1992: Bhateri village, Jaipur district: Sathin Bhanwari Devi, a Women Development Project worker, was allegedly gangraped by five upper-caste men for attempting to stop a child marriage in her village. Acquitting the alleged rapists, a 1995 sessions court judgement ruled: "Rape is usually committed by teenagers. The alleged rapists here are middle-aged and therefore, respectable citizens. Since the offenders were upper-caste men, the rape could not have taken place because Bhanwari was from a lower caste."
1996: Utharna village, Tonk district: Dhapu Bai, a 40-year-old adivasi, is gangraped by eight henchmen of a powerful liquor contractor as her husband and son mutely look on. The ostensible reason for the assault—Dhapu’s husband sells liquor locally. One of the alleged rapists injures her grievously as he tries to pull out her uterus in an attempt to destroy evidence of rape. Dhapu’s injury requires 27 stitches. And her wounds, her medical report says, have reached her muscles. But the report does not mention rape.
FOUR years, umpteen rallies and a disheartening judgement later, cause celebre Sathin Bhanwari Devi conveys her condolences to Dhapu Bai from her Bhateri home which is lined with citations and awards for being a brave woman crusader. And as her alleged violators wander the neighbourhood freely, homebound with a severe attack of typhoid, the frail Bhanwari moans: "I pray that poor Dhapu has better luck than me. I hope she gets justice. Though, my experience tells me, it’ll be tough.... Seems like there is no one to protect women in this veerbhoomi (Land of the Brave) anymore. Women and their dignity has come to mean so little here."
An emotional outburst perhaps. But, unfortunately, one that finds reflection in cold statistics in this state that has a high incidence of female infanticide and an abysmally low female literacy level of 20.44 per cent. For, according to Rajasthan police reports, the last four years have indeed seen crimes against women in the state rise by an alarming 30 per cent. While the number of reported cases of rape was 848 in 1992-93, the figure doubled to 1,697 in 1995-96. So common are these crimes that in June alone, the state’s leading newspapers reported 30 serious offences against women.
"To what effect—all this reporting and hue and cry about increasing atrocities against women?" cries an irate Santosh Devi, mother of 13-year-old rape victim Monisha. "No one takes the rape victim’s word for truth though the mahila sangathans (women’s organisations) have been shouting themselves hoarse. Most people here think Bhanwari cooked up a rape story to get free tickets to celebrityhood. It’s shameful, but it’s more or less the general attitude towards all rape victims!" Then, pacified somewhat by her husband, constable Leeladhar, the angry mother collects herself. Disgust still writ large on her face, she continues in a calmer tone. Their Vishwa Karma colony neighbourhood on the outskirts of Jaipur, Santosh says, has boycotted them since the rape of their daughter last December. That the alleged rapist 22-year-old Vijay Pal is the son of a senior police official, she bitterly observes, has aggravated their problems.
"They live in the next house. They are powerful and he is free. He badmouths her. It’s torturous. Let alone sympathise, people say Monisha was characterless and invited the rape. Can you believe such trash about a child? It’s so humiliating to be looked down upon after being victimised," says the hapless father, Leeladhar.Comforting his wife who has broken down by now, the cop verbalises his fears for the future of his daughters: "Thirteen, raped and ostracised. It’s scary to be the parent of a girl in Rajasthan. I suppose it’s even worse being a woman here."
A sentiment close to the heart of 55-year-old Kani Devi, a resident of Dhankya village. Constantly living in fear of the man who allegedly raped her in August 1993 and was jailed for two months, to be later aqcuitted by the court, the naive, grandmotherly woman explains what she perceives as reasons for her legal defeat: "He was the ex-sarpanch that’s why the case was difficult. Moreover, lawyer sahib explained there was no evidence. But at least he went to jail for some time." Unable to rid herself of the memories of the terrible incident nonetheless, Kani shivers as she recalls how people ridiculed her when they heard of the rape. Harried, the simple woman unknowingly voices the plight of women in the state: "Okay, so I am too old to be raped. Young girls are asking to be raped. And some are crying rape to become heroines in Delhi. Do people realise how much it takes for a woman to talk about her physical violation in public?"
