The acquittal of four men accused of gangrape by a fast-track court in Muzaffarnagar after the victim and key witnesses, including her husband and mother-in-law, turned hostile, raises disturbing questions about the commitment of the state to ensure justice to victims of communal violence. The husband of the victim has revealed why they chose to retract their previous testimony, made before a magistrate. People on behalf of the accused, he said, threatened physical harm if they pursued the case. The threats started seven months after the FIR was filed and the police, he alleged, ignored the family’s plea for protection and action. When this newspaper contacted him, the SSP of Muzaffarnagar was not even aware of the outcome days after the court gave its verdict. This is the second rape case connected to the 2013 rioting that has resulted in acquittal.
The apparent callousness of the administration towards the riot victims is particularly glaring in this instance. The Muzaffarnagar riots had attracted national attention as the first major outbreak of communal violence after the 2002 Gujarat riots.
They pierced the nation’s complacency. Moreover, Muzaffarnagar is virtually in Delhi’s backyard and the violence took place in the run-up to the general election. It was expected that investigations and the judicial process would make up for the administration’s failure in preventing the riots; that the state would redeem itself by upholding due process and punishing the guilty with agility. But the administration appears to be failing the test. There has been some evidence of the involvement of influential local persons in the violence. With the political stakes high, they were likely to influence the course of investigation and subvert the judicial process. By all accounts, however, the police has refused to insulate the victims and witnesses from coercion and threats from the accused. And there has been inordinate delay in the legal process despite a fast-track court hearing the case.
The Muzaffarnagar cases seem to be following a pattern visible in past incidents of communal violence — Gujarat 2002, Bhagalpur 1989, Hashimpura 1987, Delhi 1984 and so on. The administration stands accused of collaborating with the accused to deny justice to victims. The extended legal process and the absence of convictions foster cynicism about the fairness and capability of the state to administer justice and embolden perpetrators and plotters of violence to exploit communal faultlines and polarise society for electoral gain.