Until the Jat agitations broke out in Haryana in mid-February, Murthal in the state’s Sonepat district used to be a favourite pit stop for those travelling on the busy National Highway 1. But the violence unleashed by the protesters in the intervening night of February 22-23 changed everything: Protesters burnt down eateries, destroyed public property worth Rs 700 crore and, if media and independent reports are to be believed, there was harassment of women, including rape. While the state government and the police have said that there have been no molestations and rapes, there are many who believe otherwise and that the state machinery is now allegedly engaged in a cover-up operation. The Murthal case came up in the Rajya Sabha last week: Saying that she has no faith in a police probe, the Congress’ Kumari Selja demanded a judicial inquiry into the alleged sexual assault of women commuters.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court had taken suo motu cognizance of the reports and had asked the state government to submit a report. The government denied any such incident. But the point here is that the investigation was done by Haryana government officials themselves, the same set that failed to control the violence. A team of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) visited the area recently and said that the administration was trying to hush up the matter even after receiving complaints and that the witnesses had been shut out of the scene. While a few victims have spoken to the media about their ordeal and not many are keen to file FIRs, eyewitness accounts do corroborate that there was violence against women that night.
In India, the public’s faith in State institutions is low, and the controversy around Murthal could barrel it down further. The Jat agitation was the first big political and administrative test of chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar. He appears to have failed. Instead of leaving the case open to interpretation by the media, NGOs and political groups, the government must order a judicial probe.