The story of Sonepat sisters and their alleged molesters is also a tale of contrasts on patriarchy in Haryana. Fathers of both sides do not conform to the stereotypes that the state’s skewed sex ratio (830 girls per 1,000 boys) presents.
Inside the Rohtak court on Tuesday afternoon, Rajesh Kuhar, the father of Aarti and Pooja, was standing dutifully as his daughters spoke to their lawyer and leaders of some backward class organisations supporting them. The sisters say it is time Haryana’s daughters fought back. “Have you seen how women are treated in this state? How we struggle in public buses every day? If we retaliate, we are accused of being aggressive. We are not willing to face suppression anymore,” they say. In her complaint, Aarti has accused the three youths of also molesting another woman passenger who had spoken in their defence.
Father of three daughters and a son, Kuhar did not wince when his daughters fielded questions from the media on the alleged molestation. “I have brought up my daughters like my son. I have taught them to fight in self-defence. It is better than worrying over their security,” he says before leaving with his daughters for New Delhi for an interview with a national news channel.
A few yards away, Balbir Singh, father of the main accused, Kuldeep, visits the room of his lawyer along with a former sarpanch of Asan village. Having retired from the 18 Jat regiment of the Army in 1975, he took to farming to raise his family of six children, five of them daughters. “Kuldeep is the youngest among my children. I brought up my son like my daughters, who are now all married. I educated them all. I was a strict father and Kuldeep never got any special treatment. I was enraged when I heard that my son has been accused of molesting girls. How would I face people as father of five daughters? But he has been abused and beaten up for no reason and I will fight for justice,” Balbir said.
Caste and gender overtones
As the case assumes caste and gender overtones, the Sonepat sisters have been provided police protection. But at Asan village, it is the accused Kuldeep and Deepak, who are being guarded by friends and family. Kuldeep and Deepak’s friends are constantly with them. They are not being allowed to move out of the village. Deepak’s father has even taken away his phone.
“I kept his phone with me as it is also an important piece of evidence since the girls have claimed Kuldeep and Mohit called Deepak while on the bus. He had boarded the bus at Bhalauth village where he had gone to buy ghee and received no call from them from the bus,” says his father Sreepal, a farmer.
Deepak and Kuldeep claim to have witnessed a spat between the sisters and a few youths from the neighbouring Sisana village earlier on this bus. “We later heard they had reached a compromise. After this incident, we and the two sisters were brought face to face in a television talk show. I asked them as to what was my fault. They had no answer and left the show,” Deepak said.
Kuldeep, too, claims the sisters had no answer when he asked them why there is no video of the alleged molestation. “The video shows them beating me up. Where does it show I did something to instigate them? If I was teasing and touching them, why did they not make a video of it? They scratched my neck with their nails, slapped, kicked and hit me with a belt. When I jumped out of the bus to save myself, Pooja hurled a stone at me. I too have five sisters and have never shown disrespect to any girl,” he says showing the injury marks on his neck.
The only ones from the village to have cleared the physical and medical tests of the Army, they are unsure if they would be allowed to appear for the written exam in February. For Kuldeep’s father Balbir, it is also a loss of hard-earned legacy of serving the Army. “My son would have got 20 extra points as I was in the Army,” Balbir adds.
Divided by caste, village unites
The recent controversy is not the only one Asan village is battling since last week. Just two days after three youths of this village were arrested for alleged molestation, a girl from a Jat family “eloped” with a Dalit youth of the village. For a society that has for long been entrenched in regressive patriarchy, the two incidents seem to have reinforced it. Village’s former sarpanch Ram Chander questions if laws empowering women are doing society any good. “The girl ran away just at the age of 18. Does she become government property once she turns 18 and parents lose all rights? In the other case, the future of these youths is at stake,” he says. But while the caste tensions continue to simmer, the village seems to have united for the three accused. “We have seen them grow up in this village. They have never shown disrespect to any girl,” claims Dharamvir who lives in the Dalit basti of the village.
Smear campaign brews
Both sides are accusing each other of waging a smear campaign. The victims have asked for a ban on social media sites “maligning our image”. The accused have also moved an application on Wednesday alleging some organisation was distributing pamphlets in Rohtak claiming that an independent inquiry had found the accused guilty. “A smear campaign has been launched to mislead people. The phone of the sisters is the most vital piece of evidence as it has been used to make videos. Even the new video that has surfaced is not the complete one. Which is why we have demanded that the phones of the sisters be seized,” advocate Sandeep Rathee, who is defending the accused, said.
While the controversy has caught the attention of the entire nation, Rohtak police seems to be in no hurry to act. Despite a special investigation team (SIT) having been set up by the Haryana government, the phones of neither the accused nor the victim sisters have so far been seized to check the veracity of the allegations. Rohtak SP Shashank Anand, who at a press conference, had given his mobile number for eyewitnesses to contact him, did not take any calls. Inspector general Alok Kumar Roy refused to comment on why the police had not seized the phones. “The SIT has started its investigation and all aspects are being looked into,” he said.