The Mystery of Murthal: From Mass Rape to No Rape
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The Mystery of Murthal: From Mass Rape to No Rape

After 18 months, the SIT says it found no proof of rapes being committed in Murthal. Is ‘Murthal kaand’ one big misunderstanding or is this a cover-up to salvage Jat pride and Haryana’s reputation?

By Manisha Pande

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“Their vehicles set afire, most ran for shelter. Some women could not flee. They were pulled out, stripped and raped. Terrified, they lay still in the fields till they were found by their menfolk who came looking for them. Shocked, residents of Hassanpur and Kurad rushed to bring clothes and blankets for the victims.”

“These daughter-fuckers [from the media] don’t know anything other than sensationalism. They don’t want a dog to bite a man, they want a man to bite a dog so that they can sell their stories. The case was just an attempt to peddle sensational news. There was arson, but the media took it to another level.”

These are two accounts of an incident that has come to be known as “Murthal Kaand”. One is from a newspaper report by The Tribune, established in 1888 and among the leading English dailies in Punjab today. The other is what a local from Khurad in Sonipat district told Newslaundry when asked about the allegation that in February 2016, women had been raped by rampaging Jat protestors on the highway near Murthal.

On December 7, 2017, the special investigation team (SIT) that was tasked with investigating what happened in Murthal told the Punjab and Haryana High Court that it could “neither find any victim nor accused in the case.” During the course of its 18-month long investigation, reportedly 500 witnesses were examined, but the SIT found nothing.

Yet despite all the evidence to the contrary, there are some who remain convinced that on the intervening night of February 21 and 22, 2016, when Haryana was burning, at least nine women were raped on the Murthal highway.

Who’s telling the truth? Are the villagers right? Did the media jump to conclusions? Is the SIT justified in stating there’s nothing to investigate? Are those claiming Murthal was the site of sexual violence suffering from delusions? Or could it be that Jat pride, state pressure, gender inequality and police apathy came together to construct a perfect, watertight cover-up?

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Carved out of the former state of East Punjab, Haryana is a state of uneasy contrasts. Its capital is the pristine, modernist Chandigarh. One of India’s shiniest financial hubs is Gurugram, also in Haryana and home to the headquarters of some major Fortune 500 companies. According to data made available by the Central Statistical Organisation, Haryana has the third highest per capita income in India and its average is higher than the national average.

Parallel to this gloss lie the regressive attitudes that dominate Haryanvi society and the economic inequalities that have hit the state hard. Khaps, or caste councils, remain influential despite their ridiculous pronouncements, like blaming the consumption of chowmein for rapes . Haryana is one of the worst-performing states in terms of sex ratio, which according to Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar touched the 950 mark for the first time in April this year. (Media reports, however, stated that the so-called improvement in the sex ratio may be from the Khattar government fudging data .) Slowdowns in the agricultural sector and fewer jobs are a persistent problem and in 2016, they added fuel to the flame of Jat agitations. Although a socially dominant group — seven out of 10 chief ministers of Haryana have been Jat — Jats demanded they be counted as an Other Backward Caste (OBC) in order to avail benefits of reservation.

This is not a new demand. Since late 1990s, protests have sprung up repeatedly. In 2016, however, things turned ugly. On February 18, outside the district court in Rohtak, a group of traders clashed with a group of lawyers and nearly 30 lives were lost in this episode. From this point, it became a jat versus non-jat clash and the violence spiralled out of control, paralysing Haryana for days. The state issued shoot at sight orders and Section 144 was imposed, but these measures had barely any impact.

Speaking of the marauding mob in Rohtak -- the epicentre of violence -- cricketer Nitin Saini who plays for the state said : “I saw death right at my doorstep during Jat reservation agitation”. Speaking to Scroll.in, an eyewitness described the violence as worse than what she had witnessed during Partition riots.

The state suffered a loss of Rs 20,000 crore owing to burning and destroying of public and private property during the violence.

It was during that period of lawless chaos that the horror stories about what happened in Murthal surfaced. Allegedly, nine women were dragged out to the fields lining the highway. Then, by the light of cars that had been set on fire, the women were raped.

