The local community has dismissed all reports of sexual violence and rape, but the atmosphere in Murthal is shrouded in mystery.
Murthal, Haryana: On February 24, The Tribune reported that several women had been assaulted and raped near Murthal, about 50 km from Delhi, during the violence that broke out as the agitation for Jat reservation intensified and inched closer to Delhi. Two weeks since the alleged incidents, however, villagers in the area maintain a terse silence on the issue. When we visited the area on March 9, it almost seemed like nothing had happened there.
However, taking cognisance of The Tribune report, the High Court of Punjab and Haryana has ordered an investigation on the alleged rapes and has appointed advocate Anupam Gupta as amicus curiae on the case. The next hearing is scheduled for March 14.
The Tribune report quoted an eyewitness as saying a few the women were reunited with their families at Sukhdev Dhaba after the alleged rapes. The owner of the dhaba, Amrik Singh, was quoted as saying that he learnt of these incidents around 3 am on February 23, when women were heard wailing. However, Singh appears to have withdrawn his statement, with some reports claiming he has said there were no incidents of rape in the area.
Singh was unavailable for comment when The Wire tried to contact him. However, The manager of the dhaba, who did not want to be named, claimed the reports of assault around Murthal were part of a political conspiracy against the BJP. “I am not from the BJP, but these rumours of rape are being spread just to defame them. Gundas (goons) from other parties were sent here, they were the ones rioting, burning cars and harassing travellers who refused to get out of their cars,” he said.
When specifically asked about the reported rapes, he said that it was illogical that families would have tried to leave in the middle of the night as the roads had been blocked all day and people took shelter wherever possible. “The bras and other articles of clothing may have been planted,” he said, about the clothes that were allegedly found along the highway where the assaults were said to have occurred.
Many villagers are furious with the extent of news coverage the alleged incidents have garnered. “Some truck drivers just wanted to come on TV, that’s why they said all of those things. They were forced to tell the truth in front of the police and withdraw their statements to the media. They are maligning the community and their demands,” said a shopkeeper near Sukhdev Dhaba, who did not want his name disclosed. Two truck drivers had previously come forward to say they had seen women being dragged into farms and raped. However, they did not confirm their statement when questioned by the police.
Single complaint of rape
When we visited the local police station at Murthal, we were told no questions could be answered as the case was under the deputy superintendent of police, but did say that no complaints of rape or sexual harassment had been made.
In a telephonic conversation with The Wire, Sonepat DSP Satish Sharma said the only complaints of sexual harassment received were the ones made by the truck drivers. Although 14 complaints of arson and murder threats were received, none of those mentioned anything about women being sexually harassed, Sharma said, adding that the police too did not find any evidence of rape and assault in their investigations so far. The police has sent for forensic analysis the articles of clothing found along the highway and is awaiting this report, he said.
However, a Narela-based woman has filed an FIR against seven persons, including two of her brothers-in-law, alleging that they gangraped her in Murthal on the night of February 22. However, with reports claiming the woman has filed rape complaints twice before, one of which was proven false by the police, her allegations have met with derision.
“She already has some family property dispute,” said the shopkeeper outside Sukhdev Dhaba. “Nobody from this area has complained, and she has filed false cases before. The Jat community is being defamed by these people. Even her local panchayat had a meeting about her actions and condemned them. Now she is not coming out of her house, she is too scared,” he added.
Veil of silence
Many of the villagers we met claimed they were “not in the area” or “in Delhi” during the agitations and therefore could not say anything about what happened during that time. Female villagers living close to the police station said that though there was chaos in the region, they had not heard of any attacks on women.
In Larsoli village, many women were stopped from talking to us by male family members. The village sarpanch too dismissed the allegations of rape, saying, “Nothing of that sort (rapes) happened here, definitely not in our village, and probably not anywhere in the region. There were roadblocks and some destruction of property. But none of these things about women being assaulted is true. It is all part of a political campaign from those who oppose the agitation and want to delegitimise it.”
The demeanour of the villagers would suggest that nothing extraordinary had taken place in the area, with everyone quick to say that everything was now peaceful. However, there appears to be more than what meets the eye.
Women’s organisations and civil society members are not satisfied with the way the investigation have been handled and have demanded a “free and fair” probe into the allegations of sexual violence.
Rajkumari Dahiya, from the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) who visited the site the day after the reported incidents, said, “When we first went, everyone seemed agreed that something of this sort (the rapes) had happened even though people were not willing to speak out openly. But now the mood has changed. Nobody is willing to say anything. Everyone is scared that members of their families will be picked up by the police and implicated in the incident if they speak out.”
“The rapes and cover up in Murthal are yet another instance of sexual violence condoned and tacitly encouraged by a BJP government. It’s a shame that (Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal) Khattar who tells schoolgirls to avoid skirts to be protected from rape, is covering up a mass rape on his watch,” added Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association.
“The role of state machinery is not trustworthy regarding the investigation. As they have been trying to hide the facts since initial stage. But those who have visited Murthal and around including the fact finding team of AIDWA feel that circumstantial evidences also support the media reports. A free and fair investigation is absolutely necessary of the incidents,” says a release from AIDWA.
The local community vehemently dismisses all media reports of sexual violence and rape, and although the facts are yet to be ascertained, the atmosphere in Murthal remains shrouded in mystery.