The Dignity March

Survivors of sexual assault are marching 10,000 kilometres for the revolution our society needs

“I have already spoken about this”, chuckled Bhanwari Devi. She is visibly tired, tired of speaking about the same thing for the past 20-25 years in different platforms – at a press conference earlier today, in countless court sessions over the years, in front of the CBI, in front of apathetic police officers, in front of ignorant medical officers. Nevertheless, she speaks. She speaks loudly but her voice trails off in a feeble note after every word. It is shaky and yet the room — filled with activists, survivors, and listeners like me listen to her in pin-drop silence. She adjusts her pallu from time to time, and with a straight face recounts for the umpteenth time- the incident that happened to her all the way back in 1992 Bhateri, Rajasthan.

“Aapna abhiyaan de gareeb abhiyaan, toh aapan bohut badi safalta milegi.

Aur sab juth ek bhai behen, sab ek juth rehan chaiye apan”

(Our movement is a movement of and for the poor, and we will obtain success

To be together in this, as brothers and sisters is all that is required)

She was working under the state government’s Women Development Programme and her job was to report instances of child marriage in her village and create awareness for the same. When she came across an upper caste family who wanted to get their nine-year-old child married off, she didn’t think twice before reporting the same.

A few days later, she was gang-raped by five men from the same family, in the presence of her husband. She did the unthinkable, at that time, and decided to file a case against her rapists. This was a first in Rajasthan, in the year 1992. After five years, the Vishakha Guidelines culminating with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 came into being. The Supreme Court laid down what is and isn’t considered as sexual harassment but as with most laws in our country, it did not manage to modify our social consciousness.

Bhanwari Devi addressing the gathering

Recounting her conversation with the police officer who lodged her FIR and afterwards with the CBI, Devi narrates the interchange:

 Police officer: “Aap jante ho madam kaise hota hai balatkaar?(Madam, do you even know how a rape happens?)

“Haan sir, main jaanti hoon, main batau aapko?” (Yes sir, I know. Shall I tell you?)

Police officer: “Arey nhi, nhi, nhi…” (Arey no, no…)

CBI: “Aacha tere saath kya hua tha, batao, fatafat batao.” (Okay, what all happened with you? Tell quickly)

“Arey fatafat kahe batau? Case tu puch liyo. Do minute ruko toh main batati hu kaise hota hai balatkar.” (Arey, why should I tell you quickly? Atleast ask the details of the case. Wait for two minutes sir and I will tell you how a rape occurs)

She thunders her dislike for the CBI and urges everyone not to approach them for their attitude which is humiliating, to say the least. Devi has since changed five villages; she was ostracised by her community, she was offered one lakh rupees to stay silent but today 26 years on, the 57-year old continues to fight for her case with undiminishing energy, although justice seems like a long lost dream. In November 1995, the court acquitted the accusers by mentioning absurd reasons which included that ‘a village head cannot rape’, ‘men of different castes cannot participate in a gang rape’ and ‘older men of 60-70 years cannot rape’ among others.


Nevertheless, Bhanwari Devi is optimistic about the Dignity March, this social revolution. “The cause is greater”, she says, “than each one of us and will live on even after I die”

“Ladenge, jeetenge. Hum humara haq maangte, nhi kisi se bheekh maangte!”

(We’ll fight, we’ll win. We ask for our rights, we don’t beg from anyone)


Garima Abhiyaan (Dignity March), an initiative by New Delhi based NGO Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan, hasn’t garnered much media attention. It took its first step on 20th December and plans to cover a distance of 10,000 kilometres, traversing through 200 districts and 24 states and union territories to finally arrive at New Delhi on 22nd February. Close to 5000 survivors from all across the country came to Mumbai – Bhanwari Devi and Janaki Bai among them.

Their demands? Not only for medico-legal changes but changes in the social fabric as well. To stop victim shaming and blaming and shift the same towards the perpetrator, something which society still cowers away from. Because it is pretty evident by now that mere laws and regulations have never managed to change our belief systems. This march is also a call for survivors, especially from the marginalised backgrounds. The march reached Bangalore on 26th December and was hosted by various collectives including Maraa at the Seminar Hall of Jain University.


Mamta Tanwar is from Ujjain and came all the way to Mumbai to take part in the march. She works as a cook to sustain herself, her husband and their two children. A family acquaintance promised her a job and took her to Susner, a village about 160 kilometres from Ujjain. Here, she was tricked and held captive in a room where the acquaintance along with three of friends repeatedly raped her for four days. Afterwards, they forcefully took her thumb impression and sold her to a man for two lakh rupees. When she went to the sarpanch of that village, he refused to listen to her. She asked him,

“Agar aapki behen ya beti ya bahu hoti toh aap kya aisa hi karte unke saath? (If the same had happened to your sister or daughter, would you have treated them in the same manner?)