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The latest data on crimes against women puts Haryana on the sixth spot, with reported 9,839 cases and a crime rate of 77.8 per cent in 2016. Of the total 1,187 cases of rape reported in the state, 518 survivors were minor. The state also records the highest number of gang rapes reported (191) after Uttar Pradesh (682), Rajasthan (366) and Madhya Pradesh (226). The figure has increased from a reported 104 gang rape cases in 2015.

If the numbers present a dismal story, the words and action of some of Haryana’s men in public life offer little succour. The current chief minister, a former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak, had effectively put the onus of rape on women in the run-up to 2014 state elections. “If a girl is dressed decently, a boy will not look at her in the wrong way," he said on the question of women’s safety.

His government’s thoughts on women’s emancipation are perhaps best captured in an advertisement that came out this year in Krishi Samvad, a magazine aimed at educating farmers on best agrarian practices. The magazine’s back page presented a picture of a woman covered in a veil, carrying fodder on her head, with the caption : “Ghoonghat ki aan-baan, maahre Haryana ki pehchaan [the honour of the veil encompasses the identity of Haryana].”

Under these circumstances, how likely is it that while Haryana burnt during the Jat agitation in February 2016, the women — traditionally viewed as a man’s property and considered vulnerable — would not have been targeted by the marauding protestors? Historically, women have suffered the brunt of community clashes and been victims of sexualised violence. For instance, during the Partition, tens of thousands of women were systematically raped to send a message to their communities and collecting these testimonies remains a challenge because of persisting associations of losing ‘honour’ when one is raped or sexually assaulted. With protestors burning down shops and setting cars aflame, what seems more credible — that the men would have attacked the defenceless women on the highway or that they would have politely left them alone while on a rampage? In a state whose chief minister is known for victim-shaming, does it follow that survivors of sexual assault would come forward and lodge complaints? Does it seem likely that they would trust either the police or any state authority?

If women were spared when the protests turned destructive in 2016, it would mean that the Jat agitation broke centuries-old patterns of violent behaviour and misogyny. However, if the protestors weren’t pathbreakers and the initial reports that emerged are true, then Murthal is where the truth about at least nine rapes and many more stories of molestation are buried.

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The National Highway 1 is one of the oldest in India, connecting the Himalayan north to the plains. The historical Grand Trunk Road is part of it and today, the busy stretch through Haryana and Punjab is lined with multi-storied eateries and dhabas. At least one lakh units of vehicles use the Murthal stretch. The dhabas are frequented by travellers, students from colleges in Sonipat and even Delhi.

Between February 18 and 22, the highway near Murthal was among the several districts in Haryana that witnessed bandhs and jams. On February 20, young men defying Section 144 reached Jhajjar, about two hours away from Murthal. They burnt shops and singled out establishments run by the Punjabi and Saini community (they’re categorised as OBCs in Haryana). Eye-witnesses told Newslaundry that during the night of February 21, the highway near Murthal was taken over by hordes of armed men on bikes. They carried weapons, like swords. Despite the presence of police, the mobs successfully stopped vehicles on the road and set them on fire, causing panic and forcing passengers to run for their lives. The protestors burnt down shops and dhabas on the highway. One of the landmarks in the area, a water park called Jurassic Park, was completely gutted. Villagers and passengers who were present that night say the highway was lit by vehicles on fire.

Divy Jain was travelling from Karnal to Faridabad in his Ford Fiesta, with his wife and his son. Their car was set ablaze. “It was a new car, I had new laptop in the car that also got burnt.” Jain says the torching happened in front of the police and paramilitary forces. “Police waale khade the, paramilitary forces bhi thi...woh bhi kuch nahin kar rahe the. Jaise torching shuru hui, woh wahan se chale gaye [The police was present and so were the paramilitary forces...they left the spot when the torching began.]”

Commuters found refuge in villages like Hassanpur and Khurad. Locals proudly detailed how they organised bhandaaras and shelter for the stranded travellers and truck drivers. No one denies the terrifying chaos of those nights. It’s the charges of mass rape that raise hackles.

