Shafiq R Khan

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Just another Unsolved Crime

In a season of increasing viciousness towards women, Haryana's Ballabhgarh to analyse the peculiarly brutal slaying of a pair of college girls.

THE YEAR has not begun well for India’s women. The country awoke on January 1 to images of a 70-strong mob in Mumbai molesting two young women on New Year’s Eve — the two were sisters-in-law, one was on her honeymoon. In a village in Latur the same day, a 14- year-old was gang raped and hanged from a tree; later in the week, another rape victim, 13, was burned to death in her home in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district. In New Delhi, a mob gathered on January 5 to heckle two women from the Northeast “because their kind spreads immorality” — the mob was led by men who had made lewd remarks at the girls earlier that day. India’s men, obviously, have a long way to go.
Ballabhgarh in Haryana’s Faridabad district is still reeling from the discovery of December 17, when sisters Manju and Mithlesh from Prithla village were found dead on the railway line between Ballabhgarh and Aswati stations, their mutilated bodies showing signs of gross torture.
Both were undergraduate students at Aggarwal Degree College in Ballabhgarh town. December 17 was the day they last left home; when they failed to return that evening, their father, Vijay Singh, went to the police.
It was not a decision many of his neighbours supported. “They were in a hurry to go to the police but we generally wait before making such a matter public,” said a village elder. “After all, the girl’s future is at stake.”
The family told the police that they suspected the involvement of one Dolly, a classmate of Manju. Dolly was taken into custody, and subsequently testified against three young men, Satpal, Satbir and Chander Pal, all Prithla residents and all later arrested.
Manju and Chander Pal are widely said to have been in a relationship: “Everybody knew about it,” says a classmate. “It’s impossible that the family knew nothing,” says a neighbour, who also claims that Vijay Singh once had an argument with Chander Pal when he came across Pal and Manju together on a motorcycle.
Mithlesh is also said to have been in a relationship, though the man in question has not been identified.
Talk such as this has led the police to ask whether the case is an honour killing.
A particularly gruesome angle to the double murder came to light during the postmortem examination. While “manual strangulation” has been named as the causeof death, the injuries on the bodies were almost all made after the girls died — injuries of almost unbelievable savagery ranging from broken bones to punctured lungs, gouged-out eyes and, ultimately, the beheading of Mithlesh.
One of the girls was said to have been raped, a finding contradicted by a detailed forensic examination that was conducted later.
THE CONTRADICTION explains the differing conjectures in Prithla about why the girls’ bodies were so terribly mutilated. The victims’ father says it was an attempt to make it seem that they had met with a train accident; others see the mutilations as an effort to stage a case of rape, which, they believe, did not happen. Although the police have still to recover the vehicle and the weapons used in the crime, their investigations have revealed other anomalies. The two sisters were seen leaving college at about 1:15pm, after which two of their classmates claim to have seen them about 15 minutes later at Ballabhgarh’s Ambedkar Chowk.
Roughly 45 minutes later, a linesman inspecting tracks about five km from the Chowk found their bodies at a spot where the line is flanked by high walls one ofwhich has a hole near the ground, often used as a thoroughfare. This, the police think, is the point through which the girls’ bodies were carried onto the track.
By car, the place is about 20 minutes from Ambedkar Chowk; it would take another 10 minutes to carry the bodies from the road to the rail tracks. By this estimation, the assailants had just around 15 minutes to commit rape, murder and postmortem mutilation on the face of it, very unlikely.
Frenzied rape or cold-blooded honour killing? The police say it is hard to tell — “The case is very sensitive,” is all Gurgaon Range Inspector General SN Vashisht has to say, 20 days after the three prime suspects were arrested. Atul Mittal, senior superintendent of police of Faridabad, concurs, adding, “Investigating requires working on two fronts: analysing the case itself, and maintaining law and order, often a formidable task.” The area is already tense with the girls’ relatives and their supporters alleging that the police has not done enough to get the truth out of the suspects; Palwal Congress MLA Karan Dalal found it necessary to get involved.
“This is Haryana, anything can happen here,” residents tell you with what almost seems a fatalistic enjoyment of the possibilities “anything” can encompass.
Together with western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana has a sizeable Jat population, one where violence in the name of family, caste or village “honour” is always an option when it comes to transgressed tradition. While this ends many times in murder or lynching, humiliations that include public beatings, face blackenings, making a person eat excrement, social boycott and fines are not uncommon.
In rural Haryana, as in much of village India, the khap, or the panchayat — also called the samaj in some places — calls the shots. Such is its power that the government machinery is usually wary of going against it, even in cases of serious crime.
The khap’s power translates into large and unresisting vote banks — any social flashpoint thus becomes instantly politicised with the major political parties rushingin, hampering investigations. The police is usually only too willing to play along, as Jagmati Sangwan, president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association’s Haryana chapter, points out.
“If the police officials are Jats, their sympathies are automatically with the villagers, even if they are murderers. Beyond caste ties, these cases also mean a lot ofmoney as the family is desperate to pay the police any amount to get the matter sorted out,” says Sangwan.
In this context, the barbaric murder of Manju and Mithlesh will, in all likelihood, slip into the vast limbo of India’ s crimes that remain unsolved not for lack of evidence but for lack of will to defy political fallout or the lure of a bribe।
mihir@tehelka.com
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