NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India must investigate allegations of sexual assault and gang rape committed during last month's deadly communal riots which forced tens of thousands of people to flee and seek shelter in relief camps, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged on Monday.
More than 50 people died and 41,000 were displaced when clashes between Hindus and Muslims erupted in the prosperous sugarcane district of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh in early September.
At least five cases of gang rape and two of sexual harassment were filed with the police in the aftermath of the violence. But activists say it is likely there are other victims who have not spoken out, fearing stigma and reprisals.
"The Uttar Pradesh government needs to urgently create an environment for victims to come forward and seek justice," said HRW's South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly in a statement.
"Rape victims in communal violence take time to find the confidence to come forward, leaving them without crucial psychological, medical, and other support."
The rights group said victims needed access to services such as trauma counselling, legal aid, emergency medical care, and reproductive health services.
According to government officials, the violence was triggered on August 27 when a Muslim youth was stabbed to death by two Hindu youths after being accused of sexually harassing their sister. A Muslim mob then stoned the two Hindus to death.
In the days that ensued, police failure to deal with the perpetrators and a series of inflammatory speeches made by politician from various parties stoked tensions between Hindus and Muslims who have previously lived in this area in relative harmony since India's independence in 1947.
In one police complaint, a woman described how she tried to escape an attack on her home by a mob of men, but five of them caught her and raped her, said HRW, adding that it took the victim three weeks to speak out due to fear.
"Uttar Pradesh state authorities have set up a special investigation team to look into crimes," Ganguly said.
"But nearly a month after the announcement very little is known about the team, its approach to addressing sexual violence in a gender-sensitive manner, or the resources at its disposal to ensure victim and witness protection."