Bhanwari Devi: A mighty heart

(First published in Tehelka, 13 October 2007.)

Jaipur/Bhateri: Kiran and Vinod have actually been married for a year and a half, today is their formal reception, making their marital status public. They hail from different parts of rural Rajasthan, and were studying in different colleges in Jaipur when they met. Vinod’s father is an agriculturist from 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. There is a “chief guest” at the wedding, described by Srivastava as “a very brave woman”. Her name is Bhanwari Devi. Srivastava had 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.

Photo by Salman Usmani

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 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 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
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 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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