Updated: March 26, 2021 8:33:04 am
ON May 23, 2013, she was married off at the age of 14. Since then, she faced threats from her ‘husband’, her in-laws, terrorised by caste-panchayat, thrown out of house by parents, dropped out of college following a scare, and learned to work at the ticket counter of a cinema hall to get by.
Almost eight years later, a local court in Jodhpur last week finally annulled her child marriage to Mahendra Sihag, “a good for nothing drunkard” as she puts it. She says she doesn’t know his exact age; he was around 23 back in 2013.
“I was in Class IX when I was married off along with my two adult sisters and two cousin sisters, who were still underage, and way younger than me,” Chhota Devi, now 21, tells The Indian Express. “They let me study and be at home till Class XII. He used to come outside my school sometimes and harass me but I somehow managed. However, things got worse once I finished schooling.”
“He started asking me to come home. He and his family used to say akhbaar parhne layak ho gayi hai… humare parivaaar mein koi padha hua nahi hai, tu kahan jaayegi padh ke (you are proficient enough to read newspapers… no one in our family is educated, what will you do with all this education). He himself was unlettered and a drunkard and I decided not to be with him. But when I declined, he started threatening me and my family,” she says.
In his March 19 order, Family Court judge Roop Chand Suthar quotes the petition submitted by Chhota Devi’s lawyer: “She was in Class IX and didn’t have any idea about marriage. Her parents forced her into child marriage. In 2016, they forcefully sent her to in-laws place and she came back after a day.”
“The threats and abuses didn’t stop and I had to sit home for a year. Then, during my first year BA examination in 2018, he came outside the college in Piparcity. It was a Political Science paper that day. He was drunk and wanted to talk to me. I could barely write anything and escaped from the back gate. I couldn’t clear that paper and eventually dropped out,” she says.
“I approached a few NGOs but either they didn’t get back or told me that their hands are full. Then in 2018, I filed a court case. With that, the in-laws started threatening my family and caste-panchayat pressured my family to pay the in-laws. Sometimes they asked for Rs 10 lakh, other times they said we should pay Rs 21 lakh or Rs 25 lakh. My parents are farmers and didn’t have that kind of money. Under pressure and scared, they stopped talking to me and I was asked to leave home,” she says. None of her two brothers or two sisters helped her either, she says.
“The caste panchayats are influential in villages here. When it comes to divorce, the side demanding a divorce — irrespective of whether it’s a bride or a groom — has to pay Rs 25 lakh to the other side,” says advocate Rajendra Soni, who represented Chhota Devi pro bono.
In Jodhpur city, 65 km from her village in Silari, Chhota Devi knew an acquaintance who was living as a paying guest. She contacted her, and was put in touch with the owner of the PG accommodation. “I told the lady about what I was going through, and she agreed not to charge anything from me,” she says.
By then, Chhota Devi says she had undergone immense mental and financial trouble and “contemplated suicide”. During one of her court visits, she also came in contact with advocate Rajendra Soni and Roopwati Deora, who runs Joy of Living NGO. “They helped me immensely and motivated me. I told them what I had gone through and they offered to represent me pro bono,” she says.
“I also found a job at the ticket counter of Carnival cinema hall in Jodhpur, for which I used to get Rs 8,400. I then started preparing for competitive examinations, and used to watch online videos by Utkarsh Classes, although I couldn’t afford their course,” she says. She worked at the cinema hall for 11 months, until it was shut due to the pandemic in 2020. “I had to struggle a lot during coronavirus, as I had little money to spare,” she says.
Meanwhile, in the Family Court, the groom’s family claimed the wedding and muklava [sending bride to groom’s home] took place only in 2016, once she was an adult. They claimed she spent a week at their place, and then again, for a month, a month later. They said if she was being forced, she could have complained back then, but she didn’t.
In the court, Chhota Devi, whose name translates into ‘Little Goddess’, denied she was married in 2016 or went to in-laws place thrice. She said even if her in-laws claim she was married in 2016, she was still underage. She produced her high school certificate to show she was 14 in 2013. Her in-laws, however, could not produce any document to back their claims.
Invoking section 3(1) of the Child Marriage Act, the Jodhpur District Family Court held the marriage as void. Section 3(1) of the Act reads “child marriage shall be voidable at the option of the contracting party who was a child at the time of the marriage.”
It was indeed a win, but Chhota Devi’s troubles are far from over. She is running out of her savings, part of which goes every month towards rent — she had moved out of the old PG accommodation.
She appeared for police constable entrance examination 2020-21 but missed out on it narrowly. She also filled the form for ‘Forester and Forest Guard’ recruitment through Rajasthan Staff Selection Board but has had no luck yet.
“I wanted to be a policewoman so I’ll continue to prepare for the exams, irrespective of whenever they declare vacancies next… I’ll wait,” she says. She also plans to pursue an undergraduate course at a private college under Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur, but doesn’t have the money. “I can’t afford it from the upcoming session so I’ll try next year,” she says.
As for her two underage cousins who were married off the same day, she says, “One was about 11 years and other was about 9 years old then. They don’t have any objection and go and stay with their in-laws.”