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Posted Online on Thursday 14, July 2005 01:59 IST

Imrana case: Rape by Media

By Zafarul-Islam Khan

Published in the print edition of The Milli Gazette (16-31 July 2005)

Imrana case: Rape by Media

New Delhi/ Muzaffarnagar/ Deoband: An alleged rape of a Muslim woman by her father-in-law in an obscure village has shaken India, pitting secularists, feminists, communists and extremist Hindutvites who demand the abolition of Muslim personal laws, against its 145 million Muslims.

Unusual media focus and the incompetence of the Indian Muslim religious and political leadership has only worsened the situation as was seen in the somewhat similar case of Gudiya a few months ago.

The media here continues to describe what happened as “rape” discarding the conventional adjective of “alleged” in such cases because no authority till now has proved it to be a case of rape.

ImranaA visit to Charthawal, where the incident allegedly took place offers a different picture. Imrana’s elderly mother-in-law, Zareefunnisa, squats on the ground of the tiny door-less courtyard. She repeats as her hands tremble and body shakes what she has told to umpteen visitors: it is a case of property dispute. Her husband was planning to sell the property to repay a loan taken some three years ago to spend on the marriage of his youngest daughter. Imrana and her husband who has not been on talking terms with his father for the last five years, were opposed to this as they have nowhere else to go. According to the old lady, Imrana’s husband Noor Ilahi used to threaten his father and tell him to leave the house.

Amid continued quarelling in the family this new development took place. The old woman denies that her husband could do such a thing. Dozens of immediate neighbours who assembled seeing us enter the house also agree with her and support Ali Mohammad, Imrana’s father-in-law. A neighbour called Muhammad Haneef, who is a Unani physisian, narrated in front of the crowd something which goes badly against Imrana’s character. He added that Ali Mohammad is a good man who toiled to earn his living.

 

After a while we leave the house, consult each other what to do. We came back to offer the old lady some money to help her in her ordeal. Her trembling hands refuse to accept the money and she faints and falls on the ground. Her elder son and his wife lift her and place her on a bed.

From Charthawal we went to the nearby village of Kukra where Imrana now lives in her ancestral home with her husband. At first we are told Imrana is not there, they do not speak to the media, why you have come... After some persuasion we find that Imrana is there inside the house. Then her husband plays truant. Soon he, too, is produced and sits in the veranda of the tiny house while Imrana sits inside a room with doors open. The leader of our delegation, Maulana Aqeel Al-Gharwi, offers her a general counsel on virtues of family life, forgiveness and solving problems in private... Without being asked Imrana bursts: “I have been wronged” (ziyadti hui hai). Maulana said I did not ask you about that, I am only talking in general terms and have come with the intention of helping the family come out of this ordeal. Now he asks Noor Ilahi, Imrana’s husband, who is squatting on the ground of the veranda: Your mother says nothing happened, do you believe her. He replies: Yes, I believe her. Maulana asks him again: Do you think your father can do such a thing? Noor Ilahi says: No, he cannot do such a thing. He says this in the presence of over a dozen people including two brothers of Imrana, one of them is visibly angry. Imrana denied that she had asked for any fatwa and said I will abide by Shariat.

Imrana on the morning of 3 June when this 28-year-old illiterate Muslim woman, who is mother of five children, had claimed that her father-in-law (Ali Mohammad) had “raped” her at night. Imrana alleged that he fled when she screamed.

Our enquiries show that no one in the tiny house or her immediate neighbours heard any “scream” at night. This is strange as early June is summer time when all people living in the tiny inter-connected houses sleep on the terrace or in open courtyards inside their homes.

What adds an important dimension to the case is that this allegation was made in the midst of an on-going dispute in the family about selling the ancestral property. The father-in-law wanted to sell the house while the son, Noor Ilahi and his wife Imrana, opposed the move so much so that three days before the alleged crime Ali Mohammad had attempted suicied by consuming poison.

 

Ali Mohammad has all along denied the rape claim and the issue was dismissed within the family. But some neighbours got wind of the claim and soon it reached a small-time local journalist of the Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagaran. He approached the family demanding ten thousand rupees — a price to keep silent. The poor debt-ridden family pleaded that it did not have this kind of money. The journalist now went ahead and published the story in his newspaper. Zee TV picked it from Dainik Jagaran and thereafter all the channels, newspapers, agencies, NGOs and government organisations descended on the small village of Charthawal whose inhabitants would tremble even at the sight of a single baton-wielding policeman. These vultures started interviewing just about anyone they found on the village streets, knocking at houses even after midnight, reporting edited versions which showed that a great crime had been committed against a hapless Muslim woman even before the crime was established.

