Hindustan Times (Jalandhar)

Hard bat­tle to put an end to vir­gin­ity tests

Young cou­ples from the Kan­jarb­hat com­mu­nity are us­ing their wed­dings to stand up to age­old prac­tices. With the el­ders cling­ing to their pro­tec­tive past, the gen­er­a­tion gap is splitting them apart

- Gay­a­tri Ja­yara­man gay­a­tri.ja­yara­man@htlive.com

Within the Kan­jarb­hat com­mu­nity, a de-no­ti­fied tribe or vimukta jati, the rift caused by an in­creas­ingly vo­cal bat­tle over vir­gin­ity tests is pit­ting young­ster against el­der, grand­fa­ther against grand­daugh­ter, un­cle against niece, and daugh­ter-in-law against fa­ther-in-law.

The mo­bil­i­sa­tion be­gan when Vivek Ta­maichekar, a Mas­ter’s stu­dent at the Tata In­sti­tute of So­cial Sci­ences, Mum­bai got en­gaged to Aish­warya Bhat in 2016. Both are mem­bers of the Kan­jarb­hat tribe. When it hit the cou­ple that the bride would be sub­ject to the age-old prac­tice of val­i­dat­ing the mar­riage through a vir­gin­ity test, they were up in arms.

To­gether they form a group that holds multi-city meet­ings and gal­vanises youth to break away from the prac­tice. While the young are ea­ger for change, the old are shaken by their re­bel­lious­ness. As the bat­tle gains pace, young Kan­jarb­hat women are re­port­ing in to Shakun­tala Bhat, head of the Ma­ha­rash­tra women’s chap­ter of the All In­dia Kan­jarb­hat As­so­ci­a­tion, that young men in schools and col­leges are wav­ing white hand­ker­chiefs stained with drops of red ink at them. Em­bar­rassed el­ders have been reach­ing out to the protest­ing youth to talk. The youth say change has been a long time com­ing.

Kr­ishna In­drekar, now a 51-year-old di­rec­tor of fi­nance in the Ma­ha­rash­tra State Char­ity Com­mis­sion, stood up against the hold of the pan­chayat when he mar­ried Aruna in 1986. Study­ing po­lit­i­cal science in col­lege, In­drekar was in­flu­enced by the writ­ings of BR Ambed­kar and Jy­otiba Phule. Betrothed to Aruna, he re­fused to marry her un­til he was set­tled pro­fes­sion­ally. Aruna waited for him for eight years, an un­heard-of prac­tice that even led the com­mu­nity el­ders to is­sue threats. In the days with­out mo­bile phones and emails, in a vil­lage near Kol­ha­pur, all Aruna had to go on were mes­sages he would send once or twice a year. In­drekar got the job as an of­fi­cer with the state gov­ern­ment in his fi­nal year of his Mas­ter’s in po­lit­i­cal science at Pune Univer­sity, and promptly tied the knot with Aruna in a court mar­riage, es­chew­ing pan­chayat dik­tats. Ever since, the cou­ple has been a bea­con of sup­port for other mem­bers of the com­mu­nity try­ing to break the choke­hold of the pan­chay­ats. In­drekar filed a com­plaint against a vir­gin­ity test held af­ter the wed­ding of his niece, Ash­wini Ta­maichikar, on Novem­ber 23, 2017, and at an­other com­mu­nity wed­ding on De­cem­ber 24, 2017. FIRs are not reg­is­tered de­spite his com­plaints, and his video record­ings of out­lawed pro­ceed­ings, he says. But he per­se­veres.

This is how vir­gin­ity was, and con­tin­ues to be ‘tested’. Tra­di­tion­ally, wed­dings were con­sum­mated in a tent made of tar­pau­lin with Panchs or el­ders stand­ing out­side till in­ter­course was com­pleted. To­day, this takes place in a sani­tised ho­tel room af­ter all glass ban­gles are re­moved from the bride, sharp ob­jects from the room, and any­thing that is ca­pa­ble of pierc­ing the skin and draw­ing blood. A white sheet is spread on the bed, on which the el­ders (now from the fam­ily) wait to see if there are drops of blood.

The groom is asked de­grad­ing ques­tions by the pan­chayat of el­ders, say Ta­maichikar and In­drekar. “How was the maal (the goods)?” or “Was the per­for­mance good?” “Was the glass bro­ken?” If blood is not drawn, the hymen is as­sumed rup­tured due to pre­vi­ous sex­ual in­ter­course. Pu­rifi­ca­tion rit­u­als are pre­scribed. It is rare that a girl is be­lieved if she claims to have had no pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship and if the hymen has been rup­tured out of nat­u­ral causes. Ta­maichikar has been go­ing from el­der to el­der, con­fronting them and urg­ing them to change the prac­tice.

Mar­riages are the new bat­tle­ground be­cause it is through them that tribal in­tegrity has been pre­served and passed down. While the tribe’s codes are oral, they were laid down in print by the Akhil Bharatiya Sa­hans­mal Kan­jarb­hat Sa­maj Sangh at the jat pan­chayat’s Shirdi chap­ter in 2000. The book­let has been a de-facto tribal con­sti­tu­tion in cir­cu­la­tion ever since. Out­lawed since July 2017, the pan­chay­ats no longer openly as­sem­ble, but it will take time for their no­tional con­trol to dis­si­pate.

