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A CD and a missing health worker

On September 1,Bhanwari Devi mysteriously went missing after reports of a video involving a Rajasthan minister surfaced.

Written by Apurva |
October 23, 2011 1:14:10 am

For close to a decade,Bhanwari Devi led two lives: that of an auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM),mother of three children and the sole family provider; the other was that of an enigmatic and well-connected dancer who was slowly but surely ascending the political ladder in Jodhpur. Till she went missing—ostensibly at the command of a powerful politician on September 1—Bhanwari was admired and envied in her hometown Borunda in Rajasthan’s Jodhpur district.

Bhanwari has been missing for over a month-and-a-half ever since reports of a purported CD surfaced,which allegedly has a video of Rajasthan Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) Minister Mahipal Maderna in a “compromising position” with her. In mid-September,an embarrassed state government announced that the probe had been handed to the CBI and last week,it dropped Maderna from the council of ministers.

For most people in Borunda,Bhanwari was a nurse and a mother. “She rarely interacted with neighbours and other residents and spent as much time as she could at home with our children. But around 2003,things changed after she got in touch with a few politicians,” says Bhanwari’s husband Amarchand. Over the last six years,he says,Bhanwari would not come home for a day or so but stayed in touch with him on the phone. “She would call and tell me she had no choice,she was doing certain things for our children and that I should not worry,” says Amarchand,sitting in the two-storeyed house that his father built.

Their children are a testament to Bhanwari’s rationale—she wanted the best for them. Their eldest son Sahil has enrolled for a B.Com course in a private college in Mertha in Nagaur district,daughter Ashwini studies in class 10 in a boarding school in Jaipur and their youngest daughter Suhani,7,goes to school in Borunda.

Laxman,a Dalit activist in Borunda and a family friend,says,“It is rare for members of our community to educate their children,but Bhanwari had long ago decided that her children would not suffer like Amarchand (who only studied till his class 12) and her (till class 10).”

But for more than 45 days now,Sahil and Ashwini have not attended classes. “My father called me on September 2 to say that mother was missing so I immediately came back to Borunda. We have to stay here since Suhani does not know the seriousness of the situation,” says Ashwini,15,who wants to study for the civil services. Her brother Sahil,a shy 17-year-old who aspires to be a chartered accountant,says,“The media hounded us for days but now we have been left alone. I only hope the CBI does their job.”

Bhanwari’s mother-in-law Pooni Devi spends most of her time cooking for Amarchand,a handful of friends and the two policemen posted at their house. “Look at Suhani,” she says pointing to the seven-year-old who is blissfully running around the house with some crayons. “She sees her mother’s photographs on TV and keeps asking where she is. So far we have lied,saying she is out on work and will return soon.” Unable to hold back,she breaks down and shouts abuses at politicians,“What do these rich,corrupt people want with Bablu?” she cries. Bablu is what they call Bhanwari at home.

***

Born and raised in a small hamlet in Kishengarh near Ajmer,Bhanwari had a natural flair for dancing. Both Amarchand and Bhanwari belong to the community of Nats—traditionally entertainers who did dancing,juggling,tight-rope walking and acrobatics,and now among the most marginalised of the state’s Scheduled Castes.

After she married Amarchand in 1992,Bhanwari moved to Jodhpur. Laxman,their family friend,says Bhanwari was always an excellent dancer and performer,so even after she got the job of an ANM,she had time for her passion. “Dancing came naturally to her. She was approached by a recording company in 2002 and has danced for a music video that is a compilation of devotional songs by Baba Ramdev,” says Laxman. She has recorded for about eight albums—all produced by Jodhpur-based recording companies—and has even featured in a movie based on the life of Veer Teja,a folk deity of the Jat community. Since Bhanwari’s income sustained the family,this extra money was welcome.

For someone from the Nat community—traditionally the lowest on the social ladder among Rajasthan’s Scheduled Castes and with no political muscle—Bhanwari’s family stood out. They owned two cars,a Swift Dzire and a Tata Indigo,and their children studied in schools and colleges outside the town.

