Bad to worse: alleged #MurthalRapes put Haryana govt in a bind
The brewing storm over the alleged gang rape of several women in Murthal on 22 February, at the peak of the Jat agitation, has left the BJP government in Haryana reeling.
After being in denial for four days, it has now set up a three-member panel "to gather information on the alleged instance of sexual assaults". It will be led by Deputy Inspector General of Police Rajshree Singh.
On the morning of 22 February, several women passengers were allegedly pulled out of vehicles plying on the Grand Trunk Road by a group of about 30 people, taken to the fields adjoining the highway and gang raped.
The incident took place along the stretch of the highway between Murthal in Hassanpur and Kurad. In fact, the residents of Hassanpur and Kurad are said to have provided clothes and blankets to the survivors.
It's alleged that the women were advised by state officials not to report the incident in order "to protect their honour".
However, after the alleged incident was reported by The Tribune, the Punjab and Haryana High Court took suo motu cognizance of the matter and directed the state to conduct a probe.
The government initially denied the assaults had taken place. But compelled by growing public pressure, the Sonepat police expedited the investigations.
A team led by the SP Abhishek Garal found some of the survivor's clothes in the fields that have since been sent for forensic tests.
Why are locals pointing out that 'arsonists' who burnt vehicles near Murthal during the stir were outsiders?
"We are definitely going to investigate the matter. A special help desk has also been set up. The victims must come forward with details," Garal told Catch.
The police's findings came after a team from the National Commission for Women had been "unable" to substantiate the allegations of rape. So far, no victim has come forward to file a complaint.
In the area where the alleged crimes took place, the people have conflicting stories to offer.
While most of them say they are unaware of any such incident as the Jat stir had forced them to shutter their shops and stay indoors, a few people who run small kiosks on the highway insist the assaults did take place without offering any more details. Some of the residents would rather not say anything "for the sake of their own safety".
Quite a few residents, meanwhile, ventured to claim that the "arsonists" who burnt vehicles in the area during the agitation had come from outside.
The allegation: Group of 30 men pulled women out of vehicles on the Grand Trunk Road, gang raped them
"While most of the people are scared and deny the happenings, there were two people who gave a different picture," a member of the team sent by the Haryana Jan Sangharsh Manch, a socio-political organisation, to the area on Friday told Catch.
"One of them said he would neither deny nor confirm what had happened, while the other said the people who had assaulted the women were worse than animals and that the magnitude of the crime was quite big."
Asked about the clothes found by the police and the scepticism expressed by some people that they could be of migrant labourers who work as ironsmiths in the area, the JSM member said, "The women of ironsmiths don't wear the clothes that have been recovered from the fields. These are clothes worn by women who are better off economically."
According to the DGP Yash Pal Singhal, the other two members of DIG Rajshree's probe team are also women - DSPs Bharti Dbas and Surinder Kaur.
"These women officers will be available in Sonepat till further orders and anyone can provide information concerning the incident to them, in the form of audio, video clips, or photographs, or in any other form, round the clock," Singhal said, assuring that the identity of the informers would be protected.
The DGP revealed that initially two senior officials - a principal secretary and an IGP - had visited the alleged crime scene and nearby areas, but they had found no evidence of an assault. Now, the three-member committee has been constituted to "widen the scope of the investigation".
Additional Chief Secretary PK Das, too, appealed the people to provide information about the alleged incident "without fear". He denied that the local police were trying to "keep a lid" on the matter.
If the gang rapes are confirmed, it could have far-reaching ramifications for the state's political and administrative machinery. The people around Murthal are already blaming politicians for the violence during the Jat agitation that has hurt them economically.
But things are unlikely to become clear until a survivors or a witness comes forward to depose. Till then, the Manohar Lal Khattar government will have to take the blame for failing to prevent, and acknowledge, what's already being called "Haryana's shame".
More in Catch - #JatQuotaStir: how Haryana CM Khattar dug himself into a hole