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Recall Value: The Valor Behind Vishakha Guidelines: Mother of the Indian #MeToo

THERE IS A GLARING ERASURE OF DALIT BAHUJAN ADIVASI WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE #METOO DISCOURSE, ESPECIALLY OF BHANWARI DEVI, WHOSE STRUGGLE STARTED THE MOVEMENT.

23rd March, 2021

Written by Shreya Gupta

Artwork by Rachel Mathew

One of the greatest contributions of the Bhanwari Devi Andolan is a rethinking of the traditional definition of the workplace.

In 1997, the top court came out with Vishakha Guidelines, laying down norms to protect women from sexual harassment in workplaces.

It was a revolutionary judgement based on the fundamental rights of women. And the guidelines later became the basis for a 2013 law passed by the Indian parliament to prevent sexual harassment of women at the workplace,

The following article mentions instances and usage of strong words like sexual assault, gangr*pe, and violence against women. 

 

When journalist Priya Ramani was acquitted in the defamation case, filed against her by former Union Minister MJ Akbar, we realised once again, that it isn't easy for women to come out with their personal narratives about sexual misconduct in workplaces without having to be vindicated on behalf of other women who have faced the same ordeal. 

 

It is true that the justice system is biased and that the process of trial and justice favours the fortune and that the Bahujans have always been discriminated against in their respective workplaces. In the court of law which has made the availability of justice an uphill struggle, and as it has been witnessed in many recent cases, it is unobtainable if the case involves a woman. 

 

But this Dalit woman’s rape case was a turning point in the history of the Indian law as it led to India’s first sexual harsassment law, although, justice still eludes her.

 

Bhanwari Devi, was a Dalit woman employed by the Rajasthan government’s Women’s Development Programme as a ‘Saathin’ (friend) where Devi’s job was to spread awareness about hygiene, family planning and the necessity of educating girls, along with campaigning against female foeticide, infanticide, dowry and child marriages. Harassed in the course of her work, Devi was raped by five Gujjar men as “punishment” in 1992 for stopping the wedding of a nine-month-old Gujjar girl.

The attackers were Gujjars, the affluent and dominant caste group in the village, whilst Bhanwari Devi and her husband, Mohan Lal Prajapat, are from the low-caste potter community, Kumhar.

Devi filed a police complaint. The men admitted to attacking her, but denied it was rape. The 9-month-old baby was married the next day.

Her campaign against child marriage was not an attempt to challenge patriarchy or fight the feudal mindset, but she was just doing her job.

Bhanwari Devi herself was a child bride, she had been married when she was five or six and her husband was eight or nine. She knew that meddling in the affairs of the Gujjars could invite a backlash. But, Bhanwari Devi says, she had no choice in the matter.

 

The road to justice wasn't easy at all for her as Bhanwari Devi bore the brunt of the loopholes of the judicial system and her caste and community played a major role in this as well. The police treated her with derision, didn't take her complaint seriously and botched up the investigation. Her medical test was conducted 52 hours later when it should have been done within 24 hours, her scratches and bruises were not recorded, her complaints of physical discomfort were ignored.

After local newspapers reported Bhanwari Devi's plight and protests by women's activists, the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

The five accused were finally arrested more than a year after the crime, and were charged with harassment, assault, conspiracy and gang rape. Over the course of the trial, judges were inexplicably changed five times and, in November 1995, the accused were acquitted of rape - instead, they were found guilty of lesser offences like assault and conspiracy and were all given just nine months in jail. Some bizarre reasons were cited by the judge while clearing the accused of rape like how the village head cannot rape anyone; men of different castes cannot participate in gang rape; elder men of 60-70 years cannot rape; no man can rape in front of a relative - this was with reference to two of the men, an uncle and nephew who were charged guilty. The judge also made comments which reflected the societal mindset, buried deep within the caste system such as ‘A member of the higher caste cannot rape a lower caste women because of reasons of purity’ and comments which directly questioned a women’s claim of being assaulted and the inetgrity of the husband like, ‘Bhanwari Devi's husband couldn't have quietly watched his wife being gang-raped’. The judgement caused immense outrage in India and globally. Massive protests were held in Jaipur with thousands marching through the city streets, demanding justice.

The state government, which seemed reluctant to appeal against the order, finally challenged it in the Rajasthan high court, but only one hearing has been held in 22 years. The state authorities had refused to help her, saying as her employer, they were not responsible since she was assaulted in her fields. 

 

A nation-wide network of women’s organisations decided to support Bhanwari Devi’s fight for justice. Led by groups in Rajasthan, the movement recognised that Devi was attacked at what was essentially her workplace. In the absence of a law that tackled such harassment, four women’s organisations filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court asking for guidelines that would help institutions recognise prevent and redress sexual harassment in the workplace. These groups were Vishakha and Women’s Rehabilitation Group from Rajasthan and Jagori and Kali for Women in Delhi. 

The guidelines came to be known in common parlance as the Vishakha guidelines, since that feminist women’s collective was the first party listed on the petition.

 

In 1993, in denying bail to her assailants, a judge called Devi's attack a gang-rape, and ruled that the rapists acted "in revenge" for her campaign against child marriage. It was a clear workplace assault case, he ruled.

 

One of the greatest contributions of the Bhanwari Devi Andolan is a rethinking of the traditional definition of the workplace.

In 1997, the top court came out with Vishakha Guidelines, laying down norms to protect women from sexual harassment in workplaces.

It was a revolutionary judgement based on the fundamental rights of women. And the guidelines later became the basis for a 2013 law passed by the Indian parliament to prevent sexual harassment of women at the workplace.

But while the #MeToo movement in India has concentrated on workplace issues, most sexual assault in India is perpetrated by relatives and neighbors, not co-workers or bosses, according to government data and independent researchers. Only about a quarter of Indian women have jobs. Working outside her home, Devi was the exception in her village.

 

The couple were ostracised by the villagers who refused to sell them milk or buy their clay pots. Even their families boycotted them. She didn't even get invited to family weddings. 

Only one of Devi's attackers is still alive. She says she still sees him from afar, in their village. She wonders whether he has seen news of the #MeToo campaign across India.

"He might see this news of men in the cities being held to account. But he's still a powerful man in my village. He's turned people against me," Devi says, almost three decades later "I'm still ostracized by my community, because I spoke up."

Devi says she doubts she'll get justice in her lifetime. But she's hopeful, she says, for the next generation of her Indian sisters.