Sexual Violence and Sectarian Violence: The Muzaffarnagar Riots by Neha Dixit

Excerpted and adapted from Neha Dixit's essay on the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots from Zubaan's project on sexual violence and impunity.


In September 2013, just seven months before the Indian General Elections, North India witnessed the worst communal riots in the last decade. Two districts, Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, in the most populous Indian state, Uttar Pradesh, just hundred km from the national capital, Delhi, faced sectarian violence. Over a week, this violence resulted in 60 deaths, 7 rapes and 40,000 displaced according to Uttar Pradesh state government records. Unofficial figures that claim 200 deaths, 1,20,000 people displaced and hundreds of unreported mass rapes1.


The sectarian violence was fuelled by a cocktail of patriarchy, communalism and politics. The patriarchal notion of  protecting women’s ‘honour’  was used to instigate communal riots in Muzaffarnagar. As a result, women’s bodies were used as battlegrounds to establish the  superiority of one community over the other. The survivors of this sexual violence were systematically silenced because of religious and patriarchal pressures – erasing the acknowledgement of violence against women from public memory.


Rape and the battle for justice
Seven Muslim women, one from Lankh village in Shamli district and six from Fugana village in Muzaffarnagar, eventually filed cases of gangrape with the help of activists and lawyers.
These testimonies were recorded nine months after the incident. During this period, the women lived for months in refugee camps spread across Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, until  they were finally able to buy land with the compensation received from the government.They constructed make-shift houses where this researcher met them.


The legal trajectories of these seven cases are crucial since Section 376(2)(g) of the Indian Penal Code was specifically introduced through the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013, after the December 16 gangrape protests, just six months before the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar. It was introduced to deal with cases of rape committed during communal or sectarian violence as a form of aggravated rape. It is also to be read in conjunction with Section114-A of the Indian Evidence Act whereby the burden of proof is shifted to the accused in consideration of the coercive circumstances by means of which rape is committed. Since the sectarian violence in Muzaffarnagar was the first such incident after the introduction of the new law, these cases of sexual violence, during  communal violence, are precedents of sorts.


The First Information Report for five out of the seven petitioners was filed within three weeks after the gang rapes in September, 2013. On March 26th, 2014, the Supreme Court, in an important judgment, Mohd Haroon and others versus Union of India, directed the state government to swiftly proceed with investigations and the arrest of the accused. Only three out of the total of twenty-nine accused named by the seven petitioners were arrested in the six months after the report was filed.


With no other option, a contempt petition was collectively filed on September 15, 2014, almost six months from the date of the Supreme Court judgment on 26th March 2014 and almost a year after the first FIR was filed to demand action. It is only after this petition that the state administration arrested the other accused.

It is crucial to note that all the seven women are married and above the age of thirty. None of the young, unmarried women had the social support to fight the stigma of rape publicly. In addition, all the seven women are from working class backgrounds (ironsmiths, agricultural labourers, carpenters etc) while the accused are from the dominant landowning Jat community who are significantly more influential in terms of money and influence over the state machinery.

Invisible rapes, mass rapes and violence against women
The aforementioned seven women had, most importantly, the support of their families, in addition to help provided by activists and members of civil society. But conversations with women across relief camps within two weeks of the sectarian violence suggest incidents of large numbers of mass rapes between the morning of September 8 and September 9, 2013.

Documenting the incidents of sexual violence was initially difficult. Most women from the eighteen relief camps, set up immediately after the riots, responded with a tutored reply when the question was brought up. ‘We ran away before something happened but we know that it happened to someone else,’ they would say and then go on to attribute any descriptions of what happened to another woman.

The reasons for this were many. Apart from the social stigma, these women faced severe personal crises – with dead or missing family members, loss of property and livelihood, instability, government apathy  in addition to pressures from unsupportive families and religious institutions.

A series of interviews conducted by this researcher corroborates one specific incident of mass rape in the compound of the house of one Sudhir Kumar, the elected head of Lankh Bavdi village, also known as Billu Pradhan. Close to thirty Muslims were given false assurance of protection from angry Jat mobs and told to gather at Billu Pradhan’s house on the morning of September 8, 2013. The gates were shut and over nineteen women were raped and sodomised by twenty to twenty-five Jat men while they watched their children and family members maimed in front of their eyes.


Shabana, thirty, who was present in Billu Pradhan’s courtyard that day recounted the horror to this author at the Idgah camp. ‘They came at eight in the morning, a group of twenty Jat men. I was cooking while my husband, a washerman, was about to leave for work. As soon as we heard the commotion, my husband, two sons and I fled. Even as we were running towards Billu Pradhan’s house, we saw our house being set on fire.’ It was in this mayhem that Shabana lost track of her two sons. The couple reached Billu Pradhan’s house and were taken inside the gated compound. ‘Within half an hour, a group of men from the village entered the compound and attacked us. They hacked my husband right before me.They stripped several of us. Took our honour.’


