Bhopal, Jan. 7: The Digvijay Singh regime has registered cases of criminal conduct against hundreds of Bhil tribals who have been accused of forcibly remarrying a 40-year-old woman.
Earlier, Devika, a Bhil woman, had denied any coercion and claimed to have married fellow tribal Lakhan on her own.
Late this evening, however, Devika retracted her statement and alleged coercion, prompting the criminal complaints against the tribals who had recently gathered at a 2,000-strong “panchganga” (gathering of Bhils).
The gathering was organised apparently as part of a “reformist movement” among the tribal community.
Khandwa collector Manu Srivastva said: “When our second team (of officers) reached, Devika said she was brought to the Bhil gathering by force and handed over to Lakhan against her wishes.”
The BJP had accused the Congress of encouraging a human “auction” after news spread that state minister Hiralal Silhawat was present at the gathering. He was accused of “supervising” the “auction” worth Rs 5,000.
Devika, however, had scotched all rumours when she claimed to have married Lakhan on her own and in accordance with Bhil customs, which encourage women to ditch non-Bhils and remarry within their community. Lakhan is Devika’s third husband.
She was first married 15 years ago. Devika, however, soon left her first husband Jagdish to live with her parents in Mandwa. There, she fell in love with Ghulab Singh, a married forest ranger with three children, and bore him a boy, who is seven now.
Silhawat got a clean chit from Srivastva, who said the minister had “no role” in the “forced remarriage” as he was not aware that a woman was being forced to remarry. The BJP, however, is not buying Srivastva’s argument.
Srivastva first came into the picture when Ghulab lodged a complaint with him, alleging his wife’s abduction.
Additional collector K.K. Khare was dispatched with a team to record Devika’s statement. Then the rumour got around that Silhawat, present at the gathering, “supervised an auction”.
With Assembly polls some months away, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh, scared of courting controversy that would alienate his voters, today sought a report on the “marriage” in Gwalior.
“We have registered cases against Lakhan and others,” Srivastva said. Devika, he said, would be “restored” to her second husband Ghulab.
The trouble, however, is far from over for Digvijay. He faces the unhappy prospect of acting tough with hundreds of Bhils and thus alienating a crucial slice of tribal votes.
Moreover, an image-conscious Digvijay would now have to do some explaining on how a medieval practice such as “auctioning” a woman was allowed in his state.
Sources close to the chief minister said he might punish the local panchayat in an action similar to the one he took when sati was reported in the Gwalior-Guna region a few months ago. Digvijay had then stopped all grants to the panchayat concerned to punish residents who had actively encouraged the “sati”.
Silhawat had earlier said the Bhil gatherings were being organised with the sole aim of educating the tribals against social evils such as gambling and drinking.
“We have a custom that Bhils should not marry non-Bhils. So those willing to come back to the fold are encouraged to pick Bhil men of their choice. It is all very progressive,” Silhawat had said.
The statement had not put off the Khandwa collector, who decided to send another team to Devika to get a fresh statement. “We are sending another team to crosscheck if Devika was not coerced into giving a statement,” he had said from Khandwa. Srivastva had also said that “the Bhils are governed by their community laws”.