On 2 April, a group of 50 students from a law college in Uttar Pradesh's Meerut district went on a day-long tour to Agra, around four hours away, with the usual itinerary of Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri Fort.
As is evident from a lot of videos and photographs, of students dancing in the bus and clicking selfies at the monuments, they thoroughly enjoyed the tour.
They had started early around 6 am, accompanied by two male and two female teachers, and returned quite late in the night. The next day, most students skipped college.
Everything seemed fine on the day until late evening when one of the students posted a series of tweets sharing her ordeal of being sexually harassed in the bus and being targeted for being the lone Muslim girl in the group.
The student, Umam Khanam, said that some students got drunk, bought caps bearing symbols of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and, when she refused, started misbehaving with her. She said they tried to touch her in an indecent manner but the teachers did not intervene. They started pulling her and forcing her to dance on seemingly vulgar songs. They ruined her entire bus journey and, when her friends came forward for her support, the students who were drunk misbehaved with them too. She said that she was singled out for the harassment as she was the only Muslim girl in the group and had rejected to wear the BJP cap.
"Wallahi they tried to scare me but allahmdulillah i feel am more strong and this is what bjp has done to us ....So much of hatred for muslims out there...and now it has reach to such extent that students are harassing and molesting others... (sic)," she said and concluded her ordeal.
The tweets caused a sensation on social media and thousands of people, blaming the fiasco on the BJP and Islamophobia, shared it across platforms. Several news publications latched on to the viral tweets and put out reports, headlined 'UP Muslim girl harassed for not wearing BJP cap' or some variation of it.
News reached the college slowly.
Ambuj Sharma, head of department (HoD) at Dewan Law College who accompanied the group, got to know of the viral tweets only when a Twitter user named Dushyant Dubey called him up on the morning of 4 April. Dushyant had managed to find his contact and approached him to know "the other side" of the story.
Sharma told this correspondent on 8 April (Monday), "He asked me about Umam and I did not even immediately recall her name. He asked me if anything untoward happened on the bus and I said no. I had no idea what he was talking about."
Sharma then went to the principal, who escalated the matter to the institute's head — executive director Colonel (retired) Dr Naresh Goyal — who then spoke to Umam.
Goyal told this correspondent, "She looked very agitated and told me that she was sexually harassed on the tour. She took two names, Amit Kumar Singh and Ankur Verma, and said they should be rusticated immediately. Then she said okay Amit is not so guilty but please rusticate Ankur."
"I was quite upset. I have a daughter too. I told her to give a written complaint so I can forward it to the college's women grievance cell," said Goyal. In about half-an-hour, she handed over the written complaint and left.
Though Goyal did not share the complaint with this correspondent, he said she mentioned "molestation" and made a specific charge against Ankur, mentioned both the accused’s names, but did not mention the word “BJP” or "Muslim" or that she was targeted for her religious identity.
The college soon formed a four-member committee to look into her complaint and sent letters to the accused informing them of their suspension until inquiry.
"We also added a Muslim faculty into the committee after seeing her tweets," said Goyal.
A week later, the committee hasn't held a single meeting as neither the victim nor the accused or their parents have appeared before the committee for giving their statements.
There is another group, however, that has been pretty active since the suspension — about 35 students who were present on the bus that day. They recently gave a four-page hand-written statement to Goyal, signed by all 35 of them, refuting Umam's version completely and giving time-wise details of all that unfolded on the tour.
Jyoti Singh, a first-year student of bachelors of law (LLB) - of the same batch as the victim and the accused - is leading this group.
Asked about the rest of the tour group, Jyoti said the other students chose not to intervene. "They didn't want to sign on anything," she said.
Soon after the written statement, many in the group opened Twitter accounts to share the other side of the story. To make their point that all was well, they posted a video showing Umam smilingly dancing in the bus while Ankur is dancing alongside and not looking in her direction at all. This video too has gone viral, with the claim that Umam is probably lying.
Neither Umam's tweets nor this video, however, prove or refute the story completely.
