Dakan! Fighting violence against women

Over the years, the women's movement in Rajasthan has had some success in making violence against women into an important political issue. Activists have forced political parties and governments to demonstrate that they are addressing this constituency, which the media has dubbed 'Mahila Sangathan'. Important landmarks include the campaign against sati following the Roop Kanwar incident in Deorala in 1987, in which Roop Kanwar had been pushed into the funeral pyre. That campaign finally forced the Rajasthan government to pass a law against the issue of glorification of sati, in turn replaced by a new central law, the Commission of Sati Prevention Act, in 1987. Another significant issue was the movement for justice for Bhanwari Devi, a sathin (a worker in the government's Women Development Programme) who was gang-raped in 1992 by upper-caste men for attempting to stop a child marriage. This gradually grew, by 1996, into a full-fledged movement to counter violence against women, which resulted in women's groups establishing themselves as a political constituency.

Over the past two decades, state governments in Rajasthan have been forced to address significant issues in relation to violence against women. The latest move is the announcement of the Rajasthan Women (Prevention and Protection from Atrocities) Bill, 2011. The proposed law is an overarching legislation, bringing together several different and distinct atrocities under the purview of one umbrella legislation. One of the most discussed measures has been the provisions against witch-hunting, so much so that the law has been dubbed an anti-witch-hunting law.

As has been pointed out by activists, the sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) – Section 323, for voluntarily causing hurt, which attracts one year imprisonment and Rs 1000 fine; and Section 141 which deals with unlawful assembly – under which the accused are booked when a woman is declared a dakan (witch) and subjected to torture do not adequately address the crime, and a special law was clearly required. Normally, the accused are booked under simple bailable sections of the IPC, or the police might simply get restraining orders against the accused. Neither of these are adequate, given that they cannot address the grave nature of the actual offences: such attacks can endanger the life of the woman; she might be dispossessed and thrown out of her home; her entire family could face a social boycott.

Certain features are common to cases in which women are declared to be witches in Rajasthan. The precipitating reason is usually that a child, or several children, fall sick, perhaps followed by death. While this might be the ostensible case for a particular woman being declared a witch, in a majority of instances the underlying motive is to drive the woman and her family out of the area, often in order to grab her land and property. Analysis by women's groups has shown that the targeted women were usually single (mostly widows), bold and forthright in their social interactions, and often childless. Few in the village will stand by such women when they come under an accusation. Further, the label of dakan is more often than not directed towards Dalit and Adivasi women.

Take the example of Dakha Bai of Rampura Khurd in Dausa district. In 2005, she contested – and lost – the panchayat ward member elections; seven months later, she was declared a dakan by some people in the village. Further exploration shows that her family had refused to give away some of their land for a road that the villagers had wanted. Then, when a child in the village died, powerful groups in the village declared her a witch, and she was mercilessly beaten up. The police refused to help. She continued to be severely harassed, until women's groups came to her aid. Although the police managed to book all of the concerned people for the offence, and even sent them to jail, Dakha, who defied the rest of the village and continued to live in Rampura Khurd, is still regarded as a dakan by the villagers, with all the stigma that this brings.

Another example is Kamla Bai of Manpura, in Tonk district, who was declared a witch by her husband, son and daughter-in-law when she refused to part with her land. Thereafter, the whole village beat her up, branded her and blamed her for all their ills. Even Kamla's unmarried daughter joined in condemning her, saying that nobody would be willing to marry her now that her mother had been declared a dakan. Kamla was finally forced out of her home and has since moved to a nearby town.

Kamla's daughter's anxiety are understandable. The institution of branding women dakans is so widespread, and the blot on a woman and her family's reputation so strong, that a woman's daughters and even grand-daughters can also be declared dakans as time progresses. Women's organisations have documented cases where a woman was declared a witch and subjected to violence, only to receive the same treatment again ten years later.

Fight the myth

The impetus for the women's movement to work on this issue came from several women's groups studying this issue. One of the organisations in central Rajasthan, the Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti, found that, in 2000, in their work area in Deoli (Tonk district) and the Kekri area of Ajmer district, six women were killed after being branded dakans. These women's lives could have been saved if the police had acted promptly and effectively. With the anger against the state institutions' inaction providing an impetus, a campaign built up around the demand for a special law with preventive sections, specifically listing various acts of violence against women, with provisions for stringent punishment as well as reparations.

Several previous attempts at new legislation had failed, even though the Rajasthan State Women's Commission has been seized of the matter since 2004. The new proposed law specifically covers situations wherein a woman is declared a dakan, and accusing a woman in this way would be punishable with imprisonment up to three years. There are progressively stiffer punishments if the woman is displaced from her home or property, if she commits suicide as a result, or if she is killed for allegedly being a witch; the latter is treated as a case of murder. The law also provides for acting against local witch doctors, known as ojhas or tantriks, who declare a woman to be possessed and perform rituals to 'exorcise' the evil spirits.

While these elements in the draft bill are clear positive steps, many are now concerned with the state government's ability to seriously implement the law. Given that many of the crimes it covers are community-based, the government and the State Assembly would have to go against the caste and village panchayats. In turn, this would threaten strong caste-based vote-banks that legislators in the assembly have long used to get elected. This situation has led to serious doubts over whether the bill will ever be passed, and, if passed, whether it will ever be implemented.

But while a strong law, effectively implemented, would certainly help to curb such crimes against women, the challenge before the women's movement today remains the same as it has been for years: questioning the entire myth related to dakans and other such superstitions that victimise women in a way that is uniquely Subcontinental in present times.

Kavita Srivastava is the president of the Rajasthan chapter of the Peoples' Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).

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