As in many rural areas in the Subcontinent, a local elders council (panchayat) was called in the village on 15 June to deliberate over the issue. A local maulavi told the panchayat that after the incident the woman was haram (forbidden) for her husband as she is like his “mother” now and that she should marry the rapist! The panchayat was described by the media as a “Shariat Panchayat” as if a meeting of Islamic scholars had taken the decision, which is not true. Naturally the woman refused this grand gesture and moved out to live with her brothers in a nearby village. Noor Ilahi, a rickshaw puller, could not stand the attention and fled from the scene.

Imrana's father-in-law being arrested by the police
Imrana's father-in-law being arrested by the police

Next day, 16 June, the 59-year-old father-in-law was arrested by the police on rape charges and sent on judicial remand for 14 days. Later the police filed a charge-sheet on the basis of the statement of Imrana. His lawyer argued in the court that such a crime cannot take place in a small house in the presence of five children, mother-in-law and other members of the family. He added that it is a fictitious case made out due to family dispute.

While all this was going on, the woman or her husband had not complained to the police. It was only two weeks after the alleged rape that the woman made a complaint to the police and an FIR (first information report) was registered. She appeared before a civil court in Muzzafarnagar on 20 June to make her statement.

Now was the time for political meddlers to exploit a situation for their benefit as usual. A Delhi-based secularist women outfit called “Muslim Womens Forum” sent two representatives on 20 June to meet Imrana. They bribed her with five thousand rupees and asked her to say to the media and police that she will not accept the ruling of Shariat and will only go for the civil court’s judgment to safeguard her rights.

At about the same time a Noida-based Urdu newspaper, Rashtriya Sahara, asked the Mufti in India’s premier Muslim seminary, Darul Uloom Deoband, to give his opinion. The mufti (Maulana Habibur Rahman), without ascertaining the facts of the case or going to the area or sending someone there to find out the truth, issued a fatwa on 16 Jumada al-Oula 1426 Hijri (25 June) saying that Imrana is now haram (forbidden) for her husband and should leave him.

We obtained a copy of this fatwa and asked Mufti Habibur Rahman certain questions. He was unable to counter our argument that the Quranic injunction (“And marry not women whom your fathers married…” - 4:22) does not apply here. He gave us some references to support his view but when we read them, they did not seem to support the Mufti’s interpretation which is the opinion of some Hanafi fuqaha who consider illegitimate sexual contact including rape also as a cause for prohibiting such marriages.

We confronted the Mufti again. This time he referred us to another Maulana who, he said, was present in the meeting when the decision was taken. We told him, why should we go to someone else when he (Mufti Habibur Rahman) had signed the fatwa. Seemingly he was not pleased with our argument and asked us to write down whatever “problems” we had in mind. We did this promptly. He replied on 3 July repeating the same Hanafi stand which is based on interpretation instead of a clear textual support from the Qur’an or Hadith.

Discussions with top ulama of Deoband revealed that they are not ready to re-assess their position even by an inch. Maulana Usman, vice principal of the Darul Uloom Deoband, said, “we do not issue fatwas, we are only copiers of [old] fatwas”. He brushed aside the possibility of Ijtihad saying that conditions today are worse than those found when the doors of Ijtihad were closed.

Other schools of thought like Shafi’is, Malikis, Ja’fari Shia and Ahl-e Hadith reject this interpretation as they hold that only legitimate marriage is meant in the Qur’anic injunction and a crime does not change the rule. In their view, the prohibition relates only to legitimate relationships and not to rape which is a crime for which the criminal should be punished. In case of India, the criminal and civil laws of the land apply to all citizens and Muslims follow Islam only in respect of personal laws. Hence what happened in Muzaffarnagar is a case where Indian criminal law applies and it should take its course.

The fatwa was wrong for three reasons: it assumed a case of rape where no rape had taken place; it interpreted a Qur’anic text (4:22) in a wrong way; and it intervened in an issue of criminal law which is beyond the purview of the Muslim personal laws applicable to Indian citizens. The Quran says that the wives (or ex-wives) of fathers are haram for their sons. The case at hand is not of wives or ex-wives; it is a criminal case of rape which does not make the raped woman wife of her rapist.

