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Archives for : Violence against Women

Film Tribunal’s Slap to Censor Board – Give ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ an A certificate

FCAT

(Screengrab)

The Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) has recommended an adult certification for the film ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ which explores women’s sexuality.

The film hit headlines after the Central Board Film Certification (CBFC) headed by Pahlaj Nihalani refused it certification for its “sexual content, abusive words and audio pornography”.

Trashing the arguments by the CBFC, the FCAT has asked for the film to be granted an ‘A’ certificate with “voluntary and some additional cuts and deletions”. It has asked the film makers to reduce the duration of sex scenes. The FCAT is the tribunal that hears the appeals filed by film makers or producers who are aggrieved by the CBFC’s orders.

Amid an uproar against censorship, Nihalani had refused to certify the film that stars Konkona Sen Sharma and Ratna Pathak, calling it “lady-oriented” and a “fantasy above life”.

The FCAT has found no merit in the reasoning that certification had to be denied on the ground of “women in the film shown in bad light particularly targeting women of certain community which might hurt sentiments.”

In a sharply worded judgment, the FACT has said the examining committee and revising committee of the CBFC have “misdirected themselves in denying certification on the ground that the story of the film is women oriented”.

The makers in their appeal had asserted that the theme of the film is about “women claiming their rights over their body, their ideas, decisions, aspirations and fulfilment of their dreams” and promotes “emancipation and assertion of women rights, culminating in their liberation and empowerment”.

The FCAT observed that CBFC “misdirected them selves in denying certification on the ground that the story of the film is women oriented. There cannot be any embargo on a film being women oriented or containing sexual fantasies and expression of the inner desires of women”, it reiterated.

“As a matter of general approach if the aspect of sexual desires and their expression is sensitively handled without bringing coarseness, vulgarity or obscenity, pandering prurient tendencies, then it is not to be disallowed,” the statement read, adding, “We cannot lose sight that there is a thin line between creative and artistic expression being depicted in a natural sex scene. The same can be obliterated if the sexual scenes are continued for a long duration which may not be necessary or integral to the film. Besides, it would then infringe the guidelines requiring such scenes to be kept to the minimum.”

It has directed some voluntary cuts or reduction in the length of the sex scenes. In addition to the above, some cuts, which the FCAT felt were necessary, particularly in the length of the scenes, were so directed.

Headed by former judge Justice Manmohan Sarin, the FCAT, which was approached by the film’s makers Alankrita Srivastava and Prakash Jha, has ruled that if a film handles aspect of sexual desires and their expression sensitively without coarseness, vulgarity or obscenity, pandering prurient tendencies, then certification cannot be disallowed.

“The FCAT found that there was no violation of guidelines as neither the visuals nor the dialogues are contemptuous of racial, religious or other groups. There was no targeting of women of certain community or religion,” the order said.

After the film makers offered voluntary cuts or reduction in the length of the sex scenes; it has suggested reductions and deletions to be carried out to reduce the sex scenes “without affecting in any manner the projection and substance of the scene or in any manner affecting the basic film.”

On the use of abusive and cuss words, the FCAT has noted that these are integral and germane to the characters and the story.

The film featuring Konkona Sen Sharma, Ratna Pathak Shah, Plabita Borthakur and Aahana Kumra, chronicles the secret lives of four women of different ages in a small town in India as they search for different kinds of freedom.

http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/give-lipstick-under-my-burkha-an-a-certificate-tribunal-to-censor-board/story-IJQEoHqnBcV83kMI8mTCuO.html

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Assam – NAMHRR submits comments on the Draft Population Policy

To

Mr Samir K Sinha,

Commissioner and Secretary to the Government of Assam,

Health and Family Welfare Department,

Government of Assam.

Date 25th April 2017

Sir,

This is with reference to the Draft State Population Policy Assam which has been put up for comments. We would like to make the following observations:

  1. In the Introduction Section we would like to endorse the inclusion of the following as issues of key concerns – promotion of inclusive growth, ageing, urbanization, migration, financial and economic challenges, improving the quality of life of present and future generations, promote social justice and eradicate poverty and so on.
  2. We endorse the context of the National Population Policy 2000 with its focus on Socio Demographic Goals
  3. We would however like to draw your attention to the assertion that the population of Assam has grown by ‘almost 1 crore’ between 2001 and 2011. According to the figures given in the document the population has grown from 2.66 crore to 3.12 or 46 lakh or less than 50% of 1 crore and it is a gross exaggeration  The percentage growth of Assam’s population has been declining consistently from 35% and 36% decadal growth in the 1970’s and 1980’s to 17% now. This decline is more than the decline that has taken place at the National Level.
  4. The decline of Total Fertility Rate in Assam has been from 3.53 in 1992 -93 to 2.3 now which is a 35 % decline in a little over 20 years. There is also an unmet need for contraceptive (10%) which if met would bring down the TFR by a further.2 to 2.1 the desired level of fertility.
  5. We would like to bring to your notice that the reduction in TFR to 2.1 will not immediately reduce the population growth rate to stabilization levels because of ‘Population Momentum’. Population Momentum will continue for nearly 20 years or more because as population growth comes down from high population growth rates, the proportion of reproducing couples increases due to earlier high growth rates and lower mortality among children. Thus the population growth rate continues to be high as higher number of couples now have fewer children compared to the earlier situation of fewer couples having more children.
  6. We also endorse 10 of the 11 Targets of the Policy and would like to draw your attention to the last target – “Encouraging the Two family norm to substantially reduce TFR”. The two family or two child norm which is aimed at encouraging family size reduction through peer pressure has not been found to be successful in India since it was introduced in the Panchayati Raj acts in some states 1990’s. Some states have even withdrawn it. Some of the adverse effects of the two child norm that has been identified and studied through research are as follows:
  7. It tends to penalize women compared to men, because when faced with the option between a job or local leadership, women have to give up their aspirations and have the child, while men go ahead with their option compelling women to have an abortion
  8. It tends to penalize younger people compared to older people because the two child norm applies to children born after a particular date. It does not penalize older people with three four five or more children born before the cut-off date. This is particularly discriminatory because India is a country of young people.
  9. It tends to penalize poor and marginalized communities because the poor and marginalized usually have more children. This is not because they ‘want’ more children but because infant mortality figures are higher in poorer communities, and they are also further away health services. The data provided in the section Assam: The Development and Demographic Challenge, indicates the diversity in the state and how this affects some of the marginalized communities. This a two child norm will vitiate against the ‘inclusive growth’ agenda of the population policy.
  10. The two child norm has also been shown to be against child rights because people with more than two children often hide their third child or give it away for adoption. In such a situation the child is often denied even basic services like immunization. In other cases the third child often gets excluded from development benefits which are intended to ‘punish’ the parents. We must realize that the third or subsequent child has no role in the decision to be born and to deny it any benefits essential for its survival and well-being would be a child rights and human rights violation.
  11. Assam is one of the few states in the country with a ‘healthy’ sex ratio including the juvenile or child sex ratio. However the child sex ratio did show a small decline  of three points between 2001 and 2011 which should alert planners. A two child norm has severe implications for the child sex ratio of the state. In the presence of gender discrimination and son preference when faced with a two child norm families adopt sex selective practices and while it is okay for them to have two boys, one boy and one one girl or one boy, families do not prefer 2 daughters or one daughter. This creates a further pressure on the sex ratio of children. In China a similar one-child has led to a drastic reduction in the ratio of girls and women in the population
  12. We would like to point out that states like point out that states like Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh repealed the two child norm from their Panchayati Raj Acts, and state like UP and Bihar considered the two child norm but finally did not implement it because of the various adverse outcomes associated with this act. China too has relaxed its one  child policy.
  13. We would also like to point out the essential difference between a restriction through a laws like minimum age at marriage and two child related restrictions. Restricting child marriage prevents young girls (and boys) from being exposed to reproductive responsibilities and possible sexual violence before they are capable to being either able to decide for themselves or before their bodies are mature. It is a restriction meant to protect the vulnerable. A two child norm on the other hand has been seen to systematically disadvantage the vulnerable. Since the Population Policy is intended to primarily support and help vulnerable population including children, women, elderly and the poor the two child norm is a totally in appropriate measure.

We do hope you will take these facts into considerations and revise the draft Population Policy accordingly,

Sincerely,

National Alliance for Maternal Health and Human Rights (NAMHHR)

Dr. Abhijit Das, Centre for Health & Social Justice, New Delhi

Vasvi Kiro, Torang  Trust, Jharkhand

Kalyani Meena, Prerna Bharti, Jharkhand

Jeevan Krushna Behera, SODA, Odisha

Vivekanand Ojha, Health Watch Forum, Bihar

Smriti Shukla, Maternal Health and Rights Campaign, MP

Adv. Kamayani Bali Mahabal, Maharashtra

Sandhya YK,  Sahayog, UP

Sandhya Gautam, from NAMHHR Secretariat

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Assam Activist Bondita Acharya determined to fight Bajrang Dal after threats of Rape and Acid attack

When a  conversation on beef-eating  on facebook ,  threatens  a woman activist  with rape and acid attacks 

 

Some of the faces who threatened and abused Bondita Acharya on facebook

By- Kamayani Bali Mahabal

On 10 April 2017, woman human rights defender, Bondita Acharya, filed a complaint with the Criminal Investigation Department in Guwahati, Assam state in Northeast India, after she was the target of violent threats on social media.

The background of the incident is that 3 Muslim persons including a minor were arrested on the outskirts of Jorhat town on 7th April 2017 while returning home with half a kg of beef. It is claimed that they were cooking the same in a temporary hut at a construction site where they were working. The arrest has been made under The Assam Cattle Preservation Act of 1950, which does not criminalize possession or consumption of beef but only lays down the circumstances under which cattle may be permitted to be slaughtered. The FIR had been lodged by an active BJP supporter Mridu Pawan Bora. Many people were critical of this arrest on the social media since the consumption of beef is common in the North East and not confined to only the Muslim community.

 

According to Bondita  Acharya , the  conversation on Facebook was about people other than the Muslim community eating beef in the state. She  commented that people even from higher castes of Hindus consume beef. Suddenly, some strangers began to abuse her  using the most offensive language. They threatened her with death, rape, acid attacks, and also hurled sexually explicit abuse to defame me. What shocked me was also that the language used to abuse me was Assamese

BELOW IS ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF ABUSES ON FACEBOOK,

by Sheetal Sharma

Nayanjyoti Kalita- Is it a hijra

Nayanjyoti Kalita- face looks like frog skin

Aaush Das- This harami (bastard )should be beaten up

Ankur Bairagi- Is she a randi (prostitute)

Nawalkishor Gobindadas- She looks like the 10 rupees 20 rupees types

Tipu Shah- One doesn’t need looks to speak the right thing. What is needed is personality and thinking and she has that, so, I respect U

Amrit Pran- Those who can sell their brain doesn’t have any value

Aisha Siddika- Many kafirs eat beef too…my friends eat…on their own…haha

Debjoy Das-  …., will you eat pork?

Dharmendra Talukdar Tiku- …….(some slang)

Dhrubajyoti- Which Arab gave birth to you…

Bishal Ray- Rendy

Dharmendra Talukdar Tiku-She should be beaten up with sandals

Kabyajit Mahanta- Aisha Siddika you are saying kafir, but do you know that you people are called muhajir

Tikendrajit Sarmah- You are not beautiful either (comment seems to be targeting Aisha Siddika)

Jotin Gogoi- Mh Choudhury you are her lawyer

  • (could not understand the comment)

Baivabi Bhattacharya- This woman is so weird…

Biswajit Taye- Whether she eats or not that’s on her

Raj Dey- This one’s face looks like a boy

Raj Dey- She must be non hindu

Jitmanyu Sarma- She will eat human too

Manash Saikia- We Assamese worship cow…

Munna- oooh I want to ask more questions

Munna- Can I ask more questions if you don’t mind?

Sanjay Sagar Dax- Whoever doesn’t eat pork and turtle meat he is half mad

Rowdy Sujit Bhai- Sisterfucker …(kela- Assamese slang meaning penis)…let this …(Assamese slang- johori meaning a girl/woman without legal father/parents) come to bijni (a place in Chirang district of Assam), I will make her forget her father’s name

Pranab Rajbongshi- How many comments to this post…

Manik Devnath- Chi haramjadi

Hori Dey- Throw acid on  her face

Asraful Hoque Choudhuri- everyone should report that this rendy (rendy is an assamese slang which meaqns prostitute)is herself using a fake id

Rintu Ahmed- These are fake accounts

Dhrubajyoti- Johori (abuse) muslim

Midul Ray- she is of this level

Raz sadagar- has she… (kela- abuse) gone mad or is she speaking nonsense

Ajoy Bora- why should we eat

Lj Nath- from the looks it is apparent that she is a muslim rendy(rand)

Bappy Hussain- Haha..

 

Shahid Azmain- one of them is a hindu …(gedi- abuse)

Gautam Govind- fake account of some …(gedi- abuse)

Pankajj Baruahh- Ohhh she must be warming the beds of beef-eating muslims too

Bhagyen Talukdar- She can not be hindu

Dharma Nath- Look at her name- bondita. She can not even write the spelling of her name correctly. What else to say. Bondita acharya. Do reply.

 

Pranab Rajbongshi- one can not be hindu just by writing hindu title. Nowadays many muslim boys write hindu title, and flirts with hindu girls by pretending to be hindu after calling as wrong number. Then they also make the hindu girls elope with them

Sankar Das- everyone will get the results of their work

 

Basab Ch Thakuria- she is the kind of grass that even a horse would not eat. I am feeling pukish after looking at her profile.

Pradip Biswas- She looks like a rakshashi

Asraful Hoque Choudhuri- look at your own face

Pranab Jyoti Kalita- these are some fake accounts. Mridul baruah is fake

Mridul Baruah- your father must be fake

Hasanur Ahmed- She looks beautiful…U should have the eyes to see her beauty…

Jitu Das- must be fake account of some congress person or … (geda- abuse). This is an attempt to spread bad culture among hindus.

