Bhanwari Devi is a low-caste potter woman from Bhateri, a small Rajasthani village located 55 km from the state capital Jaipur. In the 1980s, the child marriages were common in the village, and the caste system was dominant. Most of the villagers belonged to the conservative Gurjar community, which is higher in the caste hierarchy than the Kumhar caste, to which Bhanwari Devi belongs.
As a saathin
In 1985, when she needed money, Bhanwari Devi became a saathin ("friend"), a grassroots worker employed as part of the Women's Development Project (WDP) run by the Government of Rajasthan. As part of her job, she took up issues related to land, water, literacy, health, Public Distribution System, and payment of minimum wages at famine relief works. In 1987, she took up a major issue of the attempted rape of a woman from a neighbouring village. All of these activities had the full support of the members of her village. However, in 1992, Bhanwari found herself alienated, when she took up the issue of child marriage.
In 1992, the State Government of Rajsthan had decided to launch an anti-child-marriage campaign during the fortnight preceding Akha Teej, which is considered an auspicious date for marriages. The WDP members and other government employees tried to convince the local villagers against child marriage. However, some influential conservative Gurjar families in the village were determined to perform child marriages. In one such family, Ram Karan Gurjar was planning to marry off his 9-month old daughter. Bhanwari's attempts to persuade the family against this move met with hostile response.
On May 5, the day of Akha Teej, the Deputy Suprintendent of Police (DSP) and SDO came to the Bhateri village, and stopped the marriage of Ram Karan Gurjar's infant daughter. The marriage, however, took place next day on 2 am in morning, and no police action was taken. The Gurjar community in the village felt that the police interference in their affairs must have happened due to Bhanwari Devi's report to the police. The annoyed villagers refused her water from the well, refused to sell her milk and started threatening her regularly.
The gang rape
According to Bhanwari Devi, on 22 September 1992, at 6 p.m. five villagers attacked her husband Mohan Lal and left him unconscious, while the couple was working on their field. The five men were: Ram Karan Gurjar, Ram Sukh Gurjar, Gyarsa Gurjar, Badri Gurjar and Shravan Sharma. When she came to her husband's rescue, Gyarsa and Badri raped her, while the other three held her.
Bhanwari reported the incident to Ms. Sharma, the pracheta (a block-level worker). The pracheta took her to the Bassi police station to lodge a First Information Report (FIR). The DSP who examined Bhanwari for signs of injury, doubted her story, and sent her to the Primary Health Center (PHC). The two female doctors at the PHC were not available. The only male doctor available refused to conduct the examination, and instead sent her to the Sawai Man Singh hospital in Jaipur, with a chit requesting a medical examination "confirming age of victim". The Medical Jurist at Jaipur said that he cannot conduct the test without orders from the Magistrate. The Magistrate refused to give the orders until the next day, as it was past his working hours.
The order was sanctioned next day, but only for a general medical examination. The vaginal swab was taken more than 48 hours after the alleged rape, although the Indian law requires this to be done within 24 hours. Although the medical examination was conducted 52 hours after the rape, the trial began only two years later, in a lower court.
At the police station, Bhanwari was asked to deposit her "lehanga" (long skirt) as evidence. She had to cover herself with her husband's blood-stained saafa (turban) and walk 3 km to the nearest saathin's village Kherpuria, at about 1 a.m. in the morning.
On 25 September 1992, Rajasthan Patrika carried a small news item stating that a woman from Bhateri had registred an FIR in Bassi 'thana' alledging gang rape. Following this, a number of local Hindi dailies as well as national dailies reported the incident. On 2 October 2000, the Rajasthan Patrika carried an editorial article Kroor Hadsa ("Brutal Incident") condemning the incident. Soon after, many Jaipur-based women's goups and other social organizations began making inquiries about the incident. However, Bhanwari Devi was accused of fabricating the entire incident by the alleged rapists and their supporters, and faced public humiliation in her village. Bhanwari Devi refused monetary compensation to avoid allegations that she had cooked up the rape story to get money.