As Umam herself told this correspondent over the phone, "If I was dancing, it doesn't mean I wasn't or couldn't have been molested."
Then why does the group claim she is lying? Their reasons are many.
One, there is not even one eye-witness of the alleged harassment till date, either among the group or the teachers.
This correspondent spoke to all the four teachers — Ambuj Sharma, Neeraj Gupta, Garima Singh and Richa Tomar — and they categorically denied having seen any kind of harassment in the bus. Throughout the trip, Khanam didn't approach them even once, they said.
"I even offered my seat to Umam at one point of time when I saw her standing, but she smilingly told me she was fine," said Garima Singh.
"On our return, Umam was the last student to get down. We all had waited till her relative came to pick her up from the given point. She was totally fine and didn’t tell us anything," said Neeraj Gupta.
"On April 4, I asked Umam what had happened. She just said 'hua tha hua tha, aapne dekha hi nahi' (it happened, it happened, you didn't see it) and left," said Ambuj Sharma.
"I asked her why she had tweeted instead of first approaching the grievance cell, and she said she did not know about it. It's difficult for me to believe it as we have had several sessions with the students about this," said Tomar.
Naresh Goyal said that till date, no eye-witness of the harassment has come forward in Umam's support.
Two, the group says there were no BJP caps. "None of what she says adds up," said Sandip Bansal, a classmate. "She says the boys bought BJP caps. But there was no BJP cap at all. All that was there was a BJP flag that was already fixed in the bus at the rear end because probably the bus had been previously used for a BJP rally. The cap claim is a complete lie. Can she produce even one evidence of it?"
Three, no other girl has complained or talked about her harassment as alleged by Umam. “She says some friends came to her rescue and were harassed too. Who are these friends? Till date, no such friend has been found,” said Shivani Chauhan, another classmate.
Goyal confirmed that he has not received a complaint from any other girl in the bus for harassment.
Four, students say she is misrepresenting contents of the songs played.
"Her tweet said the boys started playing songs like 'jiski biwi lambi uska bhi bada naam hai, usse kothe pe bitha do' to harass her. But this isn't a vulgar song. The line actually says 'kothe se laga do' that means 'place it along the terrace' and not 'kothe pe bitha do' that means 'make her sit in a brothel'. She is just making things up,” said Yashveer Yadav, a classmate.
Five, students say she is lying about being targeted for being a Muslim. "She was our miss freshers. She remains one of the most popular girls in the batch. She seldom brings lunch and most of the time, she shares mine. We are always drinking form her bottle. There is absolutely no basis to that claim," said Jyoti.
Shiva Trivedi, another classmate said, "She tweeted that there is so much of hatred for Muslims and BJP is behind it. But the truth is, she is the one who discriminates against us and our beliefs. She hates the BJP. She in fact hates India."
And it began. Scores of students came forward to give their testimonies, on camera, of how Umam is a "religious fanatic" who did this "to get into the good books of Shehla Rashid and Afra Khanum".
As per the accused Ankur, who met this correspondent outside the campus, Umam has probably done this to get even with him over their ideological differences.
"I often got into arguments with her about India and the BJP. She once called Army a bunch of rapists on social media. I called her out and she called me an 'andhbhakt' (blind follower). After a similar spat again, she tweeted that while Saudi has money, Pakistan has beauty, India only has andhbhakts. It was directed at me. In fact, on the tour too, we had differences because she kept on calling me andhbhakt," said Ankur.
"I cannot think of any other reason why she would drag my name other than to get even with me over our ideological differences," he said. Ankur added that when he confronted Umam a day after the complaint, she said that he must apologise in writing so she can post it on her Twitter account.
And what about Amit? "I really don't know. I think she took my name because I recently joined a new friend circle. She was my very good friend until now," said Amit, and shared an audio of the night before the tour where Umam is asking him to pick her up from home in the morning.
A surprising large number of students support Ankur's theory.
Shiva Trivedi said, "Umam is a religious fanatic. She is conservative and orthodox in an extreme way."
