Their revenge on her body
They were six. She was all alone. They held her arms, her legs and dragged her out of her house in broad daylight. An entire village watched as six men tore off Sarita Devi’s (named changed) clothes, paraded her in the streets, in a shocking spectacle of humiliation very near to Bihar’s capital city.
Like scores of Dalit women, her body became the site of revenge for the dominant castes in her village, who sought to strip off her dignity to avenge an ostensible affront to their caste pride.
Sarita Devi, a washer woman, belongs to the lower dhobi caste. The yadav caste dominates her village (named withheld) in Patna district, whereas there are only two dhobi homes. One of the yadav households accused her 15-year-old son of having an affair with a girl in their family. Later, there was a quarrel between the boy and the girl.
This acted as a trigger and on February 16, at 7 a.m., the girl’s family and relatives, namely Naval Rai, Atma Rai, Parmatma Rai, Manoj Rai and Sanjay Rai, descended upon Sarita’s hut.
“I was brushing my teeth in the courtyard, when they came and held me. They were saying ‘Dhobi jaat ka hoke itna hai’ [You have so much nerve despite being a dhobi. Then they stripped me. They were taking me to their house to further humiliate me. They asked for my husband and son and threatened to kill me. Manoj was carrying a sword and the rest lathis. Everyone watched as they ripped off my sari and blouse and scratched my body,” recalled Sarita with tears welling up in her eyes.
Her screams woke up the house and her 12-year-old daughter came running to save her. “When they saw her, they said they would take her away too and they knocked her to the ground. She somehow managed to escape,” Sarita said.
Her brother-in-law, who rushed to her rescue, was beaten with lathis. Seeing this, some neighbours prevented her husband from going any further. The village sarpanch, also a yadav, came to intervene, but Sarita’s attackers abused him too saying why he wanted to help someone from a “chhot jaat” (lower caste).
In this melee, Sarita seized an opportunity. She grabbed her sari and ran southwards into the village. “I hid in a house near the panchayat bhavan, where people helped me with a shawl and bed sheet,” she said.
When she went to register a case at the police station, the police discouraged her straightaway. “The police says, ‘Do not file a case. You are so poor, you will die. Do you even have food to eat?’ It was when the media and the sarpanch came that they registered an FIR.”
A case under sections 147 (punishment for rioting), 341 (wrongful restraint), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 354 (outraging modesty), 447 (criminal trespass), 504 (insult) of the Indian Penal Code, and 3 (1) (x) of the The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act pertaining to insult and intimidation was filed.
Surprisingly for Sarita, her medical examination report ruled out any “external injury” on her body, when it clearly had scratch marks, she said.
Fear has become a constant companion of Sarita’s family, while justice continues to elude them. Although the police filed a charge sheet in April, the accused got out on bail. “If the court decides to bail them, what can the police do?” Ajay Kumar Jha, investigation officer told The Hindu.
However, Rajeshwar Paswan of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM), part of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, who has been fighting Sarita Devi’s case pointed out, “Under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, neither the lower court, nor the High Court can give bail to the accused. This means the bail has been obtained by fraudulent means. Furthermore, the sections of the Act pertaining to outraging a woman’s modesty [3(1) (xi) or (xii)] have not been applied in this case.”
“Dalit women,” said Gauri Kumar, AIDMAM’s State coordinator, “usually become the means to harass an entire community.”
Sarita’s son has not set foot in the village fearing attack on his life. Her husband, a brick kiln worker, takes care to come home before dark. The family does not have a BPL or APL card. As for her, she ekes out a living washing clothes. But she cannot wash her humiliation away. The eyes that watched her that morning are still fixed on her.