Biddyut Deka- I agree with this

Goutam Mrar Bajrangi- these are rakshashes

Rahul Mayur Sarmah- she looks like a garo (a tribe from Meghalaya)

ABUSES AND THREATS IN ASSAMESE ]

Bondita Acharya is a human rights defender from Assam, in Northeastern India, and a member of  Women in Governance (WinG) Assam. WinG is a network of women activists, leaders and civil society organisations with a common aim of bringing more women in to decision-making processes, as well as promoting peace, security and the empowerment of women. She is also the Northeast coordinator of Human Rights Defenders Alert (HRDA) and a member of the network Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS).

A local Hindu group, Bajrang Dal, issued a press statement demanding that Bondita Acharya issue a public apology for condemning the arrests.Bondita Acharya  said  Bajrang Dal  asked people on social media to identify her house in Jorhat

 

 

Meanwhile, many complaints  have been sent to various platforms including National Human  Rights Commisison (NHRC), Front Line Defenders

 

After the FIR was filed, now Bondita will be giving her statement  at the Jorhat court  tommorrow, April 26, 2017.

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Meet the ‘other Malalas’ – the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s friends now heading to Edinburgh University

Malala's friends Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan were also shot by the Taliban
Malala’s friends Shazia Ramzan (left) and Kainat Riaz (right) were also shot by the Taliban CREDIT:  JAY WILLIAMS

We have all heard of ‘the girl who was shot by the Taliban’. But the phrase – used as shorthand for Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner, youngest ever UN Ambassador of Peace and the most famous schoolgirl in the world – only tells half the story of that fateful Tuesday in October 2012. Well, a third, to be precise.

For two other teenagers were victims of the attack that injured Malala. They too were caught up in that shower of bullets.

Kainat Riaz, then 15, and Shazia Ramzan, 14, were Malala’s fellow pupils at Khushal Public School. They were sitting on benches alongside the 15-year-old education campaigner in a converted Toyota truck, clasping their books, as they travelled home after a chemistry exam in Mingora, north-west Pakistan.

I could not sleep because whenever I closed my eyes I thought that guy was going to come and shoot me again

Kainat remembers excitedly discussing the answers. Shazia was staring out of the window, daydreaming – when the lives of the three girls changed forever.

“The Taliban stopped us, two boys – or men,” says Shazia. “One was in the front and the other one came to the back. He said: ‘Who is Malala?’ We had our faces covered [with niqabs], but Malala didn’t.

“We were looking at him and then he shot Malala in the forehead. He shot me on my hand and shoulder, and Kainat’s shoulder as well. Then he started shooting randomly.”

Kainat recalls seeing Malala fall to the floor and hearing her classmates’ screams, before she fainted. Shazia says she was one of those screaming.

Eventually the bus, winding through heavy traffic, arrived at the local hospital. Malala and Shazia were rushed inside, but Kainat was terrified so ran home, gripping her arm all the way. When she reached her headmaster father and midwife mother, she uttered just two words: “Malala died.”

“I was lost,” she says softly. “I could not sleep because whenever I closed my eyes I thought that guy was going to come and shoot me again.”

Kainat was taken by her family to the local hospital, while Shazia spent a month in military hospital in regional capital Peshawar. Malala’s injuries were so complex that she was flown to the UK for life-saving treatment at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. She had splinters of skull in her brain, and her heart and kidneys were failing. The Peshawar intensive care unit was so basic that it had only one sink – and that didn’t work.

They call us Kainat and Shazia, not Malala’s friends. We are famous in Pakistan. Here, we are not special

While Malala, within hours of the attack, had been elevated to the status of international heroine, Shazia and Kainat suffered in obscurity. They returned to recuperate at home in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, but were treated as pariahs. Neighbours turned on Kainat’s family, telling them to leave because she was seen as a Taliban target; bus and taxi drivers refused to take her to school.

Five thousand miles away, Malala was the focus of increasing global attention, as the world watched her recovery. Tens of thousands of people signed a petition calling for her to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. By July 2013, on her 16th birthday, she was addressing the United Nations.

She was also inundated with offers to continue her education. One of these came from the prestigious international boarding school UWC Atlantic College in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales. Malala replied that she was settled in Birmingham, enrolled at the private Edgbaston High School for Girls – but she had not forgotten her two friends and asked if the invitation could be extended to them instead.

At Atlantic College, St Donat's, on the Glamorgan coast of Wales where they have been studying
At Atlantic College, St Donat’s, on the Glamorgan coast of Wales where they have been studying CREDIT:  JAY WILLIAMS

Shazia and Kainat were given full scholarships (more than half of students receive a bursary to cover fees that would otherwise cost £58,000 for two years), while Gordon Brown, UN special envoy on global education, helped with visas.

The girls arrived in 2013, leaving their families behind.

Atlantic College, set in a 12th-century castle, could not be further from their modest homes in rural Pakistan. Instead of lush green mountains, the girls are surrounded by sheep farms. Sitting in the cold principal’s office today, they describe their initial feelings of disorientation – and freedom.

“Back home, you have to go anywhere with your father, mother or brother, because you are a girl,” explains Shazia, daughter of a bakery owner, and one of nine children. The girls relished being able to visit the shops alone and learnt to swim (“we don’t have pools for girls in Swat”).

British food, however, demanded more adjustment.

Now I think about all girls. I want to stand up for them

“Now I can eat pasta and pizza, which I couldn’t even look at before,” says Kainat. They order Indian take-aways to create a home away from home. Is our biryani as good? “They try their best,” says Shazia diplomatically.

The girls’ fellow pupils were unfazed by their arrival. Many did not even know their story for several months, until they gave a speech at a student conference.

“Everyone treats us normally,” says Kainat. “They call us Kainat and Shazia, not Malala’s friends. We are famous in Pakistan. Here, we are not special.”

While Malala was surrounded by family in Birmingham, her two friends had only each other, visiting to Swat just twice a year – a place to which Malala has not been able to return due to the ongoing threats.

Now, both 19, any homesickness has faded, replaced by soul-searching about how to fit into two radically different worlds. Says Kainat: “If I’m wearing jeans and my friends [in Pakistan] see pictures online, they say, ‘you forgot your culture’.

Her family, however, are adamant they did the right thing. Kainat relays a conversation in which her father told her to ignore others. “Now if people say, ‘don’t wear nail polish’, I want to know why,’” she adds, tapping her leopard-print trainers with maroon-painted fingers.

Though Malala was the trailblazer – aged 11, she had written a BBC blog and appeared on Pakistani TV to promote her campaign for girls’ education – the three are now united behind the same cause.

Kainat, once shy, is confident about her mission. “Before, my mind was closed,” she says. “I thought about education just related to my family. But now I think about all girls. I want to stand up for them.”

We are really proud. We follow her and we will follow her in the future

Her outlook is global. Though her parents have never left Pakistan, she shares a dorm with roommates from Brazil, Lebanon and Bermuda. And while Malala has dominated, her friends have travelled to conferences in Paris and Washington – not to mention the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo.

To their amazement, Malala mentioned them in her speech when she became the youngest Nobel laureate, aged 17 in 2014. “I am not a lone voice. I am many. I am Malala, but I am also Shazia. I am Kainat,” she told a spellbound audience.

“We are really proud,” says Shazia, “we follow her and we will follow her in the future.”

The three still chat online and met up in Birmingham to celebrate Eid, though they admit these get-togethers are increasingly rare. They have witnessed first-hand their friend’s celebrity – Shazia says Malala struggles to go shopping without being mobbed.

Back in Wales, the girls say teachers have dubbed them the “Pakistani twins” because they are inseparable. Both erupt into giggles.

Kainat and Shazia are still in touch with their famous friend
Kainat and Shazia are still in touch with their famous friend CREDIT: JAY WILLIAMS

They rise at 5.30am to pray before lessons. When not studying, they can be found dancing, kayaking and surfing on the Welsh coast. The nightmares they still suffered when they arrived are behind them – now the only daily reminders are their scars and the shoulder pain they get in cold weather.

But both are aware of how different life might have been. “Some of my friends are married and have children,” explains Kainat.

The duo’s sights are set on university. While Malala has received an offer from a top institution – understood to be Oxford – her friends were last month both given offers to study nursing at Edinburgh (“Inshallah, we get the grades”). Gordon Brown, who has become a mentor, is helping find sources of funding.

They are keen to restart campaigning. And both see their futures in Pakistan. Shazia – who remembers when girls’ schools were shut down under Taliban tyranny – insists things are improving. “In some areas, girls and boys are now even being taught in the same classroom.”

“I believe I should go back to my country and try to make change there,” Kainat insists.

Adds Shazia, “However we can help, we will.”http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/meet-malalas-nobel-peace-prize-winners-friends-now-heading/

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The nightmarish struggle to bring Asaram to justice #Vaw

 

Crisis Of Faith

THE SESSIONS-COURT COMPLEX in Jodhpur was particularly crowded on the afternoon of 9 February. By 2 pm, around 200 people had gathered outside the building. They were of various ages and from a variety of backgrounds, though there were unusually many young women among them—some dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, others in crisp salwar kameez and light woollen cardigans. Many in the crowd had travelled from outside the city, and carried small rucksacks or cloth bags. One family told me that they had come from Gorakhpur, in Uttar Pradesh, a little more than 1,000 kilometres away; one man that he had come from Jalpaiguri, in West Bengal, nearly 2,000 kilometres away.

Just after 2 pm, police began to cordon off the entrance to the building, forming a semicircle and forcing the crowd away. More people kept joining the crowd, and as the throng swelled they kept their eyes fixed on the gate to the complex.

Before long, a large blue van with the words “Riot Control” emblazoned on its side pulled in. A flurry of activity broke out around it. Several people ran behind the van as it passed them, yelling, “Bapu! Bapu!” (Father! Father!) Police officers chased them away, swinging their wooden sticks and blowing their whistles. One young woman in a parrot-green salwar kameez ran alongside the van, clutching her handbag and smartphone. As the vehicle turned right into a lane before the court building, she stepped into its path, joined her palms and cried, “Bapu! Bapu!”

 

She smiled when she caught a glimpse of the elderly man she had called out to—the self-proclaimed godman Asumal Harpalani, better known as Asaram, who was seated behind the vehicle’s thickly grilled windows. The godman raised a hand in a gesture of blessing. The van turned sharply to avoid the woman, and drove on to the rear entrance of the complex. Police swarmed the area, preventing the general public and most of the media from approaching the court.

I jostled my way through the crowd and reached the rear entrance. Asaram emerged from the vehicle, pausing at the door to raise both his palms and bestow his blessings on anyone who happened to be waiting for them. The 75-year-old godman’s skin was pale, and his eyes were bulging and bloodshot. He wore a crisp white dhoti and kurta, a cream-coloured sweater and a navy-blue woollen cap. A white shawl hung from his shoulder, and he carried a walking stick. Flanked by around a dozen policemen, Asaram entered the court, where he is on trial for allegedly raping a 16-year-old girl at his Jodhpur ashram in 2013. Asaram is also accused of sexual harassment, wrongful confinement and criminal intimidation, and faces additional charges under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences, or POCSO, Act. In addition, he stands accused of rape in another case, filed in Ahmedabad. The younger sister of the complainant in that case has filed allegations of rape against his son, 45-year-old Narayan Sai, who is also a godman.

Asaram’s son, Narayan Sai, is accused of rape by a Surat-based woman who was once a follower. Her account of her time at the ashram presents a chilling picture of psychological and sexual exploitation.

The police have been regularly shepherding Asaram from prison to court since the commencement of the Jodhpur trial, in December 2013. The crowds were even larger and harder to manage in the early days; though they are now somewhat diminished, those who do gather remain just as frenzied in their devotion for their guru.

The court building’s lift had broken down, so the police led Asaram to the stairs. A group of around 50 people—who had managed to sneak past the police and were gathered at the entrance of the building—began to chant, “Bapu! Bapu!” As Asaram strode up the steps, these people became increasingly agitated, raising their hands in the air, and standing on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of him. Asaram turned and extended a palm towards them. The shouts of “Bapu!” reached a crescendo—then the police moved in, and, blowing their whistles, swiftly dispersed the crowd.

ON A GREY AND DRIZZLY AFTERNOON in August 2013, I reached the town of Shahjahanpur, in central Uttar Pradesh. I was there to meet the father of the 16-year-old girl who had filed the case that is now being tried in the Jodhpur court. It had only been a week since the complaint was filed, and there had been an explosion of media attention on the family. The anxious father had stopped meeting journalists. After reaching the family’s house, I managed to persuade him to speak to me by sending in a handwritten request through a neighbour and friend of theirs.

I was led into the house through a rear entrance and introduced to a tall, well-built man wearing a cream-coloured kurta-pyjama. He was still visibly in shock over what had happened to his daughter, and, in the conversation that followed, he recounted his family’s ordeal, crying throughout into a crumpled handkerchief.

The family’s members had been committed Asaram devotees, and had donated money to help him set up an ashram in Shahjahanpur. “We worshipped him like our own god,” the father told me. Since Asaram often preached that children educated in his ashrams would grow up with desirable values, he and his wife sent two of their three children to an ashram school in the district of Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh.

On 7 August 2013, they received a phone call from the ashram about the girl. Her hostel warden, Shilpi, now a co-accused in the case, “told us that she is ill and that we should reach the Chhindwara ashram immediately,” the father said. The worried parents reached Chhindwara the next day and went to the girls’ hostel to meet their daughter. They learnt that she had had a fainting spell the previous day. “The warden told us that some evil powers had captured my daughter, and could be removed only by Asaram,” the father recounted. “She told us to meet him as soon as we could.”

Shilpi, the warden of Asaram’s Jodhpur ashram and one of those accused in the case, told the victim’s parents that the girl had been captured by evil spirits, and could only be rescued by Asaram

The warden told them, however, that Asaram was not in the Chhindwara ashram, but in Delhi. The girl and her parents travelled to Delhi to meet him, only to learn that he had travelled on to his Jodhpur ashram. On 14 August, they reached the ashram in Jodhpur, and finally met Asaram. The victim’s father recounted that the godman assured them that he would perform a puja to rid their daughter of the evil powers that had entered her.