Just one day after our interaction on 29 June, the Mufti’s office announced on 1 July that the previous fatwa was not about Imrana, which is factually incorrect. While the name “Imrana” is not mentioned in the question to which the fatwa was given, her village and district are mentioned. Moreover, the 3 July issue of Rashtriya Sahara Urdu newspaper carries an article by Mufti Habibur Rahman which explicitly mentions the name of Imrana and pronounces the same opinion he earlier expressed in his fatwa.

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board too has now distanced itself from that fatwa and will now meet soon to reconsider the issue.

Political parties were quick to take advantage of the issue in order to indulge in their usual pastime of attacking the Muslim personal laws and repeat their age-old demand to force a “Uniform Civil Code” (UCC) applicable to all citizens. True, UCC is a “guiding principle” laid down in the Indian Constitution’s Article 44 but at the same time personal laws of various communities including Hindus are respected and the stated policy of the government ever since Independence has been that the personal laws will not be changed unless the demand is made by the concerned community itself.

Thus we saw various communist, socialist and rightist parties repeat their demand to enact UCC. The most vociferous voice was that of the beleaguered Hindutva leader LK Advani who faces a terrible backlash these days from his own forces for saying while in Karachi that Jinnah was a “secular” person. Advani thundered on 1 July that “Muslim laws must change”. He called for “an immediate change in Muslim personal laws.” Just like Shah Bano, Imrana issue had given a strong stick for the BJP to beat “pseudo-secularists”. “No civil society can accept the treatment being meted out to Imrana, the victim of a heinous crime, by clerics. The ulemas must reconsider their decision to ensure that dignity is restored to Imrana,” said Advani. In good measure, he announced to a cheering crowd, “Just as a Muslim is proud of Islam, I am proud of being a Hindu.”

Earlier on 28 June, BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley had said in a specially convened press conference that “The entire nation is concerned over recent developments in relation to the case of Imrana, a helpless victim of rape allegedly committed by her father-in-law.” Jaitley demanded the implementation of UCC, saying that Imarana’s case shows that “obnoxious religious practices [are] still prevalent…This is wholly unacceptable under any civilised notion of the rule of law.”

President of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council-VHP) Ashok Singhal said that “the time has come to quash the Muslim Personal Law.”

Not-to-be-left-behind Marxists too joined the fray. CPIM’s Brinda Karat on 27 June said that it’s a “shocking example of how contractors of religion can bulldoze the constitutional rights of a citizen.”

Congress Party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi announced on the same day that “Fatwas are irrelevant.” Replying to a question, Singhvi said if there is a crime involving a person of any religion, caste or creed, then it is dealt under the criminal law and fatwas or personal laws become irrelevant.

Later on 3 July a delegation of the All India Womens Congress offered fifty thousand rupees to Imrana "as the first installment". Delegation leader Rita Bahuguna-Joshi demanded UP government to give her 0.5 million rupees.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh on 29 June supported the fatwa in the Imrana case, saying “The decision of the Muslim religious leaders in the Imrana case must have been taken after a lot of thought…The religious leaders are all very learned and they understand the Muslim community and its sentiments.”

An apparently Hindutvite poet used the occasion to send a message to Imrana and through her to the ungrateful Indian Muslims. The concluding lines in a poem titled “Thank Allah, Imrana Bibi” said:

Poor Imrana Bibi,
Mother of five kids,
My heart goes to you.

Were you living somewhere
Where Mullahs rule the lands
You’d have met Allah by now.

Thank Allah, you live in India
The rapist will rot in the prison
By the laws of the land.

(http://www.sulekha.com/weblogs/weblogdesc.asp?cid=31092)

 

A delegation of the National Commission for Women visited the victim on 30 June. It demanded a speedy trial and appealed against politicisation of the incident. Commission chairperson Girija Vyas, a Congress leader, said that “the issue should not be politicised but treated on humanitarian grounds.” She enlightened us that the “Constitution is supreme.”

While all this was going on, Muslim organisations failed to take notice for over ten days. The first organisation to send a fact-finding mission to the town of Charthawal, barely 130 kilometers from Delhi, was the Delhi-based Muslim Political Council of India (MPC), on 23 June. This delegation videographed the whole interaction including an extensive interview with Imrana. Two days later the MPC issued the first statement by a Muslim organisation on the issue.

