Rapes Go Unpunished In Indian Mob Attacks

Muslim Women Say Claims Are Ignored

By Rama Lakshmi

Special to The Washington Post

Monday, June 3, 2002; Page A09


KALOL, India -- Sultana Feroz Sheikh sat motionless,

staring at the mud floor in a dark, windowless room.

Three months ago, as religious riots engulfed the

western Indian state of Gujarat, Sheikh saw her

husband and several relatives burned alive. Then, she

said, she was brutally raped by three men as her

4-year-old son wailed nearby.

Sheikh wants to see the criminals brought to justice.

But Gujarat police are routinely refusing to file

charges against individuals accused of rape during the

violence in late February and early March, because

they say mob violence cannot be broken down into

specific crimes.

"It is difficult to determine who in the mob pelted

stones, who raped and who killed," said police

inspector Ramanbhai Patil. Though the riot on March 1

that claimed the lives of Sheikh's loved ones and

resulted in her rape engulfed the entire village of

Kalol, she said Patil has arrested only four men in

connection with the day's events.


The violence then spread throughout Gujarat, where

nearly 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, have been

killed in Hindu-Muslim clashes since Feb. 27. That was

the day Muslims launched a firebomb attack on a train

carrying Hindu activists, killing 60. Countless cases

of arson, looting, murder and rape have been jumbled

together in what are known as first-information

reports, or FIRs. Police have filed "general FIRs,"

simply blaming riots on Hindu tola, or mobs, and

refusing to register individual complaints.

Arrests increased markedly after the Indian government

appointed K.P.S. Gill -- known as the "super cop" of

Punjab state for his work there in the 1990s -- to

assist with law enforcement in Gujarat. Police have

arrested about 3,200 suspects in more than 300 cases

of attacks against Muslims in Gujarat. The suspects

have been charged with murder, rioting and arson. But

advocacy groups say arrests for rape are still rare.

"The police FIR said that a Hindu mob attacked a

Muslim mob," said Sheikh, who is Muslim. "I am not a

'mob,' I am a woman who was gang-raped by three men.

How can I hope for justice, when they don't even

register my complaint properly?"

Farah Naqvi, an independent journalist who is part of

Citizen's Initiative, a fact-finding team that

recorded testimony of sexual violence in Gujarat,

called it "a piracy of silence."

"Cases have been filed against the nameless and the

faceless," Naqvi said. "When you register them as

mobs, it gives you a basis and an excuse for inaction.

A single, collective FIR cannot take care of all the

individual losses, as the time, loss and place varies.

And it is especially true for rape."

There are no reliable estimates of how many women --

Hindu or Muslim -- have been raped in the Gujarat

violence. According to the Citizen's Initiative

report, however, almost every relief shelter in the

state houses people who are victims of or witnesses to

rape, molestation or other types of sexual assault.

Part of the difficulty in gauging the problem, said

Sejal Dand, an aid worker, is that "many women were

raped and then killed or burned."

Dand said fear of the police, who have been widely

accused of standing idle as violence peaked,

discouraged women and witnesses from reporting crimes

for days. When the victims and witnesses finally did

file reports, police often asked them to omit the

names of influential men, Dand said.

In addition, in India's conservative and

inward-looking Muslim minority of 130 million, even

talking about rape is a matter of deep shame and


In the village of Fatehpura, aid workers reported, a

Hindu mob dragged 30 young women into full public

view, sexually assaulted them and forced them to run

naked. Yet the Muslims of Fatehpura refuse to go to

the police or even reveal the names of the women,

fearing no man would marry them, the aid workers said.

"There is a lot of denial on the issue of rape of

Muslim women in Gujarat," Dand said. Even after

citizens groups published reports with women's

testimonies, many officials were dismissive. Prime

Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said in Parliament that

reports of sexual violence were "exaggerated," and the

country's law minister said only two FIRs have been

filed for rape in Gujarat so far.

Sheikh hasn't filed one, because the police wouldn't

let her, she said.

Her ordeal began on the morning of Feb. 28, a day

after the attack on the train, she said, when she

heard hundreds of angry Hindus marching toward the

Muslim quarters of her home village of Delol,

shouting, "We will burn you!" She and her husband

grabbed their son and fled to some wheat fields, where

they hid with a group of other panic-stricken Muslims.

Their homes went up in flames.

The Muslims retreated in a milk van the next morning

to the nearest town, Kalol. There, another Hindu mob

surrounded them.

"One by one, they pulled out the men from the van and

burned them. My husband was burned alive in front of

my own eyes as I screamed and pleaded with them,"

Sheikh said, tears welling in her eyes.

Sheikh said she managed to jump out with her son, then

ran toward a nearby river. Eight men wielding swords

chased after her.

"One of them grabbed my hair from behind and pulled

me; another snatched my son away," she said. They

threw her down and hit her, and three raped her. "They

were ruthless," she whispered.

Sheikh ran and hid for days before going to a relief

shelter in Kalol. Ten days after the rape, she

summoned the courage to go to the police to file a


"To my surprise, the police said I cannot file an

FIR," Sheikh said. "They said an FIR already existed

for that day's events."

Police officials investigating the Kalol violence said

they could not register two reports for the same

incident. Because a general FIR had already been

filed, they said, the most they could do was attach a

statement to it.

Patil said Sheikh's case was weak anyway, because she

did not undergo a medical examination until more than

10 days after the alleged rape.

Citizen's Initiative recommends that special courts be

set up to hear women's cases and that their testimony

be treated as the basis for legal action if FIRs are

not filed. And the requirement of medical evidence

should be dropped, the group says, because so many

women hid for days before going to the police.

Trauma counseling, according to the group's report, is

the most urgent need.

For a number of emotionally scarred women now

languishing in shelters, consisting of tents in the

scorching heat, simply returning to their homes could

provide the first healing touch. But homecoming is

fraught with risks, too.

Bilkees Rasoolbhai Yaqub, 19, was one of many women

gang-raped outside the village of Randikpura. She is

the single witness to many killings and rapes in

Randikpura and has named three men in her police

report. Now Yaqub's Hindu neighbors say they will not

allow the Muslims to return to the village until she

withdraws the names of the accused in her police


The villagers say her statements are baseless; the

police say Yaqub's story contains inconsistencies and

her medical report was negative.

But, asked an anguished Yaqub, "Why would I lie about

my rape? Which woman would invite social stigma upon


 2002 The Washington Post Company


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