Independent journalist & radio anchor Vasanthi Hariprakash tells about her date with Rajastan’s firebrand Bhanwari Devi
Posted On Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 09:19:45 PM
It is one thing to read about Bhanvari Devi in the papers; totally another to see her, and then realise she is smiling at you with every bit of her warmth even when you are just introduced to her. A woman about whose courage reams have been written, whose grit in the face of gang rape 21 years back by upper caste men in her village had eventually led to the landmark Visakha judgment on sexual harassment of women at the workplace, Bhanwari does justice to that line I had heard sometime, recited on stage as part of a poem: “Rajasthan ki naari hai, phool nahi, chingaari hai” (The English translation of that line would do no justice to the spirit in which it was written: The woman of Rajasthan; she is no flower, she is the spark of a fire.)
Firebrand Bhanwari certainly is, or why would the unlettered woman from the oppressed Kumhar caste have ventured about 30 years back to be a saathin (woman community worker) in her village in Rajasthan? Why would she agree to be a volunteer whose job, as part of the Women’s Development Programme (WDP), was to intervene in child marriages that would mean taking on unrelenting powerful patriarchs?
It was a job that was to cost her very dearly. The year was 1992, village Bhateri, about 60 km from the capital city of Jaipur. And in that part of the country where child marriages are rampant, an uppercaste Gujar household had been getting ready for a wedding. Or more aptly, getting ready for cradle-snatching. The bride was a nine-month-old baby girl; the ‘groom’ all of 1 year!
Bhanwari, who knew what it meant to be a child bride having been one herself, landed up at the house. She tried telling them gently, explaining to them why it was so wrong, “Mat karo chhoti bacchii ki shaadi, bhavishya kharab ho jaati hai ladki ki. (Do not get the child married now, her future will be ruined),” she pleaded.
But when all the Gujar men present there yelled at and taunted her, she revoked the power of being a saathin. “Collector saab has asked women like me to stop the marriage if the bride is a child,” she said. The party was over, even if only for that time — the child’s marriage is said to have taken place a few months down the line.
The male ego and the caste pride were hurt; the price extracted soon enough. One evening, when Bhanwari and her husband were working in their sparse little field, five Gujar men showed up. After picking a fight with him, they took turns to rape Bhanwari.
“Itne chhote chhote thhe yeh sab,” she tells me putting out her hand to describe how small her kids back at home were. The mother of two sons and two daughters decided it was no time to cry. How she then told her husband that she would not listen to him and would go ahead to file a police complaint, how the local primary health centre refused to examine her, how women cops at the local police station took away her ghaghra as evidence leaving her to travel to Jaipur by bus wrapped only in a thin bed sheet, how her first medical examination happened only 48 hours after her rape, and how it was the pressure of women’s organisations that brought the horrific crime to light – these are part of the Bhanwari story now well known, and well documented in newspapers, books as well as online articles.
Bhanwari’s incredible courage pushed her to be an unlikely hero. It won her awards, most famously the Neerja Bhanot award — named after the brave airhostess who died trying to resist a hijack attempt on a Pan Am flight in 1986. It took Bhanwari to international fora and women’s conferences in foreign lands. It also made her the mascot of victory over traumatic circumstances, but back in her own village, little or nothing changed for her, especially socially. Today, while she is the toast of woman power all over the country, to her own fellow villagers in Bhateri, Bhanwari with her family continues to be an ‘outcaste’.
The crippling social boycott that bans any link with her is a hurt she doesn’t express openly, but is evident when she says, “Aas paas ke gaon ki auratein salaah lene aatin hai, mere gaon se ek bhi nahi. (Women from all the nearby villages come to me asking for guidance, not one from my village.)”
Her rapists, meanwhile, were freed long back, after serving barely a year in jail.
Even the government has done little for the welfare of saathins like her, who travel village to village, carrying the word of government schemes for the poor, and risk their life and limbs while trying to intervene in cases of dowry demands, female foeticide and child marriage. “Women workers of Anganwadi, which came in much later after the WDP did, earn much more than we do. From Rs 300 decades back, today it’s barely 1,600.”
And since they are cleverly termed ‘volunteers’, these women retire with no pension, despite having been government servants all their lives. But that lament is only temporary. The positive power of Bhanwari’s persona kicks in, embracing every person she comes in touch with.
At a felicitation function organised on Saturday in her honour by the Kannada Lekhakiyara Sangha (Women writers’ association) in Bangalore’s Chamrajpet, the reed-thin Bhanwari deeply hugs a young girl whose own story of courage had earlier moved the audience to a thunderous applause. That long, deep hug is freely dispensed to every woman, every girl who wants Bhanwari to pose for a picture with her, mostly clicked on mobile phones. Even this writer, meeting her for the first time, is a beneficiary of that embrace.
From Chamrajpet, a couple of women are set to take Bhanwari to an activist’s home in Srirampura near Malleswaram for a simple lunch. Seeing that they are trying to hail an autorickshaw, I ask them if they want to come along in my car. They agree, and soon the middle aged woman in a bright Rajasthani saree, its ghunghat covering her head, is seated in the middle of the backseat next to me. On the other side is her daughter Rameshwari, who has accompanied her on this trip to Bangalore, and earlier Mangalore, where she addressed — and “energised” — a rally of around 4,000 people to mark International Women’s Day, to specially speak out against increasing moral policing in the coastal city.
Rameshwari, who translates Bhanwari’s Rajasthani dialect into Hindi for us, says her mother was thrilled to see so many women come together in the rally. She saw on TV all the “maar-peet” how they dragged girls out of a party, tore their clothes, pulled their hair…
Bhanwari speaks before her daughter can finish that line. “Kisi bhi aurat ke saath aisa hota hai, toh lagta hai mere shareer par atyachar ho raha ho. Bahut zyada dukhi hoti hoon. (Whenever a woman goes through that kind of ordeal, I feel I am violated. It makes me very sad.)”
That sadness, though, is not of the helpless kind. “Suryanelli ki ladki ko itni badi sazaa kyon?” she suddenly breathes fire. Referring to the church’s ban on the Kerala rape survivor, she says, “Why is she being punished? What is her crime? Why can’t all of us behenen (sisters) go there to show our support for her?”
Looking out of the car, Bhanwari lapses into memories of her own struggle, first to get even the complaint against her rapists registered, and then the battle in the courts. “Court mein koi bhi nahi hai garib ki sunne ke liye. Beizzati hoti hai, khilvaad karte hain mahilaaon ke saathh. (There is none in the courts to listen to the poor. There is only indignity and insult for women.)”
Talk then veers to the Delhi girl whose gang rape and death caused such national outrage. I mention the recent American award given in her honour, and Bhanwari retorts, “Puraskaar se pet kaun bhare? Hume puraskaar nahi, nyaay dijiye. (Can an award feed the stomach? Give us justice, not awards.)
Sunny, spirited, sharp and ready with repartees — just what’s the secret source of her mum’s spunk, I ask Rameshwari as the women get out of the car. “Bas, Maa aisi hi hain. Suru se hi. (Mother is always like this. Right from the start). A proud smile later, “Strong. Ekdumm majboot