is innocent. He was studying for the police service, but now his future is over because he can’t leave the village.”
Meanwhile, a 24-year-old woman, who was allegedly raped by three men in Fugana, said her husband had been asked by the Jat community to reach a compromise, which involves dropping her complaint in exchange for money.
“I don’t want money. I want them to be hanged,” she said.
Charges of inciting violence were brought against several politicians, including Sanjeev Baliyan of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. Baliyan won a parliamentary seat from the religiously polarised constituency of Muzaffarnagar six months after the riots, as many Jat-dominated villages voted for the Hindu nationalist party for the first time. He is currently minister for agriculture in the federal government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In a judgment in March, the Supreme Court directed the arrest of all persons in the rape cases “within a time-bound manner”.
Grover, the lawyer, said she planned to file a contempt petition, since the police had failed to carry out the court order.
“If the police cannot make arrests in these cases, then why should other women think of coming forward to file complaints,” she said.
|Pushpendar Singh, 41, who is accused of rape, told Al Jazeera that he had been hiding at home for the past one year [Betwa Sharma/ Al Jazeera]|
Fear and anger
One year after the religious violence, the countryside of western Uttar Pradesh is still rife with fear and anger. The starkest consequence of the riots is the physical separation of Hindus, who are left in the villages, and the Muslims, who have flocked to new settlements.
It has also been a year of wandering for the rape victims, who fled their homes. While many displaced Muslims spent the winter under plastic tents in relief camps, these women found shelter in the homes of other Muslims in a neighbouring village.
Four-months ago, three victims moved to a vacant plot of land in Shamli district, surrounded by sugarcane fields. “It is nice to finally have our own place, but this area gets scary after sunset,” said one woman.
“We are facing intimidation to drop the rape charges so I feel afraid that they could come through the fields to attack us.”
While admitting to other crimes during the riots, the Jats of Fugana remain adamant that not a single rape was perpetrated in their village. Pushpendar Singh said he wanted an independent probe to be conducted by federal investigators, as well as DNA testing and a lie detector test.
“This should happen before the arrests because we could languish in jail for years before even getting a hearing,” he said.
Singh said the hopes of the accused men in Fugana for a political intervention were fading. “We had confidence in Modi. We voted for Sanjeev Baliyan because we believed that they would help us out of these charges,” he said. “But politicians forget you when their work gets done.”
Grover said ensuring a fair trial for Muslim women did not score points for any political party in India. “There is no political will. Justice is rhetoric for the state government,” she said.
While gazing at the vast sugarcane fields around her new home, one Muslim woman from Fugana said she was tired of narrating her “rape story” to the media.
“We are poor, another year will pass without arrests, and then we will be forgotten,” she said.
Follow Betwa Sharma on Twitter: @betwasharma