On February 19, a local newspaper informed Aarti and Pooja Kumar that they had failed a lie detector test. Though the final results were still awaited from the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in New Delhi, a leak to the media claimed that the sisters had “concealed facts” but that the three boys accused of assaulting the girls on a public bus had passed the test.

The leaked results marked the latest twist in the story of Rohtak’s “bravehearts”, Aarti (22) and Pooja (19), who shot to fame last year when a video of them beating their assailants on a bus appeared online.

As the story about the failed lie detector test began to gain traction, Barkha Dutt – a journalist with well over one million followers – tweeted: “If it’s true that the #RohtakSisters lied [failed lie detector test] they just failed every woman that has ever stood up against sexual abuse.”

It was a popular sentiment. For an audience weary of daily reports of rape and harassment of women, particularly on public transport, watching the girls whipping the three boys who harassed them combined schadenfreude and catharsis in equal measure. The sisters became instant celebrities: they were lauded on national news (including by Dutt), promised bravery medals by the state of Haryana – which is battling its reputation as the state with the country’s lowest sex ratio – and elevated to the status of folk heroes.

A quick twist

However, the narrative was quick to turn. A second video of the girls beating up another set of alleged molesters from a previous instance soon surfaced online.

Then a third video appeared, this one of the boys on the bus. Deepak, Mohit and Kuldeep, surrounded by their families, neighbours, a co-passenger from the bus and a defence lawyer, pleaded their innocence.

The Indian media’s heightened (and welcome) coverage of sexual assaults in the past few years has been accompanied by a growing panic about a growing number of “false cases” of rape and harassment.

While laws of the land are routinely distorted to implicate people and embroil them in lengthy judicial processes (the most frequent instances of these are related to property and terrorism) – anti-rape laws raise the spectre of innocent men framed by lying women.

It is true that there are cases in which women make false allegations of rape or abuse, but these numbers are often conflated with cases that are abandoned mid-trial. There are several reasons for this – financial instability, out-of-court settlements initiated by lawyers and communities, or most often, unwillingness on the part of the complainant or her family to endure the social stigma of a long, humiliating court process.

The third video – “The Other Side of the Rohtak Bravehearts” – combined with rumours that the girls were trying to extort money from the three boys turned the narrative against the Kumar sisters. Their bravery award was withdrawn. They turned into liars overnight.

Unreliable test

In December, Pooja and Aarti Kumar became the first complainants of a sexual harassment case in the country to be subjected to a lie detector test. They were hooked up to the polygraph machine and asked several versions of the following questions over the next four hours:

“Kitno ke saath jaati hai?” How many men have you been with?

“Kitni chori ki hai?” How many times have you stolen?

“Kitne yaar hain?” How many boyfriends do you have?

“Kitno ko devdas banaya hai?” How many lovers have you rejected?

“Jhooti,” said the man behind the machine. Liar.

Polygraph tests, popularly known as lie detector tests, measure physiological indicators like respiration, blood pressure, heart rate, and electro-dermal response or arousal, based on the contested premise that these indicators spike at the moment of deception, thereby allowing the machine to separate the truth from lie. As several test-takers have pointed out, the machine is notoriously easy to deceive (according to former Soviet spy Aldrich Ames, all one really needs is confidence, a good night’s sleep and a friendly rapport with the examiner. There is even a Wikihow on how to cheat a polygraph test. More problematic is the fact that polygraphs can implicate the innocent; particularly if the mix of relevant and irrelevant questions are offensive, accusatory or trigger traumatic memories.

“Quite rightly, these tests have zero evidentiary value in most courts in the world, including India,” said Rohit Kaliyar, a defence lawyer of the Delhi High Court. While the test can be used as a tool to aid investigation and uncover new evidence, in practice it becomes a means to sway public opinion through selective leaks.

“The police is under tremendous pressure to complete investigation as fast as possible, particularly when it comes to high-profile sexual assault cases today,” said Kaliyar, “so the lie-detector is a convenient way to provide closure for the public, nothing more.”

Aggrieved mother

Last December, when I met Santosh, the mother of the Rohtak girls at their home in Thana Khurd, she said she would appeal to the Central Bureau of Investigation to prove that her daughters were being wrongly accused of filing a false complaint. The prosecution lawyer for the girls, Atthar Panwar, says they had considered the possibility of a narco test, but the polygraph was insisted upon and conducted at the behest of the Special Investigations Team formed to look into their case.

“Why were the results made public?” Panwar asked. “If this is about transparency – why hasn’t the list of questions that the girls were asked also been released? What was the new evidence they were trying to extract by asking the girls how many men they’ve been with?”

My attempts to pose these questions to the chief of investigations, Deputy Superintendent of Police Yashpal Khatana, and also seek a list of the questions asked of the boys were stonewalled. Khatana first said he was busy, then at a personal function and finally not at liberty to disclose anything about the case because of its “sensitive nature”.

A day after they failed the polygraph test, Aarti and Pooja were summoned along with their father, Rajesh, to meet Suman Dahiya, the chief of Haryana Women’s Commission.

When the girls walked in to the office, they were stunned to find Deepak, Mohit and Kuldeep seated there as well. Unbeknownst to both parties, Dahiya had undertaken the ambitious task of resolving 18 cases of sexual harassment in her chambers by getting young men to apologise to the women they had allegedly molested.

Extracting an apology

For a second time since the incident on the bus, the three boys offered to apologise to Pooja and Aarti in a closed room – but refused the girls’ demand to do so in public.

“After we have been humiliated in front of our family, our neighbours and the whole world, what can a private apology do?” Aarti asked me. “Unless they are willing to say sorry on camera, nothing will fix this.”

The meeting in Dahiya’s office was the most recent attempt to “fix” the problem. These “solutions” have taken the form of pleas, advice and outright threats.

Rajesh, a 46-year-old employee at the Uttar Haryana Bijli Vitran Nigam, told me that he is under tremendous pressure to withdraw the complaint his daughters have made, particularly from the elders of Asan village (where Deepak, Kuldeep and Mohit are from).

“They act as if they are concerned and say, what if someone burns their faces with acid, what if they are attacked again? I know a threat when I hear one.”

Repeated summons to police stations in Haryana, to New Delhi and for meetings with delegates like Dahiya are starting to take their toll. Rajesh and Santosh’s eldest daughter, 24-year-old Jyoti, is nursing an eight-month-old baby, and the family has been able to devote scant attention to the child since last November.

Picking fights

The Special Investigation Team has provided the girls with a security detail in response to the threats, so now two men travel with them to and from college.

“Even people who hadn’t seen the videos at first notice the policemen and recognise us,” Aarti said. “As a result more women from Asan started to pick fights with us on the bus – the policemen can’t say anything to women.”

For the moment at least, this daily harassment has stopped because the girls’ names have been struck off the college’s rolls for poor attendance this year. The college principal has asked them to pay Rs 500 each for readmission but has been too busy to collect this money for the past few weeks.

“It was becoming very irritating to go to college,” said Pooja. “Our classmates wanted to discuss the case with us all the time. Some of them would ask us to forgive the boys. One group of girls in particular targets us a lot. They say we are ugly and did all this for attention. In a way, it’s fine.”