MALAKPUR (India): Fatima’s face turned ashen as she recalled how neighbours armed with sickles and swords stormed her house and dragged her daughter out by the hair during Hindu-Muslim riots in northern India.
“There were six of them. They tied me to a chair and raped my young girl one by one.
“I could do nothing to save her,” Fatima said with tears welling up at a relief camp a few hours drive from New Delhi.
The family of seven was left shattered by the attack on the 17-year-old, which came during riots between Hindus and Muslims in and around Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffar-nagar district last month that killed at least 50.
Yet they have chosen not to report the matter to the police.
“If the word spreads that my daughter was gang-raped, tell me who will marry her? She will be branded as dirty and we will be thrown out of our own community,” Fatima said at the camp in Malakpur where nearly 10,000 Muslims are sheltering.
Her story is just one among many, indicating that as well as arson and beatings, sexual violence was rampant during the three-day riots, which started on September 7.
But police say they have registered only five sexual violence cases from the riots from 282 criminal cases overall.
“We are investigating each case carefully,” Kalpana Saxena, a senior police officer said.
The carnage was triggered by the killing of a Muslim man, allegedly by members of the dominant Jat Hindu family who accused him of sexually harassing their sister.
The Muslims then allegedly killed two Jat boys, leading to violence that fast spiralled out of control.
Local political leaders were accused of encouraging the violence to polarise the state along religious lines ahead of general elections next year.
Naushad Ahmad Khan, a lawyer and activist who owns an ancestral house in Muzaffarnagar’s Lank village, said women were reluctant to complain because of the fear of reprisals and a lack of faith in the police and courts.
“Even by most conservative estimates, there must be at least 50 cases of gang rape alone,” said Khan, who has filed a public interest case in the Supreme Court, seeking a probe.
The decision to suffer in silence reflects the stigma attached to rape, especially in deeply patriarchal societies in rural India.
It also casts doubt on a narrative that the fatal gang-rape of a 23-year-old student on a bus in New Delhi in December represented a turning point for attitudes towards women.
The bus rape was followed by weeks of street protests, leading to the strengthening of laws and talk of how more women felt encouraged to report sexual crimes.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on the government to provide counselling as well as legal and medical aid to victims.
“The Uttar Pradesh government needs to urgently create an environment for victims to come forward and seek justice,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director. — AFP