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Bhanwari Devi: Justice eluded her, but she stands resolute for others

Bhanwari Devi’s legal battle birthed India’s sexual harassment protection laws for women, and forms the backbone of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1997 Vishakha guidelines for workplaces. Yet, her case has not resulted in convictions
Bhanwari Devi : For the last three decades, she fought a case against five local men for rape, assault and harassment(HT Photo)
Updated on Sep 17, 2021 04:51 AM IST
By Sachin Saini, Hindustan Times, Bhateri, Rajasthan

Thin and frail and in her early sixties, Bhanwari Devi sits, an orange ghunghat covering her head, her forehead furrowed. The last year has not been kind to her. As her hands sprinkle water on a buffalo calf in the courtyard of her home in the village of Bhateri in Rajasthan, she talks of her husband who died last year.

Her body is racked by diabetes, and the loss of her companion has brought the idea of mortality closer. And yet, Devi betrays no weakness, her movements quick and decisive.

For the last three decades, she has fought a case against five local men for rape, assault and harassment. Her legal battle has birthed India’s sexual harassment protection laws for women, and forms the backbone of the landmark Vishakha guidelines for workplaces laid down by the Supreme Court in 1997.

Yet, her case has not resulted in convictions, underlining the problems underprivileged women face in legal battles, deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes in the countryside, and the dangers faced by female activists in trying to change those mind sets.

But her refusal to bow has given sustenance to women’s movements, mitigated child marriages in rural Rajasthan and changed the course of Indian law.

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Her voice is still fierce, a steely determination in her eyes. “Akeli ke liye ladi thi kya? Pure desh ke liye ladi thi. Mujhe to nyay nahi mila magar meri bahan betiyo ko to milega. (Did I fight for myself? I fought for the entire country. I did not get justice but my sisters and daughters will get),” said Devi.

The incident 

In May 1992, Devi was a “saathin”, an employee of the Rajasthan government’s women and child department, mandated to spread awareness about hygiene and family planning, education for girls, and campaign against female foeticide, infanticide, dowry and child marriages in the villages. So, when Devi got wind that a nine-month-old girl was being married off to an infant, a practice rampant at the time, all she did was her job. She tried to talk the families out of it.

They refused to relent. Devi is a Kumhar, a caste listed as other backward class (OBC) in Rajasthan, largely engaged in pottery. The families were Gujjar, also OBC, but the divide and hostility in the village was stark. Having failed to make an impression on the families, Devi’s seniors handed over a list of such “bal vivaahs”(child marriages) taking place on the auspicious Akha Teej festival on May 5, 1992 to the district collector of Jaipur. On the day, the local police and the sub divisional magistrate arrived in Bhateri, 45km from the state capital, to stop the marriage. Despite this intervention, the infants were married -- just on the terrace of another home, instead of the one it was originally planned on.

The Gujjars were livid that Devi had spoken out of turn. They began a boycott. People were asked not to buy the pots that she made, or the milk that she sold. Her husband was attacked, and Devi and her four children were threatened. On September 22, when Devi and her husband had gone to the fields to get fresh fodder for their cattle, they were allegedly accosted by five men. Two caught held on to her husband, and three others allegedly gang raped her. The act was meant to strike fear into Devi’s heart, and send a message to the village that such insubordination was unacceptable.

But Devi did the unthinkable – especially in a village with clear power hierarchies. She fought. She filed a case.

The fight

The FIR took more than a day, the medical examination 52 hours. As women’s organisations coalesced around her cause, the case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). In September 1993, a charge sheet was filed, and by October 1994, the five men had been arrested and charged with harassment, assault, conspiracy and gang rape.

For a time, there seemed to be some hope for justice. In December 1993, while denying the five bail, the Rajasthan high court said that it was “convinced” Devi was gang raped for attempting to “stop the marriage” of the daughter of one of the accused.

But in November 1995 when the Jaipurtrial court issued its order, it acquitted the five accused on the grounds that men from different castes could not be involved in rape, that two of the accused, over 60 years old, were too old to be involved in the act, and that it was impossible for rape to happen if her husband was present.

The acquittal set off another round of protests in Rajasthan, spreading as far as Delhi. As women rights activists made their way to Bhateri, worried for her safety, Devi shooed them away, asking them to focus on justice. She filed an appeal against the judgment in the Rajasthan high court in 1995. Twenty-six years since, the case has yet to be taken up in earnest.

Simultaneously though, four NGOs working on women’s rights, Vishakha, Women’s Rehabilitation Group from Rajasthan, and Jagori and Kali for Women from Delhi, petitioned the Supreme Court. Their argument was that Devi was an employee of the Rajasthan government discharging her duties, and suffered the assault in the workplace, with laws wholly inadequate in dealing with the crime.

