Sixteen-year-old Sunita Murmu is quite the celebrity in her locality these days. The teenager had the courage to approach the remote Mohammadbazar police station in Birbhum, one of West Bengal’s most backward districts, and lodged a complaint against the powerful criminal elements within her community.
She did not stop there. Young Sunita also ensured that these men were arrested for sexually harassing, torturing and ostracising her.
When Sunita was just another tribal girl with little education, she lived quietly in a male-dominated society. She had no idea of her rights and spent her days working as a daily wage labourer to support her parents. And like most girls her age, she too fell in love. Her life turned into a nightmare the day she got involved with a non-tribal boy from the nearby village. The local tribal panchayat discovered the affair in June last year.
The self-proclaimed panchayat met and decided on what they thought could be the only punishment for her romantic attachment. She was stripped publicly and made to walk around the village while being jeered at and sexually harassed by the villagers. Those who were involved in the heinous crime even went a step further. They took photographs and videos of her in that situation, which were later made into multi-media messages. They sent the pictures to everyone in the village to ensure that no other village girl would dare to repeat Sunita’s “crime.”
Not one person came forward to help the traumatised young girl. The authorities at the nearby Mohammadbazaar police station did not bother to come to her rescue. As for her shocked parents, they too could be of little assistance. The incident lasted for about two hours. She was made to walk for around eight kilometres after which she was literally dumped. Plucking up whatever courage she had left, Sunita made her way back home only to be taunted by her neighbours and others. No case was registered against her attackers and no one dared to defy the tribal panchayat’s diktat.
Since the leaders of the community had been involved in the crime, all evidence was tampered. For two months Sunita lived in a corner of her hut, left in isolation and generally neglected. It was during those dark days that she made up her mind to raise her voice for justice. When she told her parents that she wanted to see action being taken against her culprits, they tried hard to dissuade her. Her parents even kept her secluded and tried to divert her attention to other matters.
Meanwhile, the MMSes were still being circulated within the community. All those close to her family suggested that she had to forget everything.
When the police came knocking at her door to conduct an inquiry two months later, she was dissuaded by her family to cooperate with the investigation. But Sunita decided to go it alone and fight all the way. She told the police everything what had happened and lodged a formal complaint. But there was no evidence except for the MMSes that were doing the rounds. No one was ready to testify.
Sunita was so determined to file the case. Just two days after filing the complaint, six suspects were arrested. These culprits, barely out of their teens, had incited the crowd and later influenced people to keep quiet.
Fearing a backlash from the community, Sunita was sent to a government welfare home called the “Pushparag” in Rampurhat. She continues to be there, trying to pick up the pieces of her life. She has also now learnt weaving and embroidery. The district administration has opened a savings account for her.
When the district administration decided to propose her name for the National Bravery awards, it was a proud moment for Sunita.
“It is an unusual case because despite being a victim, Sunita fought for herself. We decided to propose her name as she has not just taken on criminals but has also stood up against organised crime, regressive and outdated values and self-proclaimed, unauthorised panchayat-like bodies,” says Saumitra Mohan, the district magistrate of Birbhum.
Today Sunita is one among the 26 children who has been honoured by President Pratibha Patil with the National Bravery Award for her exemplary act of courage. The award is conferred annually by the Indian Council of Child Welfare to children for their acts of courage in everyday life.
Many of her family members still refuse to talk to her. The culprits are out on bail and the local people say that her life could be in danger in her Santhal village of Burtola, where most people are daily wagers. However Sunita remains unfazed.
Fortunately, even though her own village is shying away from taking back its courageous daughter, her story is bringing smiles to the faces of many girls in the region.
But things are slowly changing. Voices are now being raised in her support. Women organisations are demanding that Sunita be rehabilitated within the community.