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Tehelka Magazine, 13 Oct 2007
A Mighty Heart
years after she stood up to those who raped her, Bhanwari Devi has
become an icon of Dalit and women’s empowerment.
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 Unbowed: Bhanwari Devi with husband
Mohan Lal at their home in Bhateri Photo: Salman
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 the 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. The programme was coordinated by “voluntary groups” — as
NGO’s were called in 1992. 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 honourable 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.
And even she is fairly certain that she won’t get it in her lifetime.
“Such a large public rallied around me,” she says, “and yet I didn’t
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 “honour” 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 campaign around her tried
to change that.” The resulting furore led to the case being handed over
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.)
Taking the cue from the Bhanwari Devi case, five NGOs working in the
field of women’s empowerment filed a Public Interest Litigation in the
Supreme Court to enact laws that would criminalise sexual harassment in
the workplace. In Vishakha vs. the State of Rajasthan, the Supreme
Court issued guidelines that broadly defined sexual harassment at the
workplace and made it mandatory for corporations and business
establishments to have committees against sexual harassment. On the
other hand, the registration of rape cases in Rajasthan went up
dramatically — not only were there more women speaking out, the police
could no longer shirk from filing FIRs. The case also brought attention
to the prevalence of child marriage. While the majority of rural
Rajasthan still marries below the legal age, over the last 25 years the
average age of the first-time mother has gone up to 16.5 years. Much of
this change has been brought about by the efforts of women’s groups and
other organisations in the voluntary sector, catalysed to a large
degree by the Bhanwari Devi case.
The last 15 years have also brought about a change in Bhateri’s
attitude towards sexual harassment — maybe just out of fear. Seven
years ago someone there attempted to rape a researcher who had gone to
meet Bhanwari Devi. The residents of Bhateri beat him up, called
Srivastava, begged her not to inform the police and held a panchayat to
punish the accused. Bhanwari was one of the five panches. “The issue of
rehabilitation and compensation was also dealt with by the women’s
groups for the first time,” says Urvashi Butalia, publisher and women’s
rights activist. Bhanwari Devi refused to leave Bhateri. Her work as
saathin earned her an honourarium of Rs 200 a month; nobody in the
village bought her husband’s — who is a potter — wares anymore.
But Bhanwari Devi
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. “But the question of livelihood and security for Bhan-wari
was a real one. So the language of compensation changed into one of
rehabilitation.” When her father died, Bhanwari Devi was not served
food at the funeral ceremonies. She realised Bhanwari b lessing an inter-caste
marriage. Photo: Salman Usmani
even her own caste had ostracised 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
organising 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. “Why blame the victim?” he asks.
Bhanwari Devi also got a one-lakh rupee bravery award, which she did
accept. She had wanted to use the money to help Dalit women — she runs
four different self-help groups with the support of Mohan Lal and
Srivastava. But she ended up using the sum to add two rooms to her
house. Lakshmi, Ganesh, Krishna and Ram adorn the green walls of the
room where Bhanwari Devi and Mohan Lal welcome you, serve you lassi and
mention every once in a while how difficult it is to make ends meet.
After all these years the villagers still boycott Mohan 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. “The anganwadi workers do nothing, only pilfer grain,” she says
angrily, “and they get 2,000 rupees a month!” 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.
Bhanwari Devi wonders how “empowered” she is. She is proud of her long
fight, but her penury makes her wonder if she is getting her due for
the work she is doing. Her two daughters are married — one is a school
teacher; the other illiterate. Just like her, they were married when
they were still children. “I was not in Mahila Vikas then,” she
explains. The Women’s Development Programme, or rather the women’s
groups coordinating it, changed her perspective completely. “Mukesh is
a really difficult child,” says Srivastava of Bhanwari Devi’s youngest
Mukesh, a married, unemployed man now, was barely four in 1992. He was
ostracised everywhere. When he went to college in Dausa, local Gurjar
boys would beat him up and kick him out of the bus. This discrimination
has made a lasting impact. It wasn’t easy finding a family willing to
marry their daughter to Bhanwari Devi’s son.
Bhanwari Devi is most angry with those who made the film Bawandar,
based on her life. She recalls how the director, Jagmohan Mundhra,
promised her money and land, called her his sister, and couldn’t stop
praising her bajra rotis. “I told him I don’t want money but at least
try to get me justice,” she says. Mundhra asked her not to allow others
to make a film on her and she complied, even refusing to be
interviewed. Now, she feels cheated.
She was uncomfortable with the project in the first place. “Villagers
would say let’s go see Bhanwari getting raped,” says Srivastava. When
she tried to watch it she couldn’t get past the rape scenes.
She says that the actress Nandita Das, who played her in the film, told
her that they were sisters. But after the shooting, she never came
back. “It was not a biopic and one moves on to other projects,” says
Das in her defence. “Bhanwari is a very brave woman but it is also the
story of so many others. Beyond a point you’re only playing a role.” It
is hard to appreciate Das’s defence, but you can see where she is
coming from. When you say goodbye to Bhanwari Devi and she wants to
know when you are coming back. “Perhaps next year,” you say. “Next