A tremendous lot obviously. Yet, pushed to a corner, Rajasthani women seem to have decided to brave it all and report crimes perpetrated against them. But then that too is an uphill task. The fil-ing of rape cases, vouch women’s organisations working at the grassroots levels in the state, is rife with pitfalls. Ignorance on the part of the victims, compounded by intransigent authorities, often result in the acquittal of rapists.
"Procedural anomalies, beginning from the police refusing to lodge an FIR, or lodging it under the wrong section to the chargesheet taking years to be issued to medical reports not mentioning rape and then, of course, indifferent police investigation which translates into a weak case for the prosecution...there has to be a movement to get each of these on the right track here," says Jaipur-based Kavita Srivastava, firebrand social activist. Adding that the fact that many of these crimes are committed by those in power or those who have access to political patronage makes justice even more unattainable for the victim.
As it was with Rachna Gupta, a 20-year-old school teacher from Alwar. Shalini Sharma, a BJP worker and then deputy chairperson of the State Social Welfare Board, blackmailed Rachna into having sex with her husband for over a year (1995-96). She threatened Rachna with photographs, her connections with political bigwigs and industrialists. In May 1996, the young girl was taken to Jaipur to be "supplied" to an industrialist from where she managed to escape. Back home, she took her father into confidence and thereon began the helpless twosome’s futile quest for help. They knocked on the doors of many a senior government official, ministers and also the Board’s chairperson but no assistance was forthcoming. Finally, Rachna filed an FIR on June 16, 1996. No arrests have been made to date. The alleged culprits have been chargesheeted but the police has expressed its "inability" to find them.
"The police does little and court cases take years to decide. That’s why we have decided to settle the matter at the village level. There is nothing worse than social humiliation as punishment," says the father-in-law of 20-year-old Raju who was raped by a middle-aged neighbour in August. Fortunately, the family’s neighbour-hood in Badwa village has been supportive. Prompted by workers from the Jaipur-based District Women Development Agency (DWDA), villagers here recently gathered to issue an order that the alleged rapist, Raghu Nath Mena, render a public apology before the Panchayat and compensate the victim. "I want to have him beg my forgiveness in front of the entire village. Only that will satisfy me," says a determined Raju from behind her veil.
"Not that we encourage villagers to take the law into their own hands. But these social punishments mean so much to the victim. Also, it does away with the unhealthy trend of the neigh-bourhood victimising the wronged by badmouthing them," says Chitra Rathod, DWDA project director. She adds that these public hearings also help children learn a lesson in a state that is otherwise becoming increasingly violent towards its women.
RAJASTHAN Home Secretary Arun Kumar begs to differ. "Please appreciate that the cases that are highlighted by the feminists are the difficult cases. They are the aberrations. In 90 per cent of the cases, justice is done. Sure, we have to ensure stricter administration to correct even these aberrations," he says. The bureaucrat has already held three meetings with police officials and representatives of various women’s groups to ensure speedy movement of files in many of the "problem" cases.
Nirmala Verma, the general secretary of the state’s ruling party BJP’s Mahila Morcha points out that atrocities against women have been an "age-old phenomenon in the state" and have revived in a big way because of the "newfound liberation" of women. The aggressive feminist lobby in the state, feels Verma, might be adding to the "macho" Rajasthani man’s desire to show the woman her place in society. "Social change is the only way to combat this scary trend," she says.
But with rape assuming increasingly brutal dimensions as a weapon to humiliate women in a feudal society, long-term "social change" seems too vague a solution to cope with the current situation. It certainly is no solution for 45-year-old Chandoori Bai from district Ganganagar’s Ghadsana village who, in May this year, was allegedly raped by a BJP member of the Zilla Parishad, Ram Chandra Banwari. The perverse sexual assault, where a stick and chillies were inserted in her, was her punishment for demanding her land back from him. Chandoori’s victimiser was arrested only after a 1,000 people gheraoed the local police station. But Banwari’s political clout ensured that he wasn’t charged with rape. Chandoori has since been pressured to withdraw her charges.
And has become yet another case in the appallingly growing list of rape victims to whom justice has been denied. A list that Rajasthan’s strong feminist lobby worriedly looks into everyday. To add more names. And to carry to mass movements. To the ministries. To advocacy meetings. To the media. To Beijing. To Delhi. Towards justice.