Bhanwari Devi Case: Dirty Picture of Feudal Exploitation and Violence

The disappearance of auxiliary nurse and midwife (ANM) Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan has exposed the vulnerability of the state’s women health workers, especially dalit women, to exploitation and violence at the hands of top politicians.

Bhanwari Devi has been missing since 1 September, and is suspected to have been killed to suppress the truth about her relationship with Congress Minister Mahipal Maderna. Maderna has been arrested by the CBI, and has been stripped of his membership of the Congress. The incident, coming on top of persistent corruption charges and the police firing on minorities at Gopalgarh, bought the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress Government to the brink.

The case has shaken the Gehlot Government to the core, forcing the resignation of the entire Cabinet and a reshuffle in which several Ministers tainted by charges of corruption and violence against women have been replaced. Another Minister forced to resign was Ram Lal Jat, accused of personally intervening to hasten (and influence?) the post mortem of a woman with whom he had allegedly had a relationship, and who died in suspicious circumstances. Now, another current Minister in the Gehlot cabinet, Malkhan Singh, has been arrested by the CBI in the Bhanwari Devi case. Malkhan Singh is said to have been in a long-standing relationship with the missing ANM, and to have introduced her to Maderna.

Bhanwari is said to have been in possession of a CD revealing intimate relations between herself and Maderna. It seems that Maderna (and possibly others in power) wanted to get rid of Bhanwari who possessed evidence that threatened their political career.

Strangely enough, despite the political heat generated for the ruling Congress by this case, the main Opposition BJP has not taken up the issue in earnest. Maderna is a powerful leader among Rajasthan’s influential Jat community. The BJP, sensing an opportunity to win the support of that community, has done little beyond formally seeking Maderna’s resignation. BJP leader Digambar Singh in fact spoke up in Maderna’s defence, projecting the entire issue as a plot by Maderna’s rivals within the Congress.

In all the political calculations, what is getting lost is the central issue of a woman dalit worker’s disappearance and possible murder. Both BJP and Congress would like the Bhanwari matter to lie buried, fearing that the truth about her disappearance might open up a Pandora’s box of unsavoury facts about the manner in which politicians exploit women workers who are economically and socially vulnerable. The National Commission of Women (NCW) Chairperson Mamta Sharma – herself a well-known Congress leader from Rajasthan – has maintained a shameful silence on the disappearance of Bhanwari – obviously to protect the prominent leaders of her party implicated in this case. The Jodhpur Bench of the Rajasthan HC has pulled up the CBI for its tardy enquiry, warning it not to repeat the fiasco in the Arushi Talwar murder enquiry.

In the media coverage, Bhanwari has been projected as a scheming seductress, blackmailing powerful men with the threat to reveal secretly filmed sex CDs. Much has been made of the supposedly disproportionate wealth that Bhanwari earned as a result of her relationships with powerful men. Lost in this salacious and prurient patriarchal narrative is the real ‘dirty picture’ – the fact that so many powerful political leaders in feudal Rajasthan consider it their birthright to sexually exploit women workers, especially those from the oppressed castes. The Ministers and political leaders from dominant castes have all the power on their side, with ANMs and rural health workers in ICDS or ASHA schemes most vulnerable to sexual harassment and exploitation. In such a situation, Bhanwari might have sought to regain some control and might have deluded herself that she wielded some power, by using the CDs as leverage. But that delusion was inexorably and tragically exploded. She is missing, presumed killed. And those guilty for her fate still hope to get away unpunished.

In BSP-ruled UP, NDA-ruled Bihar, and now Congress-ruled Rajasthan, we keep seeing the spectacle of MLAs habitually unleashing sexual exploitation and violence on women. In the Rupam Pathak case in Bihar, and now in the Bhanwari Devi case, the entire debate is sought to be focussed on the woman’s character, while the question of violence on women by men in power is sought to be evaded and forgotten. The victims themselves are being placed in the dock – while the political system in which the exploitation of women is taking for granted seeks to sit in moral judgement! All democratic forces and the women’s movement must expose and resist such hypocrisy and cant, and demand justice for the women and punishment for the perpetrators.

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