It is yet another tale in India's tryst with gender and religious violence. And it is a tale of a victim getting ensnared into a battle of narratives over which she has little control - where a small section of vocal Hindus have painted Muslims (the alleged rapists are from the community) as rapists and their institutions as dens of conversion, even as a small section of vocal Muslims resort to the time tested technique of victim blaming and stripping her of dignity.
In Sarawa, the madrasa, temple, and mosque are all next to each other in a sign of earlier composite culture. (Chaht Ram/HT photo)
The battle is, so far, not being fought on the streets, but in the drawing rooms, village tea shops, bazaars, courtyards and among friends and neighbours.
A little off the Meerut-Hapur highway, Uldhan is a village with a mixed population, with Muslims having a demographic edge. It is on way to the home of the Meerut gang rape victim.
The Muslim men are first cautious when asked about the incident. But Shahanawaz Alam - originally from the village and now a farm owner in Bijnore - is eager to speak. "I will tell you the truth. The girl is 100% corrupt; she will fail a character test."
Read: No evidence of forced conversion in Meerut case, say police
When asked how he would define being 'corrupt', Alam said she was in relationships with many people. "Check her call records." Even assuming that was the case, how did it justify rape? Alam shook his head, dismissively, "It was all consensual. Now Narendra Modiji's supporters - not Modi himself - are playing politics."
In the Muslim quarter, this version gained traction after the police on Friday said that preliminary investigations had revealed that the victim was accompanied by one Kaleem, of Uldhan, when she left home for a pregnancy related surgery and showed him as her husband.
But there is a strong counter.
We then walk down the lane to her house where her father, jaded after giving repeated media interviews and meeting visitors, repeats the bare facts of the case.
His daughter taught in a madarsa; she disappeared on July 23 after telling her sister she was going on a tour to Mathura and Akshardham and switched off her phone; she returned physically battered with operation marks (this was surgery to remove an ectopic pregnancy where she went with Kaleem); she disappeared again on July 29 to return four days later to reveal that she had been raped, taken to madarsas and forcibly converted, from where she managed to escape.
HT was shown an affidavit of the conversion, but the police also said they had no evidence to believe this was forced.
The father however stuck to his version, “They threatened and induced her. They have left her dead. She is just a ‘zinda lash’, a living corpse.” For him, rape was not as much about the attack on his daughter’s body but her honour.
Read: Tension grips Meerut as teacher alleges gang-rape, conversion
When asked how come she - a Hindu - was teaching in a Madrasa, the father replied, "She is a BA final student, but used to teach to earn some money on the side. She first taught in my brother's school, and later moved to the madrasa where she got Rs. 1500 to teach Hindi and English."
Maulana Amiruddin who runs the Madrasa Sultania - located next to a temple and a mosque in a sign of the earlier more peaceful composite culture - said they often employed non Muslim teachers for general subjects.
Back at the victim's house, a local politician, Mahesh Tyagi, was telling the group assembled there how he had got home minister Rajnath Singh's son to visit the family, and how a CBI enquiry was imminent. "Only BJP is helping."
Nasir, a Muslim neighbour who happened to stand by, condemned the incident and made an attempt to steer it away from politics. “This is not about religion, but justice.”
But the victim's father did not take too kindly and demanded angrily that the accused must be hanged, the state government dismissed, and the 'evil chain' broken. "This is an international conspiracy. Where does the money come from for these madrasas? From Pakistan, from China? She saw many girls locked in, waiting to be forcibly converted, and then sent abroad."
In this binary, the local administration provides a relatively clear version.
Read: Centre seeks report on 'alleged' Meerut rape case
One official told HT, “Four things happened. There was sexual penetration — whether it was consensual or whether there was rape is irrelevant because the victim has said it was rape.” The burden, he indicated, was now on the accused under the new rape law. Second, there had been pregnancy. Third, he added, there had been an operation. And fourth, there had been conversion even if not forced. He added that the victim had not spoken of seeing other women being held hostage for conversion in her testimony to the magistrate.
Privy to the victim, recuperating in a Ghaziabad hospital, the administration source added that she was very troubled about how events had gone out of control. "She wants to lead a normal life, she wants to study, and she is worried about how events have escalated." The victim wants justice, and Meerut and Hapur need truth - quickly - to end the toxic and crude narratives at work.