India sex murder exposes brutality of politics

An Indian sex murder has been bumping around the front pages for months now. But it took a smart feminist from India's Communist Party to make it resonate.

Here are the bare bones of the story.

Bhanwari Devi, an attractive woman who had risen to get a comfortable job as a nurse and midwife from an underprivileged background as one of India's erstwhile untouchables, approached a local politician named Malkhan Singh to see if he could prevent her from being transferred to a distant area. Singh allegedly agreed to “do the needful,” as they say in India, if Devi had sex with him.

They sealed the deal and sealed the deal. But then Devi produced a “sex CD” and offered to sell it back to the politician. Some time later, in September 2011, Devi disappeared. She was presumed dead. Singh, Devi's husband, and several others were arrested. The “sex CD” aired on some of the more salacious news channels.

Then the case went cold – until this month when a suspect helped Rajasthan police divers to find Bhanwari's watch, pieces of burned bones, a tooth, a broken locket and a toe ring from the canal where her body was set on fire.

The stuff of a thousand airport thrillers, so far, and grist for an upcoming Bollywood flick starring Bipasha Basu. But here's where the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) politburo member Brinda Karat makes it interesting.

It turns out that the media, and to some extent the court system, is putting Devi on trial as surely as her killers (some 11 or so conspirators, at my last count). The logic apparently runs that she doesn't deserve justice because she was a blackmailer, and reneging on a deal to boot – the sex was consensual wasn't it? But as Karat phrases it, “In all [these] scenarios, it is Bhanwari Devi’s caste, character and behaviour, which are at the centre of public attention.”

Firstly, there is the blatant use of power for sexual gratification. Secondly, the contacts a cabinet minister had with criminal, murderous gangs. The third issue concerns the long delay in taking action against him — his removal from the cabinet and the party was only because of the court hearings. This is linked to the fourth issue, the blatant use of caste to demean the woman on the one hand and to valorise the minister, on the other. If criminals are to continue in office because of the fear of a fallout on caste-based considerations, surely it is a far more dangerous development for our system than the failed efforts of a woman to get a return, even if it is through blackmail, for what she had provided.

Now maybe, just maybe, a scapegoat or two will be put behind bars for Devi's murder. But it's hard to call it justice.

While there is hardly any discussion on these issues, there are no holds barred on the character assassination of Bhanwari Devi. For example, it was widely reported that CBI officials had found evidence that “the nurse had amassed huge amounts of wealth through blackmail.” We now know that this is far from the truth. With their father in jail, the three children are now entirely dependent on the old-age pension of their grandmother, and as a result, have discontinued going to school. In fact, in an unusual and compassionate gesture, investigation officials have donated part of their reward money to help the children. The Rajasthan government also has made known its decision to provide assistance to them.

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