An old gentleman in Khurad told me “Murthal kaand” — the allegations of mass rapes — are a figment of the media’s imagination. “Yeh khabar chatpati banane ke liye baat udaa di. Bas aag-jaani hui thi, aur media ne kya ka kya bana diya [The case was just an attempt to peddle sensational news. There was arson but the media took it to another level],” he said. He was sitting with a group of men. One of his companions told me I should be glad I am a woman, and it is only out of their “respect” for my gender that they haven’t chased me out of the village for asking about February 22.

This sentiment surfaced repeatedly in my conversations with men and women alike in Khurad and Hassanpur villages in the Sonipat district. The two have a majority Jat population of the Antil gotra, or subcaste, and are among the 24 villages in the district that are dominated by the community. Murthal’s proximity to Delhi — it’s barely 50kms away — meant that the press appeared as soon as a semblance of order was restored in the area on February 23. Since then, both villages have played host to a bevy of newspersons, cops and fact-finding teams. Many of them feel that the media spotlight has cast the villages and its inhabitants in bad light.

The Sarpanch, or village head, of Hassanpur said, “Yahan kuch nahin hua tha, yahan aag-jaani hui thi raat ko. Media waale subah aaye, do chaar gaoon waalon se mile...unhone bakwaas kardi ki ‘ladies ko bhaagte dekha…aur media ne do ka chaar masala bana diya...us ke karan lafdaa hua. [Nothing happened here except arson at night. When the media came the next morning, some villagers spoke rubbish that they saw women running and so on. The media added spice to this and that’s how the whole thing started].”

A man sitting next to him who did not identify himself said, “Murthal gaon poore world main famous ho gaya. Koi yahan pe aisa kaam nahin hua. Yahan pe Mamta Singh [SIT chief] ne enquiry kaari, Parkash Singh ne enquiry kari…yeh sab nothing hai. [Murthal has become world famous even though no such crime was committed. There has been an SIT enquiry, Prakash Singh Committee report...no one found anything].”

Yet when the media first arrived, there had been eye-witnesses who had gone on record to say women had been violated, paraded naked and given shelter by locals after they’d managed to flee their attackers.

The Tribune broke the story of alleged mass rapes on February 24, 2016, two days after they allegedly took place in Murthal. It’s front-page article claimed women were raped by “highway goons” in the twilight hours of February 22. Even after all the statements to the contrary, the newspaper stands by its report. “My team was all across Haryana,” said The Tribune’s Chief of Bureau Naveen S Garewal. “Murthal was particularly on our radar since some people stranded on the National Highway during that period had sought help and requested protection. So, I was personally in constant touch with many officials and locals and monitored the situation on real time basis.”

The testimonies that The Tribune had gathered suggested many women were stranded during the day as a result of the violent protests and because they were alone, assailants identified them as potential prey for the rapes that allegedly took place at night. One eyewitness described the rapes as pre-meditated.

Bobby Joshi, a small businessman who lives in New Delhi’s Mayur Vihar, was returning from Ludhiana on February 21, along with a friend and his driver. He remembers seeing men attacking women and pulling them out of cars. He said he had saved three women that night. “The three women were going to Delhi in a rented car from Ludhiana,” he told Newslaundry. “They were being dragged to the fields. There was a truck nearby that was burnt. I pulled a rod out of it and chased them away. The women’s clothes were torn but they were saved.”

According to Garewal, The Tribune’s reporters spoke to hundreds of people before and after the incident, first covering the ongoing reservation agitation and then specifically investigating the Murthal rapes. This included employees in the area, students, volunteers, owners of businesses and many others. He isn’t comfortable revealing his sources for obvious reasons.

The Tribune’s coverage had an immediate impact. The Punjab and Haryana High Court took suo moto cognisance of the report by noon of February 24. The reaction initially seemed heartwarming at a time when journalism is struggling to remain relevant and make an impact without losing the badge of being uncompromised.

However, at the same time, wheels seemed to be set in motion to deny the episode. By the evening of the same day, the state and Sonipat police were dismissing the allegation of mass gang rapes in Murthal as “rumour”. No First Information Report (FIR) was filed.

