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Battle against odds

Amid oppressive patriarchy in Haryana’s Mewat, a young Dalit woman is fighting to keep her dream alive and striving to get justice for her 12-year-old niece

As one travels southwards in Haryana, the green of the Jat belt gives way to the arid landscape of Mewat region. The lower Aravallis begin to ascend in the horizon and mosque minarets become as frequent as temple spires. At the heart of Mewat is Nuh, the “least developed district of Haryana” according to a 2015 study sponsored by Niti Aayog.

Mewat has long been associated with skewed sex ratios, poor health infrastructure, and dismal literacy rates. In the 1990s, Sonia Gandhi famously proclaimed at a Delhi rally that just 80 km from the capital lay a town where female literacy hovered in the single digits. She was talking about Nuh.

Only 36 per cent of Nuh’s women are literate, according to the 2011 census, up from 24 per cent a decade earlier. Men do much better in Mewat’s patriarchal society: about 70 per cent of them can read and write. “The Meo Muslims have been the most lacking when it comes to educating women,” noted Deen Mohammad, 58, a Meo activist in Nuh who has been campaigning for female literacy for over two decades.

Mewat is demographically dominated by the Meo Muslims, who are engaged chiefly in agriculture. “The Hindus in Mewat have been more enterprising in this than us,” Deen Mohammad said. “The census says 36 per cent of Mewati women are literate but the figure for Meo women is around 22 per cent.” Indeed, even Hindu Dalit women do better than Meo women, boasting a literacy rate of around 54 per cent.

Mewat’s women, the National Crime Records Bureau’s data indicates, face widespread domestic and sexual violence. The region, after all, is notorious for the Paro system: women are trafficked from across India and sold into lifelong bonded labour here.

“Cases of sexual assault have come down in the neighbourhood since my granddaughter was assaulted,” said Laxmidevi, 68. “We sent her to Alwar to study a month after the attack. She stays in a girls’ hostel and we meet her once a month. We haven’t told anyone about it.”

Her granddaughter, 12, was assaulted by four men in July this year when she ventured to buy curd. The men, who had dragged the girl into an abandoned house, have since been caught and imprisoned.

The media coverage of the incident left a lot to be desired. Besides getting the facts wrong, national newspapers published unverified gossip. The Times of India reported that the girl had gone to meet one of the accused, whom she knew. It was just repackaging of the local gossip that she was in a relationship with one of the accused named Tassa, 24.

Hindustan Times went further, claiming that contrary to the victim’s testimony, her medical examination had ruled out rape. This despite the investigating officer, Deputy Superintendent of Police Dharambir Singh, insisting that the “final opinion” of the doctors was awaited.

“She became quiet and anxious after the incident,” Laxmidevi said of her granddaughter. “I would not send her out for groceries after that. Even my daughter goes to work with her cousin now.”

Laxmidevi, her daughter, 25, and granddaughter call a small, cramped house in one of Nuh’s narrow bylanes their home. Laxmidevi has lived here for nearly six decades. Hers is one of around 300 Jatav Dalit families in the area. The house comprises a dimly lit room on the ground floor and a corresponding room on the floor above. The room on the ground floor has a small fridge, a single bed, a khaat, a temple, and cemented shelves stacked with utensils, old books and diaries.

On a wall hangs a portrait of Laxmidevi’s son Purohit, who died 12 years ago. “He was a halwai. We sent him to Old Delhi to learn the profession under some relatives,” she said. “When he came back, he had become an alcoholic. After some months, his behaviour became inexplicable. He developed some mental illness and died soon after. His wife had a second marriage, and left us.” They left behind their infant daughter, the victim.

To provide for her granddaughter and then teenage daughter, Laxmidevi began working as a domestic help. The work dried up, however, after she had surgery for cataract. She then took up cooking at functions and weddings. When this correspondent met her, she was cooking pooris at the mansion of the local BJP legislator Zakir Hussain. In the run up to the Assembly election, on October 21, Hussain was hosting guests from across Haryana, and Laxmidevi and other elderly women from the neighbourhood had been employed to cook for them.

“They are all old women who have been trying to earn a living after their husbands died or abandoned them,” Laxmidevi said of her fellow workers. “Some of them have husbands that are drunkards and do not work, so they have to run their families.”

In Nuh, it is hard for women to access justice, let alone get it. After her granddaughter’s assault, Laxmidevi’s family approached the police but did not receive any help. It was only the next day, after much back and forth, that the police filed a case against the accused.

At Nuh’s police station, this correspondent witnessed the helplessness of women complainants first hand. A woman in her early 30s who was sitting hunched outside the station said she had travelled all the way from Faridabad to have a case of domestic violence filed against her family. The Faridabad police hadn’t helped, so she had come to Nuh.

But the Nuh police too refused to file an FIR. Asked about it, they said the woman was probably lying and they would not risk the prospect of her retracting the statement later.

“This is not a movie where you think these women are innocent victims, sir,” a police official said. “They are evolved deceivers.”

The woman, who tried desperately to prove her victimhood, was shooed away and told to get a statement written from the nearby market. “We won’t write her statement ourselves,” a police officer said.

When Laxmidevi’s daughter started college in Gurgaon, she realised that it was alright for women to wear jeans and top. She was 19 then and hoped to become a lecturer and live in Gurgaon, away from the prying eyes of Nuh.

She is 25 now and, for the past three years, working as an information assistant at a Primary Health Centre in a nearby village. “I am the first person in my family to go to college,” she said, beaming with pride. “I have a master’s degree in political science and I funded my education myself.”

