FOR 27 years, she was a familiar sight in the Jalandhar district court, cycling all the way there from her residence in Hardeep Nagar. The 57-year-old Sita Devi’s visits to the court had begun with her own battle against her husband, against whom she was fighting a protracted bigamy case, but over the years, she was going there to help other distressed woman seeking justice.
On Wednesday, the same court began the trial for her murder. The three accused were presented in court and copies of the chargesheet were supplied to them.
Sita Devi was murdered October 15 last year, by three men who trespassed into her home. She had lived alone since 1991, when she was abandoned by her husband. Her murder was unconnected to the bigamy case — still pending in the Supreme Court. Her body was found to be without clothes and the assailants had slit her throat with some sharp-edged weapons.
Her extraordinary struggle began in 1991, just two years after her marriage, when her husband married another woman. She did not accept it as her fate and chose to fight in the court of law.
“She reached every court from Jalandhar to Delhi in search of justice. We would ask her to stop now but she would always respond that she will fight for her rights,” says Parmanand, her brother. “The struggle had turned her into a lawyer of sorts. She chose a life of her own will.”
Born in a farmer’s family in Jalandhar’s Dhadda village, Sita graduated in arts at Kanya Maha Vidyalaya in 1986. She was married off by her family to Paramjit Kumar with a dowry worth Rs 1, 20,000 in 1989. Two years on, the marriage ran into rough weather after Kumar married another woman in 1992.
With the decision to launch a legal battle against the bigamy, Sita decided to leave her parental house to spare them the embarrassment that would come their way, and chose to live alone at a cramped single-room house, built on a family-owned plot, at Hardeep Nagar. Till at least 1997, it had just a hand pump for water and no electricity till at least 1997.
Sita filed complaints at different official levels till 2001 for maintenance and against the bigamy. Along the way she won some small victories — the court awarded her maintenance, but her husband would not pay it, and she had to file a recovery appeal in 2003. In 1999, conceded to police that he had married again.
Sita’s days revolved around the court. A kitchen garden, now unkempt with weeds and dried up plants, was her only companion when she was home and the courts were not working.
At Jalandhar court, she also started helping other women engaged in similar cases against their husbands. She would even assist other lawyers, who would pay her.
“She was a regular here. She would guide women in cases of similar matrimonial disputes,” says advocate Manjeet Kaur Parmar, who represented her once. “She wouldn’t be dissuaded in any way.”
Her neighbours at Hardeep Nagar say she would not talk much about her personal life.
“She did not mingle much with others and did not reveal much either on asking. She mostly would be in the court. She was just focused on that one case,” says Sarita, her neighbour at Hardeep Nagar.
Her brother says she did not like to talk about the case even with him.
“She thought her story would just bother us. She was a loner and would only inform us when she had to go out of town for the hearings,” says Pramanand.
Her big win came in 2008, when Kumar was sentenced to one year imprisonment for cruelty. The punishment was first reduced to six months the next year by the Sessions Court and then to four months by the High Court.
Kumar challenged the judgment before the Supreme Court. Sita would plead her case on her own at the apex court. The apex court appointed an amicus to represent her and even tried to get the case settled through mediation but she refused to relent.
Kumar was acquitted of the bigamy charge in 2011 by the lower court. Sita challenged the acquittal in the High Court in 2013. The case was again remanded back to the lower court for fresh consideration.
In another major victory for Sita, Kumar was sentenced for bigamy to three years’ imprisonment in 2014. The High Court set it aside and acquitted him in 2015. Sita went back to the Supreme Court.
“She challenged the judgment before Supreme Court, and would travel by train to Delhi. I do not know what she was made of. She did not relent. There was no ‘manpower’ with her and no money. She would lose in one court and appeal against it in another,” says Pramanand.
Both Kumar’s appeal against his 2009 High Court conviction for cruelty and her appeal against his 2015 acquittal of bigamy are coming up in the Supreme Court next month.
“The cases are likely to abate because of her death,” says advocate Vivek Singh, who represented her in the apex court. “She was an inspiration for many woman. We were shocked on hearing about her murder.”
Kumar, in a statement to the police in 1999, had said that she would go out of home without his consent and he “started suspecting her. Later on the quarrels became more frequent because she totally defied me.”
Inspector Navdeep of Jalandhar’s Division 8 Police Station told The Indian Express that the accused men were traced through the mobile phone stolen from her house. “Nothing was found to connect Sita’s husband to the murder,” he said.
At her locked Hardeep Nagar home, the clock is stuck at quarter to 3 O’ Clock. Her bicycle is lying in a corner and in a small cupboard inside the wall of her room, there is her picture, some law books and framed photos of deities with some religious scripts as well.
“Koi nirasha kabi nai thi. She knew her end could come any time on the path she had chosen but she would always respond that the fight was about her rights,” Pramanand says.