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Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, we visited Rohtak in the days following the gang rape of a 28-year-old woman.

It was just another winter morning. On 1 February, a 34-year-old domestic worker woke up, prepared breakfast and packed lunch for her children before setting out to work in Haryana’s Rohtak district.

Her 28-year-old sister, visiting from Nepal, was still in bed when she left for work. The domestic worker’s son was at home that day, preparing for a class exam. When the 28-year-old got out of bed and stepped out on to the terrace, she remarked to her nephew, “The sun is bright and nice today."

At around noon, when the boy took a break and went looking for his aunt, she was nowhere to be found. With a sense of slowly rising panic, he called his mother. None of the neighbours had seen her. A 12-year-old boy thought he might have spotted her walking alone in the street.

“I kept thinking of the worst things but what actually happened to her never struck my mind," says the 34-year-old.

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The rape victim’s sister and brother. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

The elder sister and her husband went to the police post at Gandhi Camp. But though their complaint was filed, she says the police weren’t serious about finding her sister. Meanwhile, she says, she went everywhere, sticking posters with her sister’s photograph and description: 4ft, 8 inches, colour, dusky. Wearing a light-blue salwar-kameez, a black and white sweater, black slippers, a nosepin, and earrings.

Three days later, the family received a call from the Sukhpura Chowk police station: A body had been recovered in Bahu Akbarpur village on the Rohtak-Hisar highway.

“There was nothing left of her for us to identify," says the elder sister. “Those men had already defaced her…and what was left had been eaten by dogs." When the police showed her the blue salwar and the black and white sweater, she knew who it was.

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Police officers at the crime scene in Bahu Akbarpur village on the Rohtak-Hisar highway

“I have conducted more than 30,000 post-mortems in my life, but I haven’t seen such a case of rape ever. It took us 5 hours. We started at 2.30pm and got done around 8pm," says S.K. Dhattarwal, senior professor and head of department of forensic medicine, PGIMS (Pandit Bhagwat Dayal Sharma Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences), Rohtak, and medico-legal adviser to the Haryana government.

But in Rohtak, the gang rape has not changed anything.

Bare facts

News of the incident came trickling in days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the “beti bachao, beti padhao (save girls, educate girls)" campaign in Haryana, the state with the country’s worst sex ratio at 879 females for every 1,000 males, well below the national average of 943 females for every 1,000 males, according to the 2011 Census.

With 143 villages, Rohtak district has a sex ratio of just 867 females for every 1,000 males, below even the state’s already abysmal record. Of the 15 districts in the country with the worst sex ratio, Haryana accounts for nine, said the Prime Minister at the campaign launch in Haryana.

But behind the cold statistics of a skewed sex ratio are the brutalized lives of its women. The National Crime Records Bureau recorded 33,707 cases of rape and 70,739 cases of assault on women throughout India in 2013. Haryana accounted for 971 cases of rape, 263 dowry deaths, and 9,089 incidents of crime against women—one of the highest rates of reported crime against women, at a rate of 75 per 100,000 women, compared to the national average of 52.2.

In recent years, Haryana has emerged as a prime location for manufacturing industries and organized retail and its economic indicators, such as per capita income and per capita investment, are healthy. While 65% of the state remains rural, Haryana is urbanizing rapidly. From less than 25% in 1991, the state’s urban population had grown to nearly 35% in 2011, according to a 2014 report by Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), a non-funded network of women.

Just over 86km from Delhi and connected by a network of highways and roads, Rohtak’s proximity to the Capital has not necessarily brought positive changes.

“The modernity and culture of Delhi has influenced the rural population but since the level of education—in fact basic common sense—is missing, it is a sudden exposure," says Reicha Tanwar, director, Women’s Studies Research Centre, Kurukshetra University, Haryana. While the women are trying to emerge from a purdah system, there is no change in the men, she adds. “Boys see women roam around and think they are encroaching on to their space. This assertion of independence by women is a cultural shock for men," she says.

In Rohtak, harassment, stalking, verbal abuse and physical intimidation seem to be routine every time a woman steps out on the streets—whether she is travelling in a bus, driving a scooter or just walking.

“I commute every day from Bhiwani to Rohtak and each day brings some new harassment. Sometimes it is whistling, sometimes it is staring, and sometimes it is commenting on my dress or physical attributes. It is demeaning and frustrating. You are left shaking with anger but we are afraid to even react," says 19-year-old Ruchika Sardanha, a second year bachelor’s in computer application (BCA) student at the Government College for Women (GCW) in Rohtak.

