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Bulbul Bahuguna at Jaipur Literature Festival with Bhanwari Devi

February 6, 2013

Bulbul Bahuguna

One of the key highlights from my recent trip to DSC Jaipur Literature Festival is meeting up-close with a feisty woman named Bhanwari Devi. She has to be one of the most courageous women I have known my entire life. From her demeanor you’d never guess what she has been through.

Bhanwari Devi, a low caste Dalit, was employed as a village-level social worker in Rajasthan, India. The causes she championed were the eradication of girl exploitation and child-marriage custom prevalent in her village. This invited the wrath of the upper caste Gujjar community that wanted this custom to continue. When the repeated intimidations by the village Gujjars failed to diminish Bhanwari Devi’s resolve, she was gangraped by five Gujjar men in 1992 while she was working in their fields alongside her husband. What followed is a sad commentary on India’s medico-legal system as well as the sickening biases demonstrated by the political, law enforcement and judicial establishments at that time. The accused were acquitted and Bhanwari Devi was revictimized not only by the Gujjars but also by her own fellow Dalits who pressured her in vain to leave the village since she had tainted their reputation.

Undaunted, Bhanwari Devi continued to appeal her case in the superior courts and refused to leave her village even though the Dalit community had excommunicated her… so much so that she was refused the traditional funeral meal at her father’s funeral by her own brothers. While deprived of the means to make a living in her village, she declined to accept any compensation from the accused in exchange for withdrawing the court case against them. Her fight and plight were picked up by the media. This galvanized several advocacy groups across the country culminating in filing of a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court against the Governments of Rajasthan and the Union of India. The petition resulted in a landmark judgment in 1997. For the first time in the history of the nation, the basic definition of sexual harassment at the workplace was established. While Bhanwari Devi is yet to receive justice against her perpetrators, the judgment is already seen as a significant victory for the causes she stands for. To read her full story please visit

It was very magnanimous of DSC, a major infrastructure company and the chief sponsor of  DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, to invite Bhanwari Devi, along with leading actress Sharmila Tagore to give away the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature to Jeet Thayil for his novel Narcopolis. In a future posting, I’ll have more to say about Jeet and his novel that was shortlisted for 2012 Man Booker Prize.
Women’s issues occupied a huge mindscape at the festival. It clearly reflected the mood of the country in the aftermath of gangrape and murder of Delhi’s Braveheart. There was a very thoughtful discussion about women on the spiritual path of Buddhism. The panel discussed Buddha’s initial hesitation in ordaining women, until persuaded that they too ‘have the potential’ to reach Nirvana. There was a provocative conversation between Rohini Nilekani, Kishwar Desai and Jayshree Misra on the issues of surrogacy in India. Kishwar talked about her novel Origins of Love that deals with the issue of surrogacy and cautioned that India was at risk for becoming a designer baby factory.

Personally, it was very gratifying to see women’s issues reverberating through out the festival. It was even more gratifying to spot the large numbers of males attending the forums on these issues. Now that’s what I call reassuring.

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