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Looking for Imrana

The petition that led to the recent Supreme Court ruling on the validity of fatwas primarily cited her case.

Written by Irena Akbar | Published:July 13, 2014 12:59 am
A neighbour looks on. On her right is Imrana’s house. Imrana’s family won’t let their house be photographed or the neighbour talk about her. Source: Tashi Tobgyal A neighbour looks on. On her right is Imrana’s house. Imrana’s family won’t let their house be photographed or the neighbour talk about her. Source: Tashi Tobgyal

The petition that led to the recent Supreme Court ruling on the validity of fatwas primarily cited her case. Nine years after she was raped by her father-in-law and directed to leave her husband by a fatwa, the 37-yr-old can’t live the case down, only hide from it, finds IRENA AKBAR in Kukda village, Muzaffarnagar.

In Kukda, a small village in Muzaffarnagar, western Uttar Pradesh, they all know her. On the main road leading to the village, a shopkeeper, when asked where Imrana stays, says, “achcha, woh case waali (oh, that woman in the case)?”. Walk through the “Hindu area”, cross a mosque, and then ask for her in the “Mohammedan area”, he directs.

In the “Hindu area”, large, concrete homes painted bright pink, green and blue lie on either side of a narrow, clean lane. In one of the corners is a small mosque, after which the homes get smaller in size, paler in shade — mostly yellow or cream — while the lane becomes irregular, narrow at some places, wide at others. Most houses are semi-pucca, their walls made of exposed bricks and their roof made of straw or reed.

The “Mohammedan” part of the village also has a lot of vacant area with, intermittently, dried dungcakes, haystacks and the odd grazing buffalo.

If the Hindus of Kukda are rich Jat farmers, the Muslims are poor labourers who construct homes, work in the fields or pull carts. Villagers say the ratio is “50:50”. The starkly demarcated areas notwithstanding, Kukda was untouched by the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar last year.

In the Muslim area too, where there is more than one Imrana, she stands apart. Just start talking about “the one whose father-in-law…”, and they point you in the direction of “woh case waali”.

Imrana lives right at the end of Kukda village, opposite what locals call “murda-ghaat”, a large cremation ground. It’s the poorest part of the village, the homes little more than one-room structures with shared walls. The door to her house, which has a thatched roof, is hidden behind a stained white tarpaulin sheet.

A girl in her teens, wearing a salwar-kameez with the dupatta covering her head, opens at the first knock. We tell her we are here to meet Imrana. Angry and suspicious, she looks at us top to bottom. Guessing Imrana’s visitors are not from these parts, she asks: “Why do you want to meet my mother?”

It’s not the first such knock at that door. Perhaps not even the first Imrana’s daughter has answered. It was nine years ago, in June 2005, that Imrana became a known name. Nobody had seen her face — always veiled — but few didn’t know about her “case”. A 28-year-old then, Imrana was raped by her 70-year-old father-in-law, Ali Mohammed, at her husband’s home in Charthawal village, some 15-20 km from Kukda. She complained to her mother-in-law, who sympathised with her but told her to keep quiet. But she and her husband, Noor Elahi, went to the police.

As the word spread, a panchayat of the Ansari community, to which Imrana belongs, met and issued an edict that since Imrana had “slept” with her father-in-law, she was now the “mother” of her husband, and the two couldn’t live together as man and wife any longer.

Her tragedy became a national controversy when Darul Uloom Deoband, India’s largest Islamic seminary, gave a fatwa similar to the panchayat’s order. What followed was a media and activist circus outside Imrana’s parental home in Kukda, where she shifted soon after the rape. Journalists pursued the family for a byte as NGOs pledged help; they coerced Imrana to go in for a medical test to prove she was raped, someone else said the rape had “failed to happen”. Politicians exploited her case too; Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav supported the fatwa, the BJP called for a uniform civil code. Meanwhile, a lower court in Muzaffarnagar convicted and sentenced Mohammed to 10 years in jail. He was released on bail last year.

