By Renu Rakesh, Womens Feature Service
At around 9.30 pm on April 21, 2008, Asu Kanwar, 14, a teenager discreetly visited a public calling booth to telephone Indu Chopra in Jodhpur. “Some 200 people are holding a siege outside my village Nedhana and are threatening to kidnap me if I don’t comply,” she sobbed into the phone. The girl said she feared for her life, if she didn’t agree to marry the 40-year-old physically-challenged farmer, Sawai Singh.
At the other end, Indu Chopra, an official with Rajasthan’s Women and Child Development Department, was already thinking of how to rescue Asu from her inaccessible village. Undaunted, Chopra pressed the administrative machinery into action and in the dark of the night had Asu and her mother Kuku Kanwar transported to Pilwa, 20 kilometres from their home. The two were then taken to Jodhpur the next day.
As Asu – a primary school drop-out and the eldest of six children of a poor cattle herder who was also a drug addict – made the 140-kilometre jeep ride from Shergarh tehsil to Jodhpur, she had no idea that she was actually on her way to winning a National Bravery Award, the Bapu Gayadhani Award. Asu was conferred the honour, along with 19 other awardees, by Mohammad Hamid Ansari, Vice President of India, at a ceremony in New Delhi this January.
Despite the recognition for her outstanding courage, Asu, along with her family, still faces much opposition from the community. Twenty families in their village are still to come to terms with what they term a rebellion. Chopra says, “We still have a long way ahead. The award is a recognition of her bravery against a deep-rooted malaise among the Rajputs in the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer belt, but the award has only angered her community further. The 20 families that are still against her are angry and feel that the award has brought them national disrepute.”
Had it not been for her defiance, Asu’s tale would have been nothing out of the ordinary in Western Rajasthan, especially Jaisalmer, where the traditions of child marriage and female infanticide are rampant. Two years ago, when 38-year-old Sawai Singh of Medhana village in Jaisalmer district consented to marry his daughter, Bhom Singh, Asu’s father, readily agreed. That the groom was around thrice Asu’s age and severally handicapped did not matter to Bhom Singh at the time. Aware of his poverty and inability to provide a dowry, he agreed to the deal: the groom “bought” Asu, who was 12 years old, for Rs 49,000 (US$1=Rs 48.8) and a gold necklace. On learning of the deal, the young Asu protested and gradually convinced her parents to go against the match.
When Sawai Singh learnt of Bhom Singh’s intentions to renege on his promise, he approached the ‘panchayat’ (village council). Some 200-odd panchayat members besieged Bhom Singh’s house and pressed him to fulfill his promise or bear the fine of Rs 3,00,000 along with excommunication from the community.
Asu’s frantic call to Chopra set the government machinery into action. Chopra kept Asu and her mother in Jodhpur for 10 days and then approached the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Rajiv Dasot, for protection. The IGP sent wireless messages to SPs in rural Jaisalmer and Jodhpur to produce the participants of the caste ‘panchayat’ in his office on May 10, 2008.
As a result of police intervention, Sawai Singh was the lone man standing, with the ‘panches’ washing their hands off the matter and declining to appear at the IG office. Sawai Singh agreed to nullify the “deal” and Bhom Singh returned the money and the necklace.
“Most girls of Asu’s age in these areas are already widows. Married in childhood to older men, they are destined to the difficult life of a widow because Rajput customs don’t allow re-marriage,” says Chopra, who recommended Asu Kanwar’s name to the Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW), the body at the helm of the National Bravery Awards.
Sunita Bhati, in charge of Kshatriya Mahasabha, a Rajput body in Jodhpur, talks about mismatched marriages in areas such as Jaisalmer, Pokaran, Phalodi and Shergarh and admits the practice is deep-rooted. “Poverty and illiteracy are other reasons for such alliances. In Jaisalmer, girls are not sent to school beyond the primary level because there are very few all-girls schools. Therefore, they are married off in childhood,” she says.
Bhati, a post-graduate in political science, is considered a progressive Rajput woman. She says, “By a rough estimate, every year, on ‘askhay tritiya’, a day which does not require any astrological calculations to solemnise marriages, marriages take place in almost every family in the border areas.”
At a recent function in Ajmer, T.V. Antony, Advisor, National Population Control Programme, and former chief secretary, Tamil Nadu said that nearly 50 per cent of marriages in the state occur before the girl reaches the age of 18. In Rajasthan, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, came into effect from November 1, 2007, as a notification of The Rajasthan Prohibition of Child Marriage Rules, 2007. As per the Act, a male adult above 18 years of age, who contracts a child marriage, shall face rigorous imprisonment, which may extend to two years, with a fine that may extend to Rs 1,00,000, or both. This came into effect after the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 was repealed.
“But,” laments Kavita Srivastava, General Secretary, Public Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), “under the Act, a sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) is to be made the Child Marriage Protection Officer. However, this revenue official is already burdened with thousands of other responsibilities and preventing a child marriage is the last item on his agenda.”
In the meantime, Asu Kanwar is in Jodhpur. Officials of the state Women and Child Development Department and the police will try to get her family back into the village fold, but Chopra is not sure if that will happen anywhere in the near future.