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Rapes Go Unpunished In Indian Mob Attacks


By Rama Lakshmi

Special to The Washington Post

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 stigma.

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 report.

"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 report.

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 herself?"

2002 The Washington Post Company

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