A battle for women's rights

Print edition : January 05, 2002

A year-long campaign in Uttar Pradesh on violence against women ends in Lucknow, completely ignored by the BJP-led government.

IN the second week of December, even as the cold set in, the quiet environs of the Jyotiba Phule park in Lucknow came alive to the assertive voices of women; they spoke about the atrocities perpetrated on them and about the government's insensitivity to their plight. They had come from all parts of Uttar Pradesh and had two things in common - they were Dalits and were poor.

The meeting on December 9 and 10 was more in the form of a public hearing and was the culmination of a year-long campaign on the status of women in the State. It was organised by the Women's Association for Mobilisation and Action (WAMA), a network of autonomous women's organisations, and supported by national women's organisations such as the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) and the All India Progressive Women's Association (AIPWA). However, the Uttar Pradesh government seemed to treat the meeting as a non-event. A delegation that included three women who had survived brutal assaults, went to present a memorandum to Chief Minister Rajnath Singh. They waited for more than an hour despite having an appointment, and finally returned without meeting him.

The memorandum demanded a white paper on the status of minority and Dalit women in the State; the scrapping of the population policy, which was clearly tilted against women; the creation of a policy for women with the participation of women's organisations; government approval to the Bill on domestic violence; and the constitution of a State women's commission with representation for the women's movement.

At their meeting in Lucknow last month, members of the Women's Association for Mobilisation and Action pledge not to tolerate atrocities against women.-SUBIR ROY

Women at the public hearing spoke about their experiences, which ranged from rape to forcible sterilisation. A common thread was the unresponsive attitude of the State apparatus, and they attributed it to the fact that they were Dalits and were poor. The State, they felt, was going through an "unacknowledged emergency".

Significantly, the State's record on women's rights is very poor. Nearly half of all reports of human rights violation filed with the National Human Rights Commission are from Uttar Pradesh. In addition, the State accounted for the largest number of crimes against women in the country.

The campaign by the women's organisations, called Hisaab (a process of accounting) or Hinsa Sahana Band (stop tolerating violence), began on November 25, 2000, with the objective of examining the status of women in Uttar Pradesh. This was done also in the context of India having ratified the international Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, in 1993.

Information from government departments, hospitals, the police and media reports was collected over a four-month period in Lucknow, Saharanpur, Karvi, Mahoba, Varanasi, Kushinagar, Kanpur and other districts by the six organisations of the WAMA network, namely Vanangana, Gramya, Disha, Gramin Unnati Sansthan, Nari Vikas Sewa Sansthan and the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiative.

The findings more or less confirmed the overall picture of human rights violations in the State as borne out by other agencies. According to recent figures tabled in Parliament, Uttar Pradesh continued to lead in the number of cases registered under the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, followed by Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Bihar, Orissa, Karnataka and Maharashtra. The overall disposal rate of cases by courts in the country was about one-fifth the total number of registered cases, while the conviction rate was just 1.14 per cent. The number of cases of atrocities registered in 1998, the latest year for which figures are available, stood at 28, 441, with Uttar Pradesh accounting for 7,095 cases.

The micro-level information of WAMA revealed that more than two cases of violence against women a day were reported in Chitrakoot, Mirzapur, Khushinagar, Saharanpur, Mahoba and Lucknow. Saharanpur topped in the number of cases.

A status paper brought out by the campaign concluded that the rightist character of the Rajnath Singh government had increased the vulnerability of women. The State had the dubious distinction of having the highest number of dowry-related deaths in the country. In 1998 there were 2,229 such deaths, as reported by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Though women's police stations had been set up, their undefined jurisdiction, lack of staff and inability to handle cases often led to the victims being referred back to the regular police stations. Consequently, the cases dragged on and more often than not evidence was destroyed.