A Muslim Personal Law Board delegation led by Dr Qasim Rasool Ilyas visited Charthawal on 30 June. Jamaat-e Islami Hind sent a delegation led by its Secretary Maulana Nusrat Ali on 2 July. Thereafter the Milli Council too sent a delegation led by Maulana Gulzar Mazahiri. Majlis-e Fikr-o Amal sent a delegation led by Maulana Aqeel Al-Gharvi on 5 July. All these delegations came back with the impression that no rape had taken place and that it was a case of property dispute. Their statements were rarely published by the mainstream media which had its own agenda to vilify the Muslim community and prepare the public opinion for a uniform civil code and for this a wronged and defenceless woman suited more than a helpless old man in the twilight of his life.

As the media continued to parrot its preferred line, MPC president Dr Tasleem Rahmani called a press conference in Delhi in which he showed a 3-hour video in which Imrana was shown as saying that no rape had taken place, that she was given five thousand rupees by a womens organisation.

Dr Rehmani said that the case was blown out of proportion to malign the Muslims and the Shariat. He announced that he planned to file a complaint in the Press Council of India against “irresponsible” reporting. Again, most newspapers and channels chose not to carry Dr Rehmani’s statement.

It is a fact of life in India today that all possible liberties are taken where Muslims are concerned. The media does not take the same freedom when it comes to other communities. This media was repeating ad nauseum that the AIMPLB was supporting the Deoband fatwa when only a certain member of the board, a laywoman, had done that. UP minister Azam Khan said on 1 July that in the guise of Imrana issue, the media is targetting Islam. “There is an attempt behind this conspiracy to malign Islam and Muslims,” he added.

On 1 July the AIMPLB distanced itself from the Deoband fatwa and said that a meeting of its working committee will be called to deliberate on the issue. Next day Syed Shahabuddin, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat (AIMMM), came out strongly against Advani’s outpourings. He said that the AIMMM condemns the political exploitation of the Imrana case by the BJP to promote its long-cherished agenda of religious assimilation of the Muslim community through imposition of a common civil code in substitution of its Shariat-based Personal Law. (for full text see: http://www.milligazette.com/IndMusStat/2005a/053-mmm-02jul05.htm ).

Some leading Muslim intellectuals have spoken against the fatwa. Islamic law expert Prof Tahir Mahmood appealed to the AIMPLB not to enforce the fatwa on an innocent and unwilling couple desirous of continuing their marriage. He said that Imrana’s fate cannot be decided by ‘ancient juristic wisdom’ laid down ‘by some religious jurists of Arabia over a thousand years ago’. That rule, he added, may have been a pro-women provision for its times in a society where remarriage for divorced women was easy, but in India today, he said, the rule ‘need not be strictly imposed on an innocent and unwilling couple desirous of continuing in marriage’.

AM Ahmadi, former chief justice of India, said that a forced rape cannot annul a woman’s marriage. A Muslim marriage is a contract but it is not too weak to be broken up so easily.

Maulana Akhlaque Husain Qasmi, a leading cleric, said that though this is the opinion of the Hanafi fiqh, doors of ijtihad are open to reconsider it. The same opinion was expressed by Mufti Muhammad Arshad. Chairman of the Islamic Council of India, Qari Muhammad Miyan Mazhari, termed the fatwa as “unjust” while Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, the well-known Islamic scholar, said that no fatwa was needed as this was a clear case of criminal law to be tackled by civil courts.

Muftis of the Barelvi sect, after a meeting in Muradabad on 1 July, said that since Imrana’s husband has not accepted the occurrence of rape and still believes in the chastity of his wife, he can continue living with her. Jamiat-e Ahl-e Hadith (Salafis of the Subcontinent) said that rape does not annul a marriage. Shia ulama too took a similar stand.

The storm over Imrana will die down as time passes but forces which are ever-ready to use any handle to beat Muslims with will soon find some other issue and blow it out of proportion unless leaders of the Muslim community are ready to meet the challenges and adapt to the demands of the modern times and requirements of natural justice. «

Read Also:

:: Imrana on video - no rape

- Muslim Political Council's report on the Imrana episode

- Text of the Question and fatwa on Imrana

- Statements on Imrana case

- "Deoband Fatwa"

 

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