(April 28, 2014)

Fighting Violence against Women

Manjula Pradeep, Dalit leader

I have watched Manjula Pradeep grow from a novice, an inexperienced young girl in the early 90's into a confident, assured, gutsy Dalit leader over the last 20 years. In this interview, Manjula traces the history of her struggle for Dalit rights from her early induction into Navsarjan Trust, as a raw, young recruit and her tumultuous journey to her present post as head of Navsarjan, often representing Dalits in the UN and other national and international fora.

Manjula Pradeep
"From '91 to '95, I watched different Dalit struggles and realised that Dalit women played an important role in the struggle for justice for their menfolk as well as for the entire community. My early inspiration came from a Dalit woman, Valiben. She fought ceaselessly for justice for her son who was arrested on a false charge of theft of a bicycle. He swore he bought it second hand. But the police tortured him and beat him mercilessly, on his genitals, to get a confession out of him. Finally, the boy fell unconscious. Valiben fought ferociously, against the injustice against her son. She fought ceaselessly, though unsuccessfully, till her death. I was deeply moved by the courage and determination of this simple, village woman."

Burned alive
"In '94, I fought for a young girl Meena, from Ranol in Limdi taluk. She was married off by her parents at a very early age and her husband began harassing her for dowry, almost immediately after the marriage. The girl was unhappy and frightened. She was pregnant when they set her aflame and murdered her. They burnt her alive. I used to go to Bhavnagar court for this dowry death case. The husband bribed all around and he was acquitted although there was clear evidence, damning proof of complicity, as the mattress she died on, had been doused in kerosene."

This defeat left a very, very, bitter taste in the mouth. "I kept wondering 'how can parents send back weeping daughters to the in-laws house to their certain death?' It is pathetic. These girls' deaths were avoidable."

"Our own Dalit community leaders accused Navsarjan of dividing the community by publicly accusing and attacking a Dalit man. The dead Dalit girls, the young girls cruelly and violently murdered, the burnt brides didn't matter. As with most women, they are dispensable. Navsarjan came under a lot of pressure to settle matters 'amicably' to compromise and not file police cases when the perpetrators of violence are Dalit men."

"Another landmark, sexual violence case was the rape and murder of Geeta, gang-raped by four dominant caste men in Ajarpura in Anand district. After raping Geeta, they grabbed her and forcibly put her on top of a tractor. They then, violently flung her off the moving tractor and mercilessly ran over her body several times to ensure she was dead. A dead rape victim cannot give testimony or name her rapists. The funeral was hastily performed under pressure from the perpetrators. Our activists reported the horrific case to us." Navsarjan filed a petition in the High court for a fresh post mortem. The case took on a new life. A new forensics team arrived. The grave was re-opened, Geeta's body was exhumed and re-examined. The verdict of gang-rape was confirmed together with suspicion of unnatural death. "We were satisfied that Geeta's tragic murder would not go unpunished. We thought justice would prevail." But, sadly, once again patriarchy triumphed. Geeta's parents had five more daughters to marry off. Who would marry these girls if the family appeared troublesome to potential grooms? They succumbed to community pressure and compromised. Otherwise no one would marry their other girls. "In addition," Manjula pointed out, "One more reason we lost this battle, was the family dependence on the dominant landlords for wages. So if they fought for justice, they would lose their work and wages."
These bitter lessons made Manjula grow up fast. She decided to study law and focus on Dalit women's issues.

Defying village landlords
"When I joined Navsarjan in '92", Manjula reminisced, "women didn't have spaces. In '92, we conducted a rally for women on discrimination with regard to drinking water in Dholka in Ahmedabad district. I have been fighting for 20 years now. Our Dalit women had passion and anger. They were mentally strong, willing to fight, but had no voice whatsoever. We worked on addressing violence against Dalit women. We built up womenís leadership."

"Being a woman myself, I could completely and totally understand their fears and help them stand up for their rights. I wanted to do this and empower our Dalit women. So, I began my mission filled with this anger and determination. I conducted 20 training programmes for women in '96. In June '97, we took out the first rally demanding minimum wages for agricultural labourers led by women leaders. The official minimum wage was 34 rupees yet these women were working for 6 to 12 rupees per day."

"There were two inspiring women both name Kashi. One of them, Kashi from Mahuvad, was warned by her village landlords. 'We will not allow you to work in our fieldsí, they threatened. Angered, she retorted, 'I dont want to work in your fields for your miserable 6 rupees anyway. I donít need your work.' Instead, the angry woman walked 2 kms every day to work in a brick kiln for 50 rupees a day. She was one smart, inspiring, brave woman," Manjula declared.

"I started learning about tribal womenís issues too." Manjula continued. "There was this woman Chanchal. Her son Phogat worked as a bonded labourer, this system of bondage is called 'Chakar' locally. They were paid Rs.3000 a year in '96. Phogat was brutally thrashed by the landlord merely for asking for his overdue, unpaid wages. When Chanchal tried to protect her son, the Patel employer, lashed out with a cane. His stick hit her hand instead of her sons, and fractured her wrist. I went to see her. The police wouldn't file an FIR (First Information Report) or any case under the Atrocities Act as they wanted proof of her ST (Scheduled Tribe) status. Her son had run away, terrified. He was in hiding at his in-laws village, seriously in fear for his life. I took Chanchal on my scooter. We picked up her son, three on the scooter, and went to the District Collector's office in Baroda City. He shouted at me angrily. He said: 'You are trying to lodge a false complaint. Creating unnecessary problems. Get out of my office.' We left, upset by the Collector's insults but still ready to fight for justice."

