In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, then a Sathin, grassroots worker, with the state-run women’s development project in Rajasthan, was raped, by a group of men belonging to an influential community, for campaigning against child marriage. Twenty years hence, the sathin whose case catalysed women’s mobilization in the country against sexual violence and whose legal battle played a crucial role in the making of Visakha Guidelines, is still seeking justice
By Laxmi Murthy
“Only justice can fill my belly, not awards,” said Bhanwari Devi in response to a question from the audience about whether or not she had been recognised by international awards. She was speaking on 9th March at a meeting organised by the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore. The previous day, along with other leaders, Bhanwari had roused a massive rally in Mangalore with her fiery calls for solidarity and action against violence against women.
On March 8th, Mangalore saw an unprecedented coalition of women’s and progressive groups (almost a hundred) raising their voice against the saffronization of Karnataka’s coastal belt and the increasing attacks on women by right-wing forces. This was the outcome of dedicated work by the Forum Against Atrocities on Women (the Mahila Dourjnya Virodi Vedike, Karnataka). With delicious irony, Bhanwari Devi, veteran Dalit writer Urmila Pawar and other invited activists were accommodated at ‘Morning Mist’, the home-stay that was ransacked by right-wing goons who broke up a private celebration there last June. That none of the events, which saw the mobilization of more than 5000 women, made it to even the Bangalore editions of the dailies is a matter of dismay.
Many of the questions, particularly from the press kept pushing Bhanwari back into the victim mode and somehow managed to zero in on her vulnerabilities. It is no surprise then that she broke down on stage even 20 years after she was gang raped. When some activists steered the discussion to the context in which she worked – the context in which women’s safety as workers led to the Vishaka Guidelines – it was realised that nothing much has changed for Sathins on the ground.
As the lowest rung of the Women’s Development Program (WDP) in Rajasthan, a Sathin’s job is to act as a bridge between the government and the masses, essentially implementing and making any number of government schemes palatable. They continue to work in precarious conditions for a monthly pittance of Rs 1600 (raised from Rs 200 in the 1990s, after determined work – an uphill battle by the Mahila Vikas Abhikaran Sathin Karamchari Sangh, and the many women’s groups in Delhi which at the time were part of the support group), as described in a Saheli newsletter in 1997.
The task of “consciousness raising” or stopping “social evils” like dowry, sex selection, child marriage etc can be extremely precarious, especially at the village level with its deeply entrenched feudal, caste and patriarchal structures. Shyama Narang, a member of the audience put the question that ‘How many of us could enter people’s houses in one’s own neighbourhood and demand that they stop child marriage or refuse to take dowry?’ Bhanwari was raped while attempting to overturn exactly such practices. For Sathins like Bhanwari there is still no job security, no transport facilities and no support at all from the government for doing this risky work. This is only part of the larger critique of the WDP .
For someone who has worked in the government-run Women’s Development Program, it was somewhat ironic that Bhanwari’s focus was on individual effort, collective action and non-government efforts if any change was to come about. She spoke of her efforts to educate her daughter Raneswhari (who had accompanied her) – she is now an M.A B.ed and teaches in a school. She spoke of the support she had received from her husband, activists in Jaipur and women’s solidarity in general.
As for the rape case, Bhanwari does not talk much about it, frustrated by the legal process and the appeal by her rapists pending in the High Court. It is deeply ironical that the icon of the Vishakha Guidelines to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace finds the whole effort of law reform utterly futile. Her response to deal with perpetrators of violence against women is to round them up and beat them. She was also in favour of death penalty for rapists.
Bhanwari’s anguished response underlines once more why the best opportunity to undertake law reform might not be during times of trauma, emotional distress or mass mobilisation, despite popular or even progressive understanding of “striking while the iron is hot”. The job of reviewing or making laws has to be done when one is somewhat removed from the situation.
As for Bhanwari Devi, her life goes on, and that’s the wonderful part. True grit, impassioned activist, flame of hope – all the clichés in the lexicon can’t even begin to describe her.
Laxmi Murthy is a journalist based in Bangalore. She has spent more than 25 years in the autonomous women’s movement.
Featured photo courtesy: R. Eswarraj, The Hindu