India

India's 'fightback' sisters and the video questions

Indian sisters Pooja (L), 19, and Aarti, 22, are photographed at their home in the district of Sonepat on December 4, 2014. Image copyright Manoj dhaka
Image caption The sisters say the three men assaulted them on the bus

Two Indian sisters have been in the headlines since video showed them fighting back against men allegedly sexually harassing them on a bus. Then a second video showed the pair apparently attacking a man in a park. BBC Hindi's Rupa Jha travelled to Haryana state to piece together an intriguing story.

'Abuse' and a belting on the bus

The incident happened in Rohtak district on 28 November when the two students, 22-year-old Aarti and 19-year-old Pooja Kumar, were on their way home on a state-run passenger bus.

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Media captionPooja Kumar says other passengers "did nothing" during the incident on a bus

Younger sister Pooja told BBC Hindi that the three men "threatened and abused us". She said she took out her belt and hit them in self-defence. The sisters say a pregnant passenger shot the incident on her mobile phone.

In the video, Pooja can be seen hitting one of the men, while a second man is partially hidden behind his friend. The third man is not in the frame - it is unclear whether he was already on the bus when the film was shot. The sisters say he boarded the vehicle after the two men rang him.

The video also shows a male passenger repeatedly trying to separate one of the men from the women, while most other passengers look the other way. The video went viral amid growing concern in India about sexual violence against women and generated a wave of support for the sisters.

The three men were arrested the next day and later bailed. They have been charged with sexual harassment and causing the women "grievous hurt". Police are still investigating the case.

The conductor who didn't see

Police say the driver and conductor of the bus have both given testimony. Local police chief Shashank Anand said the driver, Balwan Singh, had corroborated the account given by the sisters.

Image copyright Rupa jha
Image caption Labh Singh says he offered to call the police to help the girls

I met Labh Singh, the conductor, in his village - the driver was away.

"The sisters told me that some men were misbehaving with them on the bus, though I did not see the attack. I had asked the men to leave the girls alone," he said.

"I also offered to call the police after the bus stopped and the men and the sisters alighted. I did what I had to do."

But media reports say five other women passengers on the bus have testified to police that the fight was caused by a dispute about seats and that no sexual harassment was involved.

The pregnant passenger

Both the sisters and the bus conductor say a pregnant passenger took the video on her phone. The conductor says the woman was a regular passenger on the route.

Image copyright Press Trust of India
Image caption The incident was captured by a passenger on a mobile phone

The sisters say they were given the footage by the woman, who asked them not to disclose her identity. It is not clear whether the police have been able to speak to this woman.

Rajesh Singh, the father of the women and a government clerk, says the families of the accused men put pressure on him to withdraw the police complaint against their sons and "reach a settlement".

He says he released the video to the media after the "settlement failed".

Public sexual harassment of women, dubbed "Eve teasing", is rampant in parts of India and causes misery for women.

The footage in which they appear is far from unique. India has some 915 million mobile phone subscribers and call and data charges are among the cheapest in the world - videos are constantly being uploaded, many purporting to show women fighting back against men.

Since a fatal gang rape in Delhi in 2012 crimes against women have received greater scrutiny. No wonder then that the sisters' fightback gripped India.

Miss Talented and Miss Fresher

The two women live with their parents and two other siblings in the village of Thana Khurd, some 40km (24 miles) north of India's capital, Delhi.

Haryana is one of India's more prosperous states. Thana Khurd, unsurprisingly, is more urban than rural - the streets are lined with shops and its brick and concrete homes have running water and electricity.

Image copyright other
Image caption Pooja (left) and Aarti (right) have won several college competitions

When I met the sisters, they said they were "tired of talking to the media".

Days after the incident, outdoor broadcasting vans were still parked outside their home, and messages of support have been pouring in on social media. Women from neighbouring villages have flocked to their homes to show their solidarity.

The sisters, who study IT, have won a host of college competitions - they proudly show me two certificates declaring them winners of Miss Talented and Miss Fresher. Pooja says she loves to dance.

They appear spirited young women, and have the backing of their family in the largely patriarchal society they live in.

And they are definitely going to keep on taking public transport.

"We will hit back again if men misbehave with us. We will not take it lying down," they say.

That other video

When I ask them about the emergence of another video showing them apparently attacking a man in a park in Rohtak, they dismiss suggestions that it casts doubt on their story.

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Media captionA short clip from NDTV of the sisters hitting a man in a park

"Let them say what they want to say. They have got used to beating girls. Now they are coming up with weird allegations," Arti says.

"I wish I had known about the new video earlier so that I could have filed a police complaint against this man as well."

Indian TV channels say the second video was filmed about a month ago. There is no evidence of the sisters being harassed in the footage.

The video was reportedly released by the father of one of the men accused of harassment on the bus.

He told The Indian Express newspaper the video "arrived at their doorstep under mysterious" circumstances.

"We cannot reveal how it reached us. But we do not know who the boy [in the video is]. Maybe, his family does not want him to get into trouble."

Police chief Shashank Shekhar says the new video has not "changed the line of investigation".

Claims of innocence

The men live a few miles away, in a village of 6,000 inhabitants called Aasan. All three are students and in their early 20s.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The accused men are students from a neighbouring village...
Image copyright Manoj dhaka
Image caption ... and their relatives say the allegations against them are "fabricated"

Police patrol vans are doing the rounds when I visit and all is quiet.

Two of them have passed physical education exams for jobs in the army. Some media reports suggest these jobs might now be at risk.

"The allegations are all fabricated," the sister of one of three men tells me.

"These women have a habit of alleging harassment by men and then demanding money [from them]. I know my brother is innocent. We demand a proper investigation into the incident."

The families blame the media and the police for taking sides, and framing the men.

Police deny the charge, saying that they have registered a complaint from the men's families as well, and are investigating it.

Studies, jobs and... marriage?

Many men in both villages accuse the sisters of being "women of easy virtue".

Image copyright Manoj dhaka
Image caption The sisters say they will complete their studies and take up jobs

One young boy in their village told me the "girls are characterless".

When I asked him what that meant, he said: "They are too smart. Please don't ask me anything more."

Deepak, a student in the village, said he was angry that the women had "become celebrities".

"Are they the only girls who have been molested? You cannot have a media trial."

Such reactions are not uncommon in a state which has one of India's lowest gender ratios and is dominated by men.

But the women are not budging from their version of events, and are confident they will be vindicated.

"We will continue our studies. We will take up jobs. We are not sure whether we will marry," says Aarti.

"In any case, who will marry us now?" she says, bursting into laughter.

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