Bawandar: A Reality Check into the Bhanwari Devi Rape Case

Posted on February 26, 2012 in Media and Culture

By P. V. Swati:

Bawandar is a film based on the true story of Bhanwari Devi, a rape victim from Rajasthan, India. The film depicts the personal trauma, public humiliation and legal injustice that Bhanwari Devi went through, while pursuing justice in the Indian courts. Produced, directed and edited by Jag Mundhra, the screenplay of the film is written by Ashok Mishra and Sudha Arora. The film is further credited with eminent actors like Deepti Naval and Nandita Das who have done perfect justice to the gravity of the characters they portrayed. The quality of the movie is taken to a notch higher with the music composed by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. The breath-taking cinematography by Ashok Kumar has given Bawandar an international acclaim.The film was released in three languages- Hindi, Rajasthani and English in an attempt to reach out a wider audience nationally and internationally.

But, to understand the relevance and context of the film, it important to have an insight into the shocking  real life experience of Bhanwari Devi, which the movie has captured.

The Reality Check:

Bhanwari Devi is a low-caste potter from Bhateri, a small Rajasthani village located 55 km from the state capital Jaipur. The dominant caste in the village was the Gurjar community, which is higher in the caste hierarchy than the Kumhar caste, to which Bhanwari belongs.

In 1985, Bhanwari took up the job of a saathin, 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, PDS, 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 reported the issue of child marriage as a part of the State Government of Rajasthan’s anti-child-marriage campaign. 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.

The Deputy Suprintendent of Police (DSP) and SDO came to Bhateri and stopped the marriage of Ram Karan’s infant daughter. The marriage, however, took place next day at 2 a.m and no police action was taken. The Gurjar community in the village felt that the police interference in their affairs must have been a consequence of Bhanwari’s report to the police. The annoyed villagers refused her water from the well, refused to sell her milk and started threatening her regularly.

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 Indian medical procedure and legal guidelines stipulate that the examination of a female rape victim be performed by female doctors, but the two female doctors at the PHC were not available at the time. 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 couldn’t 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.

Soon after, many Jaipur-based women’s groups and other social organizations began making inquiries about the incident. However, Bhanwari was accused of fabricating the entire incident by the alleged rapists and their supporters, and faced public humiliation in her village. She refused monetary compensation to avoid allegations that she had cooked up the rape story to get money.

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, daughter-in-law and 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 men 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, 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.

In the aftermath of all these tussles, 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. But, even today Bhanwari refuses to give up her fight for justice, in spite of unhelpful villagers and relatives, an incompetent police force, and a corrupt judicial system.

Bawandar and the Controversies:

In 2000, when Jag Mundhra came out with the film Bawandar on Bhanwari Devi’s story, it renewed public interest in the case. The names of characters and places were changed for legal reasons. Bhanwari’s character is called Sanwari, her husband Mohan’s character is called Sohan, and their village is called Dhabri contrary to Bhateri which was the real location of the Banwari Devi case.

But, in spite of this measure, some women’s organizations opposed the film due to concerns about Bhanwari Devi being exposed to hostile public scrutiny. The police also felt that the film ‘falsifies their role inexcusably’. There was also concern that the film may end up annoying the Gurjar community, to which the accused belong. The State Government was apprehensive about the film leading to caste-based tensions.

The film was submitted to the examining committee of the Central Board of Film Certification on 18 September 2000. The committee head Asha Parekh despatched it to the revising committee, which saw the film on 6 October, and gave it the expected ‘Adult’ certificate. It recommended five cuts, two of which were described by the journalist Pinki Virani as ‘grotesquely unfair to Bhanwari Devi’. The Censor Board made attempts to take the film far from the reality it tried to depict.

Post the release of the film, 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. 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.

The Larger Impact of the Case and Film:

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.

Bhanwari Devi has received support both nationally and internationally, and was invited to be a part of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women inBeijing. In 1994, she was awarded the Neerja Bhanot Memorial Award carrying Rs. 1 lakh cash prize, for her extraordinary courage, conviction and commitment.

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.

To conclude, the Bhanwari Devi case was the threshold in the discourse of Indian judiciary. The case brought into light the corrupt attitude of the police forces and the reluctance of the judicial authority to go against the power arrangement of the society to avail justice for a victim. The case reflects how this nexus of power which operated on the social factors of caste, class and gender oppressed the least privileged in the existing social system.

Bawandar as a film depicts these realities of Indian socio-political arrangement. The film gave a new lease of life and a wider following to the Bhanwari Devi case. Hence, Bawandar indeed is a must.

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