By Yogesh Vajpeyi, Womens Feature Service
“I feel like something that has been used, abused by the world and then discarded,” says Munni Devi, a widow of Behmai village in the Kanpur Dehat district of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Behmai was in the news 28 years ago when Phoolan Devi and her gang of dacoits gunned down 20 men on February 14, 1981, in this very village.
Like most girls in the region, Munni was only 13 when her parents married her off to Lal Singh, a 14-year-old boy from Behmai, on February 2, 1981. Local custom required her to continue living with her parents in Tengua village across the river Jamuna in the neighbouring Jalaun district, until her ‘gauna’ (second marriage ceremony after a year or two in which the groom takes the bride to his home).
The teen bride was preparing for her new life, but fate had some other plans in store for her. She was still in her parents’ home when news came in of the infamous Behmai massacre, in which her husband too was killed. “I had not even seen his face. I only got to see his dead body,” she recalls.
A year later, tragedy struck young Munni’s life once again – this time she lost her parents. And before she could come to terms with her loss, she had to pack her bags and shift to the home of her husband’s parents in Behmai. That was 28 years ago.
The helplessness and grief that Munni Devi felt that year has not faded with time. In fact, abject poverty and memories of the tragedy have made her life unbearable. “I have nowhere to go. I have no child to support me. I receive no pension from the government. I am at the mercy of God and my in-laws,” she wails.
Immediately after the killings, almost the entire state government machinery had descended on the crime scene. Led by then chief minister, Viswanath Pratap Singh, the administration promised jobs to the relatives of the victims and pensions to the widows. Nearly three decades have passed and none of the 12 surviving Behmai widows receive any pension today. Only one relative from each victim’s family has been given a constable’s job in the state police.
“We did receive a pension of Rs 25 (US$1=Rs 48.6) per month for a couple of years, but then it stopped. We approached district officials in faraway Kanpur city but ended up spending money over futile journeys without any results,” recalls Santoshi Devi, 60, who had helplessly watched husband Banwari pleading for his life before being gunned down.
Behmai is a hamlet of nearly 300 households, situated precariously on the ravines of the Yamuna river – the southern most part of the Chambal valley, notorious for its dacoit gangs since times immemorial. Besides subsistence agriculture, animal husbandry is the only source of livelihood for the Chaurasi Thakur community that dominates the village’s social life. Those killed in the 1981 carnage included 17 Thakurs, one Muslim, one Dalit and one belonging to the OBC (Other Backward Classes) community.
Contrary to the generally held belief, the Chaurasi Thakurs of Behmai are not upper-caste Thakurs but reconverts from Islam, who had been excommunicated by the Thakurs when they first embraced Islam. Unlike the regular Thakurs, who have been dominant landholders in the region for centuries, this community has fragmented landholdings. Also, they are confined to 84 (‘chaurasi’ in Hindi) villages in the Etawah, Kanpur Dehat and Jalaun districts of UP and they marry only amongst themselves. Although excommunicated from the Thakur community, this isolated group follows Brahmanical cultural norms characterised by an adherence to the practice of child marriage and opposition to widow remarriage.
The Behmai massacre was never out of the limelight. As the Phoolan Devi legend grew, movies were made and even political parties became active here. But nobody cared to remember the tears of Behmai’s widows. With no help coming from either the state or society, these women have today given up all hope of any support.
In the celluloid version of the massacre (Shekhar Kapur’s ‘Bandit Queen’), Behmai was depicted as a village inhabited by brutal rapists and this deflected attention from the plight of the widows. In politics, while Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party used Phoolan Devi as an icon of a low caste women’s fight for social justice, his rivals paraded the Behmai widows for counter mobilisation of the upper caste Thakur communities. They even erected a Shaheed Sthal (martyrs’ memorial) at the carnage spot, where local politicians make ritualistic visits on February 14 every year.
But it is all shadow play. The continuing and unmitigated plight of these widows represents the failure of the state and its criminal justice system. “Victim’s suffering, reparation and rehabilitation are essentially matters of criminal justice system. Apart from undue hardships the victims face, failure on this count can result in their alienation and non-cooperation with the justice system or, worse, cause them to take law into their own hands,” says Bharat B. Das, author of the book, ‘Victims in Criminal Justice System’.
This is exactly what happened in the case of Behmai. To avenge the killing of Behmai’s Thakurs, Phoolan’s rivals raided the neighbouring Astah village in Auriaya district, inhabited by people from her caste, the ‘Mallahs’, and perpetrated another massacre.
A growing number of experts feel that the Indian criminal justice is oriented towards safeguarding the rights of the offenders and not those of the victims. Though there is provision for compensation to victims, the police, the judiciary as well as the state, are primarily focused on the conviction of the offender and not the plight of the victims.
A classic study of ‘Compensation to the Victims of Dacoit Gangs in Chambal Valley’, by Saugar University sociologists D.P. Singh and D.R. Jatar, underlines this. After a scrutiny of 184 victims, the researchers found that a majority of the victims received no compensation or just paltry sums after considerable delay. “The victims, especially poor villagers, reported considerable difficulty in obtaining government help. They also complained that they had to bribe officials,” wrote Singh and Jatar.
The Behmai widows present another paradox. Since they are not direct victims of the crimes perpetrated by the dacoits, they are not visible.
Mahadei, widow of Ram Singh Shakya, who belongs to an OBC caste, underlines the poignancy of the situation she, and others like her, face in this region of the country: “When her man dies, a woman is invariably left to die forever.”