On February 22nd, truck drivers present along the Murthal stretch of National Highway 1 allegedly bore witness to the sexual assault of women who had been travelling on the highway.
The timing of the incidents coincided with the Jat quota agitation in Haryana, leading to suspicions that the two cases were not unrelated. It also followed closely on the heels of the events at JNU, in which Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested for allegedly making anti-national, inflammatory speeches. The conflation of these two facts depict a wretched picture of modern India: it depicts an India that has failed as an idea, a nation and a democracy.
Who are the Jats?
The Jats are an influential community in Haryana that form about 29 per cent of the population. Once mostly an agrarian community, they are now a financially affluent one, but, according to reports, remain educationally backward. The community is usually well-represented in the Haryana government and is politically powerful.
What are the protests about?
The Jats, amongst other communities, are seeking government reservations (wherever applicable) under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category, while demanding the increase of the Economically Backward Category(EBC) quota from 10% to 20% in the state of Haryana. They also promote the inclusion of more people under the latter category by demanding the revision of the current income ceiling of Rs 2.5 lakh.
Why did the protests come to the limelight?
The Jat quota agitation started gaining traction in the media after February 18th, when the protests first turned violent. Incidentally, this change was sparked by the events at JNU. The movement culminated in mass riots across North India, particularly in Rohtak district of Haryana, becoming a communal issue as a group claiming to represent the 35 other castes in the state clashed with the Jats. The riots caused immense losses in the state for those caught in the crossfire: The Times of India carried a report alleging the indiscriminate burning of shops and businesses by both pro-quota and anti-quota groups, in addition to blockades, stone-pelting and physical assault.
The Night of the Rapes
Reports in the media spoke of truck drivers near Murthal who saw women who were stripped and gang-raped in the surrounding fields, quoting a source who had been travelling on the highway and saw women being dragged into the fields surrounding the highway. According to him, he stopped to help, only to see a mob threatening to torch his car, upon which he fled. Chilling photos of women’s clothes and undergarments strewn around on the fields were recorded and published on social media as well as traditional media.
The Haryana government flatly, repeatedly and emphatically denied not only the incidents themselves but the very possibility of their occurrence. The reports were dismissed as false, defamatory and results of political conspiracies- until, the Haryana High Court took suo motu congnizance of the events and ordered a probe.
On the 13th of April, the Haryana government finally admitted that the rapes in Murthal ‘might have taken place’. Following the admission, reports emerged of survivors coming forward to make statements about the events of the night.
How Democracy Failed that Night
The series of events recounted above point to two things:
- The incredible, systemic, patriarchal apathy that the nation has for the security of its women.
Firstly, the rapes, if they were indeed a part of the protests, were an age-old strategy employed by violent mobs trying to make a point: using rape as a tool of war.
The ‘protesters’ act of raping women during a ‘frenzy of violence’ was not a sexual crime but an act of political domination, meant to serve as an assertion of power. Nobody- not the villagers near Muthal, or the dhaba owner who apparently allowed women to hide in his establishment, or the businessman who claims to have witnessed the rapes- could do anything, in that moment, to stop the mob, faced as they were with burning torches and threats. And that was the message being sent out to those involved in the clashes: look, we can do this to your mothers, daughters, friends, neighbours. We can do this to you as an individual. And no one can stop us.
That’s all this was: a statement. In modern, democratic India, ten or more women’s bodies and minds were violated by dozens of men as a statement.
Secondly, the Haryana Police and government’s reaction exposed the pervasive nature of rape culture in India to its diseased roots.
The very fact that the rapes took place at all are indicative of the damage inflicted. The establishment’s reaction merely augmented it. The denial can only be politically designed, or a desperate attempt to minimise the effects of the damage the riots caused to the image of both. Victims, according to reports, were advised not to file complaints as ‘nothing could be done now’. The only credit either of these institutions can claim is that they did retract their earlier statements. But the damage was done. Valuable time was lost and victims were left in a limbo of helplessness and incredulous scorn in the meantime.
2. The government of Haryana essentially just validated mob violence as a legitimate and effective means of protest.
The government acceded to the demands of the Jat protestors to ‘pacify’ them and restore stability to the region, creating an entirely new category of reservations in the process. One has to wonder where the democratic process in India went wrong when peaceful dissenters at JNU are branded as ‘anti-nationalist‘ and arrested on charges of sedition while the demands of those who tear down businesses, set cars ablaze and molest citizens are granted quite readily.
The conspicuous silence of large parts of traditional media was complicit in this. Whether the silence was politically motivated or prompted by readership demands and TRPs, the rapes have not received even a fraction of the coverage that the incidents at JNU generated. The fanatical, bipolar, partisan media wars over who or what is ‘anti-nationalist’ drowned out the narrative of the horrifying experiences of the survivors. They are still struggling for their voices to be heard amidst a careless administration, a political stranglehold and a patriarchal society.
The incidents of February 22nd were, without a doubt, some of the most shameful in India in recent memory. Their implications went beyond the tragedy of the individuals who experienced the violence first-hand. They were evidence of the systemic failure of a country and all its principles, for the country failed to ensure the security of one-half of its citizens and allowed the perpetrators of the crimes to be successful in their agenda. They were the tragedy of a nation.
WRITTEN BY: RUSHATI MUKHERJEE