The Haryana government sent a three-member special investigation team (SIT) headed by Deputy Inspector General of Police, Dr Rajshree Singh and Deputy Superintendents of Police Bharti Dabas and Surinder Kaur to probe further. They visited Murthal on February 27 and filed their report, denying the rape charges, on February 29. Despite the state’s prompt response on paper, it’s worth noting that there was still no FIR.

On March 30, Joshi filed a complaint on the basis of which a FIR was finally filed under Sections 148, 149 (rioting); Section 324 (voluntarily causing hurt); Section 341 (wrongful confinement); Section 354 (molestation); Section 365 (kidnapping); and Section 395 (dacoity) against unknown persons. Shortly after this, Joshi said that he received threat calls for “speaking too much” against jats. Later, he said he was attacked by two unidentified men in Karnal.

There are other allegations of intimidation. A face that flashed prominently on television in the initial reports about Murthal was that of Amrik Singh, owner of the Amrik Sukhdev Dhaba. Singh was quoted in The Tribune, stating women had been sexually assaulted. Garewal said Singh had confirmed to The Tribune that rapes had taken place and that he had got clothes from his own home to cover up the abused women who had been stripped of their clothes.

Singh would quickly backtrack. On ABP TV, Singh said the media reports of rapes on the highway were factually incorrect. He said he’d neither met any woman claiming to have been sexually assaulted nor did he speak of such an incident with anyone in the media.

However, this is not what two journalists from a prominent Hindi news channel remember. (They do not wish to be identified.) During the Jat agitation, they were stationed in Sonipat and landed at Amrik Sukhdev Dhaba at around 11 pm, on February 22. “We saw a crowd, his workers, with weapons outside the dhaba. When we started to question them, they got agitated. When we told them we were from the media, they calmed down,” remembered one of the journalists. The two of them remember talking to Amrik Singh. “Usne humain bataya tha ki ladies ke saath sadko main battamezzi hui hai, aur bahut buri tarah se hui hai (He told us that women were being badly harassed).” According to the duo, Amrik Singh told them that women were being raped and paraded naked. “Usne humain bataya, ‘Sir, ladikyon ki izzat looti gayi hai, nanga kar ke ladkiyon ko daudya gaya hai’,” said one journalist. “Usne yeh bhi bataya ki maine khud ek ladki ko apne hotel se bedsheet di aur CRPF ke hawale kiya [He also said that he himself had given a girl a bedsheet from his hotel and handed her over to the CRPF].”

There is no way to corroborate this because the two could not take out their cameras and record Singh. Encircled by an agitated crowd, the journalist didn’t feel comfortable setting up their cameras. “We needed evidence to go ahead with the story so decided to return to the dhaba the next morning.” Singh told them that he would give them a byte the next morning and also show them the CCTV footage. “When we went to the dhaba again, Singh was surrounded by police.” Both reporters said that Singh’s demeanour had changed and their conjecture is that he was instructed to not speak to the media. “Woh humaare saath haath jod ke khada ho gaya, ki main businessman aadmi hun, main in chakkron main nahin padna chahta hun [He stood in front of us with folded hands and said that he’s a businessman and does not want to get involved in the issue].”

When I tried to get an interview with Singh more than a year after these episodes, I hit a dead end. The manager of his dhaba said he was fed up of the media spotlight.

“Because of the kind of media attention...Saradar-ji was a bit upset. After that he has denied speaking to anyone with a media background,” he said, adding that he will try and get me an interview.

My subsequent calls went unanswered.

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In end-February, around the same time that the SIT was collecting evidence, the National Commission for Women also visited Murthal. It found no “substantial evidence”, which raises the question of what constitutes “substantial” and what was dismissed as insubstantial. The NCW’s findings are in stark contrast to those of Janwadi Mahila Samiti (JMS), the Haryana state branch of All India Democratic Women’s Association.

Members of JMS spent all day speaking to villagers and dhaba owners along the highway. The Haryana chapter of the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had heard of the case through media reports and conducted their own fact-finding tour of Khurad, Hasanpur and the surrounding villages soon after The Tribune broke the story.