This daily harassment can sometimes have tragic consequences. On 25 August last year, two teenage girls, Madhu Singh and Nikita Duhan, committed suicide by consuming pesticide-laced juice after being stalked by boys from their neighbourhood of Old Rohtak’s Fauji Colony.

“Every day a new man would come and chase (us)…people around us would stare as if we had done something wrong…people will say we encouraged these men to follow us…even though we are innocent," wrote Singh, 16, in her suicide note.

Both Duhan and Singh had told their families about the harassment and Duhan’s father had even complained to the family of one of the boys, but to no avail.

“Madhu used to go to school, coaching and back. She never did anything wrong, she never hurt anyone. Today she is gone and her killers roam free," says an agitated Raj, Madhu Singh’s grandmother. Two of the three accused are out on bail, says Anita, Madhu’s mother.

Stalked, haunted

Sitting in a room on the ground floor of her home, her daughter Madhu’s photograph in her hands, Anita Singh takes deep jagged breaths as she tries to hold back tears. It is 3.45 in the afternoon and her eyes wander to the house gate. “This was the time for her to come home. If there is any movement, I think maybe it’s her.

Anita Singh holding the photograph of her daughter Madhu, who committed suicide. Photo: Sneha Srivastava/Mint
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Anita Singh holding the photograph of her daughter Madhu, who committed suicide. Photo: Sneha Srivastava/Mint

Exam season is around the corner and the grounds of the GCW has groups of women poring over books. Some are dressed in salwar-kameez but the majority of them wear jeans and colourful pullovers.

“There is a certain way to dress, way to walk, to behave in public. I feel if you tick all the boxes then perhaps you don’t get singled out for attention but, yes, there really isn’t any foolproof way to safeguard yourself," says Priya Sharma, a Rohtak native who commutes on her scooter. Incidents like catcalling and tailing while on her way to college are frequent enough for her to dismiss them as “inconsequential".

“I tell my girls that their outfits have nothing to do with them being harassed. The fault lies in the mindsets of those who trouble girls, not how they dress or how they walk," says Laxmi Beniwal Dalal, principal, GCW. She believes girls are singled out and targeted, and while it is a fact of life they live with, they don’t necessarily have to accept it.

Duhan and Madhu’s suicides led to self-defence classes at the GCW organized by the Inspector General and SSP (senior superintendent of police), Rohtak. Even today, over six months later, a police van is stationed outside the college from 9am-1pm every day. But these steps have not deterred boys from hanging around the college boundary wall, harassing students for their telephone numbers.

Blame game

Despite its echoes with the gruesome gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012 that resulted in nationwide protest, the Rohtak gang rape and murder briefly hit the headlines and disappeared.

There is no national outrage or condemnation of the routine harassment that Rohtak’s girls face. In fact, the state’s leadership seems to endorse the view that the women are to blame. During his election campaign, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Manohar Lal Khattar had declared: “If a girl is dressed decently, a boy will not look at her in the wrong way." Khattar took over as chief minister in October.

It’s a view of women endorsed by other men in the state. “We all acknowledge what happened was wrong," says Raju Pradhan, president of the Kalkal, a subcaste gotra khap in Haryana. “But society also needs to be blamed. Earlier our parents would keep a constant watch on the children. Now because habits of the city have perforated into the village, girls do what they want to and come and go as they please."

“Changing times" have always been blamed for the high rate of crime in Haryana. “We still have certain traditions that we follow," continues Raju Pradhan. “If a married woman doesn’t cover her head or if an unmarried woman applies make-up, we will object. These problems are happening because of women becoming more modern." Younger men agree. “Look at women these days. Their clothes are getting shorter and shorter. This obviously pollutes the environment," says a 21-year-old male student at a polytechnic college in Rohtak.

For most young educated men, a little bit of harassment is “fun". “Yes, comments are passed, there is cat-calling, but even girls want to be noticed," says Akash Gupta, a final-year engineering student at the Vaish College of Engineering (VEC), Rohtak. His classmate Manoj Malhotra recalls an incident when a boy hooted at two girls. “They were smiling to themselves after that. This means they enjoy the attention."

