17, Oct 2018 | Sushmita
“Indian culture has not yet touched such low depths that an innocent villager would lose all sense of age and caste and like a wolf would pounce upon a woman, that too in the presence of a 70-year old,” said the Jaipur district and sessions court while acquitting the four accused in Bhanwari Devi rape case in 1995. For Bhanwari Devi, the pioneer who initiated a cathartic moment in the feminist movement in India, if not by design then by her persistent pursuit for justice, the long road to justice has been treacherous and full of challenges.
Bhanwari Devi was working as a ‘saathin’ (saathin is a Hindi term for a friend, a fellow traveller) under the Rajasthan Women’s Development Programme (WDP) in the year 1992. WDP’s aim was to form groups that would consolidate themselves for their own development; these groups, once formed, would initiate any action they needed.. Bhanwari Devi, as part of this program, worked to prevent child marriages, often facing a lot of hostility from the existing patriarchal, feudal and casteist structures.
Bhanwari Devi’s Trauma
Bhanwari Devi had to bear the brunt of the work she was doing. She was effectively able to prevent a case of child marriage of a nine-month-old child, belonging to a higher caste Gujjar family in the area. Immediately following this, in a vindictive move, four men gang-raped her when she was working with her husband on a field. The accused first came and beat her husband, and, when she protested, she too was assaulted. Bhanwari Devi was not one to take this silently. She decided to make the incident public and lodge an FIR, an act of extreme bravery in the typically conservative and hostile setting of Rajasthan. In turn, she was called a prostitute by BJP minister Kanhya Lal Meena who came to the defence of the rapists at a public rally in Jaipur in January 1996.
Bhanwari Devi in the time of #MeToo
Currently, India is witnessing one of the watershed moments in feminist history and jurisprudence: the #MeToo movement, in which women in media, the film industry and, social sectors have come out with their testimonies of sexual harassment and assault, especially in the workplace, laying bare the wide-ranging nature of the assaults they have faced, and the many ways in which their class, caste, religion, and employer-employee relationships make them vulnerable. In light of this, it is important to revisit the systemic responses to Bhanwari Devi’s pursuit for justice, and the ways in which the existing systems can obstruct the way of justice instead of playing a supportive and healing role.
Once Bhanwari Devi raised her voice against the injustice that was meted out to her, the WDP practically abandoned her. The state authorities refused to hand over the case to the CBI even though an independent inquiry had found out serious lapses in the investigation process. She was subjected to incessant harassment by officers, even when the case did come under the purview of CBI, and made to repeatedly record and re-record statements. The charge-sheet was filed after as long as a year’s gap, and even then the accused individuals were not arrested for around five months. She faced pressures to withdraw the case and was ostracised by her village community.
Despite the practice of in-camera trials for rape victims, Bhanwari Devi was made to reiterate her testimony several times in front of 17 men, including her assaulters, at the Sessions court. The Sessions court, while giving its judgment, made insulting remarks about how there was a delay in her recording the complaint, in spite of the fact that the police had initially refused to record her statement. She was even refused medical care on the grounds that a female doctor wasn’t present. In another remark, something that may seem unbelievable to those unfamiliar with the trial, the court questioned, “In our society, how can a husband, whose role is to protect, stand by and watch his wife being raped?”
However, Bhanwari Devi persisted with her demands and protests.
It is only a result of that persistence that the Vishakha guidelines (Vishakha was the name given to various NGOs and women’s groups that came forward to help Bhanwari) for sexual harassment were passed as The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, in 2013. The idea was to make workplaces safe for women and for employers to take responsibility.However, Bhanwari Devi herself could not be covered under the Vishakha judgment, because technically, as per the law, her rapists were not her ‘employers’ and were not at work (Vishakha vs State of Rajasthan). In fact Bhanwari Devi still remains outside the scope of current law
Where is Bhanwari Devi today?
It has been 26 years since the traumatic incident. Bhanwari Devi has given her testimony eight times to various investigating agencies. When she went public with her statement, it was the first time in the conservative setting of Rajasthan that a woman had openly spoken about sexual assault.Despite the challenges that she faced, she is not cynical. “I will continue fighting till my last breath. My fight is against the society where child marriages are still rampant despite being illegal. Law alone is not enough. Women, the whole society, need to support one another. Fight collectively against social evils,” she told Your Story in January 2018.Bhanwari Devi has continued to live in the same village, Bhateri, 30 kilometers from Jaipur. She has continued working as a saathin, apart from doing some embroidery and stitching work. However, she says that there aren’t enough buyers.
Despite the upheaval and changes that the discourse on sexual assault went through, Bhanwari Devi’s life has remained at a standstill. In fact, she finds it amusing when told that her story has inspired generations of women. “If at all you find my story inspiring, don’t just stop there. Empowerment is not just about listening and knowing about injustice; it is also about speaking up and acting on it,” she said to Your Story.
She understands that her fight is not hers alone, and that it is about gender equality. And her fight has powerful undercurrents for the women struggling for justice today in complex caste, class, religious hierarchies. The stories may unfortunately remain the same, but every struggle has a bearing on the future.