The next night, Asaram summoned the parents and the girl to his hut in the ashram. After chanting some mantras, he instructed the parents to leave. “He took my daughter inside the hut with him for the puja,” the father said. “We trusted him completely, so we left our daughter with him and started chanting bhajans outside.”

When the girl came out after approximately an hour, her father said, “she was crying and looked disturbed.” The parents asked her what was wrong, but she only asked them to take her back home to Shahjahanpur, which they did the next morning. Only once they got home did the girl give her mother an account of what had happened to her inside the hut. She, in turn, told her husband. “He made her drink a glass of milk and then started sexually assaulting her,” the father said. “He tried to force himself on my daughter but she resisted.” The charge sheet in the case contains more disturbing details of what Asaram allegedly did. It states that the godman took off his clothes and forced the child to perform oral sex on him, and kissed her body and hugged her even as she cried and resisted. It also states that he intimidated the girl by threatening to kill her parents and family members if she dared to speak to anyone of what he had done to her.

Asaram’s ashram in Jodhpur was allegedly the site of the rape of a minor girl from Shahjahanpur, whose family were devout followers of the godman.

 

 

The parents were enraged. “We wanted to confront Asaram immediately,” the father said. “So we went to Delhi, where he was holding a satsang. But he refused to meet us.” After this, the family went to the Kamla Nagar police station, the nearest one to them at the time, and filed a complaint.

 

As he recounted these events to me in 2013, the victim’s father sounded angry. “I feel that I trusted Asaram so much I wouldn’t have believed my own daughter if I had not seen her myself that night,” he said. “I regret that she did not immediately tell us what happened to her, otherwise I would have picked up the stones that were lying outside his hut, and would have hit him right then.”

He was much more subdued when I visited him again, in December 2016. I entered a small office in front of the family’s two-storey house to see a man at a table sorting papers and signing courier dispatches. It took me several seconds to realise that this was the victim’s father. He seemed to have aged a decade in the three years since I had met him last; he had grown slighter, and had lost most of his hair.

Though he had once run a successful transport business and owned more than ten trucks, he had sold most of them to fund the legal battle against Asaram. His family members’ routine lives had been disrupted, since they had to travel often to Jodhpur to attend the trial. “The trial period is so difficult and painful I can’t tell you,” the father said. “What kind of life is this? We have to travel so often to a state that is not ours. That city is not our city, but we land up there every few days with bag and baggage. And the court gets over at five in the evening. What to do with the rest of the long days and long nights in that unknown city? We just lie there in a small hotel room thinking about what happened to us.”

He said that he hoped that the court would reach a verdict in 2017. Asaram “cheated us in the name of god while he was actually a monster in the garb of a saint,” he said. “Now all I want is a verdict and maximum punishment against him. All the prosecution witnesses have been cross-examined. Now only defence witnesses are left. I hope that the verdict comes in the next few months.”

The family was terrified for its safety because of a rash of attacks and killings of witnesses that had occurred after the girl’s complaint was filed. Among those killed was Kripal Singh, a close friend of the family and one of the witnesses in the case. The victim’s father appeared to mistrust his family’s own security guards, who had been assigned by the Uttar Pradesh government. Though I had been shown in by a trusted acquaintance, the father complained that the guards should have checked with him first before letting me through. “I can’t trust anyone in this situation, as you know,” he said.

The family’s members had begun to severely restrict their movements. The men—the victim’s father and two brothers—went out only when it was unavoidable, while the women remained confined to their home. His daughter had “been living like a prisoner for the past three and a half years,” the father said. “She cannot move out of the house. She is a young child and this is the time when she should have been investing herself in studying and in making a place for herself in the world. But she cannot move out of the house because of the innumerable threats that we face on a daily basis.” His sons, too, have suffered, and have been unable to pursue regular educations or take up regular work.

But though he was evidently exhausted by the fight, the victim’s father was determined to see the process through. “We will fight this battle to the end,” he said. “If they kill me, then my children will fight. We will fight till the last person is alive, but we will not leave this man. We will not back down until we get justice and he is sent behind bars forever.”

AS A SELF-STYLED GODMAN, Asaram is far from unique in India. Over the years, several individuals, such as Sathya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Jaggi Vasudev have used the vulnerability of those seeking religious fulfilment to acquire millions of followers and build large devotional empires. The finer workings of these empires are usually hidden from view, with only occasional media reports offering some clues into how they are built, maintained and manipulated.

In Asaram’s case, partly owing to the extraordinary bravery of the alleged victims and witnesses who have spoken out against him, there is considerable information available about his rise and fall, his ashrams, and his conduct towards his devotees. Many details have become public since the Jodhpur victim filed her case in 2013. On piecing them together, what emerges is a story of a man who, by accumulating vast wealth and a mix of religious and political influence, acquired untrammelled power. But even as Asaram’s prominence grew, in his network of ashrams, life for many of his followers became an unspeakable hell.

Asaram was born Asumal Harpalani in April 1941, in the village of Berani, in the Sindh region of what is now Pakistan. Basant Rawat, an Ahmedabad-based journalist with The Telegraph who has reported extensively on Asaram, told me in an email interview that the godman belongs to the “Vaniya (trader) sub-caste of the Sindhi community.” After Partition, in 1947, the family moved to Ahmedabad, where Asaram spent many years of his childhood. According to his authorised biography, Sant Asaramji ki Jeevan Jhanki (A Glimpse into the Life of Saint Asaram), published by his own organisation, he became a disciple of the spiritual leader Lilashah in the mid 1960s. It was Lilashah, says the biography, who gave him the name Asaram.

In 1972, Asaram built a hut by the banks of the Sabarmati river in the town of Motera in Gujarat, around ten kilometres from Ahmedabad. According to Rawat, he did this after Lilashah “threw him out from his ashram in Gandhidam, a Sindhi-dominated coastal town of Kutch.” From this base in Motera, Asaram began propagating his brand of Hinduism, comprising simplified readings of scriptures and tantric practices that, judging by details later unearthed by investigators, seem to have included sinister rituals of the kind often described as black magic. “Asaram’s spiritual project was tailored to suit disillusioned, disempowered and disadvantaged people, mostly tribals and Hindi-speaking people in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh,” Rawat wrote. “His prescription: medicine produced in-house, spiritual discourses, chanting of mantra and devotion.”

Asaram expanded his empire from the Motera ashram, setting up new centres and attracting more followers every year. Apart from his discourses, an added attraction was “the free food and other facilities that they were offered whenever they visited the ashrams to attend discourses,” Rawat said. “In the tribal areas of Gujarat, southern Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, feasts were organised in which food, utensils and clothes were distributed.” Over the following decades, Asaram, along with his son, expanded his network to now include—according to Asaram’s own website—more than 400 ashrams, spread across 19 countries. Asaram claims to have 40 million followers around the world.

This expansion was aided by the fact that the Hindu right was growing rapidly in many parts of India, including in Gujarat. “The rise of Asaram has to do with the systematic Hinduisation of the Gujarati middle class post 1985,” Achyut Yagnik, a social scientist based in Ahmedabad, told me. “Initially, a lot of Sindhis, the Other Backward Classes, as well as middle-class Dalits, became his followers. Later, the upper-caste middle class also joined in.”

This expansion also involved several questionable acquisitions of land, according to Arjun Modhwadia, a former president of the Gujarat unit of the Congress party. Asaram’s “modus operandi was to capture empty government land, local municipality land and sometimes even private land, and then create pressure to regularise it,” Modhwadia said. “For example, Asaram grabbed a huge piece of land in Surat. When the Surat city municipal commissioner tried to repossess the land, thousands of Asaram devotees started creating a ruckus there—so much so that the commissioner had to come back.”

Asaram’s wealth grew to massive proportions over the years. In 2014, investigators estimated the value of this wealth at between Rs 9,000 crore and Rs 10,000 crore, “in the form of bank accounts and other investments including shares, debentures and government bonds.” This figure did not include the value of the land held by Asaram’s ashrams across several states.

As the number of his devotees multiplied, Asaram also attracted politicians, who realised that they could appeal to a large base of voters through him. Among the politicians who have been his followers over the years are senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders such as the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as well as LK Advani and Nitin Gadkari. Also among them have been the current and former chief ministers Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh, Prem Kumar Dhumal and Uma Bharti. Senior Congress leaders, too, have been Asaram’s devotees—among them Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath and Motilal Vora.

In an essay in the book The Guru in South Asia, the political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, analysing the case of Indira Gandhi in some detail, wrote that relationships between politicians and gurus in India are not only seen as legitimate, but are “considered necessary for political legitimacy.” Of such gurus, he wrote, tantrics are considered “less legitimate than others.” Unlike mainstream Hinduism, tantrism “glorifies desire, notably in the form of sexual experiences, and instead of preaching non-violence, it permits animal sacrifice. It is also associated with the transgression of prohibitions and with black magic.”

But tantric gurus have nevertheless drawn politicians to them. “The affinities between tantrism and power (and more precisely the powers of tantric guru) explain why so many politicians resort to their services,” Jaffrelot wrote.

The most prominent politician to have professed devotion to Asaram is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose home city of Vadnagar is only around 90 kilometres from Motera. The politician and the godman established personal contact before either had attained national fame. In a video of a gathering of Asaram’s devotees at the Motera ashram that was held in the mid 2000s, Modi—then Gujarat’s chief minister—lavishes praise on the godman. “It was my great opportunity to have met him at a point in my life when nobody knew me,” Modi said. “From that time I have been receiving Bapu’s blessings, have continued to receive his affection.” Asaram’s words, Modi said, had “a yogic strength, and with trust in that yogic strength, the dream of crores of us in Gujarat will come true.” He added: “I pray on Bapu’s blessed steps, I bow to him. Sacred Bapu’s love, his blessings, his best wishes will give me new strength. With that belief, I got the chance to come here, I consider myself lucky for it. I prostate myself before blessed Bapu.”

But politicians began to distance themselves from Asaram after 2008, when his reputation began to unravel. In 5 July that year, the mutilated and half-burnt bodies of two children were found lying in the Sabarmati river, next to his Motera ashram. The children, cousins named Abhishek and Dipesh Vaghela, had been enrolled in a school located on the ashram’s ten-acre premises.

Even as they reeled from this horrific tragedy, the boys’ family found little support from the government. Praful Vaghela, Dipesh’s father, told me that Asaram’s influence was so great at the time that the Gujarat police refused to file an FIR in the case at first. “It was only after we agitated and protested,” he said, “that the government finally handed over the matter to the CID”—the state police’s crime investigation department. “The FIR was filed on 21 July 2008,” he added.

In August 2008, the Gujarat government, headed by Modi, constituted a commission to investigate the deaths, headed by a retired judge of the state’s high court, DK Trivedi. The commission submitted its report in July 2013, but the findings have not been made public. The police, meanwhile, charge-sheeted seven office-bearers of Asaram’s Motera ashram in August 2012 for culpable homicide.

Vaghela told me last month that he planned to approach the Supreme Court to reopen the investigations. “Our case is still being dragged through the lower court here in Ahmedabad,” he said. “Whenever we go to the court, sometimes the public prosecutor is busy, sometimes the judge is on leave or too busy to hear the case. We don’t know what to do.” He demanded “a fresh investigation into the murder of the two boys by the CBI”—the Central Bureau of Investigation—“or any other reliable agency.” According to Vaghela, the Gujarat police “never investigated the case in the right direction. They wanted to shield the perpetrator.”

Vaghela blamed the state government for this. He held Modi particularly responsible—throughout his tenure, the chief minister also handled the home ministry, which oversees policing. “Everything was in the hands of the then chief minister,” he said. “But instead of ordering a fair police investigation, he constituted a commission. You tell me, why would he do so? Because Asaram had deep influence in Gujarat then.” He added: “If the Gujarat government had taken action back in 2008, maybe the lives of his present victims could have been saved.”

Since the Gujarat government drew no direct or indirect links between Asaram himself and the Motera deaths, it was only in 2013, when the Jodhpur victim filed her case, that the godman found himself ensnared in the criminal-justice system. Then, in October 2013, two sisters from Surat filed cases of rape, intimidation and wrongful confinement against Asaram and his son, Narayan Sai. Sai was arrested in December that year.

Investigators began building their cases. The testimonies of the alleged victims were central to each case, but police also spoke to a variety of witnesses to build a detailed picture of events, as well as of the conduct of the accused at the ashrams. These included former followers of Asaram, family members of the victims, and friends of these families who were privy to the details of their involvement with the ashrams. In the Jodhpur case alone, the prosecution identified more than 50 witnesses to help the case.

Mahendra Chawla, a former personal assistant to Asaram’s son Narayan Sai, recounted seeing Sai sexually abuse several women. After becoming a witness against Asaram and Sai, Chawla was attacked at his home in Haryana, on 13 May 2015.

Then, witnesses began to be attacked.

On the morning of 28 February 2014, the husband of one of the Surat sisters was stabbed multiple times as he walked to his home. The injuries were serious, but he survived. Within a fortnight, on 10 March 2014, Rakesh Patel, a former devotee and videographer of Asaram, who had become a witness in the Surat case, was stabbed in the city by attackers on a motorcycle. Patel survived. Less than a week later, two men on a motorcycle threw acid on a textile trader named Dinesh Bhagchandani, who was also a witness in the Surat case. Despite his injuries, Bhagchandani managed to overpower one of his attackers and hand him over to the police.

The police’s interrogation of this attacker, Kishore Bodke, revealed that he was acting on the instructions of Basavaraj Basu, a devout follower of Asaram from Karnataka’s Bijapur district. “During interrogation, the accused told the police that they were 12 who came to Surat on 18 February with a target to attack the prime witnesses,” the then commissioner of the Surat police, Rakesh Asthana, said in a press conference. “We suspect that the attackers might be given financial help from the ashrams. These arrested five attackers are not contract killers. They are followers of Sai.”

