The first time I heard the name of Bhanwari Devi, was when I was in high school. I remember reading about her in the newspapers, and seeing a news story about her on one of the video news mags of the early 1990s, when there were no 24x7 news channels in India. To say that I was horrified is like saying the sun is bright or the earth is round. Bhanwari Devi's case was no less a landmark than the Nirbhaya case. The medical and legal hurdles that she faced, were as painful as the social ostracism at the hands of her village, including her own family. That was the first time that contemporary Indian society sat up and took notice of the use of rape as a means of punishment.
Not that this was a secret. The use of rape for punishing "errant" women is as old as the history of humankind. Often, it was sanctioned by the "Authorities" themselves, though I would not like to dwell more on this aspect, as this is not a historical or scholarly paper. In modern times too, this form of punishment has existed for centuries the world over. Rape had been identified in India as the crime that it actually was, by the criminal justice system since the pre-independence Victorian Rule. However, in independent India, such practices were outlawed constitutionally too. Protection from rape was a implicit provision of the Right to Life and Liberty enshrined in the Indian Constitution. But in the absence of media glare and investigative reporting, stories about such incidents were swiftly and deftly buried.
The Bhanwari Devi case was followed, in later years, by thousands of such cases of "punishment rape", recorded in case diaries, across thousands of police stations in every nook and corner of India. In the last one year itself, there have been cases of "punishment rape" reported from many parts of the country. Village bodies, consisting either exclusively of male village elders, or including an odd powerless token of a female village elder, have been very fast in dispensing "justice", i.e, passing judgments and handing out punishments like rape to erring or non-compliant women. The "error" may have been speaking out against an injustice, or refusal to follow some brutal and dehumanizing unwritten laws and decrees, of such village bodies and the village society. The "error" may actually have been upholding the written law of the land, following the Rule of Law. Wait, that's not all. The "error" may have been committed by any male relative of the victim or victims, including husband, son, father, father-in-law and in some cases, even grandson. But the punishment is not meted out directly to the men. Their women folk are sentenced to "punishment rape" and such sentences are executed quite swiftly, without any chance of an "appeal" at any forum, legal or informal; and very often, as in a couple of recent cases in West Bengal, in full public view.
What about the law of the land and the Rule of Law? Well, what about them? In many villages, lying in obscurity in some remote part of the country, the law of the land is like the lay of the land, and may have little, if any, connection with the Rule of Law. Even in towns, cities and metros, aisi chhoti-moti baatein (insignificant matters) can be "managed".
So, this was about how rape is used like an instrument of punishment. Like a hangman's noose. Like an executioner's bullet. Like the cell of the local jail. Rape is judgment, punishment and justice, all rolled into one.....and all at once.
(Cont'd) On Rape : III