Three years ago, before her job started taking up the bulk of her day, she would teach children in her neighbourhood, earning a small sum to contribute to household income. She wanted her niece to become a doctor and would make her sit with her while she taught. She also made some money doing makeup for women and sewing. But her mother’s failing health and niece’s rising education expenses forced her to pause her dream of becoming a lecturer and find a steady job.

“I had been through this before,” she said, reflecting on her aspirations that didn’t materialise, “I loved math when I was in school. I wanted to pursue it for my higher studies. I dreamt of becoming a mathematician one day. But I had to opt for political science because the science stream was too costly. I still love solving complex math problems when I find time.”

She’s the family’s primary breadwinner now. Her salary of Rs 12,000 goes into running the household, her niece’s education, her mother’s medicines. She even spares a little to provide for three children in the neighbourhood whose mother left them last month. In Nuh, when the father falls to alcoholism or death, the mother often runs away in search of a new life; the children who are orphaned overnight are looked after by the community.

“It can become very hard to live here,” she complained. “People are narrow-minded and the neighbourhood is extremely concerned with what a woman wears, who she talks to and when she comes back home. And when you do not have a father or a brother, everyone around tries to fill that role in your life.”

If this wasn’t toxic enough, she said, the “society” likes to start and spread rumours. “It happened when my niece was assaulted. There were whispers about her having an affair with the rapist. It even happened when a six-year-old in the neighbourhood was assaulted. It’s very foul. Here, if I come home from work after 5 pm, I become ‘characterless’.”

Unfortunately, such rumours are not merely whispers. At the Nuh District Court, officials regurgitated the rumours of the 12-year-old’s affair almost casually. “Nothing big happened in that case, sir,” said one of the officials who worked in the courtroom where the case was being heard. “This girl was having an affair with that man. When she went to meet him, he got three others along and they gangraped her.”

Are there court records that back his claims? “It’s not in the records,” the official replied. “These are not facts as such, but I live in the area where she was assaulted and that is what I have heard.”

The trial of the four men started early this month, without the girl’s family being informed. On October 15, a neighbour told Laxmidevi’s daughter that one of the accused had been granted bail. The family hasn’t slept well since. “I know Tassa by his face and he knows me,” she said, “What if he were to come here and harm me or my mother?”

At the court, Newslaundry learnt that Tassa got bail because the FIR and the girl’s statement only mentioned three men. In July, however, the Nuh police had told Newslaundry that the three prime accused admitted that a fourth person, Tassa, was with them. In fact, Tassa had fled to Hyderabad when the case was filed and he was arrested weeks after the rest of the accused.

So, was this confession not produced before the court? The family doesn’t know. “They haven’t been helping us either,” Laxmidevi’s daughter said. “We don’t know who our lawyer is. When we go to the police station, they say the details of the case are online. But I do not understand most of what it says.”

Newslaundry visited the Nuh police station and tried contacting the superintendent of police, his deputy, and SHO. They were busy with the election, their secretaries said after repeated calls.

“I think I can only get out of Nuh when I get married,” Laxmidevi’s daughter said. “Mother has been looking for bachelors but many of them won’t entertain the prospect given what happened with my niece. Her assault brought stigma to our family. People stopped talking to us for a while.”

“There was one boy from Delhi,” Laxmidevi cut in, “but he was asking for a lot in dowry. They either want a car, or an extravagant reception ceremony. Now pray, tell me, how are we supposed to raise that kind of money?”

Her daughter wished her brother or father were alive, for then their family’s condition would have been much. “I wouldn’t be going to the PMC every day, filling out birth and death certificates. I wouldn’t have had to put with with boredom and discrimination at work,” she said. “This job is a compulsion. Not just mine, even my niece’s life would have been better. Our family had confidence before the incident. It’s gone now.”

What discrimination does she face at work? Her superiors are partial towards those who have landed the job because of “family or political connections”, she claimed. She wouldn’t have minded, she added, but for the fact that much of the dull work ends up on her desk as a result.

In the grey environs of Nuh, she has nurtured a forbidden romance with reality TV shows. She loves Bigg Boss, Splitsvilla and Roadies, and looks up to celebrities such as Salman Zaidi and Prince Narula. After all, they too made it big despite coming from humble beginnings, she noted. Laxmidevi nudged her to try her luck with Roadies one day. Asha giggled.

She has even tried her hand at social media. “I’m on Facebook. But I haven’t put up my picture,” she paused. Why not? “Sometimes women do that and it reaches the four corners of Nuh. People come and tell you this or that boy has made your picture his phone’s wallpaper. It becomes a big issue.”

When Deen Mohammad started a movement to educate girls in Mewat in 1992, he faced stiff opposition. Female literacy then, he recalled, was barely one per cent among the Meo Muslims and about 12 per cent among the Dalits. “The community leaders were the main impediment to change here. They felt threatened. They wanted education, but their kind of education,” he said. “Mewatis need to realise that we can only go forward if our women receive modern education and grow independent.”

Over a quarter century on, he is a satisfied man. “At 36 per cent, our literacy rates are still low. Education is even lower. But since we are here after arising from nothing, I can sleep well,” he said.

He is proud of women who have benefitted from his campaigning, like Laxmidevi’s daughter. At 25, she has already suffered the loss of loved ones, the dissipation of her dreams, the crippling health of her mother, a dastardly assault on her niece, misrepresentation by the media, discrimination at work, indifference from institutions meant to serve justice, the everyday oppession by her society.

Through all this, she has educated herself, secured the safety and education of her niece, and sustained her mother. She has battled tragedies and recreated aspirations. “When I was doing my bachelors, my principal was a very forward-looking and inspiring man,” she said. “As opposed to the currents in Nuh, he encouraged us to go out more, see the world, do what we loved. And that is what I want to do once I get out of Mewat. And I will very soon.”

Some names have been changed to protect identities

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