The next to be targeted was Amrut Prajapati, an Ayurvedic doctor who worked with Asaram for 15 years before parting ways with him in 2005. Prajapati had gone on to become a vocal opponent of Asaram and a key witness in all the cases. On 23 May 2014, a man posing as a patient entered Prajapati’s clinic in Rajkot. Just as Prajapati was about to examine him, the man raised a gun and shot the doctor in the throat. Prajapati died 17 days later.

The next person targeted was Narendra Yadav, a Shahjahanpur-based journalist who had written a number of stories on the cases against the godman and his son. On 17 September 2014, as Yadav walked out of his office, he was stabbed by two unknown assailants. He survived.By his own count, the Shahjahanpur-based journalist Narendra Yadav has written nearly 300 stories on Asaram. He was attacked as he left his office on 17 September 2014.

A few months later, in January 2015, 36-year-old Akhil Gupta was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle as he was walking to his home in Muzaffarnagar. Gupta had worked in Asaram’s Ahmedabad ashram, supervising cooking and helping with accounts, before leaving and becoming a witness in the Surat case.

Rahul Sachan, a former personal assistant to Asaram, survived an attack on 13 February 2015. Sachan went missing on 25 November 2015, but his police guard reported his disappearance only a month later.

Witnesses were unsafe not only in their homes and workplaces, but also in the very courts to which they went to testify. Around a month after the attack on Gupta, on 13 February 2015, 41-year-old Rahul Sachan, a former personal assistant to Asaram who had become a witness in all three cases, was attacked outside the Jodhpur sessions court. According to Sachan’s statement to the police, late that afternoon, as Asaram was led out of the court after the day’s proceedings, he gestured to a follower nearby and, running a hand across his throat, indicated that he should attack Sachan. At this, the follower, later identified as Satya Narayan Gwala, moved towards Sachan, and, just as Sachan was about to board a police vehicle, stabbed him in the back repeatedly. The attack left Sachan partially paralysed. On 25 November 2015, he mysteriously went missing—he has still not been found.

Thirty-seven-year-old Mahendra Chawla was the next to be attacked. Chawla, a former personal assistant to Sai, was also a witness in all the cases. On 13 May 2015, two attackers shot him in his village, in Haryana’s Panipat district. Chawla is now partially disabled and lives under police protection.

Less than two months later, on 10 July 2015, 35-year-old Kripal Singh, a friend of the Jodhpur victim’s family, was shot dead in Shahjahanpur by two motorcycle-borne assailants while he was returning home from a local market. Singh, a witness in the Jodhpur case, had testified in court just a few weeks earlier.

Only the next year did the police make their next major breakthrough in the cases of the attacks on witnesses. On 15 March 2016, after a two-year manhunt, the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad arrested a follower and close confidante of Asaram’s named Kartik Haldar from a hideout in Chhattisgarh.

His interrogation revealed that Haldar, who described himself as one of Asaram’s “fidayeen,” had planned and participated in the killings of Prajapati, Gupta and Singh. He also told the police that he had collected Rs 25 lakh from the godman’s devotees across the country, and that he planned to use that money to buy an AK-47 rifle to kill witnesses. He also confessed that he planned to “bomb” the assistant commissioner of police Chanchal Mishra, the investigating officer in the Jodhpur case.

IN ALL THESE INSTANCES, the state failed to protect witnesses whose lives were under threat. The case of Asaram’s former personal assistant Rahul Sachan is particularly bleak, considering that in August 2015, six months after his attack and three months before he went missing, he filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court to put on record the fact that his life remained at risk, and that the state had provided him with inadequate protection.

The affidavit makes for haunting reading now. Sachan declared that he had been “receiving constant threats” to his life “by people who claim to be acting at the behest of the Accused.” After much effort, he wrote, “I have been provided by the UP State Government with Armed guard for 8 hours during day time.” Outside those hours, he was unprotected. “During night, I get no sleep as I am in constant fear of death by the accused firing squad,” he wrote. “I sleep during day time when my guard is around.” The police, he stated, had told him that the assault on him could not “be linked to a larger conspiracy and linked to the accused.” In light of how serious the threat was, he wrote, “I seek armed guards to protect me who are under some central agency rather than the state governments.”

Sachan declared, “My life is slowly ticking away and all because I choose to ensure that justice prevails and womenfolk, especially, are not harassed and abused.” He claimed that he had had seen Asaram “mesmerising gullible minors and womenfolk,” and stated, “I want to live at least till I complete my testimony in the Surat and Ahmedabad cases.” He added: “At the rate of which witnesses are being killed or attacked it is my death wish that before I am killed such accused be exposed and justice prevails.”

Victims and witnesses recounted that followers were systematically brainwashed at Asaram’s ashrams, and taught to unquestioningly accept the godman’s words and actions.

The details of Sachan’s disappearance on 25 November, too, suggest that the state behaved with shocking callousness. In an interview to the Indian Express, Vijay Bahadur, one of the policemen assigned to protect him, said, “I have come to know that Sachan had reached Qaiserbagh bus stand along with gunner Amit” on the evening he was last seen. Bahadur said Sachan then told his gunner to return. “He caught a bus and left for somewhere,” the policeman stated. “Since then he has gone missing.” Bahadur took over the duty of guarding the—now missing—Sachan soon after, but did not tell his superiors about his absence till 20 December, almost a month later. “Since November 30, I have been visiting Sachan’s rented house at Thakurganj but found it locked every time,” he told the Indian Express. Bahadur also claimed that Sachan’s phone had been switched off for the entire period.

In his plea for security before the Supreme Court, Sachan was represented by Bennet Castelino, a Mumbai-born lawyer who divides his time between India and New Zealand, and is enrolled in the Maharashtra and Goa bar councils. In an email interview, Castelino remembered Sachan as “a simple man who stammered while talking, very gentle and affection person.” Sachan chose to speak up against Asaram, he said, because “he lived with a guilt complex that even though he knew Asaram sexually violated women and children, he was helpless as he was blinded by his faith to his Guru. He used to hear the wails of children and when he questioned his so called guru he was told that the girls were attaining salvation by this physical violation.” For years, Castelino wrote, Sachan “was too afraid to expose the Guru. He lived with this guilt until the Jodhpur and Gujarat victims exposed this Godman.”

Castelino explained that Sachan was in touch with many other families “whom he knew were violated by Asaram,” and that “more victims were to come forward.” He added that, with Sachan’s disappearance, this now seemed unlikely. “He did not succumb to the devotees’ pressure and was willing to pay the price to cleanse his guilty conscience.”

Sachan never wavered, despite receiving threats and offers of bribes, Castelino told me. “A gentleman who I knew through a common friend who claimed to be close to the RSS offered me 50 crores to stop the legal battle,” Castelino said. He relayed the offer to Sachan. “Just to test Rahul I told him, take the 50 crores and settle in New Zealand or any European country. Immediately he told me that he would never do such a thing.” Castelino said he tested Sachan on other occasions, too, but “at no stage he bent from his fight.”

UNSURPRISINGLY, OTHER WITNESSES REMAIN wary of coming forward with their stories. In January, I contacted Sai’s former personal assistant Mahendra Chawla. We spoke over the phone several times, but only when a trusted common friend vouched for me did he agree to an in-person interview. I met him on a chilly morning in January, near his home in a village in Haryana. He arrived on foot at our meeting point, accompanied by a gunner. We then walked to his house and sat on plastic chairs in a sunlit corner of a porch, while the gunner hovered nearby.

Chawla was 18 years old in 1996, when he was drawn into Asaram’s universe. “I come from a very religious family,” he told me. One day, after attending a programme held by the godman, “I, along with my brother and his wife, all three of us, took guru diksha”—a ceremony in which they accepted Asaram as their spiritual leader. “After that, I started listening to his sermons on his radio cassettes and reading his magazines.”

Within a year, Chawla decided to join Asaram full time, initially at an under-construction ashram in Panipat, where he helped with manual labour. He rose quickly through the ranks. He was posted to a warehouse on the premises of an ashram in Ahmedabad, from which Asaram’s branded products, such as cassettes, magazines, medicines and incense sticks, were dispatched for sale at various locations. He was later assigned to oversee sales from a vehicle that carried products from the Ahmedabad ashram to local markets.

In 2001, Asaram sent Chawla to his ashram in the Lakhawa village, in Rajasthan’s Kota district. He was designated the manager of the ashram, which was spread over of seven acres. “I developed the area by using drip irrigation and a biogas plant, and by planting trees all around,” he said. “As a part of my duty, I had to update Asaram directly about the affairs of the ashram on a biweekly basis or sometimes even weekly,” he said. He began “calling Asaram directly on his phone,” he added. “From there, I also got in touch with Narayan Sai.”

Chawla then accompanied Sai to Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh, where a new ashram was being set up. Soon, he said, Sai realised that he was a capable worker, and appointed him his personal assistant.

His exposure to the horrors of Asaram and Sai’s ways began not long after this. One night just before Diwali in 2002, Chawla said, “I got up in the middle of the night to go to bathroom. As I stepped outside my room, I saw a man sitting in the middle of the ashram’s porch. There was a small stream that flowed in front of this side of the ashram. When I went a bit closer, I saw that the man was Narayan Sai. He was sitting in front of a fire, and I saw a human body laid down in front of him. He had kept a human skull on the chest of the body.”

Adhering to the discipline enforced in the ashram, “I said pranam and sat down at a distance,” Chawla told me. “Then Sai asked me go back by saying ‘Vighn mat karo’”—do not disturb me. Chawla said he returned to his room and slept.

Early the next morning, Sai came into his room and asked him what he had seen the night before. “The sun had not risen yet and I remember it was the hour before dawn,” Chawla said. “I told him that I saw him sitting in front of a fire with a body lying in front of him. I also saw a human skull lying on the chest of that human body. Sai then told me that the body was of a small child who had been brought dead.” Chawla added that Sai explained to him that most people who saw the sight that he did would have died immediately, or lost their sanity. Chawla, Sai said, had survived because he had been blessed by his teacher. Sai then asked him if he had any questions about what he had seen. Chawla replied that he did not.

Chawla conceded that it might seem odd that he did not raise an alarm or question Sai. He said that at the ashram, “we were taught that we should always obey the guru, never question him, never question his intentions and never ask him anything. I was trained not to ask any question in that ashram system of brainwashing.” Two books published by the ashram, Guru Bhakti and Guru Geeta, were key to instilling this idea, he added.

By Chawla’s account, Sai seemed to have decided that he could be trusted, and attempted to convert him into a practitioner of the “black magic” that he himself practised. “Later that same day Sai gave me tantric mantras,” Chawla told me. “These mantras were written by Sai himself, on his own letterhead. The page had mantras like maran mantra, vashikaran mantra and vaani avrudh mantra”—intended to kill a person, control them and prevent them from speaking, respectively. “Sai asked me to practise these mantras but I never did,” Chawla said.

Sai made another attempt to convert Chawla into a practitioner of his “magic.” “After a few weeks, he took me and another young devotee from Udaipur to Rajrappa,” Chawla said. “It’s a place near Ranchi and is famous for its temple of Chinnamastika Mata”—a deity who carries her own severed head in one hand. “This temple is also known for black magic and tantric practices.” At midnight, Chawla recounted, “Sai took us to this temple and asked the old tantric who was there to educate both of us in black magic. But the old tantric refused, saying that black magic is a hurdle to salvation. He said that he had himself destroyed his own life due to black magic and now did not want two young boys to spoil their lives.”

Chawla remained shaken by the memory of Sai sitting with the child’s corpse. “I don’t know if the child was really bought dead, where the child came from, where his body went, where the skull came from and where it was disposed,” he said. “I don’t know anything. But I did see Sai performing black magic and using tantric practices on a small child.”

By this time, Chawla’s responsibilities had expanded. He organised Sai’s rallies and speeches, planned his travels and ensured that money was collected after each engagement.

At the ashram, Chawla said, “we had no proper sleeping hours, were never given proper food, and we used to be sent back home if we fell sick.” In winters, followers did not receive sweaters or other woollens. When Chawla asked about this, he was told that his body belonged to his guru, and that he had no need for sweaters. Regarding payment, Chawla said, “we never got a single paisa for our years of work.” In fact, he said, his mother occasionally sent him money, but “they used to take that money away from me also,” insisting that “everything I own belongs to my guru.” At the same time, “Asaram and Sai themselves would eat the choicest of food and wear the best clothes and most expensive woollens.”

Chawla’s first clue to Sai’s behaviour with women devotees came from Sai’s driver, with whom he struck up an acquaintance. “One day, Sai’s driver told me in a sad tone that Sai is not the saint that we think him to be,” Chawla said. “He told me that wherever we are, on tours or in ashrams, after everyone is asleep, Sai asks him to bring different women to his hut or wherever he is staying.” The driver told Chawla that he was disgusted with having to do this. “Sometimes he would ask the girls to sit in the trunk of the car, and sometimes ask them to kneel on the floor next to the back seat,” Chawla said.

The driver told Chawla that Sai abused and raped these women. “Then after a few weeks, we were in the Yeoor village of Thane for Sai’s sermon programmes,” Chawla said. “After his sermons, he was staying in a farmhouse in the village. That was the first time his driver showed me that Sai was sexually abusing a female devotee.”

After this, Chawla said, he witnessed similar incidents several times. “The driver would bring girls and then had to drop them off early in the morning, sometimes even as early as 2 or 3 am,” he said. All the women, he added, were devotees of Asaram and Sai, who were systematically brainwashed and then sexually abused.

This brainwashing often involved the use of Hindu mythology, according to Chawla—a point he has also made in court testimony. “Sai used to tell these women that he is Lord Krishna,” he said. “His regular explanation was that in their past births the women were born as gopis and Sai was Lord Krishna, but that he couldn’t lead them to their final salvation, which is why they were born again. He used to make them believe that he was actually not physically exploiting them but giving them his blessings and freeing them, once and for all, from the miseries of this world.”

