In riot-torn Muzaffarnagar, sexual violence becomes a political tool | india | Hindustan Times
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In riot-torn Muzaffarnagar, sexual violence becomes a political tool

Last month a spate of rape videos in Muzaffarnagar sparked off communal tensions, a debate on women’s ‘honour’ and sexual autonomy

india Updated: Feb 23, 2016 11:25 IST
Namita Kohli
Villagers gather outside the house of an ASHA worker in Chhapra village in Muzaffarnagar. Last month, after a community medicine worker’s rape video  went viral in the village, she committed suicide.
Villagers gather outside the house of an ASHA worker in Chhapra village in Muzaffarnagar. Last month, after a community medicine worker’s rape video went viral in the village, she committed suicide. (Sanjeev Verma/HT)

In the narrow lanes of Kailawada village in the district of Muzaffarnagar, past the sugarcane fields and a local police chowki, young boys snicker when I ask them for directions to the house of Suresh Chaudhary. “He will take you there,” one of the older ones among the group gestures to his younger friend, slapping him playfully on his head.

Outside the house of the Chaudharys, a small door painted in a vibrant green opens into an expansive courtyard. The men step out, and stare at us with a mix of apprehension and suspicion. About a month ago, after the video of the rape of their daughter, Rani, went viral in the village and beyond, the family registered an FIR alleging rape and blackmail by local youths. Since then, the Jat family has been host to several unannounced visitors -- local politicians, police personnel, and officials of the district administration.

Rani’s case is one of at least three such sporadic incidents in the region -- involving Hindu women and Muslim men -- that were widely reported by the national and regional press, and used by the BJP to bolster its claims of “protecting the honour of women” in its campaign for the district by-polls, held last week, where it emerged victorious. In a district where the memories of the 2013 riots, set off by an incident of “eve-teasing” involving a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy, are still fresh, the cases of those such as Rani have only provided a shot in the arm for the BJP’s election campaign, one that many believe might have repercussions for party’s campaign for the state assembly polls next year.

Back in Kailawada, the Chaudharys are still getting used to strangers. They take a few minutes to open up, after a local activist reassures them. Rani’s father, a farmer, sobs softly, ruing the fate of his daughter “who is an MA” and has been defamed in the village, before he asks for her to come out and speak to us.

Rani, the 24-year-old woman in the video, is inconsolable, and narrates her story: how the accused would follow her when she would go to college, and she would always ignore his advances. One day, the youth and his friend stopped her on the way, threatened her to accompany them to a hotel and after “drugging” her, filmed the entire episode.

“They told me to laugh, to behave normally as if I was enjoying it, or they would kill my brother,” she says, wiping the steady stream of tears off her face.

In the FIR, Rani claims that the accused had been blackmailing her for money for a couple of years, before he finally released the video through local youths who run a mobile shop in the village. All those involved in the incident were arrested, and several others connected with the case are being rounded up, locals say.

The politics of force versus consent

Outside the Chaudhary house, however, a parallel narrative about this case is also doing the rounds. A senior police official claims that the video shows the couple engaging in “consensual activities”. A local, who did not wish to be named, also claimed the two were “involved”, and that trouble only broke after the video fell into the hands of youths who ran a mobile repair shop in the village. These youths sold the video in the village for a few rupees, and possibly even uploaded it on a porn site.

Rani says that she knows that one of the main accused, who ran a kabaadi shop (scrap dealer), is claiming that the video was released by others, and not him, but she insists that he is lying. “I did everything that he wanted, even gave him money, then why did he not delete the video all this while? Now, people in the village are saying that because I am laughing, sab meri marzi se hua hai (it was all consensual).”

In Kailawada, after a rape video involving a Hindu woman and a Muslim man went viral, people said that they were trying to ensure communal harmony prevailed in the village. (Sanjeev Verma/ HT photo)

The conflicting claims of ‘consent’ or ‘force’ must be situated in the broader context of how intimate relationships between young men and women in the region are defined, and who stands to gain from foregrounding a particular narrative. These relationships are mediated by a control over women’s sexual autonomy, the notion of ‘honour’ that rests in the female body -- especially when she chooses a partner belonging to a different caste, class and religion -- and a rampant culture of violence against women, aided by the ease of access to mobile phones and social media.

For those aiming to advance their political interests in the region, however, constructing their claims around the narrative of ‘force’ makes for a good political pitch. ‘Bahu beti ke samman mein, Kapil Dev maidan mein (Kapil Dev is fighting for the honour of the daughter-in-law and the daughter) reads one of the main slogans of the BJP’s election campaign for the by-polls. This campaign must be read in the context of the party’s “love jihad” bogey that it had been using to mobilise votes in the region for a while now.

Sanjeev Balyan, Union Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare and Muzaffarnagar MP, who visited Kailawada and Chhapra villages where rape videos went viral last month. (Sanjeev Verma/ HT photo)

Which is why Sanjeev Balyan, Union minister of state for agriculture and farmers’ welfare and Muzaffarnagar MP, was among the prominent visitors to the Chaudhary household, threatening to hold a mahapanchayat unless the accused were caught within three days.

