NEW DELHI -- Were women dragged out of their vehicles and raped in the fields near the National Highway in Murthal, when Haryana was besieged by the Jat agitation?
While the Haryana government has steadfastly denied that such a crime occurred, women claiming to be survivors and their family family members have spoken to the media about their ordeal.
If true, this would be one of the most horrific instances of sexual violence in India. If true, this would either expose a sinister coverup, or betray the gross incompetence of the police, with catastrophic repercussions on the the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state government. And if true, it will lay bare just how far the police has fallen in the eyes of the public.
This week, the state government told the Punjab and Haryana High Court that no such crime had occurred.
The mystery of Murthal has deepened since The Tribune first reported that at least 10 women were allegedly raped near NH1 in the early morning hours of March 22, but witnesses and families of the victims were silenced by the Haryana police for "the sake of their honour" and because "what had happened could not be undone."
On Monday, FirstPost carried accounts of two women who claimed that they were raped in Murthal during the Jat agitation.
One woman told FirstPost that she was dragged out of a bus near the Sukhdev Dhaba and gang raped until she "lost consciousness," and other women on the bus met with the same fate.
“Even worse, we were advised by the officials there not to report the matter for the sake of honor, because what has happened could not be undone,” she told FirstPost.
This language - "sake of honor" and "what has happened could not be undone" - was also reported by The Tribune in its report.
The FirstPost reported that the second woman was too traumatized to narrate her ordeal, and so the news outlet spoke to her mother.
The mother told FirstPost that she doesn't know exactly what happened to her daughter after she was kidnapped at gunpoint by assailants on a motorcycle, but she was rescued from a water tank situated near a dhaba, along with other women, hours later. The mother also told FirstPost that the dhaba owner turned of the lights of his eatery to avoid attention from the goons.
A similar version of events was also reported by The Tribune.
Jai Bhagwan, who runs a dhaba on the highway, told The Tribune that four young women took refuge inside a water tank. “We turned off the lights so as not to attract the attention of the goons. The hapless women remained there for hours till they were escorted out at daybreak," he told the newspaper.
The Haryana government was quick to refute The Tribune's report on the evening of March 24, just hours after the Chandigarh-based newspaper had published its account.
Even before conducting a preliminary , the state government called it a "rumor." But the Punjab and Haryana High Court felt that such serious allegations needed a more thorough investigation, and ordered a probe.
But just how invested the Haryana police is in solving the crime is up for conjecture. How could trained investigators not find the women's undergarments which were discovered by reporters from the Anandabazar Patrika in the road and fields near NH1?
In its report to the High Court on Monday, the three-member committee of women investigators, which was set up by the state government, said that no rapes had occurred near Murthal.
Could the Haryana government inform the public whether the forensic laboratory - to which the underclothes were reportedly sent for examination - has conclusively ruled out rape.
Once the media started pursuing the Murthal case, and the Punjab and Haryana High Court got involved, senior officials of the Haryana police asked survivors to come forward without fear because their identities would be kept secret.
But the state government's tone and tenor hasn't inspired confidence. And if it is the police which tried to coverup the crime, why would any survivor muster up the courage to speak up. Perhaps, it is time for the investigation to be conducted by an independent agency.
The mother, who was interviewed by FirstPost, asked how was she expected to trust a police force which had dismissed the entire episode as a "rumor."
The husband of the woman, who was interviewed by FirstPost, said that it would be pointless to speak with the police.
"We are sure that the police will shield the criminals. Instead of acting swiftly after the incident of gangrape was reported and launching a crackdown on the suspects, the cops are in denial mode waiting for us to come forward first," he told the news outlet.
Meanwhile, a Delhi-based woman registered a case of gang rape against seven people, including her brother-in-law, near Murthal on the intervening night of Feb.22 and 23rd.
But isn't clear whether this crime is connected to the alleged gang rape of several women by goons in the midst of the Jat agitation, which occurred in the early morning hours of Feb. 22.
Press Trust of India has reported that the woman knew all the perpetrators, and the reason for this crime could be a family dispute.
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