In Banda everyone has a story about Sheelu. Except Shahbazpur, the non-descript village in Uttar Pradesh (UP), which suddenly made its way to national headlines after Sheelu Nishad, a teenager from the village, alleged rape by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MLA of the area.
A political drama unfolded and Shahbazpur found itself in the middle of a media blitzkrieg.
It’s 7 pm, but for Shahbazpur it’s way too late to talk. Moreover, who wants to speculate on a politicised rape case of a backward caste girl. Not the headmaster of the village school that has turned into a police camp overnight. Even Lotan, the toothless 70-year-old, who has put up the tea-stall-cum-gutka shop for the 50-odd police personnel camping outside Sheelu’s hut for her “protection”, wouldn’t say a word.
The silence is broken by sub-inspector Urmila Gupta, one of the six female police persons. “Kya keh sakte hain ki kya hua (What can we say about what happened),” she says, before getting up to follow Sheelu, who has to attend nature’s call in the fields. “Can’t even let her shit alone, you know,” she
mutters. There’s need for caution. Anything could happen to a 17-year-old who has taken on a powerful politician.
Even before she — who worked as a domestic help in the politician’s house for two days — could press charges against him, he got her arrested for stealing money and a mobile phone from his house. While in jail, Sheelu told the authorities that she had been raped by the MLA and his wife helped her escape in the night.
A month later, Sheelu was released on January 15, the birthday of Chief Minister Mayawati. Ever since she has been ‘under protection’, her case is ‘in progress’ and Shahbazpur stands dazed under the spotlight.
A conspiracy of silence
For a district with a population of a little over a lakh, Banda has seen too many mediapersons and politicians coming in. But its residents would rather play it safe. “Look, these things happen only in the rural areas. It’s just a political scandal,” says a local hotel owner, who didn’t want to be named. A “political scandal” in Banda means everyone is talking, but no one wants to be heard. “People are too scared, since this is now a fight between the BSP and the SP. Today, the MLA’s goons have attacked mediapersons, who knows, what could happen tomorrow,” says Amit Tripathi, 27, the local scribe (he didn’t want his publication to be named), who by various accounts, “broke” the story after getting wind of the fact that the girl was put in jail, a few minutes after the official deadline of 8pm for women to be put in jail.
The story became even bigger after Sheelu alleged rape by Dwivedi — a Brahmin leader of the BSP — to reporters outside the court, where she had been brought to make a statement but couldn’t since she was “frightened”. “People might not be talking, but they are reading,” says Tripathi, who claims that the readership of his newspaper has gone up by several folds ever since “Sheelu happened”.
Learning to live with rape
But Banda is not new to rape, says Tripathi, as he rattles off figures of rapes that have happened in the last five years in Banda. “Yahan toh roti ke liye rape hota hai (Here rape happens for food).”
In a drought-stricken land, where farmers are desperate to make ends meet, where children learn to chew gutka before they learn to write, the horror of rape — involving mostly low caste women — is a reality that everyone’s come to terms with. Most cases are never reported, in the name of
‘honour’ and fear of retribution by the upper castes and political goons. Even when they do, what happens in Banda, stays in Banda. “Since rape is an individual crime and not an organised one, it takes time to investigate these matters. Especially in these parts, where people can often cry rape to settle scores,” offers Banda DIG S K Mathur.
It’s all about politics
Banda was never obscure, locals tell us. With three BSP ministers in the state Cabinet and the beneficiary of a special package for development, the town is not new to politicking.
“Yeh sab policybaazi hai, (This is all politics),” says Sampat Pal, 48, the leader of the Gulabi gang, a local vigilante justice group. Pal says that the case is being endlessly politicised and the “janta” (public) is being fooled into believing that ‘justice’ is within reach.
But with Assembly elections due next year, everyone is bound to notice one Sheelu, and that too, in a BSP stronghold. “How else does the Opposition mobilise the poor in an area, where the poor themselves have come to power,” says Vivek Kumar, professor of sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Already, the women’s wing of the SP has opened a bank account with R2 lakh in Sheelu’s name. The Congress has pitched in with an equivalent sum. Another SP leader Ram Sunder Das claims he will build a baraatghar (marriage hall) in her name, right inside her village. And the media is only too eager to pitch Sheelu as a symbol of the failure of the ruling regime.
It’s another matter, however, that Sheelu’s “fight” had started about a year ago: fed up with abuse from her father, she had left the house to stay with her aunt. Banda is trying hard to get used to Sheelu. And comparisons with Phoolan Devi or as a counter to Mayawati are already being drawn by the media. Only, Sheelu is unfazed. “Look, I am neither Phoolan nor Mayawati. Wait for the time, and everyone will know what I am.”