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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 46 New Delhi November 3, 2018

Bhanwari Devi, the First Victim of Sexual Violence as a Worker

Saturday 3 November 2018

by Basudev Mazumdar

In the wake of the #MeToo campaign by educated, employed and largely empowered urban women no one should forget the extreme plight of Bhanwari Devi of Rajasthan who worked as a ‘saathin’ for the family welfare programme long ago in 1992. She was very active in stopping child marriage which is the bane of rural society even today. However, this was not liked by many. A conspiracy was hatched. She was raped by a gang of caste Hindu (upper-caste) rapists of the same village in front of her husband to teach her a harsh lesson and to prevent her from doing her assigned work. She was thus the first recorded victim of sexual violence in the workplace.

She complained to the police and that enraged the powerful criminal-casteist lobby of the village. As a result she suffered immensely, being ostracised and often threatened by her tormentors. Her family was shattered. As usual, the local police was also not helpful. But she kept on fighting against all odds and the evil combine in the village. It was an example of great courage. It is strange that women correspondents who are very active today in newspaper columns on this issue rarely mention her case or her contribution to women’s cause.

 As regards the case, the lower court judge was not only incompetent but turned out to be a casteist too. That was more dangerous. While letting off Bhanwari Devi’s rapists he commented that the upper-caste men can’t rape a woman of lower caste. Therefore he concluded that the rape was not committed by the accused. In-deed, when we have such judges we do not need criminals. Anyway, women activists and good Samaritans came up strongly to her support and fought the case in higher court. It was a good luck for the Devi. The rapists finally got to the jail.

This incident may not be the only one of its kind. There will be many similar cases which go unreported. It is a serious issue and throws light on the essential criterion required for a person to be a judge. He should, among others, be free from the old baggage of prejudice and bias.

Therefore, the judge in question should have been booked long ago for his comment and the mischief he had done with such a warped and casteist mindset. With such questionable men presiding over the courts, how can we expect dispassionate judgement free from bias? Every litigant does not have the means to knock the doors of higher courts for review. It is not desirable either in view of the burden of pending cases there. So the focus should be on the quality of judges and their ability of application of mind.

Therefore, before appointing future judges, it is necessary to screen them thoroughly to weed out such elements. They are to be sensitised from time to time about the social reality and the constitutional propriety. People have to cleanse their mind, in the first place, to be worthy of being a judge of men and women of this country. Moreover, there is a dire need to have a mechanism in place to identify miscarriage of justice well in time for correction before much damage is done.

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