Toh unhone [sarpanch] koi jawaab nhi diya, uth ke chale gaye” (He didn’t give any answer, got up and walked away)

She was beaten up by the rapists when she tried to escape. When she managed to reach Ujjain after six months, she found that her husband and children had locked and left the house. They assumed she had run away. To this day, her husband refuses to talk to her and she isn’t allowed to meet her children. The police took four days to file her complaint and another four days before she was asked to undergo medical procedures to gather evidence – enough time to ensure that no physical evidence could be found. Her experience in the court was far from harrowing,

“Court me bolte hai ki agar aapke saath balatkaar hua that toh kaise aapka haath pakda tha, kaise pair pakda tha, kaisa kheech liya tha, kya kar raha tha. Toh ye sab sawaal apan nhi bata sakte kyunki waha chaaron taraf mard rehte hai, mahila sirf ek rehti hai. Ye sahi hai kya?”

(In the court, they tell us that if the rape occurred then give us the details as to how your hands were held, how your legs were held, what all happened to you. We cannot answer such questions because the courthouse is filled with men. There is only one woman. Is this fair?)

After she was ostracised by her family and in-laws, she stayed in the railway station for eight days without food, water, shelter or enough clothing. She admits that she even contemplated suicide, but did not do it.

“Marungi toh log mujhe hi galat kahenge, ki paapi thi ya kuch kiya toh mar gayi, apne bacchon ka bhi nhi socha. Isiliye maine socha ki main kabhi haar nhi maanungi. Apne aap se bhi ladungi, samaj se bhi ladungi, parivaar se bhi ladungi”

(If I die, people will blame me for my death. They will say that perhaps she did some sin and killed herself, didn’t even think of her own children. Hence I thought that I will never give up. I will fight myself, I will fight the society, I will fight my family)

As people clapped to this and “Mamta tum sangharsh karo, hum tumhare saath hai” filled the room, it made me think how for some even death isn’t an escape from the cruel realities of this world. She was aware of the collective wiring that society has towards rape, where it leaves no stone unturned to blame the survivor even if it leads to suicide. But there are many who succumb to it and it’s a reality that goes unnoticed.


After the event was over – people headed for chai. I went over and talked to Mona Devi who is from Bhopal. I was intrigued to know how they were travelling and where they were staying during the course of this march. She said that some of them have taken the bus while others have been travelling by trains. And what about food and staying? “Jahan ho sake wahi reh rahe hai, agar kisi ne khana de diya toh kha lete hai”, she says with a smile. A few other women around her nodded. “Abhi Dilli jaake aap kaha jaane ki soch rahe hai?” I ask. “Wo toh ab pata nhi, dekhte hai”, she says.

A year ago, Mona Devi’s nine-year-old daughter was raped. When she went to file an FIR, the police berated her and asked her to leave. She was living in a rented apartment with her two daughters and the owner of the house gave her an hour to pack her belongings and leave the place.

He threatened and said that otherwise all three of them would be “cut into small pieces and thrown away” Terrified, she locked herself with her daughters inside the house and didn’t dare venture out for three whole days. She received threats from the perpetrators to keep her mouth shut. After a friend came over to see why she wasn’t coming to work, Devi narrated the story and finally went to the police station again. Like Tanwar, she faced a similar tribulation,

“Mujhe subah 10 baje se leke sham tak ghumate rahe, baaki meri complaint 8 baje raat ko likhi gayi. Aur saath saath me, mujhe itni gaaliyan, itni burai sunai gayi. Ki aap khud aisi hogi, ki aap chahti hogi ki aapki bacchiyon se kuch galat kaam karwao, ya aap khud karti hogi, aisa bola gaya mujhe.”

(They made me go round and round since 10 in the morning and finally wrote my complaint at 8 in the night. All this while, they berated me, called me names. That I am like ‘those’ kind of women, that I want my children to do bad things, or I do them myself. Such were the things that were said to me)

She talked about her elder daughter, who out of fear told her mother to leave the place and settle somewhere else. But Devi wasn’t dissuaded. She told her daughter that the ones who have done such a gruesome act have to be punished.

Meri jaan kyun na chali jaye par main inko saza dilaake rahungi(I will teach these people a lesson, even if I lose my life in the process), she told her daughter.

The rapist was convicted and is currently serving a sentence while her daughter continues to suffer from physical as well as psychological trauma.


“Survivors of rape, both children and adults are cast away by the society, by people in the government, when they go to the police or medical institutions and even when they go to the courts for justice”, said Ashif Shaikh, Convenor of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan.

Shaikh got into activism in the year 2000 when he started Jan Sahas, a group which advocated the ban on manual scavenging across the country. He brought together people employed in manual scavenging, youth, and friends to start Garima Abhiyan and the Maila Mukti Gatbandhan. According to a survey undertaken by the two groups, it was revealed that there were 3.5 lakh manual scavengers across the country.

In 2002, both the movements coalesced together into Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan and since then have been a proponent of change across many different issues. According to him, the movement has been supporting 10000 cases of sexual harassment across the country by providing them legal help and guidance.

