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Bhanwari Devi,utterly unequal

The CBI director was reminded of a Hollywood film,Sex,Lies and Videotape,when he spoke at a function to felicitate officers responsible for arresting a key accused in the Bhanwari Devi case. Many in the media,readers and viewers would agree. Indeed,there seems to be clear evidence of “blackmail,politicians,sex,CDs”,as the CBI director put it. Bhanwari Devi’s case is particularly explicit because of the airing of the “sex CD” on some channels and the playing and replaying of an audio recording in which she is heard asking for money in exchange for the CD. But is that really what the case is all about? An elderly political leader trapped by a scheming woman and blackmailed through a CD? While some would say she should have known that she could not get away with blackmail,others might say,in her defence,that whatever she did cannot justify murder. In all scenarios,it is Bhanwari Devi’s caste,character and behaviour,which are at the centre of public attention.

Women activists working on sexual harassment cases are cautious when it comes to representing women who claim victimisation in consensual sexual relations. The consent of a woman in a sexual act is considered crucial in laws against sexual assault. Under Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code,there are six clauses,which include being given intoxicants,being of unsound mind and so on,which,if relevant in the case,would be considered as vitiating the consent. The man could then be tried for rape. During the discussions in the ’80s on rape law reform,the issue of power rape,when a man utilises his superior position to have sexual relations with an employee,was also discussed. Unfortunately,this was not accepted. Under Section 376,the law recognises the issue only in an indirect manner,that is,by enhancing the punishment if the man accused has misused his position to rape a subordinate in some specific institutions like remand homes,hospitals,police stations. The minimum punishment for the accused in such cases would be enhanced from seven years to ten years. In Bhanwari’s case,neither of these sections would apply. According to the law,the relations were consensual.

Can this however negate the reality of the utterly unequal power relations of those involved in the case? On the one side,a serving minister in the Ashok Gehlot government and his associate,also an elected MLA of the ruling party. On the other,a 36-year-old scheduled caste woman employed as an auxiliary nurse-cum-midwife. Bhanwari first met Malkhan Singh,an MLA from the area,to stop her transfer away from home. It is common for women employees to make such requests to elected representatives. Often the woman may have to make repeated visits. It would,however,be a case of exploitation and misuse of power if the elected representative utilised the employee’s need to extract sexual favours. The circumstances of Bhanwari’s encounters with the MLA can only be conjecture,but clearly she was the supplicant and he the power centre. It was he who introduced her to the minister. Why was this done? Are there special rules that enable ministers and MLAs to have the freedom to sexually use as many women as they choose and get away in the name of adult consent? Has there been a background check of how many Bhanwari Devis there may have been?

It is not being argued that Bhanwari Devi was a victim who had no agency in the choices she made,but the case does raise serious and larger questions regarding the behaviour and actions of elected representatives and the disturbing trends that are reflected in the degeneration and criminality in the political system.

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Firstly,there is the blatant use of power for sexual gratification. Secondly,the contacts a cabinet minister had with criminal,murderous gangs. The third issue concerns the long delay in taking action against him — his removal from the cabinet and the party was only because of the court hearings. This is linked to the fourth issue,the blatant use of caste to demean the woman on the one hand and to valorise the minister,on the other. If criminals are to continue in office because of the fear of a fallout on caste-based considerations,surely it is a far more dangerous development for our system than the failed efforts of a woman to get a return,even if it is through blackmail,for what she had provided.

While there is hardly any discussion on these issues,there are no holds barred on the character assassination of Bhanwari Devi. For example,it was widely reported that CBI officials had found evidence that “the nurse had amassed huge amounts of wealth through blackmail.” We now know that this is far from the truth. With their father in jail,the three children are now entirely dependent on the old-age pension of their grandmother,and as a result,have discontinued going to school. In fact,in an unusual and compassionate gesture,investigation officials have donated part of their reward money to help the children. The Rajasthan government also has made known its decision to provide assistance to them.

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It is also worth remembering that Bhanwari Devi had crossed several barriers. At a time when the literacy rate among SCs in Rajasthan was just 8 per cent,when for her own “nat” community it was even lower,when the dropout rate for middle school even today is as high as 88 per cent,here she was,a child bride,who managed to reach high school. She passed the qualification tests to become an auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM). This is not a small feat. Only 47 women of the 617 ANMs in Jodhpur district belong to the STs and SCs,of whom hardly any belong to the nat community. She used her earnings to send her children to school. Today those children cannot,perhaps,be shielded from the brutality of their mother’s death,but they can and should be protected from the highly coloured and one-sided judgements of who their mother really was.

The writer is a member of the CPM politburo

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