Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Beacon of Hope

By: Shivam Vij

“She’s a very brave woman,” said the host, Kavita Srivastava, about the “Chief Guest”, who was blessing the newly married couple. Kiran and Vinod have actually been married for a year and a half; the occasion was only a formal reception, which made their marital status public. Both hail from different parts of rural Rajasthan, and were studying in different colleges in Jaipur when they met. Vinod’s father is an agriculturist and belongs to the Mali caste; Kiran belongs to a Jat family, which owns four village schools. Therein lay the problem.

When Kiran’s parents found out about her attachment, they took their daughter away. She escaped. So they took her away once more, drugged her and beat her up. It was some days before she could call Vinod. He approached Kavita Srivastava, national secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, who in turn went to police.

At the reception held on September 28, the couple recited marriage vows that invoked Gandhi and Marx. Srivastava had invited Bhanwari Devi as the chief guest and paid her transport fare so that she could come from her village, Bhateri, 55 km from Jaipur. “All these movements are related to each other”, Srivastava said. “The women’s movement, the Right To Information movement, development - one has led to the other”. No one would know that better than Bhanwari Devi.

Fifteen years ago, she was gangraped by Gurjar men when she tried to prevent them from marrying off a baby girl who was just nine months old. They could not stomach the fact that Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit, had had the audacity to inform the police about the child marriage. Bhanwari Devi was just doing her job. She was employed as a saathin, a worker for the Women’s Development Programme run by the government of Rajasthan. To prevent child marriages from taking place was part of her job.

Women’s groups in Rajasthan and Delhi took up Bhanwari Devi’s case in a big way. They were shocked when the district sessions judge pronounced in November 1995 that an upper-caste man could not have raped a Dalit. The honorable judge made some other interesting observations; a man could not possibly have participated in a gang rape in the presence of his nephew; Bhanwari Devi could be lying that she was gangraped as her medical examination happened a full 52 hours after the said event; and that her husband couldn’t possibly have watched passively as his wife was being gangraped – after all, had he not taken marriage vows which bound him to protect her?

The judgement led to a huge nationwide campaign for justice for Bhanwari Devi. Which makes it all the more surprising that the Rajasthan High Court – in the fifteen years since the event – has held only one hearing on the incident. Today, perhaps Bhanwari Devi is the only person still clinging to the hope that she will get justice.

The High Court judge has refused to transfer the case to a fast-track court; two of the five accused have died; the families of the other three claim that the case is closed. Which, for all practical purposes, it is.

The Bhanwari Devi case became a landmark in women’s rights movement. She could have chosen to remain anonymous, in keeping with (still) prevalent notions of “honor” and “shame”. But she was made of bolder stuff. “First there was silence around the rape and when Bhanwari broke that”, says Srivastava, “there was denial – the police, the press and the judiciary maintained she was lying. The resulting furor led to the case being handed over to CBI.

The residents of Bhateri were very sore at Bhanwari Devi; they said she had besmirched the village’s name. When she was taken to Beijing for an international conference, they said, “Usne to Bharat ki naak kaat di”. (Bhanwari has sullied India’s honour.)

Bhanwari Devi refused to leave Bhateri. Her work as saathin earned her an honorarium of Rs 200 a month; nobody in the village bought her husband’s – who is a potter – wares anymore.

But Bhanwari Devi refused any monetary compensation, lest the people say that she cooked up the rape story to get money. “People tend to equate compensation for rape with prostitution, which is money in exchange for the body”, says Srivastava.

When her father died, Bhanwari Devi was not served food at the funeral ceremonies. She realized even her own caste had ostracized her as she had been “polluted” by rape. When Bhanwari Devi accepted Rs 25,000 from then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao (even as the Bhairon Singh Shekhawat government in Rajasthan remained hostile to her), her brother spent all of it in organizing a Kumhar caste panchayat to make the community accept her. It has made all the difference to her that her husband Mohan Lal has always stood by her.

Bhanwari Devi also got a one-lakh rupee bravery award, which she did accept.

After all these years the villagers still boycott Mohal Lal, choosing to buy their pots from another village. In his old age, Mohan Lal works as a labourer; Bhanwari Devi’s saathin honourarium has been raised to Rs 500.

She asks her husband to bring some registers, files and bank passbooks from the other room. Dalit women deposit money with her as membership fees and take a loan when they need it. At times the kitty has gone up to one lakh rupees.

Bhanwari Devi’s transformation from victim to a pillar of strength for many can be gauged from pictures of women showing their bruises, letters asking her to intervene in land disputes and cases of dowry harassment, domestic violence, rape and murder. To many women from villages around Jaipur and the neighbouring districts, she has become a beacon of hope.

Her two daughters are married – one is a school teacher; the other illiterate. Just like her, they were married when they were still children.

Mukesh, Bhanwari Devi’s youngest son, a married, unemployed man now, was barely four in 1992. He was ostracized everywhere. When he went to college in Dausa, local Gurjar boys would beat him up and kick him out of the bus. It wasn’t easy finding a family willing to marry their daughter to Bhanwari Devi’s son.

[Condensed by Mahendra Meghani from Tehelka weekly of Oct. 13, 2007]

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