"She calls Dawood [Ibrahim] as India's 'baap', wants Modi to be lynched, supports Sharia laws, cracks gau mutra jokes and goes around calling everyone andhbhakts and Hindutva-types who disagrees with her. The strange thing is, she calls us andhbhakts on face and on Twitter, she calls for bhakts to be killed. All of us have had a fight with her at some point or the other," he said.
Such testimonies are too many, and students insist that this explains her motive of "lying".
For two days now, Jyoti has been carrying a file that contains heaps of print-outs of Umam’s social media posts done in the past. The posts confirm nearly all of the claims made above. "She deleted some three hundred tweets in a day. We managed to take screenshots of several of them," said Jyoti.
The students also have several incidents to share, and insist that they all provide context to this case.
Shiva said that when a group of seven friends, including her, Umam, Shiva, Amit and Sandip, went to watch the film Uri, Umam annoyed them all as she refused to stand up for the national anthem and, throughout the film, kept on calling it a propaganda film. "This is just one of the incidents that shows she is against India," said Shiva.
Jyoti shared an incident involving Holi. "Amit and Ankur applied colour on her. Until the colour was white and green, she was fine. The moment they put saffron colour on her, and they did it unknowingly, she said this is not done and started crying,” Jyoti said, and shared photographs of Umam crying with saffron colour splashed on her face. Several students testified to this.
Jyoti said, "She is always talking about her religion. Once a senior of ours who is a Muslim and is very secular, said he doesn't believe in any religion, Umam got so mad that she stormed out of the conversation and till date, doesn’t talk to him.”
Why is this information important? Students say that this is the real story behind her outburst.
"She wants to get into the good books of Shehla Rashid and Afra Khanum. She is always talking about them. No wonder she tagged them in her tweets too," said Shiva.
This conversation with the group and several other students suggest that the sexual harassment case currently under investigation at Dewan Law College could be all about the zeal for ideological one-upmanship armed with the lure of social media. Rather than fanaticism of BJP-supporters or Islamophobia, this could well be something entirely the opposite.
The case, of course, could be a real instance of sexual harassment too, and that would be settled once both parties show up.
Meanwhile, these law students, especially men, admitted that they learnt for the first time that the mere word of a woman is enough to make them accused of sexual harassment and suspended from college. Vinay Tyagi, a first-year student, said he was so scared that he would think twice before befriending any woman.
This fear appears to be pervasive.
The students are also getting a taste of minorityism, that the mere word of a Muslim is enough for the media to brand Hindus under scanner as religious bigots.
"We never do Hindu-Muslim here. In fact it is Umam who discriminates. But look at the amount of media coverage of her tweets. Everyone is ready to believe her. Her own views on India and Hindutva are getting no limelight," said one of these students who did not wish to be quoted on this statement.
This correspondent called up Umam for her version, who said she could only talk over the phone as she would not be coming to the college.
Asked why there were no eye-witnesses, Umam said she stood by her complaint. Asked why her classmates are campaigning against her, Umam said a conspiracy against her is on. Asked why her tweets differed from her written complaint that made no mention of her Muslim identity, she said she felt so and stood by her complaint. Umam then asked this correspondent her name and the publication she works for and, on hearing the answer, disconnected the call. She did not pick the calls made to her again.
The college, meanwhile, is fighting a battle on two fronts — to save its image both in women and minority matters. Dr SM Sharma, director of the law college, produced a religious break-up of the faculty — four Muslims out of 22 teachers — to make a point about inclusiveness.
He said he has been requesting the college's Muslim students to come forward and share their experiences at the campus. Rashid Salmani, a first-year student who missed the tour, said he never felt discriminated.
Another perception battle is about women security, on which the college is following the Vishakha Guidelines.
However, on 9 April, in a bold move, the administration suspended Umam till pending inquiry.
While some reports suggest that the college took the decision under pressure from Hindu groups that came to meet Naresh Goyal in hundreds (this correspondent saw them), Goyal said, "We consulted our legal team and they suggested that since Umam is not coming for her statements, and the only eye-witness statements have come from the other side, she should be suspended too."
Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.
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