Case studies

Learning to Fight Exploitation

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Kalavati Devi, a dalit woman from Sandesh village in Bhojpur district of Bihar, in northern India, was persuaded into marriage by a widower from a dominant caste. A former policeman, he later abandoned her, refused to share his retirement benefits, and manipulated the legal system to his advantage. With the support of PACS and partner DASHRA, Kalavati challenged her husband in court, asserting her rights and winning the compensation to which she was entitled.

Kalavati challenged her husband in court, asserting her rights and winning the compensation to which she was entitled.

Caste and gender discrimination

Trapped within a highly patriarchal society, Dalit women face severe discrimination due to their caste (traditionally, the lowest in India) and their gender. This makes them a target for exploitation, denying them choices and freedoms in all spheres of life. It is also not uncommon to see Dalit women exploited by men from dominant castes, in the guise of love affairs or marriages. The men refuse to acknowledge them as their legitimate wives and withhold the monetary benefits or compensation to which they are legally entitled. 

Persuaded into marriage

Kalavati Devi, a Dalit woman from Sandesh village in the Bhojpur district of Bihar in northern India, was only 20 years old when a police constable named Baleshwar Singh asked for her hand in marriage. As he was a widower and belonged to a dominant caste, making the marriage unequal, she was reluctant to agree to the proposal. But he convinced her that he would look after her and told her about the benefits she would receive in future as the wife of a government employee, such as a pension and retirement funds. 

They had a court wedding in Muzaffarpur, where he was posted at the time. They returned to their village and conducted a small marriage ceremony at the nearby temple, exchanging garlands (under the Hindu tradition) in the presence of friends and close relatives.

After this ceremony, Kalavati went to live with her husband in Muzaffarpur. Five years later, Baleshwar was promoted to Head Constable and was transferred to Gaya District. Kalavati was asked to return to her home in Bhojpur.  

Gradual abandonment

From that point onwards, Baleshwar began to show his true colours. Kalavati was made to stay at a hotel during the few times she visited him in Gaya. She became suspicious and questioned her husband as to why he wouldn’t let her stay with him. After this, he began to ignore her completely. Kalavati says: ‘I came to know that he was secretly processing his retirement papers from there. He didn’t want me to know that, because then he would have to share the retirement benefits with me.’

Kalavati was not informed when Baleshwar retired from the police force and returned to his house in Bhojpur. When she found out about this, she went with one of her brothers to confront him. However, he refused to meet with her, coming up with excuses each time she tried. Once, when she phoned him, he clearly told her that he had nothing to do with her. ‘I was shattered to hear this and felt helpless and angry,’ says Kalavati.

She approached the Harijan (dalit community) police station, told them her story and filed a lawsuit against Baleshwar, demanding compensation. But despite receiving several notices summoning him to court, Baleshwar didn’t turn up. Instead, he used his influence as a former police officer to force Kalavati to withdraw the case.
 
Kalavati says: ‘The head constable at the police station called me. He wanted me to sign a letter declaring that I didn’t know Baleshwar Singh and that a third party was compelling me to file a case against him. I was told that, upon signing this letter, I would be paid Rs. 50,000. I was furious and told him that my dignity couldn’t be bought.’

When Baleshwar realised that Kalavati was not going to withdraw the case at any price, he filed a counter case against her accusing her of possessing loose morals. She says: ‘They tried to defame me stating that I was a prostitute and had affairs with several men in the village. He was also trying to buy my witnesses, bribing them with Rs. 10,000 each.’

Advocate Uday Kumar of DASHRA (left) helped Kalavati Devi to get justice.

Legal aid

Kalavati’s case was filed in 2011, but wasn’t moving in her favour. However, in 2012, a chance encounter with representatives from PACS partner, Dalit Association for Social and Human Rights Awareness (DASHRA), changed things.. The DASHRA team regularly conducted meetings with the community in Sandesh village to help them raise their voices and protest against the discrimination and abuse experienced by local dalit women.
 
Kalavati was promised legal aid by DASHRA and asked to submit the evidence she had gathered for her case. At the public hearing, she told her story in front a panel of jury members. Her case was handled personally by Uday Kumar, an advocate from DASHRA, and he ensured she was granted justice. 
When the verdict was in her favour, Kalavati wept with joy. Baleshwar was ordered to pay compensation to his wife and was sentenced to three years imprisonment for his felony. 

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