JMS State secretary Raj Kumari Dahiya, who went along with five other AIDWA members, recalled, “We were walking about and asking questions of villagers in Hasanpur when we were told to go to the Harijan basti [Dalit locality] to get more details.”

There, Dahiya met a woman whom she estimates was in her 60s. The woman said villagers had seen a naked woman running for help in the dead of the night. “She said the lady was with her two children and some villagers gave her a bedsheet to cover herself,” Dahiya said. She added that she’d been unprepared to record the old woman’s testimony and before she could ask for more details, a male member of her household asked her to keep quiet and get inside. JMS’s state vice-president Anjali was also present with the fact-finding team to hear the old lady’s testament in Hassanpur. “It is very possible that something bad may have happened there,” she said. “Not at all unthinkable.”

Dahiya pointed out that the perpetrators may not have been from adjoining villages or even those part of the reservation agitation but “gundas [goons]”, who took advantage of the general lawlessness. “Yahan toh bhediye hain itne, rakshas hai [There are so many wolves here, demons],” she said.

What Dahiya and Anjali saw reveals the kind of pressure even witnesses face, especially when the crime is one that makes the administration look bad (and this is before the state machinery had properly cranked into action to officially investigate the case). From the way the older woman was bundled out of sight by her male family member, it seems there was great anxiety about the repercussions of going on record about what had happened that night. If this is what eye witnesses face from their family, imagine what actual survivors who want to speak out would encounter.

The report compiled by JMS concluded, “Circumstantial evidences and conditions near the place clearly indicates all the possibilities of unfortunate happened there with women. [sic]”

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On paper, the state’s investigation to find out what happened in Murthal that night has been thorough. It first visited the area just three days after The Tribune broke the story of mass rapes and collected the first set of evidence, which included women’s clothes that were recovered off the highway. The local police during its initial investigation found “abandoned female cloths” on 26 February, 2016 — almost five days after the incident is said to have occurred. According to a written submission by the SIT to the Punjab and Haryana High Court, 10 of these were sent for forensic examination out of which two had human semen on them. No blood was detected on any of the clothes.

In April, the SIT, now headed by Mamta Singh, told the court it will add gang rape to the FIR lodged after Joshi’s complaint. Two anonymous accounts had surfaced — one in a letter by a student in Faridabad (who could not be traced subsequently) and one on social media by a non-resident Indian in Australia (which was later found to be fabricated).

More than 100 mobile phone users were contacted by the SIT because their phones were active in and around Murthal when the alleged mass rapes took place. In March, a massive DNA collection drive was undertaken in Hassanpur and Khurad.

Young men from these villages told me that the stories about Murthal and the investigations have torn their lives apart. “Jab prashasan ke upar daab aaegi kisi na kisi ko toh pakdenge [When there’s pressure on the administration, they’ll nab somebody or the other]” a disgruntled young man from Hassanpur told me. “Itni harrassment hui hai...ladko ki bhi, aur busurgon ki bhi [We’ve been tremendously harassed…boys as well as the elderly],” said another.

A young man in Hassanpur, who doesn't want to be names, told me the “Murthal kaand” has heaped “badnaami” or infamy upon the village. “Khet main kaam chhod ke thaane jao baar baar, ladko ke rishte nahin ho rahe...kya reputation reh jaati hai jab baar baar news chalegi ki gaon main gang rape hua. Ladko ki naukri bhi nahin lag rahi [We have to leave our work in the fields and go again and again, arranged marriages for boys are falling through… what’s left of our reputation when the news keeps saying this is where gang rapes happen? Boys aren’t getting jobs because of this],he said.

According to various accounts, over 150 men from the two villages have given their DNA samples. So far, none of them have matched the semen found on the clothes near Murthal.

The Tribune’s Garewal said the villagers’ attitude was very different when they’d first started working on the story. Locals had talked openly about women being dragged around and violated, they’d shown where some had taken shelter. “No one talked about the villages gaining notoriety at that time, which was a well thought-out statement given by politicians later,” said Garewal.

Even though the SIT found The Tribune’s report baseless because key witnesses denied seeing anything, Garewal stands by what was published. He has an explanation for the stark difference between The Tribune’s findings and those made by everyone who tried to follow in its footsteps: “The government took statements and affidavits of the people who had met us and got them to deny whatever they had said earlier, except admitting that they had met us.”