In 1997, in a historic judgment, the Supreme Court detailed the country’s first guidelines for sexual harassment in the workplace, becoming part of common parlance as the “Vishakha guidelines”, the precursor to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Devi may have lost her own battle. But she had struck a blow for all of India’s working women.

The fallout

Forty-five kilometres from Jaipur, and 10km off the Agra-Delhi National Highway, Bhateri is a cluster of 1,200 residents. The Bairwas, a Dalit community, have a considerable population, but Gujjars and Meenas live here too, and exert considerable influence. The Kumhars are a small minority. Everyone either farms, or works in Jaipur. The nearest health centre is in Lawan, 5km away, or at Banskho, 15km away.

The village has been home all of Devi’s life but there was a time she contemplated leaving. In the years after the gang rape, Devi became a national icon. She was awarded a sum of 25,000 for her bravery by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, travelled to Beijing in 1994 to be part of the UN’s Fourth World Conference for Women, and won the Neerja Bhanot Memorial Award for her “extraordinary courage, conviction and commitment”. In 2002, chief minister Ashok Gehlot announced a grant of 40,000 for the construction of a house for her.

And yet, Devi’s acceptance within her own community and village, despite being a victim, was hard to come by. The money she received from Rao, she gave to her brothers, who arranged a Kumhar Mahapanchayat, designed to end her boycott. Twenty-nine years later, in the courtyard of her government aid funded home, Devi has not an ounce of regret at the act that started it all. Her voice incredulous, she asked, “Should I not have intervened? The child was nine months old. Nine months. It was my job,” she said.

There is perhaps another reason that Devi has kept going, despite personal tribulations. She has seen Bhateri, particularly in its attitudes towards caste and women, change before her eyes. Even until eight months ago, Devi continued to work as a “saathin” in Bhateri, and now lives off a government pension. “In all, I myself must have stopped twelve to fifteen child marriages. Even now, despite no longer working as a saathin, I will continue to keep an eye out, and intervene wherever possible,” Devi said.

The change

It’s 8am, and in front of Devi’s courtyard, a gaggle of young girls in school uniforms chatter together as they make their way to the senior secondary school in the village. There is no higher education in Bhateri yet, the closest institutions in Dausa or Jaipur, but one battle at a time. Pointing at the group of girls, Devi said, “A huge change has come for girls. Not a single girl used to go to school in my days but today you can see for yourself how things have changed.”

Devi believes her struggle has found slow acceptance within the community, the outrage and attention sparked by her case putting a spotlight on the issue of caste and child marriage in Rajasthan, prompting government intervention and a focus on education.

“Certainly, the mind sets of people have changed, because of my struggle, education and the spread of awareness. Now, even intercaste marriages are taking place as youngsters are educated and are able to take their own decisions,” Devi said.

In his home close by, sarpanch Vedraj Bairwa says the village administration now actively looks out to prevent any child marriages. Like many others, he says he was not in the village 29 years ago, and was in Delhi for work. “In 1992, after the incident, Devi raised these issues, and that too curbed these practices. People began to fear the administration. Awareness has spread, and if parents want to force them, they resist. Moreover, I, and other officials, all keep an eye out when marriages take place to check if child marriages are taking place.”

Additional director general of police, Ravi Prakash Meharda, says that much progress has been made since 1992, particularly on two fronts, the position of women and their representation. “Initially, when women were elected in panchayat polls, it was said that their fathers, brothers or husbands were running the show. Now there is much greater independence, and women are coming into their own as public representatives,” Meharda said.

Activist and co-founder of Vishakha, Kavita Srivastava, says Devi’s case was a turning point in the anti-rape movement in India, and an example of how a non violent struggle can continue over three decades.

“She grew out of the victim hood and became an inspiration. We broke the silence on rape and the denial of rape, and ignited an anti-rape struggle in Rajasthan and all over the country. For the first time, there was rehabilitation and relief money. She went abroad and represented India,” she said.

Srivastava however still believes that the system has completely denied Devi her personal justice. “Her husband died waiting. The question should be asked of the judicial system. It’s not about winning or losing a case …It’s about how a system completely denies you justice,” Srivastava said.

Back in Bhateri, Devi’s concern for the future, and her continuing quest for justice, is less about herself, and more about her four children. But the fear will not debilitate her. “I will not sit silently and will continue to fight till my last breath,” she said. Nearly three decades have passed, and four of the five accused have breathed their last. “Yaha nyaya nahi mila, Bhagwan ki adalat mein toh milega.(I may not have got justice here, but they will be tried in God’s court),” Devi said.

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