PUCL Bulletin, October 1994

Bhanwari Bai's brave struggle for justice
by Manimala
(Ms. Manimala is a recipient of PUCL Journalism Award)

Bhanwari Bai has been selected to receive the prestigious "Neerja Bhanot Memorial Award" for her extraordinary courage, conviction, and commitment. (Readers would recollect the incident, for the press had covered the happening, thanks to women's organisations joining the struggle). The award had been instituted in 1991 in memory of Neeraja Bhanot who had acted with unprecedented dedication and courage to save those under her care without bothering about her own life during the Pan-Am plane hijack at Karachi in 1986, to recognise the guts and grit of women who fight injustice and who act beyond the call of normal duty in a difficult situation. The Trust gives two awards-one to the woman-power from common civil life, and another to hardworking, risk-taking, dutiful women. The award of the first kind has been given to Bhanwari Bai.

By honouring Bhanwari Bai, the Trust has recognised with respect the struggle and strength of the downtrodden people who belong to the bottom layer of our hierarchical society and who have faced perpetual humiliation, indignity and torture-in fact they have hardly been recognised as persons. For the first time such a prestigious award of Rupees one lakh goes to a poor Dalit woman of a remote village Bhateri in Bassi Tehsil in Rajasthan, only 45 kms from Jaipur. Bhanwari Bai resides there with her husband Mohan, a rikshawpuller, and her two children. Upto 1992 she and her husband carried on with their caste allotted profession -claywork. Later she joined the government sponsored Women Development Programme (WDP). One of the important functions of WDP is to put a stop to the practice of child marriage which is widely prevalent in Rajasthan. Her trouble started when she tried to persuade members of a family not to get their one year old daughter married.

Under the WDP programme, 800 Sathins in 800 remote villages had created a wave against social injustice that has been inflicted on villager for centuries. Sathins became so popular among the rural folk that the people changed the name of the programme from WDP to Sathino ke Karyakrame. It was perhaps for the first time that a government sponsored programme came to be known by the lowest paid and lowest level workers. Bhanwari Bai has been one of these Sathins.

In the year 1992 all Sathins were instructed to inform the nearest police station and administrative unit about child marriages taking place on the occasion of Akha Teez, a religious festival. According to traditional beliefs and faith, marriages taking place on this day become happy and successful. Therefore maximum number of marriages take place on Akha Teej day in Rajasthan.

Almost all the Sathins including Bhanwari Bai were of the opinion that child marriages should not be stopped by using force. It should be done through persuasion and education. An environment should be created, they argued, to discourage child marriages. They suggested that more and more schools for girls and boys with vocational education as the core subject should be opened so that thee would be reasonable assurance of getting jobs after completion of school education. Which would mean better life in villages and more involvement of young people in social affairs.

Bhanwari was trying to save a victim of this tradition in her own village- the family referred to above. She took great pains to persuade the parents of an one-year old daughter who was to be married on the occasion, but in the meantime the police interfered and stopped the marriage forcibly. The Gujar community, to which this family belonged, thought that the police were informed by Bhanwari. They took it as a great insult to their superior status that a Dalit woman should have tried to persuade them and finally succeeded in stopping the marriage through police force. They reacted; as a first step they got the child married the next day, and , as the next step, inflicted socio-economic boycott on Bhanwari and her family. Those who were unhappy with the decision were compelled to abide by this as the village was dominated by this community who are economically and politically more powerful than others. The administration favoured them. Bhanwari was told to quit the village. She defied and paid a very heavy price. To teach her a lesson, in the evening of 22 September, 1992 five persons caught hold of Bhanwari and her husband. On return to the village she cried for justice from the village panchayat and the elders of the village, but none came to her help. Bhanwari was alone; she faced untold misery; none would sell even the basic necessities like food etc to her; but she stuck on to her duties. How could she, a Satin in her own village leave the village in such a difficult and trying time; being a Sathin she had to be with the villagers for their welfare, she told herself and resolved accordingly.

Police, magisterial and CID enquiries were conducted. According to all these reports, all her allegations were found to be false. The enquiries concluded that there was bad blood between her and the accused and hence these false allegations! The culprits now became more furious, and asked her to withdraw her complaint at once. She defied the mighty forces once again.

Meanwhile, Sathins, WDP officials, women's and civil rights organisations raised their voice, and demanded a CBI enquiry. The government was made to yield. The CBI report made public on 27 September 1993 found all the allegations made by Bhanwari Bai to be true. Arrest warrants for all the culprits were issued. But only one culprit could be arrested; the other four had managed anticipatory bail and then absconded.

Women's organisations did not relax; they filed a petition in the Rajasthan High Court at Jaipur seeking justice for her, and demanding that the other accused also must be arrested soon. The High Court passed an order on 17 December 1993 to the effect that all the culprits must be arrested without any delay while criticising the police and CID for playing a foul game and giving opportunity to the culprits to manage anticipatory bail thus enabling them to abscond.

Women's organisations approached the Supreme Court. The court directed the state government to compensate Bhanwari Bai by paying a sum of Rs. 25,000/- We all know that money cannot compensate what Bhanwari Bai has gone through. Our society must deliberate on whether money is the answer to such heinous crimes-crimes against women, against humanity. Bhanwari has desired that this amount be given to other poor women fighting injustice, insult, inhumanity, indignity, and torture. Bhanwari's courage, conviction, and defiance-facing the entire might of the village and the adminsitration-deserve to be emulated by all.

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