Sadder and wiser, but also stronger
"It was another bitter pill to swallow. Another growing up for us to do. After our visit, the Collector sent a social welfare officer to their village and got both their thumb impressions, mother and sonís, on blank pieces of paper. With false promises. Both mother and son were illiterate. Had no idea what they were signing. End of story. End of case. It was indeed a very bitter lesson for me, personally."

"But it made me stop and think seriously. How to be more successful. How to be more strategic. How to be more savvy, to win these terrible cases for our people. I started a union, called Vadodara Majdoor Sanghatana (Vadodara workers Union). Later we changed it, added state level status to Gujarat Kamdar Ekta Sanghatana (Gujarat Workers Unity Union)."

"When I was working on these issues in '97 and '98, I took on gender issues. I was appointed Programme Director for gender equity and womenís rights. We started looking at Navsarjan in terms of gender. It was a huge challenge and also not very welcome by our male colleagues from feudal backgrounds. 'There won't ever be women ready to join', the men said. We got 40 women leaders. The newly trained women began to question gender and equality within Navsarjan. The question was, could these very young women, newly recruited, freshly trained on gender issues, become real leaders?"

The litmus test came when a new case turned up.
"A 12 year old OBC girl was kidnapped at night while she was sleeping. Her kidnapper was an OBC man who was a habitual sexual offender. He was quite powerful in the region and so had quite a lot of clout with the local police. Deena, our trained woman activist, took responsibility for the case. Deena is very vocal, very brave and extremely articulate. One of our most effective women organisers. We planned a rally and about 1000 people from surrounding villages came to protest this case. The mother of the girl spoke very emotionally and powerfully. She succeeded in moving the entire audience. The rally was in Nanisheradi village in Anand district. The girl, although she was just 12 years old, was so exceptionally brave, she personally handed over the memorandum to the Deputy Superintendent of Police."

New-found freedom
"Other cases of sexual violence against very young girls emerged. A 9 year old girl was viciously raped and flung away unconscious. The rapist probably took her for dead. This rape was apparently committed specifically to take revenge on the child's young, very beautiful mother. Deena, Navsarjan's local activist, handled this case too. When the child regained consciousness, she revealed the name of her rapist. The Times of India, the country's most prominent national, English language daily, covered the case consistently. The rapist received life imprisonment. The Navsarjan team had a sense of satisfaction. Justice at last, after many bitter pills."

"It was not just our victory. The news spread to all the surrounding villages. It caused waves, and several local women from the area, got the courage to come to us with cases of violence against women. These women were ready to depose and testify for the first time. Our women activists gave them support and courage locally. They were there whenever needed, to stand by the victims, to offer a shoulder to cry on. To just be there for them when things got really tough."

"We had to empower our women within the team too. So as a policy decision, to empower our own Navsarjan women activists and leaders, 40 Navsarjan women got transport loans. For every single woman, as for most rural and urban poor women, it was the first time in their lives they were getting something so big, entirely and solely for themselves. Not for their families. Nor for their kids. These scooters were solely for them. It had an immense and immediate effect." The mobility was transformative and liberating. It gave the women a new found freedom.

"They learnt to ride cycles quickly. They loved the challenge. And then they started with their scooters." Manjula recalled. The pleasure on her face was evident. "For the first time, our Dalit women were mobile. It gave them a new sense of power. I enjoyed going with them to choose a scooter. Within Navsarjan, we started giving women positions of power. First locally, then at Block level and slowly at State level."

Perpetrators declared guilty
"We took on more cases of sexual trafficking and violence. People began to come to us automatically for legal help. They realised we were there for them. A 14 year old Dalit girl, 7th grade, from Bavla town ran away with a Muslim man who promised to marry her. She believed he loved her. The man kept her prisoner for a month and beat her viciously with chains on her legs. He raped her every day. Word got around in the village and the headman promised to rescue her. He took her on his motorbike at night, then stopped in a lonely place and raped her before selling her to a Patel. This new Patel man raped her for some days and then sold her to a Brahmin. Finally, she managed to escape."

Navsarjan filed a case, but unsurprisingly, the investigating officer did nothing. "I wrote to the National Womenís Commission and National Human Rights Commission." Manjula recalled. "They responded by issuing a notice. The Deputy Superintendent of Police was suspended. A new officer was appointed. He swiftly took action. Arrested the accused."

"We admitted the girl in our hostel," Manjula continued. "She completed the 7th class. It was a challenge. What next? We put her into DSK (Dalit Shakti Kendra) our centre for Dalit Empowerment. She learnt stitching. It was not easy for her. The family didnít want her back. She had brought dishonour and disgrace to their name, they said."
A medical team was called in to identify her and certify that she was a minor, had been raped and was a victim of trafficking. She had been kidnapped, raped and trafficked during the end of December 2007. Finally, four full years later, the judgement was passed in January 2012. The perpetrators were pronounced guilty.

"These incidents of rape and sexual and domestic violence continue. A 19 year old Dalit Shakti Kendra student was burnt to death. Our own student. Her parents forced her to go back to her in-laws house, in spite of her fears of the previous beatings and threats. In spite of her numerous pleas to let her return home."

Continuing struggle
Manjula is quite clear about her role. "We have to give our girls moral and emotional support and strength to get out of bad marriages before they are killed. We need good counsellors for our girls who have been battered, traumatised and burnt in domestic violence cases. A completely different level of counselling is required for raped and trafficked victims.
"The battle for womens' rights never ends. We just have to go on fighting. Till our society undergoes a complete change and can protect our girls and women," Manjula concluded.

And so the battle continues.

Mari Thekaekara

(interviewed Manjula Pradeep on 28th April 2014)

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