Monday 26 March 2018

Those who did not die

Five years after Nirbhaya's gang-rape and murder in Delhi on 16 December 2012 that made headlines all over the world, what does her village in eastern Uttar Pradesh look like? And how has it been for other women around, those who, not unlike Nirbhaya, dare to dream?

Preliminary encounters

Are you looking for bitiya’s [daughter's] house?’ a vegetable vendor asks as I and a writer-lawyer, my contact in Ballia, try to navigate our way into the dark alleys of the Medaura Kalan village, quite far from the highway. In this part of eastern Uttar Pradesh, the evening is scary, unrelieved by lit-up shopping centres and street crossings. People here have no idea of the evening one talks about in a city.

Named Nirbhaya (meaning "fearless") by people, the 23-year-old student whose rape and murder in December 2012 triggered huge protests all across India, was from here. In her familial village people still fondly recall her as ‘bitiya’, their daughter who had gone to the big city to pursue a career in physiotherapy but did not come home.

Instructed by a village elder, a boy of about 10 escorts us through a few narrow lanes till we reach the house, of the village chief, the pradhan. It’s here that we hope to have our initial conversation about life in the village in the shadow of a daughter’s death. The pradhan is expected to tell us where exactly to go to meet Nirbhaya’s extended family.

A boy opens the door. The ground floor is a cowshed from where we are led up the stairs. Walking up, we can hear the television belting out programmes in Bhojpuri. There’s a cot in the living room where we are asked to wait for pradhan-ji. A while later, of the two men in the inner room, one comes out to meet us.

When I start noting down his name, he protests hesitantly: ‘I mean I am not the actual pradhan, it’s my wife.’ Reservations for women in the Panchayati Raj institutions has facilitated their empowerment at the village level. In many cases though, they become mere signing authorities overshadowed by their husbands who act like the village heads. When I insist on meeting her, the husband hedges: ‘But she is not that smart, you know, in speaking and all.’ I persist saying it really doesn’t matter. His reluctance is visible. The wife, he tells me, stays in another house preferring the anonymity of the inner courtyard; this place is meant for receiving visitors and entertaining guests. But before we meet her, we have to meet the members of Nirbhaya’s family.

Bitiya’s home

Nirbhaya’s parents live in Delhi and visit their ancestral village from time to time to be with their clan. The family of her father’s brother here represents what could have been her home. Lalji Singh, her father’s uncle, is here with us. We start talking about the political parties that had come to the village after the 2012 incident. ‘The hospital that Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav had promised came up,’ the elderly man says recalling how the village landscape changed in the years since. ‘But there are no doctors. We are not sure about the qualifications of the two who come to dole out medicines for cold and cough. Well, now very few medicines are left. The doctor’s quarter is still unfinished and the floor – still kutcha. The water tank is empty and there is no electricity.’

There was also talk of a school. ‘But there wasn’t enough land for that so nothing came of it.’ Lalji looked disappointed and at the same time conscious that the big focus on the back-of-the-beyond village was because of the brutalities perpetrated on Nirbhaya, her death turning into international headlines.

By now Nirbhaya’s aunt, along with the actual village head, and some other villagers, have gathered around us. People of the village remember and keep counting the promises that had been made, like a road connecting the village to the primary school. ‘That’s right,’ Lalji says. ‘But the people who came to build the road messed up. They started laying the road at one place and the building material landed up in another village.’ He recalls that the district magistrate at that time, who had come with an engineer, asked what the village needed. The collector had taken the responsibility of starting an inter-college in the area, but he got transferred before he could set up the institution.

Medaura Kalan had been declared a Lohia village, giving its development issues a new focus under the programme named after the socialist icon and freedom fighter Ram Manohar Lohia. Interestingly, the Samajwadi Party, ruling UP at that time, reveres him as its ideological guru. ‘The contractors who had started work here did not complete it,’ Lalji grumbled. ‘They did not even pay the bills of the local shopkeepers, rather took away 500 bricks and a truckful of sand that we had brought for the family’s use.’

The young men in the family had been promised jobs. ‘Six of our boys should have got jobs. Vacancies are there. But the Chief Minister only asked them to fill up the forms.’ Lalji says he does not care so much about the jobs as for some genuine work for the village community. An efficient primary health centre or a girls’ school. ‘Our daughters must not cycle 12 kilometres to school.’

At the mention of girls, Bhagmani Pandey, Nirbhaya's aunt, raises the issue I have been hesitating to raise. ‘We want justice for our bitiya, and punishment for the culprits. After the incident, girls are even more afraid to step out of home for their courses.’ She speaks of the corruption in the system and deplores that there is no proper road connecting the village to Ballia town. I turn to Savita Devi, the village head, for her opinion. After a lot of reluctance, she says, ‘You people know better.’

