The nowhere girls

It’s school that keeps the Barmer sisters going — despite more than a year of social ostracisation, harassment and, now, rape.

Written by Sweta Dutta | Updated: September 7, 2014 12:14 am
The sisters, who would cross sand dunes stretching over 5 km to school everyday, were raped in these shrubs. (Source: Sweta Dutta) The sisters, who would cross sand dunes stretching over 5 km to school everyday, were raped in these shrubs. (Source: Sweta Dutta)

Independence day was the last day the sisters attended school. Every day that passes, the two Barmer rape victims are reminded of that. It was school that had kept them going at their mudhouse in Dhiraniyon ki Dhani in Rateu in Barmer district for nearly two years, despite the ostracism, the daily harassment, their parents going away, their siblings being jailed, and the daily travel of 20 km, including 5 km walking over sand dunes, to class.

On August 16, the two, one 20 years old and the other 18, were attacked near their home, dragged into the spiny shrubs around and allegedly raped by three people. The attackers kept shouting expletives at them for being “disobedient”. The sisters were returning home from the police station, 10 km away, after lodging a complaint against their uncle and a neighbour for regular harassment and physical assaults.

Their troubles had begun in January 2013 when two of their three older siblings were arrested on charges of murdering a school-going cousin. A 90-member caste panchayat comprising village elders from the dominant Jat community decreed that the entire family be ostracised. Shortly after, the marriages fixed for the younger sisters broke.

Initially, the family tried to stay on. “We didn’t get out, except to go to school or the market,” says the 20-year-old. But their cattle often strayed into the neighbours’ fields, leading to frequent tension. “So our parents moved out to Sheo with the goats while my younger sister and I stayed back. We had to finish our schooling and also tend to our 50 bighas of land where we grow bajra.”

Their ration supplies were stopped, they were not allowed to take up jobs under the MGNREGA, and they were denied water from the common wells.

But the girls stayed put. In Sheo, the parents lived under trees or temporary shelters, and sent the money they saved to the girls so that they could complete schooling. In their Class X exams early last year, the two had performed well, the elder one scoring 49 per cent marks and the younger 57 per cent.

The sisters never told their parents about the daily harassment they faced from their uncle — it was his son their siblings were accused of killing — and the neighbours. “Our school is a 5-km walk and a 15-km bus ride away. We need to walk through neighbours’ fields. When they saw us around, they threatened us. But this is our house, our village. Why should we go away?” says the 20-year-old.

In March, they were beaten up. “We met the superintendent of police. Things settled down for a while but the regular scuffles and jeering continued.”

The word of the boycott also reached their school. Says their former class teacher at the senior secondary school in Batadu, “No one in the class spoke to them. When I asked around, I was told about the boycott. So I talked to the class and explained that they should not let such decisions by village elders affect their friendship. In school, everyone is equal. The children seemed convinced.”

He adds that not only were the sisters bright and regular, they also participated in extracurricular activities.

The sisters credit education with having taught them to fight back. When rations were denied to them, they filed an RTI. It showed they had not been given grains for a year, a reply they took to the police. They were confident of receiving supplies soon.

They have resisted offers to change their charge to attempt to rape or to pay Rs 20 lakh to get the social boycott lifted. They have kept their blood-stained salwars from the night of the rape, conscious these were crucial evidence. Hours after the rape, two of the accused — Birda Ram and Chatura Ram — allegedly called them up to threaten them. They recorded the calls and produced these before an incredulous police.

After their medical examination confirmed rape, police arrested Birda and Chatura, but doubt the involvement of the third person named by them, Kanha Ram. Says Barmer SP Hemant Sharma, “It appears Kanha Ram is being framed. We are, however, exploring all angles.”

It was Kanha’s father Moormal Ram who is said to have called the caste panchayat that decided to boycott the family. A panch, Moormal Ram is well-connected to the local Jat heavyweights.

Police, which have been dragging their feet, have seized on the girls’ naming of Kanha to punch holes in their case. They point out that Kanha made no threatening calls to them, wasn’t near the scene of the rapes as per his mobile phone, and that the fellow accused too hadn’t named him. They also ask why the accused didn’t have major marks of injury. “Had it been a brutal gangrape, the girls would have fought back,” says a police official close to the investigation.

“Police base their claims on records of only one out of Kanha’s three mobile phones. Also how can anyone’s cellphone location be an alibi?” says People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) general secretary Kavita Srivastava, who met the girls.

Srivastava calls it “a classic case of rape during social boycott”, and reminiscent of Rajasthan’s infamous Bhanwari Devi case.

Denying charges of social boycott, the villagers attack the victims’ “character”. Chandra Prakash Saharan, secretary of the Jhak panchayat that is part of the same village, says, “When other villagers started keeping away, they would have visitors from outside. We often found impressions of motorcycle tyres near their house. Last year, Rs 5 lakh and 17 tolas of gold were retrieved from their house.”

Saharan further alleges that the girls “duped” several youths in the village, promising to marry them but later extorting money. According to him, “This is why we told everyone to keep their distance. They must have deliberately inflicted those wounds on each other.”

One of Saharan’s aides interjects, “Kanha is a wonderful boy, extremely caring. He works all day and returns home to take care of his parents.”

Sarpanch Pyarelal Prajapat claims he knows nothing about the rapes.

Incidentally, lower caste villagers confirm that a caste panchayat met early last year and ordered a social boycott. Adds a villager who didn’t want to be named: “A sanction of Rs 60,000 for construction of a well was made under the MGNREGA for the family, but other villagers did not let them work on it. The girls were constantly harassed.”

Back at their ramshackle home in the village that doesn’t want anything to do with them, the 20-year-old breaks down as the younger one sits in silence. “We will fight for our rights, for justice. It has been a lonely battle, but again what choice do we have?” she says.

Panchayat rule

* In a recent incident, a couple from Kanasar in Sheo filed a complaint against the caste panchayat in their village. Sangeeta Vaishnav (22) and her sister had got married into the same family as per a common social arrangement. When Sangeeta’s sister left her husband, Sangeeta’s in-laws wanted to send her back home too. When her husband Narayan Das refused to divorce her, a caste panchayat ordered them to leave the village. The couple now live on the streets in Jodhpur, working as daily wage labourers.

* In 2010, a young Dalit couple approached the Barmer district collector seeking protection against a caste panchayat for ordering them
to separate.

* Earlier this year, a family from Khejdiyali village in Balotra was ostracised by a caste panchayat for standing up against dowry. A case was registered in a local court in Balotra.

* In February, a family in Gudamalani registered a case against a caste panchayat for telling them to marry their minor daughter.

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