The Tribune’s reputation as a credible media organisation notwithstanding, some Chandigarh-based journalists and media watchers wonder if the newspaper had jumped the gun on the Murthal story. Based on unnamed sources and eyewitnesses, The Tribune does not present the occurrence of rapes as an allegation or a claim but a reported fact.

Doubts on the robustness of the report typically revolved around journalistic due process: How can one report on a crime story in the absence of an accused or a victim? Is it good enough to rely on unnamed sources and eyewitnesses, especially since most of them have since denied seeing anything?

To those who doubt his report, Garewal demands a coherent explanation for the clothes that were found strewn near the highway. “The police said the women’s clothing was left behind by nomadic tribes,” said Garewal. “This is completely false as nomadic tribes do not wear branded clothes and lingerie. The fact that semen has been found on the clothes itself establishes the crime.”

The other explanation offered for the clothes is from locals in Hassanpur and Khurad, who say the hotels and vacant plots of land along the highways are used by unmarried couples for romantic dates. Apparently, it is common for couples to throw out their clothes and condoms out after having sex.

While the second theory isn’t convincing, all the semen stains confirm on paper is that there was sexual activity in the area. It doesn’t prove sexual violations or the absence of consent. The discarded underwear needs to be backed with a first-person complaint or an eye-witness account to be conclusive. Both of these existed when the first reports on Murthal were filed and in the course of the SIT’s probe, the number of reliable witnesses have dwindled with many of them denying previous statements attributed to them. As far as Garewal is concerned, “All this is being done to deny rape as it will become a ‘maha kalank’ [grand shame] for the BJP-governed Haryana.”

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Until December 7, there were more than 30 court hearings where the SIT presented status reports on how far they’d progressed with cracking the case. In the courtroom, the SIT came under routine attacks with advocate Anupam Gupta stating he doesn’t trust the investigation and wants the case transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Gupta, the amicus curiae in the Murthal case, has been the lawyer of the Liberhans Commission on the destruction of Babri Masjid and commands a formidable reputation in Chandigarh. In the courtroom, his presence is unmissable. His combative style, with which he often cuts the state counsel to size is in sharp contrast to the mild-mannered Bench of judges, (especially Justice Saron, to hear whose words you have to strain your ears).

At the hearings, Gupta has termed the SIT’s investigations “mere eyewash”, described them as “lacklustre and slow”, expressed “his complete dissatisfaction” with it and urged CBI take over the case.

Meanwhile, the SIT’s reports detail eyewitness after eyewitness denying the allegation of rape. This includes those The Tribune spoke to, like the villagers named in the report and the owner of another eatery (Jai Bajrang Bali Dhaba) where women had supposedly taken shelter. In December 2016, the SIT told the High Court that one of the stories that claimed mass rapes had taken place in Murthal was based on faked evidence.

According to the SIT, Firstpost’s Tarique Anwar had claimed to have met one of the survivors at the Vaishali metro station and another’s mother in Gurgaon. Anwar’s story was published on February 29, 2016 and taken off Firstpost on April 29, 2016. The SIT’s findings state that Anwar later changed his account of how he got the story several times and finally denied meeting any victims. Eventually, he told the SIT that he had asked his sister-in-law to pretend to be the victim’s mother and had record her voice as false evidence to back his story.

It’s a serious and almost suicidal admission for a journalist and there are murmurs about whether Anwar may have been strong-armed. However, his statement admitting fabrication is on record and it adds credibility to the theory that the Murthal kaand is a media creation. When contacted, Anwar did not wish to speak to Newslaundry on the issue, stating that he had suffered enough and would like to put the episode behind him.

Anwar’s now-discredited story included statements from a survivor who lives in Vaishali. This testimony was later declared false, but curiously enough, a woman from Vaishali who wants to talk about sexual violence in Murthal surfaces elsewhere too.

