Santu Bhai crosses his hands at the wrists and brings them close to his crumpled face. But the words fail him, so his wife, Genda Rani, fills in for him, saying, “ Zameen mein , haat bandhe hue , woh jalti rahi (hands tied up, she lay burning on the floor).”

At the Chingari adalat , or hearing, held last week at the non-governmental organisation Vidya Dham Samiti’s office in Atarra town, in Uttar Pradesh’s Banda district, the couple share the weight of each sentence as they narrate the horrific details of their daughter’s murder for dowry.

Married at 18 to a construction worker she fell in love with from a neighbouring village, Shobna’s ordeal began a year into the marriage. It started with demands for a motorcycle and a pair of buffaloes. Her parents, both daily wagers, couldn’t afford to pay for any of these. Both families belonged to the scheduled caste Chamar. The fights escalated daily until, one day, Shobna’s husband tied up her wrists and ankles and set her on fire. She succumbed to the burn injuries three days later in a district hospital.


Silenced hope: Santu Bhai and Genda Rani (holding her grandchild) show where they had sheltered their daughter from abuse for months before her husband killed her - Shriya Mohan


Four weeks later, the parents have travelled 35 km, mostly on foot, from their village Bhawanipur (Banda district) to seek justice at the hearing.

A people’s court

Beginning in May this year, the Chingari (Hindi for spark) adalat is being held every Sunday at the office complex of the Vidya Dham Samiti. The NGO works on human rights and development issues in the Bundelkhand region, which extends over parts of UP and Madhya Pradesh. The adalat is an open, walk-in platform where members of the public can register their grievances related to women’s issues and seek redress. An all-woman panel headed by grassroots activist Kalavati gives a patient and attentive hearing before offering a prescription that ranges from friendly advice to legal counselling. “We stand by all the issues that women face in these parts — whether it is dowry harassment, rape, murder, domestic violence, caste abuse, marital disputes or property rights,” Kalavati says.

The adalat has registered 250 cases so far. One of the common problems voiced is the attempt by local police stations, or thanas, to deter a complainant from registering an FIR or first information report. “There is a pressure to show that crime levels are low when, actually, the reverse is true. So disempowered members of society, such as people belonging to a lower caste, women and minors are simply shooed away with threats or verbal and physical abuse. The act of visiting a thana is traumatic for the majority of the rural poor,” explains Raja Bhaiya, the founder of Vidya Dham Samiti.

“Denying an FIR is a crime in itself. In such cases, we have got the local police inspectors either suspended or transferred out. We take the matter to court, too, where needed. We do everything we can to bring justice to the complainant,” says Kalavati.

When Santu Bhai approached the local police station to report his daughter’s murder, the inspector chased him away, terming him an anpadh gawar (illiterate rustic) who was unfit to set foot inside the station. “Each time at the thana I am made to feel like an aparadhi (offender),” he tells the adalat , which, unlike a regular court, is a place that allows room to grieve and share the feelings of victimhood experienced by the aggrieved. Though the police did eventually register an FIR under section 307 of the Indian Penal Code (attempt to murder), no arrest has been made so far.

A day before Shobna died, her family had recorded a video testimony, in which she blamed her husband and his relatives for the crime. Playing the video at the adalat , Genda Rani mentions that her daughter’s last words to her were, “Don’t let them escape,”.

A plan is chalked out by the adalat members. Kalavati and Jaykaran Bhai, a Banda-based senior advocate who offers his services pro-bono at the adalat , decide that the FIR needs to be updated to reflect Shobna’s subsequent death. Her husband and his family should now be booked under IPC 304 for culpable homicide. They decide on a date for the following week when Chingari members will storm the local thana to demand updating the FIR and arrest of the accused and his family.

Building a movement

After nearly two decades of work in the Bundelkhand region, sometime last year Raja Bhaiya began to notice that more and more women, even in the most backward villages, were coming forward to speak up against violence and abuse. In 2016, UP registered the highest number of crimes against women countrywide. It accounted for 12.4 per cent of all rape cases countrywide, second only to Madhya Pradesh’s 12.5 per cent. Crimes under the category ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives’ accounted for a third of all crimes against women that year. It sparked the idea for a grassroots movement where women will stand up for each other in every village, using their solidarity as a weapon to stamp down on generations of abuse.