Chawla left Asaram’s employ in 2005, and attempted to lead a normal life away from the ashrams. But after the Motera case came to light in 2008, he decided to speak up about what he had seen.

Then, Chawla began to receive regular threats from devotees of Asaram in Haryana. These intensified to such an extent that he shut down an insurance business he had set up, and remained at home. One day in 2013, he was visited by the sarpanch of his village, along with an Asaram devotee and two other men. “All four came to my house and started threatening me,” he said. “One of them, who is an old follower of Sai, openly threatened me by saying, ‘Bapu aur Sai ke khilaaf bolne walon ko ek ek karke khatam kar diya jayega.’” (All those who dare to speak against Sai and Babu will be finished one after the other.)

They also offered him money. “They came with a sky-blue suitcase, which was full of one-thousand-rupee notes,” he said. “One of them told me to take the money and forget everything. But I refused.”

The attack on him took place two years later, on the morning of 13 May 2015. The police gunner who had been assigned to him was on leave that day. Chawla was sitting near the half-closed door of his first-floor rented accommodation, when he heard footsteps on the stairs outside. “I peeped out of the door and saw two men with guns climbing up,” he said. Among them, Chawla said, was one of the men who had visited him in 2013 with the sarpanch.

Chawla quickly tried to shut the door—a double-door which could open in both directions—but the men had reached the top of the stairs by then, and pushed to try and open it inwards. He recounted that one of the men shouted, “Sai ke khilaaf gawahi deta hai?”(You dare to testify against Sai?)

Chawla managed to push the door open outwards, shoving the men aside briefly. He dashed out and climbed onto a ledge that hung over the entrance to the house on the ground floor. “Before I could jump down, the shooter caught my collar and tried to fire,” he said. “I pulled away and tried to jump. Just then he fired, but the bullet missed me and got stuck in the wall.” Seizing his chance, Chawla jumped from the ledge to the ground floor. “But before I could move he fired another shot from above, hitting my back,” he said. “I immediately fainted and they ran, thinking that I was dead.”

After surviving the attack, Chawla attempted to protect himself by applying for a gun licence. He was deeply disappointed by the police’s response. “I complained so many times but the police never took me seriously,” he said. “They humiliated me so much whenever I went to them asking for a gun licence. There is no witness-protection programme in place. With the police and the administration not cooperating, what do you expect from a witness? Why should the burden of standing for the truth only be on our shoulders?”

IT WAS NOT ONLY WITNESSES such as Chawla who feared that the state was failing to protect them. In March this year, just after voting for the Uttar Pradesh election ended, the Shahjahanpur-based journalist Narendra Yadav, who had survived a knife attack in September 2014 and been given police protection afterwards, told me that his security cover had been withdrawn. He had been informed that all available security personnel were needed to protect politicians who were campaigning for the election. “But now that the voting is over, I don’t know why they are still not reinstating my gunner,” he said. “I feel so scared that often I drive holding a gun with one hand, and the steering wheel with my other. It’s very dangerous because I am so scared that even if a person comes to say hello, I might end up shooting them out of fear and shock.”

I met the 44-year-old Yadav in early December, in a park in the centre of Shahjahanpur. He insisted on showing me around the park before we sat on the grass to talk.

Yadav, who is a reporter with the daily Dainik Jagran, told me that he filed a total of 287 stories on Asaram between August 2013 and September 2014. Shahjahanpur is a conservative place, and his stories played an important part in building support for the victim. But, inevitably, he also began receiving threats for his work.

At around 10 pm on 17 September 2014, Yadav recounted, he was leaving his office after filing his daily stack of news stories. He wore a safari suit, as he usually did, and carried a small bag slung across his shoulder. The bag contained a thermos with hot water that his wife had given him because he had been coughing for the past few days.

Yadav reached his car and moved to open the door when a hand grabbed his head from behind and yanked it backwards. At first, Yadav said, he thought that it might be a friend playing a prank. But suddenly, he felt metal against his neck, and a moment later he realised that he had been cut and was bleeding profusely. Then, the attacker slashed him once more.

Looking back later, Yadav realised that he had been improbably lucky to survive. Because he suffers from chronic pain in his neck, he usually holds it stiff and straight. As a result, the attacker, who was using a sickle, could not pull his head back far enough to expose his neck completely, and the sickle made a long cut that ran across Yadav’s chin. On the attackers’ next attempt, the blade struck the belt of the bag hanging from Yadav’s shoulder. After that, “some divine intervention happened and I screamed as loudly as I could,” Yadav recounted. “And then I snatched the sickle from his hands. There was blood all over us. My whole safari shirt, face and hands were all soaked in blood. There was blood on the attacker’s hands as well, so the sickle slipped from his hands. Before I knew what was happening, he jumped on a bike just a few steps away, where a rider was waiting for him, and both of them fled.” Yadav was immediately taken to a hospital, where he received 48 stitches on one cut and 28 stitches on another that ran from his cheekbone to his neckline.

To Yadav’s horror, the state police responded to the attack by investigating him and members of his family. “I kept saying that this attack was a conspiracy of Asaram and his devotees,” he said. “My friends and family kept saying the same. I told the police that I used to get threats and bribe offers to stop my coverage. But they didn’t listen to me. Instead, the whole investigation turned towards me. The cops dug around for fictional affairs by me and my wife, historic feuds in my village, etcetera. They even did lie detector tests on my family members, but nothing came out.”

The police’s response was particularly shocking given that Yadav himself gave them a lead to a man who had threatened him. A few weeks before the attack, he recounted, a devotee of Asaram’s from Kanpur paid him a visit. “He came to my office and posed as a fictional Rahul Yadav from Badaun,” Yadav said. “He gave me a parcel and said, ‘Ye Bapu ne sadbuddhi ka prasad bheja hai aapke liye. Nahi chapoge to naas ho jayega aapka.’” (Bapu has sent this gift of good wisdom for you. If you do not publish this, you will be destroyed.) The packet had a copy of Asaram’s mouthpiece magazine, Rishi Prasad, and other glorifying promotional material.

A few weeks after the attack, Yadav saw the same man sitting in front of the Shahjahanpur victim’s house, near a shop across the road. “I saw him and immediately recognised his face,” he said. “Then I went to the gunner deployed outside the victim’s house, and we went and asked his name. He said he was Narayan Pandey from Kanpur. We immediately handed him over to the police, but nothing substantial happened.”

Only much later, after the murder of Kripal Singh, the friend of the Shahjahanpur family, did the police uncover a possible link between Asaram and the attack on Yadav. While investigating Singh’s killing, the Shahjahanpur police contacted the Gujarat police, which had recently captured Kartik Haldar, the man who described himself as one of Asaram’s fidayeen. “During his interrogation by the Gujarat police, Haldar had accepted that he was involved in hatching the conspiracy of attempting to kill a Shahjahanpur-based journalist,” Yadav said. “He said that he was doing so on the order of Asaram.”

IF WITNESSES, JOURNALISTS AND OTHER ASSOCIATED with the cases against Asaram fear for their lives, the victims themselves are, understandably, doubly terrified. In mid February, I contacted the younger of the Surat sisters, who had accused Sai of raping her in the city ashram. After we exchanged text messages for three weeks, she agreed to speak to me. Though she lives under the protection of four guards, she still feels that her life is at risk. “I am not that scared about myself, but I feel concerned about my husband and my children’s lives,” she said. “They have not done anything wrong and they should not suffer because of me.”

The woman’s account of her time at the ashram tallied with Chawla’s description of how Asaram and Sai’s victims were brainwashed and then sexually exploited.
Like the Jodhpur victim, the Surat sisters were also from a deeply religious family. Their parents, who were regular visitors to Asaram’s ashram in Surat, began to take the girls along for sermons and other gatherings. “We did not particularly want to go to the ashrams and camps at first,” the woman, now 32 years old, told me. “Like all kids, we just wanted to play and be on our own. But our parents used to take us with them regularly. Then, slowly, we got into the ashram by attending Asaram’s camps and listening to his sermons.”

In 1996, the family sent the elder sister, who was 16 at the time, to Asaram’s ashram in Ahmedabad. “She went there for a 12-day anusthaan,” she said. “It is a process in which the devotee has to live in the ashram for 12 days, perform puja and chant mantras continuously.” At the end of this, she recounted, when their mother went to Ahmedabad to pick up her daughter, Asaram’s wife, Lakshmi Devi, refused to send her home.“Kya karegi ab sansar me jakar? Itni acchi ladki hai, yahi guru ke charnon me rehne dijiye ab ise” (What will she do in the world now? She is such a good girl, let her live in the feet of the guru), the younger sister said her mother was told.

The mother was too much in thrall to Asaram and Sai to protest. “What could my mother have done alone?” the younger sister asked. “So she came back without my elder sister and they kept her in the Ahmedabad ashram.”

It was a sign of the intensity of their devotion that, despite having their elder daughter kept away from them, the girls’ parents remained believers in Asaram and Sai. A few years later, in 2000, “I went to a camp of Narayan Sai in Surat with my parents,” the younger sister said. “I was 16 then.”

At the Surat camp, she said, Sai singled her out and asked her to visit his ashram in Meghnagar, in Jhabua. When she met him, “he made an indication to a sevika”—a female devotee. It appeared as if this devotee “understood that Sai had shown his interest in me.” The sevika, the victim said, “immediately came to me and started brainwashing me,” saying that “there is nothing in this outer world, whatever there is, it is at the feet of the guru.”

Other devotees who witnessed Sai’s actions, too, understood that he had singled her out. “So when I was standing in a queue in the ashram, some of them came up to me and asked me where I was from, and then gave me prasad,” she said. “They said that I should eat the prasad myself and not share it with anyone, just to make me feel special.”

Later, she travelled to the Meghnagar ashram. “When I went there it was chilly winter, and the ashram was still being built,” she said. “I was asked to help in the construction. So I, along with six or seven other girls, actually helped in the physical construction of the ashram.”

During this period, her communications and movements were restricted. “We were kept in confinement and my name was also changed,” she said. “They did not allow me to go back home to meet my mother or to speak to my parents on the phone. It was torture.” The assignation of a new name helped cut victims off from the outside world. “So even if someone from my family would have come to look for me, they wouldn’t find me because they would have asked for the girl with my original name, and that girl was not there anymore,” the woman said.

In 2002, she accompanied Sai on a tour to Bihar and Nepal. (She said that Mahendra Chawla was also present on this tour.) The attention Sai paid to her intensified after this trip, she said. “After we came back to Surat from the Nepal tour, one day he called me and asked me to come to the Surat ashram,” she said. He gave her the phone number of one of his sevaks—male devotees—and asked her to call him before she arrived. The sevak told her to come to the ashram and meet Sai without telling any of the other devotees about the meeting. “He said that if I told other girls that Sai wanted to meet me personally, then they would feel jealous and complain that Sai does not meet them but is meeting me,” she said. “I now realise that all this was a strategy to create a sense of false competition among the sevikas and make them feel special about meeting Sai personally.”

On reaching the ashram, she followed these instructions, and was led to Sai’s cottage from a rear entrance. There, she met Sai, who “held my hand and said, ‘Sansaar me kya rakha hai. Tumhara jo bhi hai guru ka hai. Tum pichle janam ki gopi ho aur main Krishna, aur main tumhara sansaar kaat raha hoon’ (What’s in the world for you? All that is yours is your guru’s. You are my female devotee from a previous birth and I am the incarnation of Krishna, and I am leading you to the path of salvation).”

The Surat victim often witnessed Sai being aggressive with other women in the ashram. In particular, she said, he would hurl abuses and beat women he found talking to men. “Once when Sai’s wife was talking to the ashram manager for some work, I saw him come out and give her four slaps on her face in front of everyone,” she said. “He was a bad-mouthed person and used to hurl lot of verbal abuse on everyone whenever he used to get angry. Whatever he used to do with women was ‘prabhu ki leela’”—god’s will—“but if any woman in the ashram dared to even speak to any male, she would be beaten up.”

Towards the end of our conversation, the woman got choked up as she recounted one afternoon in 2002 when she says Sai raped her. “I don’t know how you are going to write this,” she said. Both Sai and Asaram, she said, “used to force women to perform oral sex. They are perverts and would force women to even take the ejaculation of semen in their mouths.” She paused here, then continued. Sai, she said, “forced me to drink his semen. I was very scared and I did not knew exactly what I should do.” The two years of brainwashing made it impossible for her to resist, she said. “We were taught not to question the guru so it was not easy for me,” she said. “But I was very scared and I felt bad. He behaved very badly and cruelly with me.”

Around a year after the incident, when she was working as the manager of an ashram in the municipality of Himmatnagar in Gujarat, she decided to escape from Asaram and Sai’s clutches.

“When I said for the first time that I wanted to leave the ashram and go back home, his other sevikas caught me up, tied my hands and feet and locked me up inside a room in the ashram,” she recounted. “I cried through the night.” The next day, Sai came to meet her. “He beat me up mercilessly,” she said. “He used his legs and hands to hit me all over my body and hurled filthy abuses. He said, ‘Jayegi ashram se? Kyon jana chahti hai ashram se? Kya karegi ab bahar jakar?’ (You will dare to leave the ashram? Why do you want to go from the ashram? What will you do outside?)”

After this, the woman devised a plan to escape. She phoned her brother and asked him to come to the Himmatnagar ashram to pick her up. She instructed him to tell the ashram authorities that their mother was very ill—a story that she too would give them. “I explained everything to my brother,” she said. “He came to the ashram after a day to pick me up. I knew that Sai would not let me go any other way. He would accuse me of theft if I ran away and would beat me and lock me up if I asked for permission.”

The strategy worked. “Sai spoke to my brother when he came to pick me up,” she said. “My brother told him the same story of my mother’s illness. Then he allowed me to go for ten days.” She quickly packed her bags and handed over all the accounts that she was managing to another woman and left.