Soon after his initial appearances in the media, Bobby Joshi received a call from a woman who said she stayed in Vaishali. Two years on, he doesn’t remember much about her and he doesn’t even know her full name. However, it’s quite a coincidence that Joshi’s survivor is from Vaishali, which isn’t a Delhi neighbourhood that’s usually in popular discourse. Joshi says she told him something bad had happened to her in Murthal and that she wanted the story to come out, which is why she’d contacted him. They were to meet but she backed out at the last minute saying her landlord had threatened to evict her since he didn’t want the media coming to his house. Joshi says he had provided whatever details he has about this woman to the SIT.

If it seems strange that this survivor would rather call up unknown men than file a complaint, then keep in mind that this is actually behaviour that has a precedence. Consider the Bangalore mass molestation case on New Year’s eve in 2016. Bangalore Mirror first reported on the incident with a first-person account and images. This was followed up by other media organisations and subsequently women came forward to provide their testimonies in the media. One of the victims had stated that women were asked not to make “an issue” since it would harm their reputations. To all of this, Congress-governed Karnataka’s Home Minister G Parmeshwara’s thought-out response was to pin the blame on the ‘Western ways’ of youngsters. It is no wonder then that women chose to spoke to the media than reach out to the state machinery. Even though women had spoken to the media on record, no one came forward to register an official complaint.

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In October 2017, Gupta told the court nine rapes had taken place at Murthal, attributing the information to bureaucrat Vijai Vardhan, who was part of the Parkash Singh Committee that was set up to investigate the Jat protests. Vardhan’s name had cropped up earlier in January when Gupta had hinted to the court that he may have known something about the Murthal case, but was admonished by the Haryana CM for speaking up.

Varhdan has since categorically denied speaking on this subject to Gupta in a written affidavit submitted to the court, which the amicus attributed to a lack of “biological element called spine”.

Gupta in the same hearing also told the High Court that Amrik Singh will speak up again if the CBI takes over the investigation. Since the matter is subjudice, Gupta could not discuss the case with Newslaundry.

After 18 months of investigation, there’s a frustrating lack of conclusive evidence to either prove or disprove the Murthal kaand. So far, two men from Hasanpur and three from Kurad have been accused of arson and rioting in Murthal. The police later added Section 396D (gang rape) to the FIR that was registered on the complaint of witness Bobby Joshi. The five accused — Vinay, Jitender, Jai Deep, Jasbir and Bhanu Partap — were granted bail in February this year since their DNA did not match the semen samples.

Of the five, Jitender, is out on bail after serving almost eight months in jail. He is 32 years old and, like most youths in the village, works in the fields. Since the case is still on, he wouldn’t comment on it but emphasised that there is no case against him. Vinay, 21, is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree at Delhi University. His family has told him to stay away from Hassanpur so that he isn’t picked up by the police again. His mother insisted Vinay has been falsely implicated and there is no proof of rape against him.

All five’s families believe the young men have been slapped with fake charges owing to the pressure on the police to catch the culprits.

Yet, despite the absence of identifiable suspects or conclusive evidence to prove any sexual violence, everyone eventually comes round to admitting something happened on the night of February 21-22 that was a violation. Virender, a resident of Gurgaon, saw his Alto being burnt ahead of the Sukhdev Dhaba, at approximately 2 am on February 22, 2016. He was stranded for five or six hours and he remembers hearing women had been harassed.

In August, the SIT admitted that although they found no proof of rape, molestation may have happened. Additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta told the bench, “Some of them [those interviewed by SIT] have told of instances of molestation. But none has confirmed rape.” That molestation is not considered a serious enough violation to pursue and a woman must be raped for the state to consider her suffering worthy of redressal is worrying. It’s almost as though rape has been fetishised to have a special status that leads to other crimes against women being ignored.

There’s also the question of just what the survivors of Murthal endured that night.

Sarpanch Narayan of Hassanpur told Newslaundry (while emphasising that there were no rapes that night) that he had seen some women running away from burnt cars and that they may have had their clothes torn off. He remembered one woman whose pants had “fallen off” and said that he had conducted his own enquiry by asking hotel owners along the highway about her. They told him her pants’ button had broken. How hoteliers knew about the state of this young woman’s pant button remains a mystery.

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