Muzaffarnagar District of Uttar Pradesh has the reputation of being the crime center of Uttar Pradesh. Not only does it top the crime graph but it has a tradition of caste panchayats – of Jats, of dalits, of other Hindu castes and also of Muslims. And these caste panchayats have been passing the most horrific and barbaric edicts with impunity. As a result, there have been lynchings, forced marriages, vicious and violent attacks – mostly on women, dalits and poor people. Neither the district administration nor the state government has made the slightest effort to intervene and put an end to this endless tale of community-inflicted violence and injustice. With increased reliance being place on communal and caste mobilization for votes and power by the major major political parties, the situation has only worsened.
The most recent example of this has been the Imrana case. Imrana is the wife of Noor Elahi who lived with her husband, their five children and his parents in his home in Charthawal village. In the first week of June, she was raped by her father-in-law, Ali Mohammad, while she was asleep in her small room. Weeping bitter, she immediately went to her mother-in-law in the next room and complained to her. Her mother-in-law begged her to keep quiet and promised her that she would teach her husband a lesson. Noor Elahi was away from home working on a brick-kiln.
Three days later, Imrana’ s brother’s wife came to visit her and was told of the incident. When she told her husband and brothers-in-law, they came to Charthawal and beat Ali Mohammad up. It was then that others in the village came to know of the incident and a ‘panchayat’ of their caste was held. While the panchayat found Ali Mohammad guilty of rape and said that he should be punished by the courts, they also decided that Imrana could no longer live with her husband since she was now like his ‘mother’.
It is important to note that no one from the community or from the religious organizations came forward to help Imrana or to take her to the police or the hospital. Some women activists actually performed these important tasks. This gave Imrana and her husband the confidence to defy the panchayat’s edict and live together in her maternal home.
On the 25th of June, however, one maulana of the Darul Uloom, Deoband, said in reply to a question asked by someone from Delhi that according to Shariat law, Imrana could not continue to stay with her husband who should leave her immediately. Darul Uloom wields considerable influence in the area and when word of this got around, Noor Elahi was forced to leave his wife and children. Both he and Imrana were told repeatedly that it was their religious duty to obey this interpretation.
This incident has generated a tremendous amount of controversy. Several religious leaders and Islamic scholars of repute like Dr. Tahir Mehmood, Maulana Dr. Karim Madni, Janab Kalbe Sadiq, some members of the AIMPLB and many, many prominent Muslims have denounced this ‘fatwa’ as being un-Islamic, unjust and totally unacceptable. Of course, many others have supported it.
The All-India Democractic Women’s Association (AIDWA) had intervened in the matter when it condemned the decision of the caste panchayat. Subsequently, when the Darul Uloom fatwa was successful in separating Imrana from her husband it was decided to immediately hold a protest demonstration in Muzaffarnagar itself.
At very short notice and despite the fact that there is no AIDWA unit in the district, a large demonstration was held on 30th June. More than 300 AIDWA activists from Bijor, Saharanpur and Delhi along with members of Disha, Mahila Samakhya, Asthitv, Parcham etc. assembled in the city.
Early in the morning, Razia Nagqvi and I went to her village and met Imrana. She is in a terribly depressed and traumatic state. While she keeps repeating that she cannot go against her religion she also says that she wants, and hopes for, justice. The people in her village, both Hindus and Muslims, are very supportive of her and feel that she has been very unjustly treated. We assured Imrana of our support whenever she needed it and in whatever form.
Before the demonstration, Ashalata, Sehba Farooqui (AIDWA), Rehana (Asthitv), Disha (Mahila Samakhya) and I were able to meet the Chairperson of the National Commission for Women who was also in Muzaffarnagar to meet Imrana and her husband. We met Imrana there again. We requested the Chairperson, Smt. Girija Vyas, to see that Imrana and her husband were given all support and protection and she assured us that this was her intention.
Soon after noon, our procession started. Marching with their banners and numerous placards demanding justice for Imrana and assuring her that she was not alone in her battle for justice, shouting slogans of women’s unity and determination, the commitment and anger of the processionists was apparent to all. As the procession went through the crowded streets, people came out of their shops and stopped in their tracks – they had never seen a women’s procession before! And had certainly not seen such angry and determined women in their lives.
The procession went right into the District Court and a big public meeting was held there. It was very encouraging to see that no one came to oppose us and our stand. Many of the lawyers and other people were there but all of them listened to us and then congratulated us and said that they all supported us and were tired of what was going on in their district in the name of tradition and religion. We were told that just a few days ago, in Charthawal itself a rapist was given 5 slaps with a slipper as punishment by the panchayat!
The meeting was addressed by Sehba Farooqui, Rehana, Naseem, Saira, Ashalata, Aruna, Naseema and myself. In the middle of the meeting, a young, burqa-clad woman came to the mike and said she wanted to speak. She was Azizan who also lived in Charthawal. She seemed to be a poor woman who had just come out of curiosity to see the procession. She then proceeded to amaze all of us by what she had to say. She said "Imrana is not the only one. In our village the fathers of most of the young men who are away – whether they have gone for work, or they are in jail or whatever – force their daughters-in-law to have sexual relations with them. If this is what is happening to Imrana, who will ever dare to speak out?"
And this is the question that is troubling everyone. And the fact that in a heinous case of rape, it is the innocent victim who is being punished mercilessly.
As the speakers at the rally said, the Imrana case has once again demonstrated that religious courts and organizations cannot be given the right to implement their judgments and decisions; it has once again demonstrated that personal laws have to be reformed on the basis of gender justice and human rights and then codified; it has once again demonstrated how fundamentalists of one hue encourage and strengthen those of another – the alacrity with which the BJP has jumped to the ‘defence’ of Muslim women when it has always thwarted all attempts to reform laws in favour of Hindu women is a telling example of this.
The speakers also condemned not only the administration for its silence but also the Chief Minister, Shri Mulayam Singh Yadav who had announced that Imrana’s fate was best left to be decided by ‘wise’ religious men. They said that since he was committed to upholding the Constitution he was bound to protect citizens like Imrana and her husband and give them all the support they needed.
As the rally ended, all the women participants and many of those who had been listening expressed their commitment to fighting injustice of the kind that Imrana, and many others like her were facing.
Subhashini Ali Sahgal is the president of All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA). This article was originally written for People's Democracy, and appears here with the permission of the author.