1091 is the helpline number instituted by the Haryana Police for women. Staffed exclusively by women officials, it is meant to come to the immediate aid of women in distress. “Three days ago, we were tailed by two boys on a bike who then spat at us," says Mehak Chopra, a second-year bachelor’s of science student. But when she and her friend Ishani Punia called up the helpline, there was no response. “They finally called back after three days to find out the details," says Chopra.

Surinder Kumar, assistant sub-inspector, Haryana Police, control room in-charge, however, dismisses Chopra’s charge, saying: “Everytime a call is made, especially by a woman, we immediately dispatch a PCR (police control room van) rider and inform the area SHO (station house officer) that a complaint has been made."

Despite tougher provisions and penalties of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, crimes against women in Haryana or, for that matter, nationally, have not abated. “Laws alone are not enough to bring about change. Social structures are becoming more and more antipathetic towards women and other minorities," says Mumbai-based Meena Gopal, associate professor and chairperson for the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Delhi-based senior advocate Rebecca John says, “Our system does not deal with crime prevention. A system which is corroded by apathy cannot be transformed by one legislation. The contours of the debate are wrong. We look at incidents as stand-alone cases. Tougher laws, sensitized systems in courts are all ancillary. The issue is one of crime prevention."

Even the Justice JS Verma Committee, set up after the 2012 Delhi tragedy, had suggested that laws alone are not enough to effect social change. It asked for “systemic changes in education and societal behaviour".

Silver lining

For many young girls, education is a one-way ticket out of Rohtak, home to an Indian Institute of Management, and more than 10 other government educational institutes. The literacy rate in the region is 84.08%, one of the highest in the state. Several societies also run their own colleges, making it an education hub. It is these colleges that attract both boys and girls from far and wide. Girls come from villages as far as Thana Khurd, about 40km from Rohtak.

“The preference for a son has led to undue privilege and protection being accorded to boys in Haryana. They have all the resources available to them," says women’s rights activist Jagmati Sangwan of the non-profit All India Democratic Women’s Association. “They are not very driven and, worse still, there is no accountability. Drug abuse is rampant. The women, on the other hand, are very driven. This leads to an inevitable clash".

The modern woman is trying to make her way in a patriarchal society that believes she should neither be seen nor heard. It is made worse in Haryana because little or no work has been done in the area of gender sensitization. Both Duhan and Madhu nursed dreams of going to the US for higher education. Pooja and Aarti want to do a master’s in computer application and get good jobs. Mehak and Ishani want to leave Rohtak for another city. “There is a very strong desire for upward mobility in girls here and they are paying a price for it," says Sangwan.

Living in fear

None of the eight men who have been arrested on charges of gang-raping and murdering the 28-year-old in Rohtak has a criminal record. While seven belong to Gaddi Kheri village in Rohtak, one is a Nepalese migrant. Most worked on small farm-holdings. One ran a liquor shop, one is a carpenter and another worked as a daily labourer. Of the nine accused, one fled to Delhi after the crime and committed suicide hours after the others were arrested on 9 February.

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Residents of Gaddi Kheri in Rohtak—seven of the accused in the rape and murder of the 28-year-old belong to the village. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

“They raped her for 3 hours. Then at around 10.30pm they moved her to a nearby canal. They had planned to dump her there but realized the water level was very low," says Rohtak deputy superintendent of police Amit Bhatia, who is the head of the special investigation team probing the case. “Instead, they dumped her somewhere in a field and all took turns to beat her with bricks. Then just to ensure she was dead, they inserted asbestos sheets in her vital organs," he says.

The family of the 28-year-old is still trying to come to terms with her death and the brutality with which she was killed. Her sister wants the eight punished. “If they are hanged, they will die at once. They will not get the pain they gave my sister," she says. “Every day you listen to these stories, how many more have to suffer, how many more women have to die before we wake up? Every woman in this neighbourhood is scared to even step out. Even I am scared…my kids are scared."

According to Aidwa, this is not the first time that an incident like this has happened. “Two years ago a woman’s body was found…completely defaced. She couldn’t be identified at all. And so the case was shut," says Savita (who uses only one name), joint secretary, Aidwa, Haryana.

For now, the 34-year-old’s house is guarded by the state police. For her, getting past the incident, or even accepting that it actually happened, seems difficult. Every day snatches of memory come to her. In her mind, she runs through every little detail of what happened that day before she left for work. She thinks of what could have been done differently—maybe if she had left for work a little later that day....

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