On Wednesday, The Tribune reported that women travellers had been raped in Sonipat district while they were stranded on a highway during the Jat agitation for reservations. The same evening, taking note of the newspaper report, the High Court of Punjab and Haryana ordered the police to investigate the allegations.

But the police have so far maintained that no such incident occurred, and a government committee found no evidence for it.

In Murthal village, where the rapes were reported to have taken place, most of the villagers either declined to speak to Scroll.in or denied having any knowledge of the incident.

The exception was a local who works in a city and was not present in the village on the day of the alleged attack. He said he had heard accounts of women travellers being looted and raped from his relatives and neighbours, but declined to identify them.

Highway horror

Murthal is barely 50 kilometres from New Delhi. It is known for a string of dhabas or eateries serving food to those travelling on the the National Highway-1 that connects the national capital to Chandigarh.

On February 24, The Tribune had reported that while the National Highway was blockaded by protestors, a group of men hid themselves in the fields when the security forces arrived to clear the blockade. After the security personnel had left, the men threw stones at the vehicles and attacked women travellers, raping and sexually assaulting them in the fields near the national highway in the early hours on February 22. The women then managed to reach and take shelter at the dhabas along the national highway till the next morning.

The newspaper reported that witnesses had stated that senior police officials present at the dhaba had persuaded the women and their families not to report the incident.

At the Amrik Sukhdev dhaba, where three of the women were reported to have taken shelter after the assault, the owner Amrik Singh was not available for comment, his staff said. His personal assistant Kuldeep said the owner could not be contacted.

Munna Kumar, a staff supervisor said he was not aware whether the agitators had attacked women commuters, though he had seen over 100 persons take shelter for several hours at the dhaba that evening.

At Pahalwan dhaba and other eateries further down the road, staff denied having any information about the incident.

Kurad village borders the national highway and the road to the village lies barely 200 meters from the Amrik Sukhdev dhaba. The Tribune had reported that the villagers at the Amrik Sukhdev dhaba had corroborated the hotel owner's account while expressing concerns for their safety.

On Thursday, the villagers said that several of them had reached the highway that night to dissuade the agitators from setting fire to buildings, including Amrik Sukhdev dhaba, but denied knowing anything about incidents of sexual assault.

Krishna Antila, a woman in her fifties, said the villagers had stopped men who had arrived on the highway in around 40 motorcycles from setting fire to a logistics park, a college building, and eateries along the highway. “We saw a car and about 40-45 motorcycles reach the highway late evening carrying sticks and axes,” said Antila. “A group of villagers stopped them from setting fire to a few buildings, but they burned down Jurassic Park, an amusement park nearby.” Antila denied having any information about the men sexually assaulting women stranded on the road.

Hari Kishan Pandit, an elderly village who was quoted in The Tribune, was not at home since the morning, said his daughter-in-law Darshana Pandit, a farmer. “He usually leaves home in the morning and plays cards till evening near the dhaba till 5 or 6 in the evening and then returns home,” she said. “He cannot see clearly once it is dark.” Later the same night, speaking on the phone, Hari Kishan Pandit said he was at Sukhdev dhaba between noon to 6 pm on Sunday but had returned home after that. “I did not hear or see anything,” said Pandit.

The only villager who spoke about the rapes was someone who was not in Murthal on Monday morning. He said when he came back, his neighbours told him about the events of the morning when men had raped the women, dragging them into the fields, looting their jewellery, and assaulting the men accompanying them. The villager did not want to be identified, nor did he wish to identify his neighbours.

Police denial

Sonipat superintendent of police Abhishek Garg maintained that the police had found no evidence of rape or sexual assault in the area. “We found some clothes lying at the edge of Hasanpur village but on examining them, we found that they had been discarded many days before, and had marks of rain and being weathered,” he said. “The witnesses quoted in the news report have denied making any statements.”

On February 24, Justice NK Sanghi had ordered a police investigation taking notice of the news report. He is reported to have stated that it was painful that senior officials of the police allegedly chose to discourage the victims from registering complaints.

Haryana director general of police YP Singhal had said that he had formed a committee constituting a finance commissioner and an inspector general of the police to investigate the matter, but this committee had found no evidence and had described the news report as false. He had urged victims to report the incident anonymously.

Mayank Dalal who is secretary of Akhil Bhartiya Adarsh Jat Mahasabha in Sonipat, claimed that reports of sexual violence were a tactic that would allow the government to take repressive steps to quell the Jat agitation.