The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Digvijay fined for panchayat’s rape ruling

Bhopal, Oct. 30: Jabalpur High Court today sought to correct a kangaroo court verdict that had made a mockery of Madhya Pradesh’s otherwise good panchayat system.

It slapped a Rs 2-lakh fine on the Digvijay Singh regime for its failure to act promptly against the sarpanch of Sankarikala village of Balaghat district’s Lanji tehsil who had sentenced a teacher to “gangrape” to “punish” her for alleged “sexual relationship” with a male colleague.

The high court today asked the government to recover half of Rs 2-lakh fine from the four men who were ordered to carry out the sentence against Bhuvaneswari Devi, who taught at a panchayat-run primary school. The Digvijay regime has also been asked to cough up the Rs 50,000 litigation expenses.

Jabalpur High Court held the government responsible for its failure to prevent “violation of her (Bhuvaneswari’s) right to live with dignity”. After more than a year of humiliation, honour has been somewhat restored to the teacher, against whom sarpanch Jiya Lal Patle handed out his chauvinistic and obnoxious “sentence” on July 30, 2002.

Bhuvaneswari, 27, the only woman among seven teachers in the school, was forced to pull up one of her male colleagues last year after becoming a target of his sexist jokes and lewd gestures.

Locals say the teacher got some students to say they had seen Bhuvaneswari, who had been teaching at the school for the last six years and was popular among pupils, in a “compromising position” in the teachers’ common room with a male colleague on July 24.

Soon after, Patle dubbed Bhuvaneswari a “woman of easy virtue” who had been trying to “lure” her colleague Joshi, her oldest male colleague. He soon issued a public notice, announcing that a “special” panchayat meeting had been called to judge her “behaviour”.

There were nearly 700 men at the meeting, to which no women were invited. When Bhuvaneswari arrived, she was greeted with catcalls, whistling and filthy slogans.

The sarpanch then summoned two students to describe what they had seen. The first child, aged nine, could barely speak and said he had “seen the two sitting together”. But the second child, about 10 years old, made what Brinda Karat, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, said could only be termed a tutored statement.

“If the children were to be believed, the two (teachers) were having sexual intercourse in the common room in the tea break between classes, with the door and two of the windows open,” the women’s association said.

Bhuvaneswari put up a spirited defence, saying she was speaking to Joshi during the break. He is “like my father”.

This was enough to make those present at the meeting to shout that a “woman of easy virtue like her deserved to be raped”. Patle and his colleagues declared Bhuvaneswari “guilty” and even named the four men who were to carry out the sentence. They were most willing to do so.

She was spared the indignity only because her husband reached the spot and took her away from the meeting.

Karat, who has taken the lead in championing Bhuvaneswari’s cause and has visited Sankarikala village, said the teacher’s crime was that she was young, articulate and attractive. She also chose to keep a distance from other teachers.

In election-bound Madhya Pradesh, today’s court ruling is sure to become an issue especially as the BJP has been accusing the Digvijay regime of doing nothing to prevent atrocities against women. Its chief ministerial candidate Uma Bharti recently alleged that 128,000 women have been raped in the state since Digvijay assumed power in 1993.

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