Ahead of setting up the adalat , the team started organising a Chingari sangathan or movement where women across the districts of Banda, Mahoba and Chitrakoot were familiarised with laws that are meant to safekeep them from abuse. It also involved a cultural shift in thinking in a deeply patriarchal society — the realisation that abuse was wrong, even at the hands of a spouse; that casteist slurs were punishable under the SC/ST Act; that giving or taking dowry was a crime.

Since it started, the Chingari sangathan ’s work has touched the lives of nearly 5,000 women in 40 villages in three districts. “The women may be school dropouts, but they all know their haq (rights) — how to fend for themselves and each other in the face of abuse,” says Kalavati. Formerly a high school dropout, she went on to complete schooling through open exams and earned a Bachelor’s degree through a correspondence course. At 35, she dreams of earning a law degree too.

There are weekly sangathan meetings held at the village level too, so not every case needs to be brought to the adalat at Atarra.

Earlier this month, Santoshi, a 20-year-old Dalit girl in Naraini block, had strayed onto a Brahmin family’s land when she was attempting to relieve herself in the fields at dawn, as her house did not have a toilet. Harshik Tiwari, the neighbour’s 25-year-old son had sexually assaulted her and hurled casteist slurs. Being a Chingari member, Santoshi promptly lodged an FIR against Tiwari under IPC 376 (outraging the modesty of a woman). The adalat said she could also invoke the SC/ST Act to charge him with violence against a schedule caste person.

Tiwari’s mother happens to be a Chingari member too and she suggested an out-of-court settlement. Santoshi walked away with a compensation of ₹80,000 and an apology. Additionally, the sangathan resolved to approach the block development officer with a list of homes in the village that do not have toilets. The BDO approved a payment of ₹12,000 per household for the construction of toilets.

“While it is true that the sangathan mostly attracts women from backward castes, we encourage women from all castes to join us, because abuse and discrimination is every woman’s battle,” says Raja Bhaiya.

This has also had the salutary effect of bridging caste and economic divides alike. When Kesaria, a daily wage labourer in Kalinjer, questioned the local thekedar (contractor) about the poor quality of materials used in building a public check dam, he retaliated by firing her and denying her 15 days’ wages. Since the local thana refused to come to her rescue, she approached the Chingari adalat in Atarra. Not only was an FIR registered against the contractor under the SC/ST Act, the police constable was transferred, and the contractor was blacklisted for government projects.

Yet another area of struggle for the sangathan is against land encroachment. Rukha, who belongs to the OBC or other backward classes, has complained that her Yadav neighbours were threatening to grab her 3.5 bighas ; since the dispute broke out, her husband has gone missing too. The mother of two now fears for her family’s safety.

“Caste disputes in Bundelkhand have increased in recent years. Earlier the lower castes were united against the upper castes. But now they fight amongst themselves, with each sub-caste clamouring for the power to abuse others,” says Bhaiya.

Right to dignity

Banda was earlier in the news for the Gulabi gang, an all-woman vigilante group that emerged in 2006 in response to the rising instances of abuse and violence against women. The pink sari-clad women wielding lathis had cops running for cover when they stormed police stations and beat anyone complicit in the crimes against women — everyone from corrupt cops to abusive husbands. “They were loved and hated in equal measure because of the violence they preached. We believe in using the power of law as a weapon,” says Kalavati, making a distinction.

Yet, around the time the Chingari sangathan started, Raja Bhaiya bought himself his first rifle. A team member always wields it whenever they travel through the villages to settle disputes. “It’s important to show that we mean business,” he says, quickly adding that he has never needed to use it.

As the Chingari members chant in unison at the end of yet another productive Sunday:

Sangathan mein Shakti hai/ Saari duniya jhukti hai! (There is strength in numbers. The world bows before it)”