|Known for||Vishaka Judgement.|
|Home town||Bhateri, Rajasthan, India|
|Awards||Neerja Bhanot Memorial Award for her "extraordinary courage, conviction and commitment"|
Bhanwari Devi was born in a low-caste kumhar (potter) family in Bhateri, a small Rajasthani village located 55 km from the state capital, Jaipur. Most of the villagers belonged to the conservative Gurjar community, which is higher in the caste hierarchy than her own Kumhar caste. In the 1980s, child marriages were common in the village, and the caste system was dominant.
As a saathin
In 1985, Bhanwari Devi became a saathin ("friend"), a grassroots worker employed as part of the Women's Development Project (WDP) run by the Government of Rajasthan. As part of her job, she took up issues related to land, water, literacy, health, Public Distribution System, and payment of minimum wages at famine relief works. In 1987, she took up a major issue of the attempted rape of a woman from a neighbouring village. All of these activities had the full support of the members of her village. However, in 1992, Bhanwari found herself alienated, when she took up the issue of child marriage which is still widely practiced in India despite being illegal.
In 1992, the state government of Rajasthan decided to launch a campaign against child marriage during the fortnight preceding the festival of Akha Teej, which is considered an auspicious date for marriages. Many child marriages take place during this festival. WDP members were tasked with convincing local villagers not to conduct child marriages, a task that Bhanwari took up, along with prachetas and members of the District Women's Development Agency (DWDA). The campaign was largely ignored by the villagers and faced disapproval from local leaders, including the village headman or pradhan.
One family which had arranged such a marriage was that of Ram Karan Gurjar, who had planned to marry off his one-year-old daughter. Bhanwari made attempts to persuade the family against carrying out their wedding plans. Since many Gujar families seemed determined to go ahead with child marriages, the Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) and the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) started making rounds of the village. On 5 May, the day of Akha Teej, the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) and SDO went to Bhateri village to stop the marriage of Ram Karan Gurjar's infant daughter. While they succeeded in preventing the marriage from taking place on the day of Akha Teej, the marriage took place at 2 am the next day. No police action was taken against this. However, the villagers associated the police visits with Bhanwari Devi's efforts. This resulted in social and economic boycotts of Bhanwari and her family. The villagers stopped selling milk to the family or buying the earthen pots they made. Bhanwari was forced to leave her job when her employer was roughed up, while her husband was beaten up by another Gujar.
The alleged gang rape
According to Bhanwari Devi, at 6 pm on 22 September 1992, while she and her husband were working in their field, five men of her village attacked her husband Mohan Lal, leaving him unconscious. The five men whom she named were: Ram Karan, Ram Sukh, Gyarsa, Badri and Shravan Sharma. When she came to her husband's rescue, she said, Gyarsa and Badri raped her, while the other three pinned her down on the ground.
Bhanwari reported the incident to Rasila Sharma, the pracheta (block-level worker), who took her to the Bassi police station to lodge a First Information Report (FIR). The FIR was lodged after surmounting police scepticism and indifference, a phenomenon several rape complainants have faced in the Indian context. Scholar Savitri Goonesekere notes that all across South Asia, police are reluctant to record rape cases and show callousness and indifference towards women with complaints of rape. At the police station, Bhanwari was asked to deposit her "lehanga" (long skirt) as evidence. She had to cover herself with her husband's blood-stained saafa (turban) and walk 3 km to the nearest saathin's village Kherpuria, at about 1 am in the morning.
This indifference continued at the Primary Health Centre (PHC) in Bassi, where the male doctor refused to medically examine Bhanwari, while no female doctor was present. The PHC doctor referred her to Sawai Man Singh (SMS) Hospital in Jaipur, but wrote in his referral that she was being sent for a test "confirming the age of the victim." The Medical Jurist at Jaipur refused to conduct any tests without orders from a Magistrate; the Magistrate refused to give the orders until the next day, as it was past his working hours. As a result, the vaginal swab was taken more than 48 hours after the alleged rape, although Indian law requires this to be done within 24 hours. "The 1992 gang rape of Bhanwari Devi is a prime example of police and physician misconduct that resulted in the loss of evidence and the obstruction of justice," wrote one researcher. The medical report eventually confirmed that there were injuries on Bhanwari's hands and legs.
The court case
District court judgment
Five judges were changed, and it was the sixth judge who ruled that the accused were not guilty, stating inter alia that Bhanwari's husband couldn't have passively watched his wife being gang-raped. The judge infamously stated, “Since the offenders were upper-caste men and included a brahmin, the rape could not have taken place because Bhanwari was from a lower caste.” A state MLA organised a victory rally in the state capital Jaipur for the five accused declared not guilty, and the women's wing of his political party attended the rally to call Bhanwari a liar. The State Government decided to appeal against the judgment. The judgement led to a nationwide campaign for justice for Bhanwari Devi. However, by 2007, 15 years after the incident, the Rajasthan High Court held only one hearing on the case and two of the accused were dead.
On 25 September 1992, Rajasthan Patrika carried a small news item stating that a woman from Bhateri had registered an FIR in Bassi 'thana' alleging gang rape. Following this, a number of local Hindi dailies as well as national dailies reported the incident. On 2 October 1992, the Rajasthan Patrika carried an editorial article Kroor Hadsa ("Brutal Incident") condemning the incident. Soon after, many Jaipur-based women's groups and other social organizations began making inquiries about the incident. However, Bhanwari Devi was accused of fabricating the entire incident by the alleged rapists and their supporters, and faced public humiliation in her village. Bhanwari Devi refused monetary compensation to avoid allegations that she had cooked up the rape story to get money.
Bhanwari Devi and her family were ostracized by villagers in Bhateri and by members of her own caste living elsewhere. When her mother died, her brothers and others did not allow her to participate in the funeral. Following this incident, Bhanwari handed over to them the sum of Rs.25,000 which she had received from Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. Her brothers spent this money on organizing a Kumhar caste panchayat, where people were asked to accept her back into the community. In spite of this effort, her acceptance in the community remained nominal and her son Mukesh had a difficult time finding a family willing to marry their daughter to him. Indian Express journalist Sukhmani Singh interviewed her in 2001 and reported that Bhanwari wanted to leave Bhateri, but couldn't afford to do so. Her sole source of income was a buffalo, as her two bighas of land had become unproductive due to three years of drought. Most of the money that she received as part of the Neerja Bhanot Memorial Award in 1994 was locked away in a trust to aid women.
The Bhanwari case is held by some to have encouraged rape victims to prosecute their rapists. Also, by 2007, the average age of the first-time mother in Rajasthan had gone up to 16.5 years. According to Shivam Vij (an independent journalist), this change was brought about by the efforts of women's groups, catalyzed by the Bhanwari Devi case.
The Vishaka judgment
A number of women's rights activists and lawyers filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India, under the collective platform of Vishakha. The petition, filed by Vishakha and four other women's organizations in Rajasthan against the State of Rajasthan and the Union of India, resulted in what are popularly known as the Vishakha Guidelines. The judgment of August 1997 provided the basic definitions of sexual harassment at the workplace and provided guidelines to deal with it. It is seen as a significant legal victory for women's groups in India.
In 2002, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, allotted a residential plot to Bhanwari Devi and announced a grant of Rs. 40,000 for construction of a house on the plot. He also sanctioned an additional amount Rs. 10,000 for the education of her son.
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