The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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If there was outrage and horror at the sentence meted out by the Meerwala Jatoi council in Pakistan of revenge rape against a young woman for the alleged offence of her younger brother, at least it could be said that those responsible were “self proclaimed” councils. But what of an elected sarpanch, holding a constitutional post, delivering a sentence of gang rape and then continuing in that post, protected by a conniving administration and the government'

On July 30, 2002, in the village of Sankarikala, Lanji tehsil of Balaghat district in the state of Madhya Pradesh, in a most shocking incident that makes a mockery of the panchayat raj system, an elected sarpanch, Jiya Lal Patle, along with the secretary of the panchayat, Laxmi Lal Patle, and the jan pad member, Chetan Ratangdale, sentenced a school teacher to “ gang rape” to “punish” her for her alleged “sexual relationship” with a male colleague.

This outrageous incident came to light only in late September, when the Jabalpur high court issued a notice to the authorities concerned. On September 15, the All India Democratic Women’s Association organized a big protest demonstration in Jabalpur, attended by hundreds of women and men from neighbouring villages, at the zonal commissioner’s office. It handed over a memorandum to the commissioner, M.M. Upadhyay, that included the demands to arrest those concerned under charges of conspiracy to rape and attempt to rape, immediate dismissal of the sarpanch and others under the relevant provisions of the Panchayat Act. He assured those present, including office bearers of the organization, that he would act on the memorandum.

On September 17, another demonstration was held at the block level and a dharna was scheduled to be held in Bhopal. Bhuvaneswari Devi is a 27-year-old school teacher in a panchayat-run school in the village of Sankarikala, Lanji tehsil, in the district of Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh. She has been teaching in this school for the last six years and is popular among the students. She is the only woman teacher among seven teachers in the school. Her crime is that she is young, articulate and attractive and has maintained a distance from the other teachers. Last year, she had to publicly upbraid one of the male teachers for his highly objectionable sexist behaviour, lewd comments made in front of her and sexist jokes. She suspects that he is also behind the incident.

The sarpanch claims that two children in the school informed him that on July 24 they had seen her in a “compromising position” in the teacher’s common room with another teacher. The male teacher incidentally happens to be the oldest and most senior teacher in the school, nearing retirement. Bhuvaneswari knew nothing of this absurd charge. She took her classes as usual on July 24 and the following days. It was only around July 28, when the sarpanch issued a public notice through the beating of drums in the village that a “special” meeting was to be called on July 30 about her “behaviour”, that she got to know about the charge. This was the second notice issued since the first notice did not evoke any response from the village.

On July 30, when she got to the school, Bhuvaneswari found filthy slogans chalked on the village walls against her. Two drunken men, whom she has named in her first information report, came to the school in the morning and insisted that she go with them to the meeting. She complained to the headmaster, who got them removed from the premises. However, the headmaster advised Bhuvaneswari that since the school was under the jurisdiction of the panchayat she should attend the meeting and that he would accompany her.

When she reached the meeting, there was a crowd of about 700 or so people, including children, teachers, parents and others mobilized by the sarpanch. As soon as she arrived, there were catcalls, whistling, and filthy slogans against her. The sarpanch called the children to give their statements. The first child, just 9 years old, could barely speak and said that he had “seen the two sitting together”. The second child, about 11 years or so, made what can only be called a tutored statement. Unthinkable for a child his age, he gave a most detailed description of what he said he had purportedly seen. At every sentence there were whistles and catcalls. In fact the room where he described having seen them, is a common room, accessible to everyone in the school. If the child is to be believed, in the short tea break between classes, the two were having sexual intercourse with the door open, with two of the windows open in full public view.

Bhuvaneswari could hardly believe what was being said. She was paralysed with humiliation and fear. Yet this brave woman stood her ground. She refuted all the allegations and said that she spent time with the said teacher during her tea breaks because he was the oldest, “like my father” and she felt safe with him. She said that on July 24, she was in the teachers’ room for the 10-minute tea break, speaking with him, after which she took her classes as usual. He also made a similar statement. The entire focus shifted not from the total lack of jurisdiction of the sarpanch to hold such a meeting in the first place, but to whether or not such an incident could have taken place. All through the statements, men were shouting that a “woman like her deserved to be raped”. At the end of the meeting, the sarpanch and others with him, declared her “guilty” and sentenced her to gang rape, and even named the four men who were to carry out the sentence. They were drunk and came towards her, molested her. Some in the meeting protested. Meanwhile, her husband, who was in a neighbouring village, heard about the meeting and rushed there along with others from his village and brought her out of the meeting.

In the first instance, the police refused to register a report. The collector, one Rajesh Rajori, whom she complained to, also refused to act. Later an enquiry was conducted by the sub-divisional police officer. He took statements from all those involved and came to the conclusion that such an incident had occurred But he charged the sarpanch and others only under sections related to the use of obscene language against a woman and the accused were immediately granted bail. On the other hand, Bhuvaneswari was punished on a recommendation of the sarpanch and transferred to a remote school, and so was the other teacher. In despair, she filed a petition before the Jabalpur high court. Today, she is being threatened and pressured to withdraw her charges. The sarpanch’s supporters are sitting on a so-called hunger strike to demand her dismissal. It is said in the village that a former member of the legislative assembly, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader of the area, is backing the agitation and that the sarpanch and his men are BJP supporters.

Issues that arise: one, the sarpanch and other elected members have no jurisdiction to hold such a meeting. The holding of such a meeting with the express agenda of discussing the “immoral behaviour of a teacher”, regardless of what transpired at the meeting, is itself totally violative of the Panchayat Act. It is a clear case of misuse of a constitutional post and attracts punitive action under the Panchayat Act.

Two, the proceedings at the so-called meeting constitute crimes under relevant sections of conspiracy to rape, attempt to rape, molestation, defamation, use of obscene language against a woman. Some of these are non-bailable offences. Therefore, the arrest under these charges of the sarpanch and his cohorts is essential.

Three, on the basis of the first two points, the sarpanch and his colleagues should be removed from the elected posts under the relevant provisions (section 40) of the Panchayat Act.

Four, the police personnel involved in protecting the accused should be punished. The present collector also has to be punished for dereliction of duty. Five, since the woman has been defamed, it is incumbent for the administration, including the commissioner, to hold a meeting in the village in defence of Bhuvaneswari and to expose the crimes committed by the sarpanch and others. Six, cancellation of the punishment transfer orders of Bhuvaneswari and the male teacher, and reemployment in the same school.

Seven, immediate security protection to Bhuvaneswari as demanded by her. With the help of social workers and educationists, information has to be got from the children as to what prompted their statements. The AIDWA has also information of another shocking case from a neighbouring village where a young girl was forcibly thrown out of her house by the panchayat, which accused her of being pregnant. The child actually had a tumour in her stomach that was later operated on. But the panchayat has refused to let her back into the village. It is also reported that in the last six months in the area, there have been eight cases where young women have been burnt to death.

Bhuvaneswari’s experience also highlights problems faced by women employed in villages as school teachers, health workers and so on, under the exclusive jurisdiction of the panchayats. In the name of accountability to the community, they are often subjected to all kinds of harassment and pressures from the panchayats, including sexual harassment. In the absence of radical measures like land reform to change unequal social equations based on class, caste and gender inequalities, panchayats become instruments to legitimize the most retrograde practices. This is more so in areas where there is an ascendancy of right wing politics. There is thus a question mark on the view that the panchayat model in itself is intrinsically democratic.

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