Nathaniel Hawthorne’s timeless classic “The Scarlet Letter” is set in a puritan settlement in Boston in 17th century. A young woman Hester Prynne lives in seclusion with her young daughter, scorned by everyone, and is forced to wear a huge scarlet letter ‘A’ on her chest, a punishment for her alleged Adultery. Hester’s husband had been missing for a long time and she has apparently had an affair and given birth to a child. The scarlet letter that she is supposed to wear all the time is a ’badge of shame’ condemning her for the ‘sin’ she has committed.
I am constantly reminded of this poignant tale of sin and suffering as Bhanwari Devi’s saga unravels itself on my TV screen with new shocking details emerging every day. Young thirty-six year old nurse from a small non-descript town of Jodhpur, Bhanwari Devi’s story is an intriguing one. Abducted and now found dead after 3 months, Bhanwari’s sordid saga is a complex web of sex, deceit and politics. It is now known that a senior minister in Ashok Gehlot’s government, Mahipal Maderna along with Congress MLA Malkhan Singh, both of whom are alleged to have been ‘close’ to Bhanwari conspired to have her killed. We are told that she was blackmailing Maderna with a sex CD that was in her possession. A few days ago, it was also revealed that her husband too is a part of the conspiracy. He apparently accepted money to send her alone to the place from where she was abducted. Whether he knew she would be killed or not is not known yet. Bhanwari Devi, it now emerges, was killed in the most gruesome way. A bat was used to crush her skull and then she was burnt. Her remains were later dumped in a canal. Can a young woman, a mother of two children, meet an end more tragic than this?
In our 24/7 media cycle, most inane things get coverage and become ‘trending topics’. From Veena Malik’s bare dare act to waiting for Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th ton everything becomes a rage. However, I noticed that Bhanwari Devi’s story received very little attention. Apart from customary news reports, there was very little outrage in our TV studios. Even print media seemed not too interested in this story. Here was a valid sensational story of a young woman murdered at the behest of top politicians of Rajasthan that threatened to bring the Congress government down in the state yet the outrage was missing. As I sat down to search for more news about Bhanwari Devi, I was shocked by the lack of coverage. Even Women’s groups seemed not too interested in taking up the case. I didn’t hear anything from National Council for Women either. I went to their website but found nothing. No feminists groups took out candle light marches nor were any “Justice for Bhanwari Devi’ campaigns started. The hush up of the entire affair was rather intriguing. Bhanwari Devi did not belong to the elite strata of the society, nor did she live in any of the big metropolitan cities. Her family probably had no access to the media so could not take up her case. While all these were plausible reasons for eerie silence, there seemed to be more than that met the eye.
As I started looking at the few news reports, they all seemed to be building up the same narrative. Bhanwari Devi was a young upstart, who dreamt beyond her means. She was an ‘ambitious girl” who had ‘relationships’ with influential politicians. And then one day ‘karma’ caught up with her.
NDTV came up with a report on Bhanwari Devi few weeks ago. Just one look at the report titled ‘Bhanwari was determined to live a life less ordinary’ is enough to make anyone cringe. The reporter says that ‘her social aspirations set her apart from other women in the village’. She was not ‘afraid of the distinction’ and according to her husband ‘she liked ‘dressing up”. According to this report she was not shy to leverage her political aspirations to her advantage. The reporter sure knew that dead women don’t talk and hence she started assuming a lot of things.
NDTV’S idea of investigative journalism seems to be to send a reporter to Bhanwari’s village, ask few random people on the streets what they think about her, question her 17 year old son and 7 year old daughter and make a few assumptions here and there and the story is ready to be filed. No one bothered to ask any incisive questions about the other two men involved in this saga. Was she really blackmailing or did she know too much? The idea clearly is to paint Bhanwari as someone with ‘loose morals’ and then somehow justify her death. While we can discuss the definition of ’loose morals’ till cows come home, but assuming that Bhanwari did sleep around with influential men, does that mean she deserved to be killed the way she was?
Is such a juvenile report by NDTV, shoddy journalism or is it part of strategy to hush up the affair by giving it a completely different twist? Thanks to these reports most people today are somehow convinced that Bhanwari is not a victim. Most think of her as a blackmailer who deserved to die. The CBI investigations have not completed yet. No one knows the real story and yet people have already made up their minds. Bhanwari, as the NDTV reporter says ‘overplayed her hand”. What she doesn’t say, but implies, is that her violent end was inevitable. If this isn’t grand design to save the politicians involved, I don’t know what is. Public sympathy towards Bhanwari is next to none, she will soon be forgotten. Both Maderna and Malkhan Singh will more than likely buy their way out of prison and soon all will be hunky dory. NDTV helped put a badge of shame around Bhanwari Devi and even before the verdict is out she stands convicted. But then dead people don’t come back to fight for the injustice meted out to them.
Life will probably never be same for Bhanwari’s children. In this NDTV report, the reporter thrusts the mike insensitively at Bhanwari’s seven year old daughter and asks her about her mother. The child innocently says that her mother would call her from wherever she was and ask her what to bring back home. It is a shame that nobody in NDTV ethics committee thought twice about interviewing a seven year old child, a minor, who was probably going through unimaginable trauma. Bhanwari’s daughter brings me back to where I started from. In one of the most heart breaking and poignant passages in ‘Scarlet Letter’ Hester Prynne’s little daughter, Pearl has following conversation with her.
“Mother,”said little Pearl, “the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. . . . It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”
“Nor ever will, my child, I hope,” said Hester.
“And why not, mother?” asked Pearl, stopping short. . . . “Will it not come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?”
It is my belief that truth about Bhanwari Devi will never be known. She has forever been made to wear the badge of shame and the ignominy will far outlive her.
Image from NDTV.