After a long hiatus, Imrana’s case popped up again last week. The Supreme Court observed that a fatwa has no legal sanctity and is “not binding on anyone including the person who had asked for it”. It made the observation after a petition seeking the “disbanding of parallel courts” cited Imrana’s ordeal. The court especially made it clear that a fatwa cannot be issued unless the party concerned asks for it. In Imrana’s case, a journalist — not any member of the family — had approached Deoband.

We are here at Imrana’s door to ask her what she feels about the Supreme Court order, how she’s coped, and how far has she moved on. The daughter refuses to listen, slamming the door.

After another tentative knock, she emerges, even more furious. “Who has sent you?” she asks. A local journalist had said Imrana was ready for an interview. “We know no such person,” the daughter says, before closing the door again.

Two women from the neighbouring home have been watching curiously. But before they can answer any questions, Imrana’s daughter shouts out to them from her door, “Don’t talk to them!” The women oblige.

By now, there is a curious crowd in the lane leading up to Imrana’s house. Two middle-aged women, Amir Jahan and Aneesa, step up to talk.

“She is friendly and innocent. She meets people in the village, and lets us into her home too. She doesn’t meet outsiders though,” says Aneesa, of Imrana.

“Par jab khel khatam ho gaya hai (now that the game is over), she should meet videowallahs,” says Amir Jahan.

What do they think is a fatwa? “Jo Deoband se aata hai (what comes from Deoband),” says Aneesa. “Fatwa is given by maulvis for our betterment,” says Amir Jahan.

Should you follow a fatwa? “Woh to apni marzi hai (that’s one’s wish),” she says.

Getting back to Imrana, Amir Jahan says, “She was dark and thin when she came here. Now, she’s plump and fair. She’s leading a good life. She even got a new plot on which she’s built her house. What else can one ask for?”

They all know about “the case”, Aneesa says, but they have their doubts. “I refuse to believe a 70-year-old man can do such a thing… Whatever it is, this whole case has been a disgrace to Musalmaans, thanks to you video wallahs,” she adds.

The women also know that Imrana’s father-in-law is out of jail. “They don’t meet the in-laws,” says Aneesa. “The husband went to his home when his mother died. But Imrana hasn’t gone back once.”

Talking about Imrana’s children, they say her two daughters and a son are now in their teens, while of the two younger sons, one is deaf and dumb.

A teenager cycles by. Spotting him, some children shout, “Go catch him, he is Imrana’s son.” The teenager refuses to halt or even throw a glance, saying Imrana is “not at home”.

By now, other villagers are opening up about the “case”. Referring to “that Ansari girl”, an elderly man says: “Aankhon dekhi cheez bhi jhooti ho jaati hai (even an eyewitness account can turn out to be false).”

How important is a fatwa? “Woh to bade-bade logon ki baatein hain. Hum anpadh log kya jaanen (It’s an issue concerning big people, not illiterates like us).”

Fakhruddin, who lives in a large, concrete home, some distance from Imrana’s house, offers to help us meet her. This time, the door to her house is open. The space inside is tiny, with a buffalo tied in one corner, clothes drying on the walls, on a string and on a folded cot, a pile of hardened dungcakes, and a wooden cot.

Fakhruddin tells the daughter Imrana will be asked “only a few, good questions”. She relents, goes inside a room, but comes back within a few minutes. “I told you it is no use. Why can’t you get it? Why are you troubling yourself in the sun?” she says.

Fakhruddin asks her when her father would be back. “8 pm,” she says. “Can these people come then?” he asks. “Okay,” the daughter says.


Located half an hour’s drive from Kukda, Charthawal is also divided between its “Hindu” and “Mohammedan” parts, and is as untouched by last year’s riots. However, it has bigger houses and wider lanes than Kukda, and is located near a busy market.

Released on bail, Imrana’s father-in-law Ali Mohammed returned to his home here, where the rape took place, last month. His house isn’t hard to locate either. Queries regarding his home are answered with, “Uska ghar joh riha ho gaya (the home of the one who got released)?”.

