The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Panchayat orders rape

New Delhi, Sept. 26: It was a sentence that would put any civilised person to shame. Worse, the sentence was delivered by an elected constitutional body — the panchayat of Sankarikala in Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh.

Jiya Lal Patle, the sarpanch, sentenced Bhuvaneswari Devi, a schoolteacher in the panchayat-run primary school, to “gang rape” on the charge that she was having a “sexual relationship” with a male colleague.

The sentence was delivered after a public hearing. However, despite being outraged by the ruling, none of those present dared to protest. It was only because of timely intervention by Bhuvaneswari’s husband that the panchayat was prevented from carrying out its threat.

The 27-year-old teacher has been running to the local and state authorities, demanding justice for the last two months when the incident took place. But faced with inaction from all sources, Bhuvaneswari brought her battle to Delhi and sought the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission.

At a press conference organised by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), Bhuvaneswari asked: “What right does a panchayat have to level such an allegation against me'”

Bhuvaneswari, the only woman among seven teachers in the school, was forced to pull up one of her male colleagues last year when she found herself a target of sexist jokes and lewd gestures. As a backlash, some students were made to say they had seen her with a male teacher in a “compromising position” in the teachers’ common room.

Soon after, the sarpanch issued a public notice, announcing a “special” meeting that had been called to judge her “behaviour”. “There were about 700 men at the meeting. No women were allowed inside. As soon as I arrived, there were catcalls, whistling and filthy slogans,” she said.

The sarpanch then summoned two students, one aged nine and the other 11, to give a description of what they had seen. “If the children were to be believed, the two were having sexual intercourse in the common room in the tea break between classes, with the door and two of the windows open,” the AIDWA stated.

This was enough to arouse the men present at the meeting into shouting that a “woman like Bhuvaneswari deserved to be raped”. The sarpanch decreed that she should be gang-raped.

“I heard that a woman teacher was being tried and I knew my wife was the only woman teacher in the school. So I rushed to save her,” said her husband, who was present at the conference.

The panchayat has transferred her to a school 22 km from her residence. “We have met Congress leader Ambika Soni and a few others to ask them to intervene in the matter,” said AIDWA general secretary Brinda Karat.

The human rights panel has given the Madhya Pradesh authorities a week’s time to come up with the response to its queries.

Ironically, a male teacher in Shivpuri accused of obscene behaviour by his colleagues and students has neither been tried in the “people’s court” nor sentenced. “This is after the students have given their complaints in writing,” stated the AIDWA.

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