When she did not return to the ashram after ten days, Sai sent some sevikas to her. These devotees visited her home and pressured her to at least to speak to Sai on the phone. When she called him from a public telephone, “he yelled at me for not coming back.” She insisted that she could not return because her parents did not wish her to go.

She recounted that Sai then said she needed to return to at least settle the ashram’s accounts. She explained that she had handed over all the accounts. “But he said that I should explain them to him face to face,” she said.

She agreed to visit the ashram with her parents. A few days later, they set out for Himmatnagar, even though her father was unwell. “It was seven in the evening by the time we reached Himmatnagar,” she said. “The ashram is 15 kilometres away from the town, so we decided to spend the night at a relative’s house in Himmatnagar.” She phoned Sai and informed him that she had arrived, and would visit the ashram the next day. “He asked me the address of where we were staying and then hung up,” she said. “We called it a day and went to sleep.”

At around 2 am, “Sai sent a jeep full of his devotees to the address where we were staying,” she continued. “We were on the terrace and there were shops downstairs. They gathered downstairs and started shouting. They hurled abuses at me and started throwing stones at the building.” According to the woman, they yelled, “Bahar nikalo usko, yahi chipa ke rakha hai.” (Bring her out, she is hiding here.) “We were all very scared,” she said. “Then they went away. We passed the night somehow and took the first bus back home as dawn broke.” She said she and her parents continued to receive threatening messages from Asaram and Sai in the days that followed. She was relieved that they had not gone directly to the ashram, as their lives would have been at much greater risk there.

A few days later, the woman’s sister, too, returned home from the ashram in Ahmedabad. “She was also tortured a lot,” the younger sister said. “We did meet once or twice in between while we were both staying in different ashrams, and I remember her telling me that I should go back.” Despite their similar traumas, they “couldn’t find an opportunity to talk properly in between,” she said. After they were reunited in 2007, “we shared our ordeals with each other. But we could not gather the courage to tell this to our parents, so we kept quiet.”

It was only in early October 2013, after the first case was filed against Asaram, that the sisters—each of whom is now married, with children—gathered the courage to make their own police complaints. They told their mother about the horrors they had suffered just a few days before filing the complaints; their father, who suffers from a medical condition, still does not know about them.

The younger sister said that she took the decision because of the support of her husband, and because both she and her sister felt reassured when Asaram was arrested and later denied bail. “When the Jodhpur child-rape case broke, we were sure that the police would never be able to arrest Asaram,” she said. “We were following the case closely on TV. We thought, even if he is arrested, he will get bail in two hours. But the Jodhpur police did arrest him from Indore, and when he was denied bail even from the high court and Supreme Court we thought we should speak up now.”

 

OVER THE YEARS, Asaram has hired some of India’s best known and most expensive lawyers to defend him in the Jodhpur case—the one that has drawn the most attention among the three cases filed against him. In part this is because it was the first case filed, but it is also because the Jodhpur case includes charges under the stringent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences, or POCSO, Act, as well as the Juvenile Justice Act. Among those who have defended Asaram are Ram Jethmalani, Raju Ramachandran, Subramanian Swamy, Sidharth Luthra, KTS Tulsi, Salman Khurshid and UU Lalit. Battling this army on behalf of the Jodhpur victim are two low-profile lawyers from the city, PK Verma and PC Solanki.

The lawyers of the prosecution told me they had both received threats, and offers of cash bribes to the tune of crores of rupees to stop fighting the case. “But we obviously sent away those who came with monetary offers with a warning,” Verma said when I met the two at Verma’s home in Jodhpur in February. “And we are not scared of death.”

Among Verma and Solanki’s achievements in these cases has been to ensure that all of Asaram’s bail applications—six in the trial court, three in the Rajasthan High Court and two in the Supreme Court—have been denied. Solanki pointed out that the godman’s lawyers have, to date, also raised more than 40 petitions in the trial court and high court. “First they challenged the charge sheet, then they challenged court’s cognisance of the offence, then they challenged the appointment of the special public prosecutor,” Verma said. Solanki added: “They agitated over every small point at higher courts, including the refusals of bail. But all the orders, with two or three exceptions, were in the prosecution’s favour.”

Verma told me that he and Solanki had taken on the Jodhpur case as a mission. “We are fighting for the truth,” he said. “We are not doing this for money. It is a scenario where the defence is spending lakhs on each hearing, but the victim’s father is not in a position to pay huge sums of money to anyone.”

The lawyers proudly recounted anecdotes about facing off against the likes of Jethmalani, Tulsi and Swamy. Solanki said he was particularly excited to take on Jethmalani when he travelled to Jodhpur to argue for Asaram’s bail in the Rajasthan High Court. Jethmalani, he recounted, attempted to argue that the girl was not a minor, and, therefore, that POCSO did not apply in the case. This claim was easily shown to be false. Jethmalani also argued that since the charge sheet did not mention penetration, the charges did not amount to rape. “But then he was informed that after the enactment of the new POCSO act, the definition of rape has also broadened in the IPC,” Verma said. “And penetration is no longer required for the crime to constitute rape.”

Jethmalani also argued that the victim’s medical examination was carried out before the FIR was filed, which he claimed was contrary to criminal jurisprudence. This argument, Verma said, persuaded the judge at first. “But then the learned counsel had either not read POCSO or was concealing the knowledge of section 27 of POCSO,” he said. “The law enables the investigating officer to conduct the medical of a sexually abused child even before filing of the FIR. This is the mandate of law and Mr Jethmalani was speechless. My arguments were accepted and Asaram was denied bail by Rajasthan High Court.”

KTS Tulsi had challenged Verma’s role as special public prosecutor in the court where the case was being heard, arguing that his appointment had not been notified—that is, published in a government gazette and thus brought into the public record. “We told him that you have not been properly briefed,” Verma said. Solanki pointed out that Verma already held a gazetted post—that of Jodhpur’s deputy director of prosecution—and thus his name did not need to be notified again. “When we said this, he immediately stopped,” Verma said.

The prosecution lawyers also threw a spanner in the works when Subramanian Swamy appeared to argue for Asaram in 2015. Solanki recounted that Swamy began by declaring to the court that he had learnt that the former chief justice of India, RM Lodha, was from Jodhpur, and that Swamy himself, during his time as union law minister in the 1990s, had recommended his elevation to the Supreme Court. It was an entirely inappropriate remark, one that could be interpreted as being aimed at influencing the court. The lawyers then came to the technical question of whether there was any legal impediment to Swamy appearing in the case, since he was not an enrolled advocate. To this, Swamy boasted that he had uncovered the 2G scam and toppled governments, and that, in the course of doing so, he had appeared in court several times as a pleader. “But then we filed a preliminary objection saying that he has no locus to argue the case,” Verma said. Solanki added: “Swamy immediately shouted at me, saying, ‘Why?’”

Solanki pointed out that the Supreme Court’s Harishankar Rastogi case, which Swamy was relying on to argue his point, actually worked against him. “The judgment says that whenever an accused wants to get his case pleaded by a person who is not an advocate, he has to move a motion before a court and then the court will decide if the pleader can argue the case or not,” Solanki said. “I asked him, where is the motion by accused, Asaram? Has he requested in front of this court, in written or oral, that Mr Subramanian Swamy should argue his case?” The prosecution did not object to Swamy’s appearance, but insisted that he follow the proper procedure. “We made him wait for 40 minutes till an application came from Asaram from Jodhpur jail,” Verma said.

Solanki said that he and Verma drew inspiration from the courage of the victims and witnesses who were standing up to Asaram. They have watched the Jodhpur victim undergo the gruelling process of appearing in court repeatedly over more than two months. Her father and mother appeared in court over 20 days and one month, respectively. The investigating officer in the case, Chanchal Mishra, had to appear in court regularly for more than a year. Their collective grit, the lawyers felt, will ensure that the godman is punished. “Asaram ke apradhon ka ghada bhar gaya hai,” Solanki said—his vessel of sins is full.

FROM THE DAY I SPENT at the Jodhpur court, it was evident that Asaram’s followers’ feverish devotion was not in the least bit dimmed by the sordid allegations against him. “What more can I say?” asked a police officer I met at the court. “Even after Asaram’s arrest in August 2013, people continue to worship him here. His devotees still fast on full-moon nights and break their fast only after worshipping him at the gate of the Jodhpur jail.”

Asaram initially expected even the police personnel escorting him to subordinate themselves to him. “When the trial had begun, he was so frustrated that he would regularly curse the constables,” a senior police official who has worked on the case for around three years told me. The godman seemed to believe that he could intimidate them with his alleged divine powers. “He would glare at them sternly and then say, ‘Main tumhe bhasm hone ka shraap deta hoon.’” (I curse you to burn to ash.)

But even if the police shrugged off the godman’s curses, “the sad part is that common people trust his ‘divine-powers’ fraud,” the official said. “The hundreds standing outside in his support even after three years of the trial are a living testimony of his influence.” One police officer told me that some unscrupulous lawyers had set up something of a side business in the Jodhpur court, granting devotees access to the building to catch a glimpse of Asaram in exchange for money.

Supporters of Asaram gather outside the Jodhpur jail, where he is incarcerated, to celebrate Diwali. The godman’s trial continues to draw crowds of followers, who gather at the court to catch a glimpse of him.

As the court’s working day drew to an end, the crowd began to grow again in anticipation of Asaram’s appearance. I waited upstairs, outside the entrance to the courtroom. At around 6 pm, Asaram was led out. As he walked slowly across the front porch, our eyes met for a few seconds. He then proceeded downstairs and was escorted back to the blue van.

As the van bearing the godman and his police escort moved towards the exit gate of the court complex, men and women once again ran behind it, crying, “Bapu! Bapu!” One young woman picked up a fistful of soil from a patch of earth over which the vehicle had passed, and touched it to her forehead.

I visited the Jodhpur jail later that night, curious to see if Asaram’s devotees were gathered there, too. The outer walls of the jail had been graffitied by his followers, with words such as “Bapu” and “Guru kripa,” or teacher’s blessings. A group of Asaram’s devotees slept near the jail’s main gate. To protect themselves from the bitter cold, they had tied translucent polythene sheets around their bodies. Seen from a distance, they looked like corpses lined up in a mortuary, awaiting disposal.

 http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/asaram-nightmarish-struggle-bring-justice

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National-Level Player Gives Birth to Girl, Gets Triple Talaq  On Phone

The arrival of her daughter brought divorce for netball champion Shumaila Javed.

NEW DELHI

HIGHLIGHTS

  1. Uttar Pradesh‘s resident Shyumla Javed divorced over phone
  2. Shyumla now wants Chief Minister Adityanath to look into the matter
  3. Mediums used for triple talaq by Muslim men has sparked a debate

Her husband said the word ‘talaq‘ thrice on phone to divorce national-level netball player Shumaila Javed in Yogi Adityanath‘s Uttar Pradesh, reports news agency ANI. Her fault? She gave birth to a girl. Ms Javed from Amroha, about 380 km from Lucknow, is currently staying at her parental home and wants Chief Minister Adityanath to look into the matter.

Amroha: Shyumla Javed,national netball champion says her husband gave after she gave birth to a girl pic.twitter.com/odiIHmZvQs

In another case from Agra, a woman was given talaq because she gave birth to twin girls.

For 22-year-old Afrin from UP’s Shahjahanpur, the news of her marriage fallen apart came in the form of a Facebook post, which was followed by a message on her cellphone. Her husband’s way to annul the marriage, which in Islam is a civil contract based on consent, broke her.

The mediums used for the termination of marriage by Muslim men sparked a debate on the practice of Triple Talaq. The issue came to the fore in February last year when Shayara Bano from Uttarakhand approached the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of this exercise and urged for a ban on Triple Talaq, polygamy and nikah halala, a practice under which a divorced Muslim woman has to marry again, consummate the marriage and then break it if she wants to go back to her first husband.

A couple of petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court opposing Triple Talaq after women complained of being divorced on Facebook, WhatsApp, via postcard and more recently through a newspaper advertisement.

Among those seeking change in the law is Rizwana, a 33-year-old Railways employee from Delhi. She married an Indian Air Force employee in 2012. But her husband didn’t think it was important to inform her about his two previous marriages. When she discovered the truth, she sought a divorce. But her husband held that Islam allowed him to marry without divorcing his wives.

Being a government servant helped her to be financially independent, but it took away from her the right to alimony from her estranged husband. “In our country, women with government jobs are not entitled to alimony,” she said.

The controversy, in many ways, is reminiscent of the Shah Bano case of the 80s, which was a landmark step in Muslim women’s fight for social justice and equality. In 1985, the top court had ruled in favour of Ms Bano, who had sought maintenance from her husband who had divorced her. But following a backlash from orthodox Muslim groups, the Rajiv Gandhi government diluted the order through the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, which gave a Muslim woman the right to maintenance only for the period of iddat (about three months) after her divorce. Her relatives or the Waqf Board are to take care of her after that.

The Centre, which sees the practice to be a violation of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, has already made its stand clear on the issue. The Supreme Court will take a call on whether Triple Talaq or polygamy can be upheld under the right to religion. Chief Justice of India JS Khehar said that a five-judge Constitution Bench will look into it during the court’s summer vacation.

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, however, claims that Sharia law upholds the validity of Triple Talaq and allows a Muslim husband to divorce his wife by merely pronouncing  ‘talaq‘ three times. It added that the pleas challenging such practices among Muslims were not maintainable as the issues fell outside the realm of judiciary.

http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/national-level-player-gives-birth-to-girl-gets-talaq-on-phone-1684861

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Woman hacked to death, police and media dub her a ‘temptress’ who deserved it #WTFnews

Media reports suggested “illicit affair” with her murderer as justification for her murder
 

In yet another crime committed against a woman the blame is shifted on to the woman. A 29-year-old Bengaluru woman was hacked to death in broad daylight right outside her house in Deepanjali Nagar on April 11 and media reports went on to suggest that she was responsible for her own death.

