Print edition : October 25, 2002

Village officials in cahoots with a group of vindictive people "sentence" a young schoolteacher to "gang rape" in Madhya Pradesh. And they continue to occupy their positions with seeming impunity.

IF there was outrage and horror at the sentence of "revenge rape" meted out by the Meerwala Jatoi council in Pakistan to a young woman for the alleged offence of her younger brother, it could at least have been said that those responsible for that were `self-proclaimed' councils akin to the caste panchayats in India, with no legal standing. But what of a constitutionally elected sarpanch and two other elected officials, who delivered a sentence of gang rape at a specially convened meeting of over 700 people, and actually named the men who were to carry it out, and who still continue to hold their positions because of the patronage of the administration?

This is what happened on July 30, 2002 in Madhya Pradesh when the sarpanch, Jiya Lal Patle, the secretary, Laxmi Lal Patle, and the jan pad (block-level) member, Chetan Rahangdale, of the Sanvarikalan village panchayat in Lanji tehsil of Balaghat district, sentenced Bhuwaneswari Devi, a 27-year-old schoolteacher to gang-rape on the trumped up charge of "sexual misbehaviour". The sentence would have been carried out but for the intervention of her husband Yuvraj Padhi, who managed to reach the venue of the meeting in time and, with the help of other villager residents, led her out. This incident, an indictment of the panchayat system as it is being run in regions such as Balaghat, came to light only in the last week of September through media reports. On hearing about it, the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) organised a protest demonstration at the Zonal Commissioner's headquarters in Jabalpur and also in Bhopal, the State capital. Subsequently Bhuwaneswari and her husband came to the national capital and met the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which reacted swiftly and strongly by issuing notices to the authorities concerned.

Bhuwaneswari, the daughter of a Major in the Army, has been teaching in the village primary school for the past six years and, from all accounts, is a very popular teacher. She and her husband and their two small children live in a neighbouring village, about 3 km away. Last year she was the target of unwelcome sexual advances by a male colleague. When he persisted even after her first reprimand, she rebuked him publicly. Village schoolteachers like Bhuvaneswari are denied access by callous governments to the rights of working women against sexual harassment, established by the Supreme Court judgment in the Vishakha case (1997), and no action was taken against the male teacher concerned. Emboldened, he decided to teach this articulate and independent young woman a lesson, reportedly using his contacts in the village.

Sanvarikalan is a village dominated by landless or poor peasant families. There are a handful of propertied families, landlords, traders and moneylenders, and it is among this group that the teacher had his friends. They had also extended support to the present panel of panchayat office-bearers, including the sarpanch. Although the panchayat elections in Madhya Pradesh are held on a supposedly non-party basis, reportedly the panel had the backing of the former Bharatiya Janata Party MLA of the area. It was this group of propertied men who were helping the sarpanch run the show.

Bhuwaneswari's description of that day is horrifying. "I knew nothing about the meeting," she says, "till a day earlier when the school got a notice for the meeting. I did not take it seriously, but the next morning, when I reached the school, I saw filthy slogans against me and the senior most teacher of my school, a man old enough to be my father. I used to sit with him in my tea breaks as I felt safe with him. Two drunken men came to the school to call me to the meeting. Although they were driven out by the headmaster, he suggested that we should go; otherwise action would be taken against us. The sarpanch is very powerful."

She falters for a moment, recalling the first sight of the meeting. "It was a big hall full of men. The women were made to stand outside, the only other woman present was the mahila panch. She was sympathetic to me during the meeting, but now I have heard that she is under tremendous pressure from the sarpanch to support his statement. When I walked in, there were catcalls, whistling and filthy abuse. I could not believe what was happening. I was asked to sit on one side with the other teachers. Then the questioning started. In front of that huge crowd the sarpanch and others accused me of sexual misbehaviour with the senior teacher in the teachers' common room on July 24. They called two children not more than 10 years old to give evidence. The first child could not speak at all, the second was asked the most obscene questions and every time a question was asked, a section of young men in the crowd would whistle and call me filthy names. The sarpanch and others started dictating the statement in the name of the child." Bhuwaneswari stops her statement here, her eyes full of tears.

