A CHANCE encounter with a 55-year-old Ho tribal woman in Lonjo village, Jharkhand, was a life-transforming experience for me. In 1981, Jharkhand, then part of Bihar, was witnessing a tribal movement to reclaim forest rights. A reign of terror was unleashed with mass arrests and rapes of women by the police and paramilitary forces. Around this time, a group of activists had invited me to document atrocities against women as part of an all-women team.
As we travelled from one village to the other, no woman was willing to admit that she had been raped. Puzzled by the silence, I eventually discovered that this culture was rooted in the limited rights the women had over family land, despite performing all agricultural tasks, except ploughing, as well as all marketing activities. If a husband brought in another wife and threw the first out of the house, the woman had nowhere to go. If she was raped by an outsider, she would not only be ostracised, but would lose the right to work on her husband’s land. Likewise, widows without sons and single, unmarried women became the easy targets of their relatives’ greed. They would often accuse these women of being witches, in order to eliminate them and grab their land.
Maki Bui and her daughter Sonamuni were in a similar predicament when I met them in 1981. As per the “customary law”, Sonamuni was not entitled to any rights over her father’s land, but Maki Bui wanted her only child to cultivate her husband’s share of the land. This enraged her husband’s relatives, who began to target both mother and daughter for “practising witchcraft” and began pressuring them to leave the village.
After much deliberation with our lawyer friends, Manushi filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court (SC) on behalf of Maki Bui and Sonamuni, challenging the denial of secure land rights to tribal women as a violation of the fundamental right to equality guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. The petition was admitted in the SC with much fanfare. But the case dragged on for years, due to the dilatory tactics of the Bihar government and the reluctance of the Court to move decisively. However, the petition created a major splash both in the region as well as outside. The responses can be broadly divided into three categories:
a) Those who were actively working with poor tribal or other disadvantaged communities, including urban slum dwellers fighting for legal housing rights, adopted the demand for women’s right to property in their own campaigns. They even filed intervention petitions from other tribal communities in other regions of India.
b) Male tribal leaders from mainstream political parties — Hindus, animists as well as Christians — condemned the petition as an encroachment on their “personal customary laws” and branded it a conspiracy by non-tribal “outsiders” to deprive them of their land. This attack was unleashed even though in our petition we had emphasised that when a tribal woman married an “outsider”, the rights would not be passed on to nontribals.
c) Leading feminists based in metropolitan cities condemned it as a “bourgeois” demand. Their argument was that private property is a bourgeois evil. Therefore, it was a retrogressive demand.
Meanwhile, in Maki Bui’s own village, all hell broke loose. The court had ordered that Maki Bui and Sonamuni be provided protection while the case was under consideration. But Maki Bui’s relatives targeted them with so much violence that she had to flee from her own village and take shelter at her son-in-law’s.
We filed a petition alleging contempt of court against the Bihar government for violating the court’s interim orders. Even though our expectations of the SC had scaled down considerably, we were still not prepared for what happened. Justice Mishra, who heard the case, said: “We can pass a contempt order if you insist. But what good will it do for the petitioner? The Bihar government or its police are not going to heed it any more than they did our original order. Better that you advise that old woman to continue staying with her daughter so at least she is safer than in her own village. Or else bring her to Delhi and keep her with you so that she is safe.” The Bihar government showed no inclination to propose a solution and the SC insisted on waiting forever for the Bihar government’s proposal in order to find a satisfactory formula.