A few days before he visited the Chaudharys, Balyan also went to Chhapra, about an hour’s drive from Kailawada, where Sheela, a 35-year-old ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) worker, committed suicide after her rape video went viral in the village. A fact-finding report by a group of activists from several NGOs states that the accused was forcing the victim to enter into a relationship with him, failing which he raped her, made a video and circulated it in the village.

Here too, a parallel narrative around the case suggests that the victim and the accused were “in a relationship”, and it is only when the accused demanded “sexual favours” for his friends and the woman resisted, that he raped her, recorded it and released it. According to the source of the latter narrative, Sheela is believed to have complained to the former pradhan of her village, who instead of helping her, passed on the video to her husband and son, which led to her eventual suicide.

The lack of power to negotiate the terms of the “relationship” might be apparent in both instances, however, these cases were twisted to maximise political gains. “It [sexual violence] is a big problem here. How can anyone be safe when police stations are sold [because of corruption],” says Balyan.

A local stringer in the district, who works for a prominent English news daily, insists that the problem of “love jihad” that the BJP has been raising must be tackled. “These boys target Hindu women, tying kalawa on their wrists. What is this behaviour? How come the girls involved are never Muslim?” he tells me.

Contrary to their claims, though, the “love -jihad” bogey received a huge blow in the region when Meerut’s Shalu Tyagi and Kaleem ended up getting married last year. Their case made headlines in 2014, when a case of gangrape and forced conversion was registered against Kaleem by Shalu, who later admitted that she was forced to do so by her parents. Local Hindutva groups turned this into a case of “love jihad”. Only, Shalu returned from the shelter home to marry Kaleem last year.

Women passing by the a police station near the village of Kailawada where last month, a rape video of a local woman went viral in the village, and beyond. (Sanjeev Verma/ HT photo)

A local police official near Kailawada village concedes it is not uncommon for the girl’s family to cry “rape and abduction” once “things are out in the open”. “Rani’s case wouldn’t have become such a big deal here if it didn’t involve the two communities,” he says.

A woman constable from Chhapra also says that many cases of rape and kidnapping are usually registered by parents trying to protect the “honour” of the family once they discover their daughters are in a relationship that they were unaware of, or are opposed to. “I know of a girl who left her village to work in a factory in Haridwar, and started staying with her friend. She and her friend’s brother became lovers, and the woman refused to come back to her parents. Her parents lodged a false complaint of abduction,” she says.

A senior police official at this police station conceded that such incidents were not “uncommon”, and that the police was compelled to go along with the woman’s statement, even if she was making the statement “under duress” or with “other intentions”.

Rehana Adeeb, an activist with the Muzaffarnagar-based NGO Astitva, confirms that many cases of rape that reach the police stations are filed by parents who are against inter-caste and inter-religious alliances. However, she also adds that violence against women in the area is rampant. She hands me a stack of clippings of news reports of violence against women, including leaked rape videos, a murder of a woman by her boyfriend over her alleged involvement with another man, and a case of a woman being burnt alive by her husband and son. None of these received the kind of attention that video cases did. “A large number of women who are really affected by violence are unable to come out and report it because either they don’t understand the process, or they are under pressure from the community to keep these under wraps,” she says.

Picking up the pieces

Regardless of the din around the two cases, however, in Chhapra and Kailawada, the two families believe they are far from leading a normal life. In Chhapra, in the house of Sheela, her teenaged son appears forlorn, his voice threatening to choke with tears every time he begins to speak.

While the district administration promised the family Rs 30,000 after an agitation by ASHA workers outside the village, the family says they eventually received a cheque of Rs five lakh. Neighbours say that the house was being run by Sheela’s income as an ASHA worker. Now, they worry about the “future” of her three children. “Can you do something for the children?” a neighbour asks this reporter.

In Kailawada too, Rani laments that the high-profile visits of the politicians and district administration have hardly worked out in her favour. Those who circulated the clip at the mobile shop have been let off, she says, and wonders whether the two main accused would be out soon too.

A scene in Muzaffarnagar’s Kailawada village, where the rape video of a local woman went viral in January. (Sanjeev Verma/ HT photo)

Both Rani and her mother claim that the “Mohammedan boys” have the support of the new pradhan. The pradhan of the village, in turn, claims that in the name of the video, the police has been rounding up “innocent Muslim boys in the village”.

A week later, in the course of a telephonic conversation, however, Rani suggests that the politics in her village is more complex. She alleges that the “Mohammedan boys” were also receiving support from the village’s former pradhan, incidentally, also a Jat, and a distant relative. “People in the village are using this to defame us. It seems that everyone is only waiting for us to sell off our land for cheap, and leave,” she tells me, over a call that she makes from her father’s phone.

“We are living, but we are not alive. Can you please ensure that these boys are not let off?” she says before hanging up.

READ: Muzaffarnagar after 3 years: Riot victims, witnesses get cold feet

READ: Muzaffarnagar gangrape victim commits suicide after video goes viral

Disclaimer: Names of victims and families have been changed to protect their identities.