Another person from the village repeated that she was accused of having sexual intercourse with the senior teacher in the common room with the doors and windows left open, with hundreds of schoolchildren just a few yards away. All the teachers present at the meeting refuted this ridiculous and absurd allegation.

Bhuwaneswari too was made to get up in that hall and give her statement, as was the senior teacher. Their statements were noted, and then the sentence was announced gang rape, to be implemented by four men, two of whom were the drunken men who had been sent to the school to fetch her in the morning. Bhuwaneswari resumes: "They came towards me, I was molested, pulled and pushed. The worst would have happened, but some people from the village saved me. My husband had heard of what was happening and rushed from our village. He also reached in time and took me out of the meeting place. There was pandemonium all around."

In the first instance the police refused to take any action against the sarpanch. The Collector, Dr. Rajesh Rajouri, was equally indifferent. After repeated appeals, the Superintendant of Police set up an inquiry. The investigation substantiated Bhuwaneswari's version, yet the only charges against the sarpanch and his colleagues were under bailable sections related to the use of obscene language, under Sections 500, 509, 504/34 of the Indian Penal Code. On the other hand, in a travesty of justice, the young woman was transferred to a school 22 km away where she cycles to every day, insecure because she knows that on those lonely roads she is a vulnerable target for those who want her to withdraw her petitions in the court and before the government. Bhuwaneswari says that she has the support of a large number of families in the village who have visited her to express their anger at the sarpanch, but such are the power equations in the village that they dare not speak.

Panchayats are not intrinsically democratic institutions. They can become so only if they function in the framework of a wider political vision and platform geared to change the economic and social relations at the village level which are now based on class, caste and gender inequalities. If such an incident would be unthinkable in a State like West Bengal, it is precisely because the radical land reform programme has broken the economic power and social clout of men like the sarpanch of Sanvarikalan and the propertied classes he represents. Otherwise panchayats become instruments to perpetuate structural inequalities and legitimise retrograde social practices and perspectives, more cruel and direct in their impact because of their proximity to the daily lives of people. For Dalits, oppressed castes and women the price is high. In this particular case, both sections belong to the Other Backward Classes. So, it is not the caste factor so much as the patriarchal approach to women that caused the incident. It has grave implications for women who are employed as teachers, anganwadi helpers, health workers and so on. Because the message from this case is that if a woman does not agree to subordinate herself to the wishes of powerful men, she would face the same situation as Bhuvaneswari.

Those who supported Bhuvanesawari were concerned to prove that the charge was untrue. That is perhaps natural given the circumstances, but surely that is not the point at all. An adult woman's sexual relations are her own business. If she commits a public act of impropriety compromising the institution where she is employed, there are rules and regulations that can be applied in the nature of disciplinary action. The panchayat or the sarpanch has absolutely no jurisdiction in this matter. It is an example of abuse of their position and authority.

Regardless of what transpired at the meeting or even the sentence of gang rape, the fact that such a meeting was called and held in the first place to discuss the behaviour of a female teacher is itself sufficient grounds to invite action against the sarpanch for violation of the Panchayat Act. Further, he and his colleagues are guilty of conspiracy, attempt to rape, molestation, defamation as well as use of obscene language. Many of these clauses applicable are of a non-bailable nature. His place and that of the others is therefore in jail, not in the position that he continues to occupy. Whereas sarpanches in Madhya Pradesh have been removed for the violation of the draconian clause of population control in the Panchayat Act, if they have a third child, a crime such as this, which should have prompted immediate dismissal, has not even led to a suspension.

The Digvijay Singh government is guilty of criminal negligence in this case, if not connivance. On the very day that women in Bhopal were demonstrating to demand the dismissal and arrest of the sarpanch and the others, the Chief Minister inaugurated what he called the new people-friendly system of e-governance. If `e' in this case stood for ethical gvernance, Bhuvaneswari could have expected some justice.

Brinda Karat is general secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association.

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