They first beat them with batons, then stripped them and sodomised them. The men were stripped and chopped into pieces. Shabana and several others were thrown out, naked, an hour later.

Shabana’s story was further corroborated by another victim, twenty-year-old, Rubeena from the Malakpura camp, whose cheek was bitten off. ‘There were loudspeakers, Bollywood songs blaring, while they raped us. Some boys were also playing the dhol (a local drum), outside the gate.’ That morning, her mother had asked her to leave for Billu Pradhan’s house along with her younger sister. She told her she would follow with the rest of the family. ‘Two men held me by my arms as they bit several parts of my body. Three men raped me then, one after the other,’ Her parents and the rest of the family have been missing since then.

Sabra , forty, another inmate at the Idgah camp, while talking about the rape of her two daughters in Billu Pradhan’s house is concerned that no one will marry her teenaged daughter, Saju. She said, ‘My husband Ajiman and his first wife Almiyat, who was also my elder sister,  were with me and my three daughters, including Saju, in Billu Pradhan’s house that morning. My elder son had asked us to stay there while he went to arrange a vehicle. Ajiman and Almiyat were attacked with a sickle on the neck within fifteen minutes of entering the pradhan’s house.’


It was difficult for Sabra to recount what followed with her girls. ‘They first pulled my elder daughter and stripped her. Two boys dragged her to the ground and took turns raping her. Then they grabbed my second daughter and hit her private parts with batons. She started bleeding and was pushed to a corner. They then proceeded to assault the other girls.’

That day, when the gates were opened after an hour, Sabra rushed out with Saju and others into the jungles close by. They had to walk a whole day and night to reach Kandhla where the volunteers of the camp there came to their aid.

It is important to note that the first response at any of these camps to questions of sexual violence is immediate denial. In Gangeru, a small town in Muzaffarnagar district dominated by Shia Muslims, the Arabia-Islam-Hudru-Islam madrassa had provided refuge to over 400 people from the twenty-one villages nearby.

The stigma associated with rape was a major impediment in accessing medical help for sexual violence survivors. Shama, in her early twenties from Gangeru camp, told me, ‘It’s painful to urinate and defecate. I can’t even tell the camp doctor. The women in the camp have given me herbal medicine.’ Shama’s husband Iqbal and his younger brother Tahrir were both killed in Lankh Bavdi on September 8. Her husband ran a horse carriage for a living; it was found burnt at the house later. ‘I went to Billu Pradhan’s house with my six children,’ she recounts. ‘They twisted both arms of my three-year-old daughter and threw her. They were young boys whom I had fed so many times in my house. When I ran to rescue her, they thrashed me with a baton, and then used it to rape me, as they did to four or five other women.’

Similarly, Mehraz, another survivor from the Loni camp revealed that the rioters specifically shouted, ‘Musalmanon ki laundiyaon ko rakh lo (keep all the Muslim girls.)’

‘My breasts were attacked with a sharp trowel,’ she told me ‘There were eight to ten boys who seemed to be on a mission. They’d strip a woman, attack her and rape her. Then they’d grab the next one, within minutes.’ Billu Pradhan, who was not named by any one the women this researcher spoke to as raping women himself  had, according to Mehraz, vanished after the first twenty minutes. ‘When the gates of Billu Pradhan’s house were unlocked, I had no clothes on me. My husband and daughter had hid in a jute sack under a charpoy. We all ran as the Hindu boys chased us. But somehow there was news of the police reaching the village. The boys turned back.’ Her twelve-year-old son had been left behind as Mehraz had fled with her eight-year-old daughter and husband Akbar Qureshi. The house was attacked by a group of ten or fifteen men and her son burnt alive. His charred body was found later. Mehraz, was among the only few women who spoke, forthrightly, about the sexual assault on her. However, she never registered a case. While women after women in several camps talk in hushed tones about what happened on the fateful morning, the people residing in Lankh Bavdi village remain defiant.


F, one of the complainants narrates an incident that sums up the kind of polarisation in the sugarcane belt, unheard before the riots. She says, ‘Recently, I had gone to the bank to withdraw money where an old Muslim woman wearing a burqa was sitting on a chair as her son was filling a form. A Jat man walked in with another woman and said to the old woman, ‘Jat women will sit here, you get up.’ No one said a word to refute him, not even me.’



Neha Dixit is an independent journalist based out of New Delhi. She covers development, gender and politics in South Asia. An archive of her published work may be found on her blog. She tweets at @nehadixit123.


1Writ Petition (criminal) no. 155 of 2013, in the Supreme Court of India, Mohd Haroon and others versus Union of India