Ashif Shaikh, Convenor of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan

Shaikh points out, like the others, that along with legal and policy changes it is very important for society to change. The courts will provide the punishment, the state will provide the compensation, perhaps the rapist will go to jail as well but what about the survivor, he asks. Nobody asks the survivor how he/she is going to lead his/her life or whether they require any kind of psychological help.

In this regard, we are lacking. Trauma counselling is something accessible, most of the time, by the privileged. As a result, family members and others expect the survivor to just ‘get over it’ in due time. Even in the medical space, one seldom finds a counsellor. Medical personnel usually just focus on gathering evidence as the survivor’s body is reduced to a mere crime scene.


While most of us are aware of the complaints that we have against the police, there are instances where women have been raped in police custody. 54-year-old Janaki Bai, a Dalit woman from Betul, Madhya Pradesh was arrested in 2010 when her daughter-in- law filed a police case against her, her husband and her son on charges of dowry harassment. The men were sent away to Multai jail while Janaki Bai was detained in the Amla police station for the night.

Four policemen gang-raped her. She said that this was a move to ‘teach her a lesson’. The next day she was taken to Betul police station where she filed a complaint in front of the SP. Before this, the rapists hurled her with threats and casteist slurs,

“Kisi ko batana mat nahi toh tere bete ko, tere aadmi ko jail me hi rakhenge, tumhari zamanat nahi hone denge”, the rapists told Janaki Bai (Don’t tell anyone or else we will make sure that your son and husband rots in the jail. We won’t let you get a bail)

What does one do when the people who are ‘supposed’ to protect us become demons? This is actually not a surprise though; we just have to shift our gaze towards the AFSPA implemented regions of Jammu and Kashmir and the North- East to get a glimpse of how assault and rape have been used as a ‘correction tool’ by the armed forces.  

“Agar aap Dalit ho aur aap ladai lad rahe ho aur aapko neecha dikhana hai toh aapki biwi ke saath, aapke behen ke saath, aapke bacche ke saath balatkaar karke dikhate hai ki aap jo kar rahe ho usko hum kaise rok sakte hai.  Ye ladai sirf nyay ki ladai nhi hai, ye ladai samaj ke andar bhi ek ladai hai”, says Ashif Sheikh

(If you are Dalit and fighting for your rights then to show you your place they resort to raping your wife, sister or children. To show that your efforts can be stopped. This is not just a fight for justice; this is a fight within the society as well)


If one looks at the legal system, things aren’t so bleak. At least, on paper. On 16th December, observing six years of the Nirbhaya rape case and one year of the rape of a minor in Bijapur, Mahila Munnade organised a Mahila Nyayalaya (Women’s Court) in Gandhi Bhavan, Bengaluru.

Activists, doctors, professors and people from places as far as Hospet came for the event. Among them was Dr Swati Shukla who conducted a survey with Mahila Munnade in Karnataka. According to her, there are guidelines which demand the establishment of one-stop centres, an initiative which came up after Nirbhaya. “They are supposed to be one point where a victim and survivor can go and get medical and legal advice, they can get psychological counselling as well as medical examination”, she says. The problem lies in implementation which comes from the general apathetic nature of police and other authorities towards cases of sexual abuse”

Speakers at Mahila Nyayalaya, an event organised by Mahila Munnade, Enfold India and other NGOs  Picture credits: Aashika Samuels

“Most of the time, police doesn’t even describe the compensation schemes to survivors who come to them seeking help”. The sheer cost of travelling, legal expenses and the fact that cases go on for several months. As a result, survivors from economically marginalised families drop the case.

According to compensation schemes on paper, a survivor is ought to be given Rs. 25,000 (which comes from the Nirbhaya Fund set up in 2013) on the spot in any of the One- Stop Centres. But hardly anyone is aware of this scheme.

According to Dr Shukla, most of the money from the Nirbhaya Fund is lying underutilized. Apart from this, the necessary coordination between the medical department and the authorities at One- Stop Centres isn’t observed as well. There are countless other schemes in every state, like the Abhaya Niti Scheme in Karnataka, but due to sheer ignorance, it is highly unlikely that the authorities would even mention these to a survivor.


A few weeks ago, at a talk organised in Bengaluru, Ashis Nandy mentioned the massive farmer’s march happening at that time. According to him, liberation theory always emphasizes on the experts behind these liberation struggles, ones he calls the “vanguard of the proletariat”. These include theoreticians, leaders, experts who supervise and show the common man and woman where the class interests lie.

The Garima Abhiyaan doesn’t have a leader, it doesn’t even have a concrete plan as to where they will stay, what they will eat. There is no vanguard that is showing them the direction; they are instead creating their own direction. This shows us that the common person can, in fact, take charge of things himself/herself under severe oppression, without waiting for orders and commands from someone else, someone with an education and knowledge of theory.

After the event, people thronged around Bhanwari Devi to talk and click pictures with her. For a moment it felt like it was a huge community of sorts and that people who knew each other were meeting after a long time.

Picture credits: Anisha Ajith

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