Under the jamun tree in front of Mohammed’s house, his “nephew” Mohammed Anees stops us. “My uncle is not at home. He’s at work, and may not even come back. He often doesn’t sleep at home,” he claims.

What about Mohammed’s wife, his other sons and their wives? “None of them lives here now. The wife died two and a half years ago,” Anees says.

What does he think of the rape charge? “My uncle is innocent. He was framed because of a property dispute. Noor Elahi is one of his four sons. Elahi never got along with his father and so my uncle refused him a share in the property. Then Imrana’s brother-in-law hatched a conspiracy to accuse my uncle of rape,” claims Anees.

Soon there is a crowd of people, all speaking together. “Noor Elahi came here only once, to collect his belongings. He never bothered to meet his mother,” says Anees.

“Ali Mohammed was a decent man, he would never look at any woman,” adds a middle-aged woman. “He has never misbehaved with any woman in this village,” chips in another.

“I am 70 years old. I can say that it is not physically possible for a man of Mohammed’s age to force himself on a woman,” says Mehmood, Mohammed’s neighbour, adding, “How come nobody heard Imrana scream that night?”

“A journalist bribed Noor Elahi

Rs 10,000 to plant this story,” a young man buts in.

What’s their view on the Supreme Court’s observation regarding fatwas? “I will slit my neck for the sake of a fatwa,” roars Mehmood.

No one agrees though with the fatwa in Imrana’s case. “The Deoband fatwa was out of context because the question eliciting its response did not specify the details of Imrana’s case,” says Wajid Ali, the imam of the village mosque.

Then why did the village panchayat issue a similar diktat? “That panchayat was not held in this village,” they all claim, in unison.
Mohammed’s home is unlocked. It has a large courtyard, three empty rooms, a cot, a bicycle, and a staircase leading up to the terrace. The home looks deserted and desolate. Nobody, it seems, lives here.


It’s 8 pm, and we’re back at Kukda for one final attempt to meet Imrana. The Hindu parts are quiet, the Muslim areas are buzzing with devotees who have just emerged from the mosque or finished their iftaar. Fakhruddin accompanies us to Imrana’s house. Noor Elahi has still not returned.

We decide to wait at Fakhruddin’s home. Half an hour later, a lanky figure walks in hurriedly. It’s Imrana’s husband. Fakhruddin makes the introductions and offers him a chair.

Elahi doesn’t look pleased. “Main pareshaan ho gaya hoon in logon se. Chaar din pehle, 6-7 media waale tapak gaye the. Hamesha tapak padte hain (I’m tired of these people. Four days ago, six-seven mediapersons had dropped in. They keep coming unannounced),” he says.

“What do you want to ask?” he adds,visibly frustrated, rubbing his forehead, shifting uneasily in his chair, and never once looking up. “Why are you guys always digging up the past?”

What does he think about the Supreme Court’s observation on fatwas? “Main koi fatwa lene nahin gaya tha. Bade-bade log jaate hain fatwa lene (I never went to get a fatwa. Big people go asking for it),” he says.

But does he know what a fatwa is? “I won’t say anything on this,” Elahi says.

He confirms he hasn’t gone to meet his father since he was released on bail. “I only went when my mother died.”

Is he happy his father is out? “Iss mein khushi ya gham ki kya baat hai (What is there to feel happy or sad about)?”

Elahi, who pulls a handcart for a living, sighs: “I have shunned both the media and NGOs. The media quoted me even when I said nothing. People think I’ve made a lot of money from NGOs. The only benefit I’ve got from an NGO is the plot of land on which we’ve built our house. NGOs promise money, but give nothing. I want nothing from them.”

Have the villagers supported him? “Yes,” he says.

Can we take his picture? He immediately gets up.

Can we meet Imrana? “She’s not at home,” he says with a wave of his hand, and leaves.

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