There were problems in dealing with specific cases of violence too. Domestic violence was hardly taken into account unless it was connected to dowry. In a sample of 229 cases dealt with by Vanangana in Chitrakoot district over a period of three months, 121 related to domestic violence. Section 498 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) makes cruelty towards a woman by her husband or his relatives a cognisable and non-bailable offence. However, data collated from five police stations in some select districts revealed that in 37 per cent of the cases the family members who had resorted to violence had not been called for questioning. This was despite the fact that the majority of first information reports (FIR) filed by women related to domestic violence. NCRB data for 1998 showed a 90 per cent increase in cases recorded under the Dowry Prohibition Act over the previous year.

In the case of rape, the study found that in three police stations, 51 cases had been registered and in 34 per cent of the cases the victims had named the accused. Yet no arrests were made in 47 per cent of the cases. Also, almost half the victims in the sample were under the age of 20.

It was also found that in 92 per cent of the cases registered under Section 354 of the IPC (outraging the modesty of a woman), the victims had named the accused. Yet, in nearly half of the cases, the police had not even initiated an inquiry.

The statistics on paper were borne out by the testimonies of the victims, who were heard in silence. In the panel of "judges" who heard the testimonies were senior Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaising, former National Commission for Women member Sayeeda Hameed, former Vice-Chancellor of Lucknow University Roop Rekha Verma and founder-member of the National Federation of Dalit Women Vimal Thorat.

A significant point that emerged was the virtual absence of State intervention, the police in particular. There were very few instances in which the law responded sensitively and effectively; but there were many instances in which organisations and political parties, the Left parties in particular, intervened to help the victims register cases and even assure them of protection.

Draupadi of Pure Pundar village of Sultanpur district narrated how, on March 15, she was dragged out of her house, beaten, stripped and paraded on the streets by Babu Ram and his family, including three women. Babu Ram accused her son of kidnapping his daughter. Draupadi, a widow in her fifties, also had a running land dispute with Babu Ram. The police responded slowly and took action against the accused under Section 354 of the IPC only after the matter appeared in a leading daily. All the four accused are out on bail.

Another case that left the audience numb was the April 17 mass murder of a vocal Dalit family by Thakurs in Hasanpur village of Fatehpur district. Tejaniya, 51, was battered to death along with her daughter-in-law and three children, including an infant, by Devideen Thakur of the same village. She had registered a case under the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, against Devideen and his family, accusing them of beating her the previous month.

Tejaniya's was the only Dalit family in the village dominated by Thakurs and other intermediate castes. Tejaniya's daughter Kamala, who narrated the incident, said that her only daughter, 11-year-old Lalita, had been battered to death. "When I saw my child's body, blood was oozing out from every part," she said. Devideen was arrested much later and he defended his action in front of the media.

Kareshani Devi, 68, said she had been raped by a 27-year-old youth of her village, who belongs to her own caste. A medical examination ruled out rape, and her attacker was released on bail. While the youth was accepted by the village, Kareshani faces ostracism.

Equally shocking was the case presented by the Nari Seva Vikas Samiti, a women's organisation in Kushinagar district. It involved the "honour killing of a 19-year-old backward caste girl, Sanjo, of Nathalpur village, by the caste panchayat, which also included influential upper-caste persons. On August 15, the panchayat ordered her lynching for bearing what it claimed was an illegitimate child. The girl, who had been married for two years, was living with her father. At least six persons were arrested, though many others who had participated in the proceedings were not questioned. Vibhuti from the Vikas Samiti said the Station House Officer was found to be more interested in whether the child actually belonged to Sanjo or not.

There were some cases in which educated women from cities and towns narrated their experiences, which ranged from dowry harassment to murder. Deepti Singh, a post-graduate in Sociology from Barabanki, narrated how she was hounded and harassed for dowry by her educated and reasonably well-to-do in-laws.

But given the feudal structure of community relations, caste oppression and dominance of upper-caste politics, where gender domination and violence go hand in hand, the nonchalance of the State government did not seem surprising.

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