It was around 11.30 am, when 50-year-old Girish attacked Shobha outside her home while she was washing clothes. When a neighbour, Vijayamma, tried to stop him, she too was grievously hurt.

Shobha bled to death before help could arrive, while, Vijayamma is currently recovering at the Victoria Hospital.

Girish, according to Shobha’s family, had been stalking her for the past four months.

Just a couple of hours after the incident occurred, Deputy Commissioner of Police (West), M N Anuchet reportedly spoke to crime reporters, stating that Shobha and Girish were having an “illicit affair”. The damaging statement reportedly made by the police led regional news channels, including Suvarna News and Praja TV, to run special programs highlighting the crime while reporting it inaccurately.

Cartoon by Sylvia Karpagam, Justice for Shobha Facebook page

For instance, one of the channels airing a show on the murder referred to the deceased girl as a “temptress” who lured her attacker with her wiles and abandoned him later. A channel went as far as to suggest that it was because of her that the murderer’s family lost their sole breadwinner.

According to Vinay Sreenivasa from the Alternative Law Forum (ALF), Girish had been stalking Shobha for four months and in this period, she had changed her mobile number thrice because of the harassment.

“Shobha refused his advances and when Girish found out that she was going to get married, he killed her because she said no to him. Girish is married and has two children,” Vinay said.

The channels ran stories based on DCP Anuchet’s statement and claimed that Shobha was the one who had initiated the relationship with Girish. The slandering did not stop there says ALF. Some of the reports said that when she dumped him and decided to get married to another man, Girish killed her in a fit of rage.

Cartoon by Sylvia Karpagam, Justice for Shobha Facebook page

“Why does it matter if a person was or was not in a relationship or affair? A woman was brutally murdered, is that not enough to outrage the media? Why did they blame the victim? The police took four days to nab Girish. Why did the media nor the police blame him? Why did they not point out that he did not understand the word no and still stalked her? We demand accountability,” Vinay said.

The campaigners are demanding a speedy investigation in the case and also public apologies to Shobha’s family members from Suvarna News, Praja TV, Samaya News, Public TV and other channels that aired similar shows.

The family is also demanding a public apology from the DCP and a statement from Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.
“We want media channels to abide by the Code of Conduct of the National Broadcasting Association. Men need to be held accountable and responsible for their actions and for violence against women and the media must not justify their actions and neither should the police,” Lekha Adavi from ALF said.http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/bengaluru-woman-hacked-death-police-and-media-dub-her-temptress-who-deserved-it-60726

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Breaking the norm of child marriage an uphill task in Uttar Pradesh

A detailed baseline study conducted in seven districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh shows that underage marriages are still widely prevalent, particularly in disadvantaged communities, and this practice holds back girls from realizing their full potential

Child marriages are prevalent in many parts of India. (Photo by Naga Rick)

Child marriages are prevalent in many parts of India. (Photo by Naga Rick)

India is today a country of the young, but rigid patriarchal structures and regressive social structures in many parts of the country are making it impossible for the country’s youth to realize their full potential. The widespread practice of underage marriage is a prime example of this.

Adolescents form 22% of the total population of India. The country has around 240 million adolescents (10-19 years) according to Census 2011. We often talk of a demographic dividend because most of our citizens are young. However, this advantage quickly turns into a nightmare since 70% of adolescent girls in India are anemic; the figure for boys is 50%. More worryingly, as much as 47% of Indian girls get married before they are 18 years of age, according to a 2016 report by UNICEF. This severely damages their potential of growing into productive adults.

Gender discrimination

Adolescence represents a critical stage of transition from childhood to maturity. The physical and emotional experiences, knowledge and skills acquired during this phase have important implications during adulthood. Adolescents, however, are neither seen as adults nor as children and often bear double disadvantage due to it. Like among any other vulnerable demographic group, gender discrimination makes it even more difficult for the adolescent girls, which is clear from the above statistics.

Some of the states that are very important for driving overall growth indicators of India represent a bleak picture. Uttar Pradesh (UP), the most populous state within India, is a case in point. The state ranks first in terms of adolescent population in the country. The Census 2011 threw up several bleak statistics for this age group in UP. As per the Census 2011, around 2 million adolescent girls — which translates into 9.2% of all girls of ages 10-19 years — were married. An even more alarming figure is that around one million children, highest in India in absolute terms, were born to these adolescent girls in Uttar Pradesh and 10.1% of those babies died.

No girl as bride

Says Girls Not Brides, an international civil society organization: “Patriarchy, class, and caste influence the norms and expectations around the role of women and girls in India. In many communities, restrictive norms limit girls to the role of daughter, wife, and mother who are first seen as the property of her father and then of her husband. Controlling girls’ and women’s sexuality is an influential factor in the practice of child marriage too.”

These deductions become clearer when we engage in research in eastern UP, which generally presents a worse picture than the whole of UP. The districts bordering Nepal in eastern UP are among the worst in all human development indicators. In 2016, a situational analysis (SA) study was undertaken by an NGO called Breakthrough Trust with the help of research agency NRMC in seven districts of Eastern UP to understand the issues in depth. The study found that the school dropout rate rapidly increases with increase in age and therefore, a lesser number of children can be found in the school after the age of 14 or class 8, compared with age 10-12.

Cohorts covering standard 6, 7, 8 hence seemed most critical for direct intervention for any program that tries to target reduction in adolescent pregnancy and early marriage, as these are the formative years and there is still some chances of getting adolescents in schools.  It noted that along with physical, psychological and emotional changes that adolescents go through, social and gender norms at different levels start playing out extensively at this stage. However, it is critical to remember that 15-19 years are crucial years for the adolescents as pressure to drop out from school increases manifold (on anyone who is still attending) and so does the pressure to get married for the girls and to earn for boys.

High incidence

An analysis of the prevalence of married adolescent girls in the age groups 10-14 year and 15-19 year (Census 2011) in seven project districts shows worrying trends. While early marriages among adolescent girls of age 10-14 years in the project districts were low at 3-4%, the percentage rises significantly in the age group of 15-19 years. This age group also coincides with the onset of puberty. While Maharajganj and Siddharthnagar had the highest proportions — 24% to 23% — who were ever married, Varanasi at an average of 20% showed a higher prevalence. The remaining four districts had 14% to 18% of girls who were married.

A further analysis of the census data reveals that the prevalence of early marriage is higher amongst Scheduled Castes (SC) compared with non-SC communities. The proportion of married adolescent females of age 15-19 years amongst SC communities ranged from 19% to 33%, while the same range among non-SC communities ranged from 17% to 24%. The SC communities also fare worse alongwith other social economic development indicators such as education, employment and poverty.

Acceptance of violence

An overwhelming 46% of the adolescents said they have experienced physical and verbal abuse within the family. This acceptance of physical violence if they break norms means that bringing in change is going to be an uphill task. This applies to the practice of underage marriages as well.

Adolescent pregnancy has issues linked to how empowered a girl felt to negotiate a delay in pregnancy or marriage. It depends on a family ready to work against the norm. For now, it seems an uphill task. The good news is that organizations are focusing on this and governments are aware of the need of working with adolescents to accrue the real demographic dividend. It is a positive signal that governments and NGOs are increasingly coming together to tackle the issue of adolescents’ empowerment.http://www.villagesquare.in/2017/04/21/breaking-norm-child-marriage-uphill-task-uttar-pradesh/

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Maharashtra – Palghar tribal village says no to child marriages #Goodnews

Despite a long-held tradition of marrying off girls once they reach 15 years of age, a tribal village in the underdeveloped area of Maharashtra has stopped the ill-advised practice of child marriage for the past two years

Young girls of Shivali village in Mokhada are saying no to an early marriage. (Photo by Nidhi Jamwal)

Young girls of Shivali village in Mokhada are saying no to an early marriage. (Photo by Nidhi Jamwal)

Summer vacations have just begun and 15-year-old Sangeeta Yashwant Chavan is excited to be home. A student of boarding school, Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya at Sakri in Dhule district of Maharashtra meant for dropouts and never-enrolled tribal girls, Sangeeta plans to spend the vacation preparing for her eldest sister Savita’s marriage scheduled later this year.

The mere mention of word lagan (marriage) makes Savita’s face go red as she blushes uncontrollably. It is not common to come across a 19-year-old unmarried girl in tribal villages of Mokhada taluka (administrative block) in Palghar, which, apart from early child marriages, are notorious for malnutrition.

“Unlike Sangeeta, who just completed her 9th grade examinations, I dropped out of school after 7thgrade. Our parents were poor and migrated every year. In their absence, I had to look after my younger siblings,” says Savita, who has three younger sisters and two brothers. They belong to the Warli scheduled tribe and live in Shivali village of Mokhada taluka. “But I feel fortunate that I was not pushed into an early marriage by my parents. I continue to help them in the fields and at home,” she told VillageSquare.in.

In Palghar, a tribal district carved out of Thane district of Maharashtra in 2014, it is common to marry off girls by the age of 15 years. Within a year, they become mothers. And, by the time they are Savita’s age, they already have two to three children.

Winds of change

However, slowly the wind of change is blowing through the tribal villages, which are opposing child marriage and passing strictures against it. Shivali is one such village. In 2014, the village council of Shivali passed a thehrav (resolution) against child marriage. All its 175 families vowed not to marry their daughters before the age of 18 years. Since then, no underage girl has been married in Shivali.

“Early child marriage is a major social ill in adivasi areas such as Mokhada. Linked to it are other problems, such as maternal mortality, stunting, malnourished children, malnutrition deaths, poverty, etc,” Susheela Mahale of Aroehan, a Mokhada-based non-profit that works on health, education, and livelihoods, told VillageSquare.in.

Sangeeta Yeshwant Chavan wants to join the police force. “Marriage can wait,” she says. (Photo by Nidhi Jamwal)

Sangeeta Yeshwant Chavan wants to join the police force. “Marriage can wait,” she says. (Photo by Nidhi Jamwal)

As per news reports, anywhere between 254 to 600 children died due to malnutrition last year in Palghar district of Maharashtra. Mokhada was one of the worst affected talukas. According to the National Family Health Survey-4 (2015-16), 49.9 percent pregnant rural women (15-49 years) have anemia in Maharashtra. More than 38 percent rural children under the age of five are stunted (height-for-age). Another 26.1 percent, 40 percent and 9.4 percent under-five rural children are wasted (weight-for-height), underweight (weight-for-age) and severely wasted, respectively. The state government is working on a program to reduce maternal mortality in adivasi talukas.

“When a malnourished, anemic and stunted girl gets married by an age of 14-15 years and bears a child at 16 years, her child is also malnourished and extremely weak. This pushes the adivasi girls into a vicious cycle, which is hard to break,” says Mahale. “An early marriage is a threat to both young mother and her child’s life.” Mahale, a resident of Jawhar taluka, was married at the age of 16 years. “I am now working with Aroehan to stop other adivasi girls from getting married at an early age,” says Mahale.

A dialogue begins

Aroehan, though its health program, is working towards safe motherhood and reduced malnutrition in Mokhada and Jawhar talukas of Palghar. One of the important elements is to put an end to the practice of early marriage. “In order to educate adivasi girls and women, we regularly hold mata baithak (mothers’ gathering) and kishori sabha (young girls’ meeting) in the villages. Apart from discussing issued of puberty, pregnancy and safe childbirth, we also talk about ill-effects of early marriage,” informs Mahale.

The progress is slow, but efforts are bearing fruits. “Earlier, as soon as a girl in our village used to hit puberty, her parents would marry her off. Girls never managed to study beyond class 7 (the zilla parishad school at Shivali is till 7th class),” Bharti Raghunath Khetadi, a resident of Shivali, told VillageSquare.in. “But, since the passing of resolution against an early marriage, girls like Sangeeta are going to residential schools to pursue education. Some are learning tailoring whereas others want to become nurses,” says a proud Khetadi.

Take the case of Sangeeta. After completing her education in the local zilla parishad (district council) school, she had to drop out for a year, but went back to school. “The year I completed class 7th in the local school, no seat was vacant in the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya at Sakri, about 8 km from our village.  I waited for a year and my father ensured I got admission the next year,” says Sangeeta, whose elder sisters, Savita (19 years) and Kavita (17 years), studied till class 7. Four more girls from Shivali village study in the residential school at Sakri.

Campaigning against child marriage

According to Khetadi, passing resolution against early marriage wasn’t an easy decision. “We personally visited people’s homes who were resisting the proposed resolution and explained how an early marriage translates into sickness and diseases, which leads to debt, migration, poverty and death,” reminisced Khetadi.

Those who still did not understand were informed that marriage below 18 years age was a crime and could lead to getting jailed. Eventually, the entire village came together and passed the resolution in the gram sabha in 2014. Villagers claim the resolution has stopped early marriage of at least 45 young girls.

“We are glad our daughters are finally dreaming big,” Jagdish Balchandra Khupane of Shivali village told VillageSquare.in. “Better late than never.”

Meanwhile, Sangeeta has her future plan of action ready. “After completing my graduation, I will join the police force. Marriage can wait,” she says smilingly. Her elder sisters, Savita and Kavita, admire her with pride.

http://www.villagesquare.in/2017/04/19/palghar-tribal-village-says-no-child-marriages/

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Fighting patriarchy for women workers rights #Vaw

‘Fighting patriarchy for women workers rights’

In September 2015, the Pomplai Orumai Collective led a remarkable worker’s struggle in the tea plantations of Munnar, breaking the prevalent male centric image of labour agitations in Kerala’s history. The Dalit women worker’s collective challenged both Kannan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP) Company and also the existing male dominated trade unions of the region. Gomathi G, one of the leaders of the Pomplai Orumai struggle and elected block panchayath member of Devikulam block (who contested in the banner Pomplai Orumai), had joined CPI(M) after she won the elections. One year into joining CPI(M), Gomathi is leaving the party due to a number of reasons. She is planning to reunite with the Pomplai Orumai where her heart always belonged. Gomathi talks about the situations under which she decided to join CPI(M), her reasons for leaving CPI(M) after almost a year’s stint with the party, her reunion with the Pomplai Orumai, and other issues. For the last one and a half years that followed the Pomplai Orumai led labour movement, Gomathi was not very visible in the political scene of Kerala. With Gomathi’s return to Pomplai Orumai, the collective is all geared up with elaborate plans to revamp the vigour with which they gave newer meanings to Kerala’s labour struggles.