Bhanwari’s first tryst with a politician was in 2002,says Amarchand. After she became a nurse in 1997-98,she was posted in an obscure village in Jaisalmer along the Indo-Pak border where the family had to walk several kilometres for basic amenities. “She tried several times for a transfer,but her superiors refused,” says Amarchand. After many failed attempts,a family friend asked her to get in touch with some local politicians.

A family friend,who asked to remain anonymous,says Bhanwari was put in touch with Congress MLA Malkhan Singh. “He was a powerful Bishnoi leader and she met him once. It was through him that she met Maderna,a powerful Jat leader. It is dangerous to say it now,but I know Maderna asked her for certain ‘favours’,” he says. A few months after meeting these politicians,the friend says,Bhanwari was transferred to a post in Jodhpur.

The favours did not end there. “I know they used to call her every now and then and she would complain but there was no way she could get out of it. When they called,she had to go. I do not know what happened in these meetings. Four years ago,I confronted the minister (Maderna) after I realised that he was constantly talking to my wife. But the minister told me that he did not call her; instead it was my wife who called him,” says Amarchand.

He says Bhanwari had been suffering from severe depression and insomnia for six years now. “She began seeing a psychiatrist in Jodhpur and he would prescribe sleeping pills. But in 2007,the pills stopped working and we had to give her daily injections at night just so she could sleep,” Amarchand says. In recent years,her arms bore the marks of punctures and she would wrap her forearms in bandages through the night,he says.

Bhanwari last spoke to Amarchand on the evening of September 1,when she went to the nearby Bhilada town to meet Sohanlal Bishnoi,a PHED contractor considered close to the minister and who is now under arrest in the case. According to the Jodhpur police,Bishnoi and three others conspired to kidnap Bhanwari after reports of the video surfaced. The police say Bhanwari had sold one of her cars to Bishnoi in August and that he called her to Bhilada on the pretext of making the payment for the car.

***

Despite the media attention and the sacking of Maderna,support for Bhanwari and her family has so far remained confined to family friends and a few Dalit activists. While many claim it is the involvement of a powerful Jat leader (Maderna) that has held back people from openly supporting her,activists believe the stereotyping of the Nat community and their low priority as a vote bank have led to the situation.

“The other Scheduled Castes of Rajasthan—Meghwals,Bairwas and Jatavs—have several MLAs in both the Congress and the BJP; some are even ministers in the present government. If Bhanwari had been from any other community,we would have seen a host of political resignations or uproar,” says Ram Nyas,Amarchand’s relative.

The lack of support was evident in the dharna that Amarchand staged in Jodhpur recently. “My wife has been missing for 45 days and a minister is involved; yet no one supports us. There were about 20 people who staged a dharna in Jodhpur recently,” says Amarchand.

Without Bhanwari,the family has little money coming in too. “I will soon sell the car that we bought with the money she got from music videos. In fact,I had no money to even hire a lawyer and finally,a few well-wishers from our community contributed some money,” says Amarchand. He says he tried to contact political leaders,but no one,including human rights activists,has responded.

Moolaram,a Dalit rights activist,says it is surprising that mainstream political parties have remained silent on the issue. “Congress leader Mamta Sharma,who hails from Rajasthan and is chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW),has shown no interest in this case so far and the leader of Opposition,BJP’s Vasundhara Raje,touted as one for women’s empowerment,has not said a single word about this case,” Moolaram fumes.

Bharat Bhatti,husband of Borunda sarpanch Jayamala,says,“Few people want to take on a minister and that too a Jat leader. But in Borunda,we wanted to do something in support and organised a one-day bandh. It is hard to gather support.”

But in Borunda,there’s more to this lacklustre response than just the fear of reprisal from the powerful Jats. A resident who preferred to remain anonymous says,“In Borunda,the population is divided equally amongst Jats,Rajputs,Malis,Muslims and SCs,so the fear of Jats is a very convenient reason. There are many in Borunda who were jealous of them,jealous that a Dalit woman could have lived a lavish life.”

***

Meanwhile,the Jodhpur health department has sent Amarchand a letter addressed to Bhanwari. The latter,dated September 25,states that she has not reported for duty since August 25 and goes on to say,“Please give reasons for this month-long absence immediately,failing which strong action will be taken.”

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