Pune-based Bablu Ta­maichkar, a for­mer Panch (el­der or chief­tain), in­sists that tra­di­tional prac­tices out­lined in the book­let have now been dis­con­tin­ued. “But, nat­u­rally, peo­ple within the com­mu­nity reach out to el­ders to solve dis­putes, ar­range mar­riages and set­tle mat- ters. At such times the el­ders in­ter­vene but noth­ing un­con­sti­tu­tional is un­der­taken,” he adds. The book­let also serves as a guide­line for rites and cer­e­monies -cus­toms which dif­fer from, and are in dan­ger of be­ing re­placed by, uni­ver­salised Brah­mini­cal prac­tices. As these rit­u­als are con­ducted by com­mu­nity el­ders, they are what val­i­date a mar­riage. The use of wooden planks, the sa­cred pour­ing of ar­rack, and pay­ments to the el­ders, gu­rus and the moth­er­land, con­ducted in the lo­cal Kan­jiri di­alect, and the use of an­i­mal sac­ri­fice as ‘shud­dhikaran’ or pu­rifi­ca­tion rit­u­als for women who ‘fail’ vir­gin­ity tests, hark back to darker times.

Kavic­hand Bhat, a Kan­jarb­hat el­der and for­mer Panch, has been for­mer mayor of Pim­pri Chinch­wad, and a lo­cal Congress leader for over 50 years. He is also Aish­warya Bhat’s grand­fa­ther. A sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian, he re­calls the days of his tribe in pre-In­de­pen­dent In­dia. “We roamed from vil­lage to vil­lage in search of food, we had no homes. My wife is un­e­d­u­cated, my chil­dren have one de­gree and my grand­chil­dren have two de­grees (post­grad­u­ates),” he says. Change has been slow to ar­rive, but it is wel­come. “We re­mem­ber what un­touch­a­bil­ity is, we have even been turned away from gro­cery stores. This gen­er­a­tion is ed­u­cated but they have not seen the days when we could not go to schools to learn, and to courts to solve our prob­lems.”

Un­til Ambed­kar ap­peared on the scene, he says, there was sim­ply no room for tribes to re­dress is­sues in the “courts of the up­per classes”. To­day, tribes­men like him have risen to po­si­tions of power -- mayor, deputy com­mis­sioner of po­lice, doc­tor, lawyer.

But it’s not easy for many to for­get the past. “Peo­ple think that when the law changes, ev­ery­one will be­come Ambed­kar. It doesn’t work that way. Some have only known the pro­tec­tion of the com­mu­nity,” he says. Kavic­hand was ar­rested in 2015, along with other mem­bers of the jat pan­chayat, for en­forc­ing the so­cial os­tracism of a young cou­ple who mar­ried out­side clan stip­u­la­tions.

Shakun­tala, daugh­ter-in-law of Pune ad­vo­cate Mur­c­hand Bhat, a sup­porter of tribal sys­tems, is caught in the mid­dle. She takes pride in be­ing a Kan­jarb­hat wo­man who has just be­come a sci­en­tist.

“As a wo­man, I do see the vir­gin­ity test as re­gres­sive. But to­day, the next gen­er­a­tion is go­ing places, so yes, we need to change, but the man­ner needs to be more co­he­sive. We need to talk,” she says.

But Vivek Ta­maichikar is done talk­ing. He says the in­vi­ta­tion to talk is just a pre­tence to pres­surise women from join­ing the fight against the prac­tice. “At first I thought this would be easy. Af­ter all, when you sit down and speak to peo­ple you re­alise that al­most ev­ery­body agrees that this is re­gres­sive ,” he says. But that doesn’t trans­late into throw­ing off the bur­den of liv­ing up to com­mu­nity dik­tats. “Most peo­ple agree but fear be­ing os­tracised by the com­mu­nity.”

What this trans­lates into for most peo­ple is a lack of mat­ri­mo­nial al­liances for their chil­dren, fewer in­vites to wed­dings, no ac­cess fa­cil­i­ties like wells, or the with­drawal of coun­sel and ar­bi­tra­tion dur­ing fam­ily or prop­erty dis­putes. In other words, be­ing cut off from their own -- by their own.

IT IS RARE THAT A GIRL IS BE­LIEVED IF SHE CLAIMS TO HAVE HAD NO PRE­VI­OUS RE­LA­TION­SHIP AND IF THE HYMEN HAS BEEN RUP­TURED OUT OF NAT­U­RAL CAUSES

 ?? PHOTO: PRATHAM GOKHALE/HT, ILLUSTRATI­ON:ANIMESH DEBNATH ?? Shakun­tala Bhat, a sci­en­tist who takes pride at be­ing a Kan­jarb­hat, at her res­i­dence in Bhosari, Pune. (Above) Vivek Ta­maichikar at Yer­wada.
PHOTO: PRATHAM GOKHALE/HT, ILLUSTRATI­ON:ANIMESH DEBNATH Shakun­tala Bhat, a sci­en­tist who takes pride at be­ing a Kan­jarb­hat, at her res­i­dence in Bhosari, Pune. (Above) Vivek Ta­maichikar at Yer­wada.

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