On the title Pomplai Orumai leader, remembering the 2015 protest, Gomathi says that it was the media that created the leaders:

“Every woman has an equal role in making the struggle historical. With no means of organization and mobilization, tired of the trade union’s false promises and hypocritical negotiations with the KDHP management, and seeing the local news channel report on the sudden labour agitation that started at Munnar town by a few women of one or two estates, almost 12,000 women flowed into Munnar town. The women from far away estates walked the hilly roads to reach the town of Munnar as the transportation was completely blocked during the agitation. It was a new hope for a possibility to articulate our basic needs and demands and negotiate with the management- and everyone came together because all the other trade unions were totally unreliable, At the very first possibility of some hope, all the bottled up frustration poured out . It was unbelievable for the mainstream public and media. But that was because they had no clue about how helpless we were. The helplessness was not just about the lack of basic amenities, but also a lack of hope for this life to get any better. There was no one to trust. Neither the government nor the Trade unions. The struggle was inevitable, and hence Pomplai Orumai.”

 Gomathi
Gomathi

“The fellow workers loved when I sloganeered and talked. They said that they felt confident and buoyant when I talked or sloganeered. The media chose those women who were articulate, to speak about the struggle. The movement got immense media attention and coverage. The leaders were created by the media. But once you become the leader and the face of a movement, there’s a certain responsibility that comes with it.”

Gomathi remembers that it was through the movement that she met some of the very political women workers from the other divisions of the plantation. Then she had not known anyone personally except the women from her own estate division- not even the ones who had spoken to the media during the initial days of the protest. After the success of the first Pomplai Orumai struggle- which demanded a 20 percent increase in the annual bonus- a series of dramatic events took place as they announced the second protest demanding an increase in their daily wages from Rs. 232 to Rs. 500. The already desperate trade unions did everything they could to break the unity of Pomplai Orumai. A serious effort was made to get everyone to leave Pomplai Orumai and to join the parallelly organised joint trade union protest of all the other three trade unions of Munnar- INTUC, AITUC and CITU, hoping to distract public and media attention from Pomplai Orumai. With their coordinated effort, the male dominated Trade Unions managed to pull a significant number of women to their token protest, as a result of which the strength of Pomplai Orumai decreased considerably in the second protest.

It was during the second protest that the collective decided to contest for the Panchayat elections. Gomathi was elected as the block panchayath member from the Devikulam block. In the victory rally of Pomplai orumai that followed the elections, Gomathi and other Pomplai Orumai candidates were attacked and false cases were filed against them.

“I contested the elections because the fellow women workers of the collective decided that i should contest. After the elections, everyone was celebrating- and Pomplai Orumai also decided to celebrate. We were celebrating on the road. then AITUC and CITU members attacked us accusing us of entering their house compounds. We lodged a police complaint against the attackers, but the next day morning we came to know that they have filed criminal cases against us – rape abetment case against me, and rape case against Manoj (Pomplai Orumai’s candidate who contested for the district panchayath member’s post.)”

“They attacked us and then they filed criminal cases against us. The police were present during the victory rally and they know who attacked whom. But they will not speak for us. They have clear instructions from the Trade Union leaders of AITUC and CITU to remain silent regarding this matter. These cases have not been withdrawn till date. I seriously don’t know what will happen to the case when I leave CPI(M). The fact that they have not used it against me while I was in CPIM, and at the same time they didn’t take any initiative to withdraw the case – means that they are just keeping it as a potential weapon in store – to be used against me whenever necessary.”

After the elections and Gomathi’s victory, the media celebrated a series of news regarding Pomplai Orumai, which included the split of Pomplai Orumai, pomplai orumai leader Lissy Sunny’s accusations against Gomathi, rumors about Gomathi joining AIADMK and finally Gomathi’s joining of CPI(M). After the silence and invisibility of more than a year, Gomathi shares a much less heard version of all these events, different from the versions that hit headlines in late 2015. Gomathi accuses that the Malayalam mainstream media was immensely biased in the incidents that followed Pomplai Orumai’s election victory and the interviews and bytes that she gave against the rumors that were spread against her, were never telecasted.

“When the CITU- AITUC trade unions filed criminal case against us many of our well-wishers including our advocate and Lissy Sunny asked us to go into hiding until we get a bail. Since none of us owned any land or house, we did not have the tax receipts required to apply for the bail. Since Lissy chechi had her own house, she said that she would vouch for us and try to get the bail in the meantime. While staying at Udumalapettai on the advised hide-out, we saw Lissy chechi on television giving statements against us.”

“She raised a lot of unacceptable rumors against me in the media, and the most serious accusation was that I took money from AIADMK and joined the party. This accusation has the potential to spark a Tamil – Malayali rift in Munnar. It is true that AIADMK approached us to form a trade union, but we refused. Everyone knows about this. It was not another established political party that Pomplai Orumai was seeking for. If that was the case, we wouldn’t have rejected the existing established male dominated trade unions.”

“It is painful to talk about the internal issues of one’s collective and movement, in a public platform. But it is my helplessness that I have to talk about it someday as I lost the trust of those people who had stood with me, who had elected me. I’m responsible to explain to them what happened. I am also responsible to explain it to the mainstream public, the politicians who had laughed at us and who were relieved that Pomplai Orumai was just a short lived movement. I don’t know why Lissy chechy raised those accusations against me, someone else must have given the wrong information to her, I prefer to give the benefit of doubt to her, as I owe more to my fellow comrade of the struggles than to anyone else. Our struggle continues, regardless of all these. I had denied all the accusations and gave explanations on what actually happened at that point of time, why we had to go into hiding in Tamil Nadu and all that – but none of the channels telecaste the bytes which I gave. I don’t know whose interests were these, but clearly there were conspiracies to destroy Pomplai Orumai.

Lissy Sunny, one of the prominent leaders who represented the Pomplai Orumai collective -a Malayali Syrian Christian – served as the president of Pomplai Orumai’s registered Trade Union for the past one year, after the split.

“Already as migrant labourers in Kerala, the Tamilians, face a lot of discrimination here. The case of Munnar is not different either. Most of our kids are employed in tourism related jobs. And even if they are educated, they get appointed in the lower positions such as room boys or sweepers.”

The category of the migrant worker becomes a synonym of ‘cheap labour’, for Malayalis. It was this Malayali savarna cultural hegemonic attitude which tempted at least a section of academics and political activists to view Pomplai Orumai with a somewhat lesser conviction, a doubt about its effectivity and applicability in the political arena of labour negotiations. Interestingly, the media had called it the “Mullappoo Samaram”, or the “Jasmine Protest. Although the coinage invokes the context of tunisian revolution, the use of it here as “Mullappoo Samaram” or “Mallippoo Samaram” also has an interesting reference to Jasmine flowers worn by the Tamil women as part of their custom -as an adjective to describe the agitation1. Neither their strength nor the unity they displayed in their articulation became an adjective for their struggle. Jasmine portrayed their two identities at once – the women and the Tamil migrant – both together constituting the identity of the ‘other’, translating ‘pomplai orumai’ as the ‘Feminine Other’s Protest’. The other- the Migrant Tamil Dalit Woman Labourer – was an inconceivable category for the so far known ways of masculine Trade Union negotiations and articulations of labour resistance, in the history of labour agitations of Kerala. 2

Pomplai Orumai can be called as a Tamil women’s strike. 99 percent of the plantation workers are Tamilians belonging to dalit community, brought here for estate work, four generations back. Lissy chechy came to the forefront of the struggle because the Malayalam media wanted someone who spoke Malayalam. During the event of direct negotiations with Oommen Chandy government, it became difficult to articulate as none of the government representatives knew Tamil. So Lissy chechy represented us most of the times to talk to the media and government . But later, during the split and internal issues, the media were unbelievably biased as they preferred to telecast only Lissy chechy’s versions. It was convenient for them to telecast the leader who spoke Malayalam and to forget the one who spoke Tamil. The media had its own interests. ”

On the decision to join CPI(M), Gomathi remembers,

“The situation became worse once we returned from Tamil Nadu. The collective lost trust in me and it was like losing the earth under my feet. The trade union members were already hostile and there were serious threats against me. There were incidents where a group of men in motorbikes, ready to attack, followed me and a car attempted to run over me. People who cared for me began to worry about my safety. They wanted me to join one of the three trade unions. I wished to continue the struggle alone. But the rumors of me joining AIADMK were so strong that people started doubting my intentions; accusations reached the level that they thought I was part of a separatist conspiracy to split Munnar from Kerala to unite the region with Tamil Nadu. You will not believe if I tell you that Idukki DGP reported to the DSP that Gomathi attended a meeting with the then Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalitha, to discuss about the separation of Peerumedu, Udumbanchola and Devikulam areas. (Laughs) These rumors were extremely serious and disturbing as it had potentially severe consequences. I also had no platforms to explain myself. The media was not airing my bytes anyway. More important than safety concerns, I had to prove that I had not joined any Tamil party. Safety was also a concern, but a much lesser one than me getting portrayed as a separatist. That’s how I decided to join some party. Congress was not an option for me anyway as they were the ruling party and I knew how they treated our demands during the struggle. My father is a member of CPI(M). I had discussions with them and they promised that they will consider my demands- Pomplai Orumai’s demands- with utmost priority. I decided to join CPI(M).”

“The incidents that occurred after the election victory affected my relationship with my husband too. The relationship between us had been bad for while- he already had trust issues and disliked the public attention which I had received during the first protest. The rumors against me and the incidents after election made it even worse. When things became too unmanageable, we separated.”

Most often it is the woman who stands to lose everything for standing up for something or raising her voice against the authorities. Gomathi discloses that her journey with CPI(M) was also not a smooth one.

“When I joined the party, they promised that they will correct their mistakes and prioritize those demands which are in the interest of plantation labourers. They kept none of their promises. Every time I raise an issue in party meetings, they either ignore it or give false promises saying they’ll look into it. They were only interested in the initial publicity and image achieved through the “Pomplai Orumai leader Gomathi joining CPI(M)”. They kept giving me false promises to keep me from raising my voice elsewhere. I asked them to withdraw the false case of abetment of sexual harassment they had filed against me and other Pomplai Orumai supporters. They have not done it till date. It is unacceptable for me to continue as merely a token member. It is impossible to do anything in the interest of plantation workers from CPI-M’s platform. The prominent leaders of the party and their trade union own acres of land acquired illegally. They own bungalows and quarters in Munnar, received as gifts from the company management, in return for the favors they have done for the company. They no longer function as a workers’ party. That’s why I have taken the much thought out decision of leaving CPI(M).”

On joining back with the Pomplai Orumai, she says:

“The present committee members of Pomplai Orumai are happy to welcome me back. We had several meetings, and I think a lot can be done if I return to the collective without the baggages of any political party. After all those media reports last year, they had their apprehensions about me. Things are getting sorted out. Discussions are still going on about how to go forward. The collective also has the support of the Aam Admi Party, though they have no intentions to join the party. Since I decided to leave CPI-M and started to register my dissent in smaller platforms, I’m getting support and solidarity from movements such as Chalo Thiruvananthapuram and various women’s organisations such as Penkoottu. These solidarities give me confidence as they raise issues which I think are similar to the issues which we raise from the context of Munnar plantations. Some of the central issues raised by Chalo Thiruvananthapuram are the questions of land ownership, housing and power to Dalits and Adivasis – are questions pertinent to the plantation labourers of Munnar as well. As I mentioned earlier, the plantation workers own no land. If they resign from their job, they would have to leave the house provided by the company. None of the trade unions here, including CITU has ever taken a serious interest in raising the question of land ownership for the labourers. They consider that to be too much to ask from the company. How can it be too much considering the huge acres of land that the company owns? Beyond the questions of salary hike, I think these are the issues to be raised on a larger level in the years ahead. The ownership of land has been denied to the plantation labourers all these decades. This is one of the many ways through which the company has tied us to its low paying job. If we leave the job, we will be left with nothing. This has to change. Pomplai Orumai will raise these issues beyond the questions that can be raised from the platform of a conventional trade union. I think the liberation of Munnar’s plantation labourers can only be achieved through Pomplai Orumai. Moreover it is the unity of hard working women. I believe in their truthfulness.”

Pomplai Orumai is clearly not a short lived movement. With Gomathi’s return, Pomplai Orumai collective is looking forward to frame their questions and articulate their demands with newer enthusiasm. The Pomplai Orumai collective, has raised many demands last year which are yet to be fulfilled. These include the availability of ambulances in each estate, release of the pending salary arrears, specialist doctors and improved facilities in the estate hospitals, affordable schools and colleges for their kids in Munnar, and hygienic toilet facility for women in the workplace. The Pomplai Orumai Trade Union has a functioning office in Munnar Town, rented with the support of Aam Aadmi Party.

The conventional trade unions of Munnar has framed their negotiations from a male centric perspective even in the case of policies regarding the particular health issues related to women, (for instance the gynaecological issues such as the removal of uterus at an early age – which is a common problem found among the women plantation laborers) in a sector which has more than 70% of women laborers. Pomplai orumai should be understood as a movement that can pose radical questions – from the perspective of Dalit and adivasi women laborers belonging Tamil linguistic minority, living in the ghettoised layangal of the plantations – which can challenge the colonial power relations of the plantation sector. It can be understood as a collective that can raise questions that are not raised by conventional trade unions.

With Gomathi’s convictions to raise the questions of land ownership and housing as central concerns of the collective, the Pomplai Orumai becomes a movement which can guide Dalit and Adivasi women’s labour struggles in other contexts as well.

http://en.southlive.in/spotlight/2017/04/18/fighting-patriarchy-for-women-workers-rights

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