The scare and trepidation of unprecedented violence during the Jat quota agitation in Haryana was at its peak when a startling revelation hit the headlines — “women commuters violated by highway goons” at Murthal on Delhi-Ambala national highway.
The news report that appeared in an English daily in Chandigarh on February 24 claimed that women commuters were reportedly stopped near Murthal early in the morning on February 21, dragged into nearby fields and raped. Quoting eyewitnesses and sources, the report said at least 10 women were sexually assaulted by around 30 men.
It also said the police dismissed the incident as rumour, but the victims and their families were reportedly advised by district officials to not report the matter for the sake of their honour. A jumpy Haryana government, already under fire for failing to check the violence, deputed a fact-finding team comprising senior officers, including a principal secretary-rank IAS officer and an inspector general of police.
The police spoke to eyewitnesses quoted by the newspaper and concluded that was no incidents of women being molested or raped took place that night. Statements of several villagers from Kurad failed to confirm the allegation. A team from the National Commission of Women (NCW), headed by Rekha Sharma, conducted an inquiry in Murthal but it too could not verify that such an incident took place.
HC takes cognisance
On the day of the alleged Murthal incident, the Punjab and Haryana high court took cognizance of the report and Justice NK Sanghi wrote to the acting chief justice in this regard. Subsequently, the state government filed a status report on February 29 in the high court stating that the police did not find any evidence of the reported gang rapes.
However, before the status report was even submitted, television channels ran amok castigating the state for the alleged rapes. Quoting the “investigative report” of the English newspaper, a television channel went to the extent of alleging that there was a cover-up.
Between February 24 and February 28, several eyewitnesses appeared on TV and were quoted by various newspapers, but they all retracted their statements before a judicial magistrate.
One of those flip-flopping eyewitnesses was Niranjan Singh, who said women on foot were led to nearby fields by miscreants in broad daylight on February 22 and 23 and not on the night of February 21 and 22. “I saw from a distance. Women pedestrians were asked by miscreants to take a detour to fields as main road was unsafe… and their clothes were torn. It was shameful,” Singh told a news channel. A reporter on one of the channels even asked him: “February 22 ko hungama badh gaya tha? (Did the commotion increase on February 22?)”
This, however, was a deviation from the original story that appeared in print media, according to which the alleged gang rapes took place on the night of February 21.
A news website later quoted two alleged victims, whose identities were kept secret, as saying that the police asked them to keep quiet about the incident. The story penned by a male journalist also suggested that he met the two victims as a non-journalist, raising questions about the credibility of the report — considering that it is unlikely for a woman victim of sexual assault or rape to share such details with a complete stranger.
Journalist restraint overwhelmed?
Media expert and senior journalist Prof Vepa Rao said the whole issue seems to be shrouded in mystery and we just don’t know whether the heinous crime actually took place or not. “One of the most important principles in journalism is to verify facts thoroughly before rushing to the public. After all, there is a huge difference between a rumour and news. Unfortunately for media these days, it has become more important to rush with the so called ‘the first big news’,” he said.
Prof Rao said in the golden era of journalism, national dailies such as the Hindustan Times, the Statesman, etc, would risk being a day late rather than being proved incorrect. “If the Murthal rape incidents really took place, it calls for the severest of punishments, irrespective of who is involved. Similarly, if it was nothing more than a rumour or a deliberate planting of the so called news with an intent to tarnish the image of individuals or a particular community, then also it calls for stringent action. On the part of the media, it is imperative to exercise caution and self restraint,” he said.
“Often competition overwhelms journalistic restraint. The impulse to score over rivals is often too intense to make journalists and media houses tread on razor’s edge,” said a Delhi-based senior journalist.
A retired journalist, however, said the possibility of witnesses getting cold feet over fear of inviting the wrath of hoodlums and living with the nuisance of a police investigation could not be ruled out.
“I mean, who would like to get into this knowing that it could mean harassment for years,” he said.