Bravely fought the teen

Saadia Azim | Updated on February 27, 2011 Published on February 17, 2011

Sunita Murmu of West Bengal receiving a momento from President Pratibha Patil when the National Bravery Award winners of 2010 called on her at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. V. Sudershan   -  The Hindu


Sunita Murmu with the Welfare Home Superintendent. At thehome Sunita has been able to take back control of her life as she islearning new skills like learnt weaving and embroidery. (Credit:Saadia Azim\WFS)

Young Sunita lodged a complaint against the powerful criminal elements in her tribal community and ensured that they were arrested for sexually harassing, torturing and ostracising her.

Sixteen-year-old Sunita Murmu is quite the celeb in her locality these days. This teenager had the courage to approach the remote Mohammadbazar police station in Birbhum, one of West Bengal's most backward districts, and lodge a complaint against the powerful criminal elements in her community. Of course, she did not stop there ? young Sunita also ensured that the men were arrested for sexually harassing, torturing and ostracising her.

Not so long ago, Sunita was just another tribal girl, with little education, living quietly in a male-dominated society. She had no idea of her rights and spent her days working as a daily wage labourer to support her parents. And like most girls her age, she too fell in love. Her life, however, turned into a nightmare the day her involvement with a non-tribal boy from the nearby village was discovered by the local tribal panchayat in June last year.

The self-proclaimed panchayat met and decided on the punishment for her romantic attachment: She was stripped publicly and made to walk around the village, even while being jeered at and sexually harassed by random villagers. Those who were party to this heinous crime went a step further ? they took photos and videos of her in that situation, and turned them into multimedia messages (MMS) that were forwarded to everyone in the village as a ?warning? to other girls not to repeat Sunita's ?crime?.

Not one person came to the rescue of the traumatised young girl, including the police at the nearby Mohammadbazaar station. Her shocked parents, too, could be of little assistance. For about two hours, Sunita was forced to walk nearly 8 km after which she was literally dumped. Plucking up whatever courage she had left, Sunita made her way back home only to be taunted by neighbours and others. No case was registered against her attackers and no one dared defy the tribal panchayat'sdiktat, even though the area has an elected panchayat.

As the community leaders were party to the crime, all evidence was tampered with. For two months, Sunita remained isolated in a corner of her hut. It was during these dark days that she resolved to raise her voice for justice. Her parents tried hard to dissuade her and divert her attention.

Meanwhile, the MMS continued on their rounds. Those close to her family advised her to forget the incident and move ahead. Looking back, Sunita says, ?I wondered how people thought I could forget what happened to me. I am living with that pain, which will remain for all time. But I shall now fight against all crimes against women in the name of traditional values.?

When the police knocked on her door during an inquiry two months later, her family dissuaded her from speaking up. But Sunita decided to go ahead and fight on her own. She told the police everything that happened and lodged a formal complaint. But there was no evidence except for the MMS doing the rounds. None was willing to testify, either out of fear or in solidarity with the perpetrators who were viewed as ?safeguarding tribal values?.

But there was no stopping Sunita. As Bidhan Ray, the Sub- Divisional officer (SDO )of Rampurhat investigating the case, recalls, ?It was amazing to see a victim so confident. We thought she may be in depression and would not cooperate. Also, in such cases the chances of victims turning hostile are very high. But Sunita could identify the criminals since they were from her locality and she knew them well. Her confidence won everyone's support.?

Just two days after the complaint was filed, the six main accused were arrested. Barely out of their teens, the accused had allegedly incited the crowd and later forced everyone to keep quiet.

Fearing a backlash from the community, Sunita was sent to a government welfare home ? ?Pushparag' in Rampurhat. She remains there even today, trying to pick up the pieces of her life. She has learnt weaving and embroidery, and the district administration has opened a savings account for her.

It was a proud moment for Sunita when the district administration decided to propose her name for the National Bravery awards. ?It is an unusual case because, despite being a victim, Sunita fought for herself. We decided to propose her name as she has not just taken on criminals but also stood up against organised crime, regressive and outdated values, and self-proclaimed, unauthorised panchayat-like bodies,? says Saumitra Mohan, the district magistrate of Birbhum.

Sunita was among the 26 children who were honoured by President Pratibha Patil with the National Bravery Award last month. ?Sunita has been able to regain control of her life. She is a fast learner and mixes well with other teenagers. Yet, she continues to lead a life of seclusion and ostracism,? admits Satyabrata Banerjee, the superintendent of her welfare home.

Many of Sunita's family members refuse to talk to her. The accused are out on bail and the locals fear her life may be in danger at her Santhal village of Burtola, where the majority are daily wagers or dependent on government schemes for their livelihood. But Sunita remains unfazed, ?I have not gone back but it does not mean I have done anything wrong. I want to finish my studies and fight for the rights of others who have been abandoned like me.?

Her courage has proved inspiring for many other girls in the region. Kuntalshree Bhattacharya, the headmistress of a local girls' school, says, ?I keep telling my girls that enduring crime is equal to being a party to it. Learn from Sunita, who could win accolades for defying the wrong in society.?

Sunita's friend at her village, who wishes to remain unnamed out of fear, says, ?We are proud of her. But what is alarming is that the culprits are roaming free while the one who fought for what is right is living away from home.?

But things are slowly changing, with voices now raised in her support. Women's organisations are demanding that Sunita should be rehabilitated within the community. Says District Magistrate Mohan, ?We are trying our best, but for now she has to concentrate on her studies and the skills she is learning at the welfare home. It is a three-year course and Sunita is enjoying interacting with her new friends. Meanwhile, her accomplishments are being recognised even within her community. Our assessment is that her medal, the cash prize and the national recognition will gradually change public opinion in her village.?

© Women's Feature Service

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Published on February 17, 2011
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