A silhouette of Nirbhaya's aunt in their familial house

Lalji shakes his head in disapproval over what he calls a ‘toothless law’ that does not deter criminals. The National Crime Records Bureau shows Uttar Pradesh as the state with the highest number of murders in 2016, and a 12.4 per cent increase in rape cases from 2015. After Yogi Adityanath took over as Chief Minister in 2017, he announced the formation of ‘anti-Romeo squads’ for the safety of women. Singh is dismissive of the step: ‘Those squads end up harming the ones they are supposed to protect. In such conditions how can women work alongside men? Where is the support from the government that would have given confidence to women about their safety? I admire the women who are working outside their homes because they risk everything to go out.’ He sighs. ‘So many media people have been here. I know you are doing your job. But I wish it could change the way things are.’

Returning from the village, we come across a wedding marquee – bustling, all lit up. A few metres away was a field plunged in darkness; little boys are playing there. Girls of the same age have huddled up in the arc of the light near the entrance, slipping out of their parents’ cautious circle under the marquee. But they do not move any farther from the entrance, clinging to each other in the security of the festive lights. Some distance ahead, police barriers display emergency phone numbers in bold – to be called when a girl is facing sexual harassment.

Then and now

It has been five years since Nirbhaya’s tragic death following her brutal gang-rape on a moving bus one winter evening in Delhi. The incident had sparked protests, anger, debate, schemes, funds . . . What has all this meant for the other young women in Ballia? Have they felt strengthened by the voices demanding justice, or has the memory of what Nirbhaya faced made them warier? Has it changed anything about the way men look at women, behave with them?

On 8 August 2017, the accused Prince (Aditya) Tiwari, who had been harassing Ragini Dubey, slit her throat when she was going to school along with her sister in Bajah village in Ballia. The 17-year-old’s savage killing made headlines and has got considerable attention from the local media. Journalists here say this might not have been the case a few years ago, considering violence against women is accepted as the norm and not the exception in this part of the country.

The village of Bajah where Ragini’s family lives is not far from the main road. The men standing by the roadside direct us to the house after making sure we know her father.

In the courtyard, two men sit under a newly pitched tent; one of them is shaving. They get up from their chairs and ask us to sit. We learn that they are policemen posted there for the family’s security.

A makeshift post for the policemen guarding Ragini's house

Ragini’s mother, Vandana Dubey, angrily recalls the pradhan’s threat to the family. Kripashankar Tiwari, co-accused in Ragini’s murder and father of Prince, had bragged to the family after the incident that he would ‘buy’ those who mattered in the local police setup and the administration. Vandana is distraught that Prince has still not been brought under the National Security Act. In the middle of the conversation, her 11-year-old son comes in and gives vent to his sense of outrage. Looking grave, his voice urgent, the boy adds bits of information he fears his mother is forgetting.

Ragini was close to her grandmother, who recounts her many talents and ambitions, and her concern for the family. ‘I no longer stand outside the house where Ragini used to wave at me every morning before going to school. It is too painful.’ Sumitra Devi is a resolute woman. She repeats her daughter-in-law’s statement: ‘The pradhan bragged that he would pay off everyone who is dealing with the case. Please write this and put it under my name. What he said makes me wonder if we would ever get justice.’

She cries, much like Ragini’s mother and sister, throughout the conversation. ‘I have seen my daughters being dominated by their spouses, and I feel terrible that the children I have raised with so much love are no longer free to do what they want in their marital homes.’ That is why she decided to do everything possible to get her granddaughters educated and make them independent. ‘These girls are sometimes upset if I scold them for watching TV. But I tell them they can do all this later, now is the time to study and make something of their lives. All of them are studying for the qualifications to work, not just to get married.’

Ragini wanted to be an airhostess, ‘There was nobody like her,’ Sumitra Devi says wistfully. ‘Each morning before going to school she would take my blessings. My husband, dead now, was in the army, and Ragini would say that after her grandfather, she would be the one to make the family proud. I was hoping these girls would do even better than my sons. Now, Ragini’s life has been cruelly ended, and her dreams shattered.’

Our conversation is suddenly disrupted by the high pitch of an altercation. Shweta, Ragini’s sister, holds my hand and asks me to come inside to carry on with the conversation. The heated argument is between the policemen outside the house and someone who works at the pradhan’s house, who had come to mouth abuses against this grief-stricken, beleaguered family. Ragini’s mother goes outside and tries to dissuade the policemen from the fight. A police vehicle reaches the spot after some time and the cops offer some words of assurance to the housewife.

The incident gets reported in the local papers the next day.

The house of the accused is right next to the Pandeys’. Sumitra Devi says the neighbours keep trying to make trouble in such ways, perhaps emboldened by the pradhan’s release on bail, which has been a huge setback to Ragini’s family and dwindled their hopes for justice. When Ragini’s mother comes back in, she sounds apologetic. ‘I don’t know what all we have been saying to you, a bit emotionally charged as we are. You write what you find fit and proper.’

