Muzaffarnagar after 3 years: Riot victims, witnesses get cold feet
Three years after Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar erupted in riots, investigations into the violence that killed over 60 and rendered thousands homeless are triggering allegations of financial and political intimidation stalling the trials.
Courts acquitted 32 people in 10 riot cases. Five of the six gang rape survivors turned hostile.
The Special Investigation Cell (SIC) formed to investigate 534 riot cases cleared nearly half of the accused of all the charges, mostly in cases of arson and loot, mainly because the victims withdrew their complaints. Scores of victims filed affidavits to take back their cases.
In the cases that reached the courts, many victims turned hostile. For instance, 10 people were accused in a murder case in Laakh and four in a gang rape case in Phugana. In both, the victims refused to identify in court the suspects named in the FIRs.
“Yes, we do have a problem in keeping the witness and victims motivated to fight their cases,” said Dushyant Tyagi, the new district government counsel (DGC).
“I do not know why they want to back out. I have 80 cases committed in the lower and sessions courts. My job is to make sure that I get cent per cent conviction,” he said.
There are rumours of behind-the-scenes manoeuvres involving money and criminal intimidation.
Tyagi’s predecessor Sajid Rana was dropped from the government panel of lawyers after 10 people were acquitted, amid allegations that he arranged a settlement between the accused and victims.
Mohd Iqbal, who lost his son Aas Mohammad in the riots, said Rana’s “sloppy follow-up” in the court led to the acquittal. He said he was threatened in Shamli multiple times. His wife, Salma, was disappointed but believed those who killed her son would be punished in the ‘divine court’. “In this court, our cases are weakened,” she said.
But Rana rubbished the charges. “When the victims and witnesses are turning their backs on us, what can I do? I cannot stop them; I cannot be blamed,” he said.
“The victims have seen nothing but abject poverty in life. This is what people are taking advantage of,” says Asif Rahi, a social activist. “The government felt the compensation it gave was enough, it didn’t provide protection and left them (the victims) exposed to pressure tactics,” he argued.
Take the case of Shahpur, 20km from Muzaffarnagar, where many riot victims live in makeshift camps. But the men, mostly labourers, don’t go out for work due to the fear of being attacked on the way.
“Many of us were stopped on the way, attacked, and told to withdraw the cases or face consequences,” said Mohd Haroon, a victim at one of the Kandhla camps, 60km from Muzaffarnagar. They filed complaints with the Shahpur police but no arrests were made.
Complaints to police have dried up in the last one year. There have been increasing instances of withdrawal of loot and arson cases.
The victims are mostly from nine villages where no one from their community lives any more. Places of worship are locked and properties are in ruins.
“You know who makes the ‘compromise’ offers. They are dreaded figures of the region. They give us a double deal: cash for taking the case back and some more (money) for the properties we left behind in the village we will not go back to,” said a victim. “People who struggle to earn ` 50 a day largely agree to the offer. They no longer want to suffer,” he said.
The husband of a gang rape victim, who was seeking justice for all other rape survivors, isn’t speaking to anyone, not even the lawyers, since January.
Before he went silent, a group of people belonging to a political party caught hold of him on the court campus. He was accused of brandishing a revolver though he said he did not possess such a weapon. He was taken to the civil lines police station in Muzaffarnagar. A mob wanted him to be booked for criminal intimidation but some social activists came to his rescue.
The husband of another survivor said he and his wife were under ‘immense pressure’ from other survivors and their spouses to give in. The husband who was heckled leads the pressure group. “I have withstood all pressure. I will fight the case till the end,” he tells HT.
Akram Akhtar, a young lawyer from Kandhla, said, “Acquittals have taken place in cases in which there was strong evidence. This trend is unlikely to get reversed unless the government instils confidence and provides proper protection to witnesses.”
As for the SIC, it allegedly hasn’t responded to any RTI query that sought details of how many cases it expunged and why it cleared 3,000 of the 6,000 people named in the FIRs. Vinod Pandey, the SIC head and SP Traffic of Muzaffarnagar, said the details were not meant for public consumption.