In Rajasthan, the search for the “women’s vote” can be a zigzag journey where every signpost of change is also a pointer to that which has not changed. Come to Jhunjhunu, where in March this year, the second phase of the national “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” campaign was launched.
Or come to Bhateri, a village about 55 km from Jaipur, to meet Bhanwari Devi. Her rape in 1992 while working in the government campaign against child marriage had became a trigger for the Vishakha guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court in 1997 and the law against sexual harassment at the workplace in 2013 — both form the backdrop for the current MeToo movement.
But first, to Jhunjhunu and its resident incongruity: In this district, even as the child sex ratio dipped very low (it has shown an improvement in recent years), female literacy indicators have remained relatively high. That is, the district has been doing well in girls’ education even as it lagged behind in curbing female foeticide.
There are explanations for girls’ education getting an early push in Jhunjhunu: The influence of Arya Samaj movements, the fact that the region sent out a large number of soldiers who became a bridge to the outside world, and because many of the country’s prominent business families hailing from the region set up and donated to educational institutions back home. On the other hand, the two-child norm for government jobs in Rajasthan contributed to the burgeoning of a sex determination industry in a district that has no industry to call its own.
Girls’ education, pictured in billboards showing smiling girl students wearing colourful Rajasthani turbans and holding up victory signs, has had a “side effect” here, says Viplav Neola, assistant director of the Women Empowerment Department (WED): “It made it easier to access information on methods of sex determination. More girls getting better scores than boys has also driven up the demand for dowry in the smaller catchment pool of eligible boys.”
In Jhunjhunu, then, the slogan could be said to have been split down the middle – “beti bachao” ran into difficulties, despite the strides made in “beti padhao”.
Jhunjhunu seems not to notice the incongruity, but it is there in conversations with its women on the eve of another election – the sense that for every step forward there is still a push back. Everywhere, victories are still small, still new.
And that neither of the parties, not the Congress nor the BJP, nor the woman chief minister, are seen to be engaging with the travails of the woman voter.
Till the last few years, girls were allowed to vote only when they got married, not when they reached the voting age of 18, says Usha Kulhari, a supervisor in the WED. “I voted only after my marriage,” she remembers. “I will make sure my 18-year-old daughter votes in this election,” promises Sharda Jinolia, her colleague.
At Amrita Haat, a women’s craft fair sponsored by the government, Anuja Punia says, “Earlier the ghunghat (head covering) was necessary, but now my family does not insist on it. When a son is born, we do a dhoond pujan (religious ritual) to protect him from evil spirits before his first Holi. Now it’s also being done for the girl child.”
If Sunita, a homemaker, gives some credit for the change to Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje – “I feel for Raje, as a woman” – disbelief is palpable in the MD Girls Science PG College, not far from the fair ground.
Having a woman as chief minister has made no difference to their lives, says a group of young women. “Yes, more of us are moving out of our villages to study, but that’s not because the government is helping us. It only gives slogans. The fight is our own,” says Nisha Gulehri. Rajni points to a perceived gap: “CM Raje moves in her own society. Ours is different.”
They also talk of the lack of jobs and of other absences in Jhunjhunu: It doesn’t have a medical college, a big mall, or public spaces for parking.
In nearby Sikar, a hub of coaching centres almost rivalling Kota, in Career Line Coaching, students speak of their grievances with a system of shrinking opportunities that is unable to accommodate the growing aspirations from below. All the students here speak against reservation for backward castes in education and in jobs. Most would opt for ‘NOTA’, come election, the results of a straw poll in the classroom show.
Ravindra Mund gives a somewhat dire example to explain his women classfellows’ apparent lack of identification with a woman chief minister: “In Rajasthan, sometimes the women elders in the family don’t oppose female foeticide when it happens in their own homes. It doesn’t matter that the chief minister is a woman. That has no link with the problems or issues.”
The sense of little changing, despite the change, and of political leaders and their election campaigns bypassing the woman in Rajasthan is irrefutable, most of all, in the home of Bhanwari Devi.
In the ‘90s, Bhanwari’s story must have been a throbbing, pulsating thing that prodded the nation into paying attention to the crime against the woman in village Bhateri. Nearly three decades later, she is all but forgotten outside of activist circles.
Justice has still not been done, but as a new election comes around, hers is an older injustice from a pre-24×7 TV age, overtaken and relegated. The flesh and blood tale that once touched so many, has shrunk today into its gaunt owner’s fraying possession.
“I was working with the Mahila Bal Vikas Vibhag, counselling families against child marriage. Powerful Gujjars in the village would threaten me: Munh dikhane layak nahin. (You will not be able to show your face)”.
On September 22, 1992, when Bhanwari and her husband went to collect fresh fodder for the buffalo, she was accosted and raped by five men. “Many said, bematlab ka panga, why make a fuss? I said I will speak up or they will consider me cheenti barabar (squash me like an ant).”
Her ordeal continued at the women’s police station in Jaipur. “I underwent doosra atyachar (the second atrocity) at the mahila thana. I was given no aadar (respect).”
And so it went on. Disrespect at the women’s police thana, “humiliation” at the hands of the CBI team, a “good” judge who gave her a hearing, and then a “bad” one who sought to outrightly dismiss the case.
Four judges changed in the trial period. The judgement of a Jaipur court in November 1995 acquitted all five accused, an appeal was filed in January 1996. Twenty-six years after the rape, 22 years since the appeal against the acquittal, the case is still lost “in due course”. Of the five accused, only one survives. He lives in the mohalla next door to Bhanwari’s.
Bhanwari is still a saathin, her work takes her to five villages in Batheri panchayat, but she gets little support from her own village community, especially the more powerful groups in it. “I still raise my voice, whether or not justice comes”. Things have improved but they still don’t get invited to weddings and other ceremonies in the village, Bhanwari and her husband say. It’s her continuing punishment for speaking out after she was raped.
Yes, she has heard that her name has come up in the recent #MeToo storm in the city, and that a minister has had to resign from the Central government because of allegations of sexual harassment at the workplace.
But for Bhanwari today, what is most pressing is clean drinking water – her difficulty in accessing it is another fallout of her case, she says. “There is no point (piped water connection) near my house, for me and my family. The Gujjars have hijacked it, taken it away.”
Further away in the village, a group of men in a tea shop in the market that divides Batheri from the neighbouring village of Prempura, deny the crime, refute Bhanwari’s story. “It was a skirmish, born of personal enmity. Koi galat kaam nahin hua, bas kaha suni (no rape happened, only an argument),” says Rajmal Sharma. He calls the surviving accused in the Bhanwari case “gaanv ka begunah (the innocent one)”. “We stand with him, not with her,” he says.
“Woh badnaam kar rahi hai hum ko (she is trying to defame us)”, the men say.
Tell me why I should vote, asks Bhanwari. “Once elected, nasha sa aa jaata hai, every government gets drunk on power. There is no sunvai (hearing),” she says.