‘Some men and women did seek shelter in our dhaba but not one of them disclosed that they had been raped. They were in our dhaba for over two hours till such time as the cops arrived. If they had been stripped and raped, or had been lying the fields for a long period of time, they or the male members of their families should have spoken about it.’
Rashme Sehgal reports from Sonepat, Haryana.
Murthal, located near Kamaspur chowk on the NH1 highway, has witnessed some of the worst arson, violence and blockades during the nine-day long Jat demand for reservations. Groups of demonstrators had chopped down eucalyptus and sal trees that line NH1 to stop the traffic commuting between Punjab, Haryana, Uttarkhand, Himachal and the NCR.
Many of these demonstrators assembled at Kamaspur chowk to halt traffic moving between these states. Even as Jat leaders had accepted the Centre’s assurance on reservation for the Jats, a major flare-up occurred at Murthal in the early hours of February 22 with gangs of armed boys on motorcycles launching a major arson attack, torching cars and trucks and burning down restaurants and hotels located on both sides of NH1.
It was during this arson attack that a number of women are reported to have been sexually assaulted, with their clothes being stripped and being subjected to rape.
Dinesh, owner of Jai Bhagwan dhaba, whose clientèle consists largely of truck drivers pointed out, “Some families, including an elderly Sikh couple, had sought shelter in my dhaba. It was obvious they were terrified and had run for their lives because their car had been torched by these mobs whose numbers were well over one thousand. None of the women came here minus their clothes, but they were obviously psychologically traumatised.”
Recounting the chain of events, Dinesh said, “Army columns moving down from Karnal and Panipat were opening up the roads and removing all the blockades. They were followed by a large number of cars which had not been able to move in the last couple of days. But once the Army and cops moved away, the demonstrators recollected at Kamaspur chowk and created a fresh blockade. They were joined by groups of armed hooligans on motorcycles. It was these boys who burnt down the popular Jurassic Park hotel, the administrative block of the IITM college and also damaged the Haldiram outlet. The police had to resort to lathi-charge and firing.”
Dinesh claims, “Eight or so people came from the back side of the dhaba where our water tanks are located. It was pitch dark and they begged us to provide them with shelter inside the dhaba. They told us that goons had set their vehicles ablaze. Three of them were elderly people. My workers, my father and I reassured them and brought them inside. Some others took shelter at the adjacent Amrik Sukhdev dhaba. A Haryana DSP came at 5 am the next morning and arranged for a local Haryana Highway bus to take them away.”
The owner of Amrik Sukhdev dhaba refuses to talk to journalists. He claims he has been besieged by the press for the last three days and he does not want to court any more controversy. His manager, Anirudh Anand, who commutes to his workplace on a daily basis from Karnal, admits, “Some men and women did seek shelter in our dhaba but not one of them disclosed that they had been raped. They were in our dhaba for over two hours till such time as the cops arrived. If they had been stripped and raped, or had been lying the fields for a long period of time, they or the male members of their families should have spoken about it.”
Anand, a middle-aged man with a prominent sandalwood tikka on his forehead, admits, “None of our staffers had taken down their names or other contact details.”
“All the lights in this area had been switched off. We had been suspecting trouble and so, at our request, over 250 men and women from the neighbouring Jat-dominated villages of Hassanpur and Kurad had assembled outside our dhabas and did not allow these goons to torch our place. If something like this had happened, we would have been in the know,” Anand claims.
There is no doubt that around 12 vehicles were torched in the proximity of these two dhabas and that their occupants had run for their lives into the neighbouring fields. A visit to the nearby village of Hassanpur saw the entire Jat community vehemently deny claims of rape.
Farmer Meher Singh, one of the village elders, said, “This alleged incident has given our village a very bad reputation. Many of our village folk spent the night outside those dhabas for a good one week. We did so because Amrik Sukhdev dhaba was built almost 60 years ago and their owners have maintained a bhaichara (brotherhood) with all of us. When trouble started in Haryana, the owners of these two dhabas came to us with folded hands and sought our help, and we felt we must show insaniyat (humanity).”
Sarpanch Narayan of Hassanpur also cited how their village had allowed 14 trucks to be parked inside Hassanpur during the “danga (rioting) period”. “We fed the drivers of these trucks and ensured their safety. We were running a langar from a village school to help those in distress. My question is, how come no minister, no MP, no MLA reached out to the pubic during these horrific eight days,” said Narayan.
He added, “All these goons came on motorbikes. We suspect many of them belong to the Guhana area. Many of them were armed. Someone must have spent a lot of money on giving them weapons, petrol to run their vehicles and petrol bombs to burn these vehicles. They would not be doing this on their own. Which is why we believe that this is a saazish (conspiracy).”
Villagers in Kurad cite how according to the local police, seven boys that were killed in police firing belonged to the SC, Brahmin, Muslim and Saini castes and were not Jats.
Have these villagers created a wall of silence around the rapes? Have the police succeeded in persuading the victims not to speak out? Local villagers insist the undergarments that have been found in the fields belong to the Ladi-Gohar community.
The Punjab and Haryana high court has ordered the Haryana police to look into the event. Director General of Police Yashpal Singhal has set up a three-member women police committee with DIG Rajshree Singh and DSOs Bharti Dabas and Surinder Kaur to look into this issue, but they have made little headway.
The Haryana cops plan to get in touch with the people whose cars have got torched in Murthal. “We have alerted the police thanas. They will have to file FIRs to claim insurance. And if indeed an incident has taken place, we will get to the bottom of it,” said one senior officer.
A team of All India Democratic Women’s Association activists led by general secretary Jagmati Sangwan has also visited Murthal. She pointed out, “The families that were targeted were those who were passing through Murthal to attend marriages or visiting relatives in other states. Such families were in a particularly vulnerable situation because of lack of local information and any support structure. It must be noted that Murthal was the only place in Haryana during the entire duration of the agitation where the police stepped in to provide transportation to the stranded travellers to ensure their exit. This fact raises further suspicion regarding the extent of the danger and seriousness of the law and order situation which appears to be beyond what is reported by the police.”
Sangwan is adamant that the cops have discouraged the victims of sexual assault to file formal complaints especially as it could bring dishonour to their families. The National Commission of Women chairperson Rekha Sharma also visited Murthal on Friday. A team from the Forensic Science Laboratory has also visited the town to find out the veracity of the rape incident.
Speaking to this reporter, Sonepat SP Abhishek Gar said, “The clothes collected by the FSL are being checked out. Let us see what they reveal.”
Meanwhile, a besieged state government has set up helpdesks at Sonepat, Gohana, Gannaur and Kharkhoda to help the rape victims speak out against the outrage. But locals in this town also point out that most of the damage, including the torching of Jurrasic Park, was done to properties belonging to the Punjabi community to which the chief minister belongs.