The court case
In 1994, Bhanwari Devi was offered compensation by the accused to withdraw the court case against them. She refused, and instead asked them to restore her dignity by accepting that they had raped her. Bhanwari's brothers wanted her to accept the compensation, and broke all ties with her when she refused to do so. Sometime later, her elder son and daughter-in-law as well as her in-laws followed suit.
During the course of the case, five judges were changed, and the sixth judge ruled that the accused were not guilty, in November 1995. The district sessions judge pronounced that upper-caste man could not have raped a Dalit. The rapists included an uncle-nephew pair, and the judge insisted that a man could not possibly have participated in a gang rape in the presence of his nephew. He also said that since the medical examination happened 52 hours after the alleged rape, Bhanwari Devi could be lying. He also said that Bhanwari's husband couldn't have passively watched his wife being gang-raped.
A state MLA organised a victory rally in the state capital Jaipur for the five accused declared not guilty, and the women's wing of his political party attended the rally to call Bhanwari a liar. The State Government decided to appeal against the judgment. The judgement led to a nationwide campaign for justice for Bhanwari Devi. However, by 2007, 15 years after the incident, the Rajasthan High Court held only one hearing on the case and two of the accused were dead.
Bhanwari Devi and her family were ostracized by the villagers, majority of whom belonged to the 'upper' castes. Her son Mukesh (who was barely four years old when she was raped) had been beaten up by local Gurjar boys when he went to a college in Dausa. He had a difficult time finding a family willing to marry their daughter to him. Bhanwari Devi's own caste ostracized her as they believed that she had been "polluted" by rape. Bhanwari Devi accepted Rs. 25,000 from the Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, but her brother spent the entire amount in organizing a Kumhar caste panchayat, where people were asked to accept her back into the community.
In 2001, Jag Mundhra made a film Bawandar on Bhanwari Devi's story, which renewed public interest in the case. The New Indian Express journalist Sukhmani Singh tracked her down, and reported: "Feisty, outspoken, innately hospitable, she openly expressed her resentment against both the women's groups and the government, all of whom have been fiercely guarding her like their pet mannequin all these many years." He reported that she was "weary, resigned and bitter" after all these years. According to him, a small-time political worker and businessman describing Bhanwari as a "rakhi sister" had brokered a deal with Mundhra for the film. He also reported that Bhanwari wanted to leave Bhateri, but couldn't afford to do so. Her sole source of income was a buffalo, as her two bighas of land had become unproductive due to three years of drought. Most of the money that she received as part of the Neerja Bhanot Memorial Award in 1994 was locked away in a trust to aid women.
Bhanwari Devi risked her life amidst threats from the conservative villagers, and showed courage in seeking justice in spite of social boycott. It was for the first time in the conservative region that a woman was not ashamed of rape and spoke openly about it. Bhanwari Devi's case shaped the women's movement in Rajasthan, and emboldened other rape victims to come forward and lodge complains against their rapists.
Bhanwari Devi had attracted the ire of her rapists solely on the basis of her work. This prompted several women's groups to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India, under the collective platform of Vishakha. The petition, filed by Vishakha and four other women's organizations in Rajasthan against the State of Rajasthan and the Union of India, resulted in what are popularly known as the Vishakha Guidelines. The judgment of August 1997 provided the basic definitions of sexual harassment at the workplace and provided guidelines to deal with it. It is seen as a significant victory for Bhanwari Devi's fight for justice.
By 2007, the average age of the first-time mother in Rajasthan had gone up to 16.5 years. According to Shivam Vij, this change was brought about by the efforts of women's groups, catalyzed by the Bhanwari Devi case.
In 2002, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, alloted a residential plot to Bhanwari Devi and announced a grant of Rs. 40,000 for construction of a house on the plot. He also sanctioned an additional amount Rs. 10,000 for the education of her son.
- Bawandar (2000), is a film based on the true story of Bhanwari Devi. It depicts the personal trauma, public humiliation and legal injustice that Bhanwari Devi went through, while pursuing in the Indian courts.
- In India Saathin Means Friend, a radio programme by T. Jayashree features the story of Bhanwari Devi.
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- "Government extends financial help to Bhanwari Devi". Rediff.com. 2002-01-10. http://www.rediff.com/news/2002/jan/10rajas.htm. Retrieved 2010-04-07.
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