Shweta says to her mother, ‘Don’t you think she knows? She does this every day.’ The eldest of the four sisters, Neha, works in Banaras as a dietician in a well-known hospital. Shweta has finished her graduation. She was planning to get enrolled in a master’s course when tragedy struck disrupting the rhythm of the aspirational family. Shweta’s despair shows through, ‘We sisters are the kind of people who would always be running around, for classes, or to fill up some forms, or to know about some job opportunities.’ All that has now come to a halt. Shweta’s family is too scared to let her or the other girls out. Her youngest sister has also been pulled out of school because she was being harassed there. The pradhan’s invisible hand has been out to hammer down her daughters’ big dreams, Vandana Dubey remonstrates. The principal said that the school could no longer take the responsibility for her safety. ‘Can you believe it?’ Shweta gasps. ‘For four months we have not stepped out of the house.’

Ragini's home

The pradhan-Dubey family conflict, played out on a larger scale, captures the binary between the entrenched patriarchy and the technology-induced progressive forces in rural India. Nirbhaya, Ragini and her brave sisters stand for the new world that beckons them with its possibilities. The rapists on the moving bus and the obscurantist village heads are out to turn the girls’ aspirations into a hair-raising nightmare.

Quartz India recently carried a report about Girija Borker’s research pointing to a new trend among the young women in Delhi opting for colleges not for the quality of education they offer but their proximity to their homes. If this trend gains further momentum and travels to different parts of the country, it will deal a huge blow to the cause of women’s education. Not just that, the number of women in the premier institutions will significantly come down, resulting in a decrease in their share in higher education. In gender terms, the education scenario will be badly skewed, impacting the professional fields consequently. No wonder in the villages and small towns of Uttar Pradesh, for those like the Dubey sisters it is now a challenge to step out of their homes breaking the barrier of fear to go to class.

Shweta is tired of being scared and hiding at home because the baddies are prowling the street. ‘My interest is in computers. I came to know of an NGO looking for skilled professionals to work with children. But now everything has got held up.’ Sumitra Devi says in a remorseful voice, ‘I tell them not to go out. Even when their mother goes to meet the collector about the case, we hold our breath till she comes back. Sometimes we think of leaving all this behind and moving elsewhere. But we are not so rich.’

How did the 16 December 2012 Delhi gang-rape impact Ballia, where Nirbhaya was from? Has the tragedy that shook the world changed this place? Sumitra Devi is not so sure. ‘What changes can you expect? Nothing. I must have committed many sins in my past life to have been born in Ballia. This is a place for sinners.’ Ragini’s grandmother is talking of the same place hallowed by the memory of legendary freedom fighter Mangal Pandey and writers like Hazari Prasad Dwivedi.

The press and the people

The locals I talk to commend the media for having constantly followed up on Ragini’s case, which, they believe, managed to build some pressure on the police and the administration. However, there is a less salutary view about the media focusing on the girl’s death in its love for sensationalism. Still, the fact remains that ordinary people joined the protests along with the family against the delay in punishing the culprits. A correspondent of the Amar Ujala newspaper who had reported a candle march, says protests were carried out in Ballia both for Ragini and Nirbhaya. Some people, reports say, also tried to raise funds to help the families to meet legal expenses. Sudhir Tiwari, in charge of crime reporting at the Dainik Jagran in Ballia, talks of the changing reporting trend, the shift in focus from victim blaming to the action or the lack thereof by the authorities.

Are things both changing and remaining the same?

Looking at Ballia, it is hard to definitely know if things have changed when it comes to violence against women. After Ragini’s killing, people invested their faith in Superintendent of Police Sujata Singh following the arrest of the main accused the same day. Yet when his father got bail and when NSA was not invoked in dealing with the case as promised, the family started losing hope. Crimes against women do not show a decline but people have started coming forward to report. Terror and intimidation no longer can push them into a shell. In Ragini’s case, people I spoke to, pointed out how Prince, the accused, had been spoilt by his affluent and influential family’s indulgence and flawed upbringing. They did not resort to victim blaming, or at least knew enough about its incorrectness when in conversation with a journalist. Families of Nirbhaya and Ragini have stood up for their daughters while in many cases girls are still scared to tell their parents about harassment for fear of victim blaming. There is pressure from the media and NGOs on the police to act. At the same time, if a woman reports harassment right at the beginning, the police often leave offenders with a warning to avoid recording the complaints and having to be accountable for it. The same offenders who are let off then go on to commit much more violent crimes.

Earlier in December, a team of girls took out a cycle rally all across UP, intending to conclude the journey at Nirbhaya’s village. The aim was to raise awareness about violence against women. Nirbhaya’s parents came to Lucknow to support the initiative. Perhaps it is in such small measures – Ragini’s sisters not willing to give up on their dreams, her mother sitting at the magistrate’s office all day to submit a petition, Nirbhaya’s parents who had wanted that the shame of violence stays only with the perpetrators, the girls pedalling along the roads that do not welcome them – that one can see tendrils of change grow, where women prove that ‘courage is not the absence of fear, it is acting in spite of it’.

First published in The Equator Line, Jan-Mar, 2018.

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