Santosh glowered over the burning coals, looking at the women gathered on her terrace, and said, “We will settle for nothing less than a forensic analysis by the CBI. A forensic analysis.” She repeated the words slowly. “My daughters are innocent, and the world will know that when the investigation is complete.” As the women nodded, she banged the side of her kadhai with a ladle to indicate she was done talking.

The endless streams of visitors to her house in the past week had disrupted all sense of order. There had been no time to clean, cook, or tend to her eight-month-old grandson. Her youngest daughters, Pooja and Aarti, who had all but forgotten that they had exams, had been sent away along with their father to a relative’s house in Sonepat, so that they could study instead of fielding interviews all day. If any reporters and OB vans were to come barrelling down the single, narrow lane of Thanakhurd now looking for Rohtak’s “bravehearts”, they would find themselves faced with Santosh. At least, she mused, they would know where her daughters got their temper from.

The video wars

On November 30, a cell phone recording from a moving bus went viral on the internet. It showed Pooja and Aarti beating up two men who they claim molested them.  It was not unusual for the two girls to thrash boys who harassed them. In the several interviews that followed the clip’s circulation, they candidly admitted that they had been molested “thousands of times” in the past 19 years, and had “taught the boys a lesson” each time. A few days later, a second clip of the girls emerged, hitting a different pair of boys near the HUDA City Park. It was consistent with the girls’ statement that they always responded to harassment aggressively. Now that they had video evidence of this instance of molestation as well, Pooja and Aarti said they would be happy to assist police investigations for this incident too. This time, however, the media narrative went completely awry.

Yet another YouTube clip began to circulate online, shared by many including former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju. In the clip, several men and women claim that in fact, the boys had calmly asked the girls to vacate their seats, to which the girls randomly responded with physical violence. Relatives of the boys then turn sentimental over how their sons were preparing to join the Indian army, and rue the loss of reputation that the girls’ allegations have caused.

An elderly lady from Thanakhurd, testifies to the camera that the girls have bad character, that she has always known them to be troublemakers. Other questions are then posed: why was the act of molestation not captured in any of the videos? Who made the videos? Do the girls accept cash to blackmail innocent boys in this way? Why were they carrying a belt?

While it is perfectly ordinary for an accused in a crime to legally contest allegations made against him, in the context of gender violence, these contestations, which are usually made by defence lawyers in court, are now reported (under the guise of objectivity) to indicate that victims are lying. It is no coincidence that the defence lawyer for the boys, Balbir, is visible in every frame of this video that captures purportedly spontaneous testimonies from people billed as eyewitnesses.

Apart from responding to the boys on the bus physically, the girls also dialed a women’s helpline (1091) and the police helpline (100) while on the moving bus. Shortly after they were made to disembark, they showed up at the nearest police station to lodge an official complaint. A police investigation and trial, if conducted fairly, will consider not just these questions, but also why these witnesses did nothing to prevent the girls from attacking the boys if they were innocent, and why they only appeared on camera after the boys’ families had already visited Santosh’s home to apologise to Pooja, Aarti, and their father Rajesh.

“Initially, their father said we will thrash our boys in front of you and the entire village, but when he went home, the story changed,” Santosh said. “The boys told him they would commit suicide if he so much as laid a hand on them. That’s when the allegations began.”

No land for women

Objective reporting on the case of the Rohtak sisters must take into account the fact that Haryana has among the lowest sex ratios in the entire country, (834 girls per 1,000 boys), and an openly regressive society that professes a preference for sons over daughters. Earlier this year, schools in Rohtak banned young girls from wearing skirts, or dancing at school events, saying that this promoted sexual harassment and rape. Despite these apparently fool-proof measures, two Rohtak sisters aged 16 and 17 committed suicide this August, because they were repeatedly stalked and harassed on their way to and from coaching classes.

“You know how bad our colony is… how people will say we encouraged these men to follow us… even though we are innocent,” Madhu, the younger of the two wrote in her suicide note.

For girls like Pooja and Aarti to take on multiple harassers as a matter of routine in a place like Rohtak does not make them “publicity hungry”: it makes them death-defyingly brave in a social context where this sort of attention could quite literally end their lives. It is also foolish to suggest that simply because there are women that are willing to defend the boys, the girls must be lying.

Anjali Chahal, a PhD candidate currently writing her dissertation on khaps, or informal caste councils, says that women are often the worst perpetrators of patriarchy in Haryana. Chahal is from Kaithal, and her grandmother was born in Rohtak. While her family has lived in Gurgaon for years, neither her mother or grandmother supported her desire to go to college. “My mother wanted me married when I was 18, it was actually the men who supported my desire to study,” she said. “These are women who are fighting for legitimacy within their own families. In villages, you can’t even imagine women supporting daughters over sons.”

While the members of the local panchayat have rallied by Pooja and Aarti’s family, the men smoking beedis near Santosh’s cowshed are gently grumbling among themselves.

“I told her no good would come from sending these two to school,” said 50-year-old Beer Singh. “Girls who go to school don’t know how to respect men anymore”.

“Arre chacha, but those two have plenty of men friends,” guffawed a young man who identified himself as Ravi, “I’m just saying, it was not unusual for bikes to drop them to their house after school.”

A feisty mother

Santosh, 42, grew up in Delhi and studied until class ten at a Kanya Vidyalaya, before she married Rajesh and moved to Thanakhurd. While her eldest daughter, Jyoti, 24, married early, Santosh is fiercely proud of Aarti (22) and Pooja (19) who are in the process of completing their Bachelor in Computer Applications at Rohtak University. “Hamaari bhi padhne ki bahut ichha thhi, I really wanted to study,” she said, “I’m not looking for a boy for those two anytime soon. They will decide when, and I will decide who they marry. That is our way.”

Before they left home for school, all three girls were given the same instructions  ̶  if anyone messes with you, respond with everything you’ve got. Datt ke jawab dena. Her youngest son Ajit, Santosh says, has always been told to look after any girls that are in trouble. “But I’ve also warned him ‒ if he does something bad, I will be the first person to take him to the thhana.”

As the villagers of Thanakhurd watch each successive video, news clip and allegation that appears online about the “Rohtak bravehearts”, they have begun to ask some questions of their own.

“If Pooja didi and Aarti didi’s names are not cleared then all the girls here will know that we should never speak up,” 15-year-old Neha said. “When those boys held them by the neck and pushed them, why did no one else on the bus get up to stop them?”

“Why do we always ask have to ask our sons to protect daughters?” 82-year-old Sarita asked me. “Ladkiyan bhi toh gussewaali ho sakti hai. Our daughters can get angry too.”

Despite Santosh’s demand for the CBI to step in, assessing the minutiae of questions posed by various YouTube clips and social media experts requires more common sense than forensic skills. The veracity of any past cases lodged by the girls will be a matter of police record, as will any instances of alleged “extortion”. Several women who use public transport carry knives, sharp pencils, pepper sprays and objects that double up as weapons, for situations like the one on the bus, and are not accused of being “bad characters”. In fact, public service announcements by the police routinely urge women all over the country to train themselves in self-defence techniques to disarm and injure attackers, exactly like the Rohtak girls. Should one then hold the state responsible for encouraging vigilantism?

The “mystery” surrounding the appearance of successive videos, especially after the first one has gone viral, too is totally disingenuous in the share-hungry virtual world. People do not whip out cell phones to capture the banal: they record events worth remembering. Men making lewd comments at women in public places is not the stuff of sensational stories. Two young girls beating them up, now that’s stuff that breaks the internet.