after she stood up to those who raped her, Bhanwari Devi has become
an icon of Dalit and women’s empowerment, writes SHIVAM
Bhanwari Devi with husband Mohan Lal
at their home in Bhateri Photo: Salman Usmani
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 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 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.)
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
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.
b lessing an inter-caste marriage. Photo: Salman Usmani
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. “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 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 son.
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 year?”.
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