Two womens' rights activists to get Neerja Bhanot award

Express News Service

New Delhi/Jaipur, April 4: Womens' rights activist Alice Garg of Jaipur and Ashamma, a Scheduled Caste agricultural worker and former jogini from Karni village in Andhra Pradesh and are recipients of the prestigious Neerja Bhanot Award for 2000. Both will get Rs 1,50,000 each, a trophy and a citation at a special award ceremony to be held at the end of April.

This was decided by a jury comprising Hari Jaisingh, editor-in-chief of The Tribune Group, Harold Carver, an educationist and M. Sarin advocate and the former solicitor-general of Haryana.

The awards are given annually in memory of stewardess Neerja Bhanot who gave up her life while trying to save the lives of passengers on board a Pan Am aircraft, hijacked at Karachi Airport in 1986. Neerja was the only woman recipient of India's highest civilian award for bravery, the Ashoka Chakra.

Sixty-one-year-old Alice Garg of Jaipur has shown exemplary courage under adverse circumstances and relentlessly battled for the rights of women and the oppressed. She is presently secretary of the Bal Rashmi Society and has helped women harrassed for dowry, besides victims of rape, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, discrimination and divorce.

Asked to react to the good news, Garg's voice chokes with emotion. ''The award is a recognition of the good work we have done for poor women in the state. It has given us strength and moral support after all the suffereing and trauma we have undergone. It will boost the morale of other women in India, who have been facing similar problems. Unko himmat milegi. I now have to be even more committed. I have to a long way. People are watching us.''

Garg has been involved in bringing attention to many cases including the gang-rape of a young woman by students in the Rajasthan University boys hostel; the rape of Saathin Bhanwari Devi; the rape of a young woman by a Jain muni; besides rescuing a Saansi girl from being sold to a brothel. In most cases, the accused were people well-connected to politicians. Consequently, Garg became the target of a hate campaign launched and sustained by the them.

In just 14 days, nine criminal cases were filed against Garg and her activists. The charges included rape, murder, embezzlement and sexual exploitation of women. Their office was raided and ransacked by the police without a search warrant and her associates taken into police custody and physically tortured. Garg herself was forced to go underground.

Recalling this, Garg says: ''We were victims of political vendetta. Even the award cannot compensate for the emotional trauma we have suffered. One of my colleagues, a poor Scheduled Caste worker, is still undergoing mental treatment after spending 17 months in jail.'' She breaks down and cries, ''Do you know that one of my accountants, Satish Jain, died after coming out of jail?''

So what helped her to survive all the victimisation? She replies with conviction: ''God was with us all the time. That is the reason we are alive. It is sad that the very institutions built to give security to women actually harassed us. Financially too, we are in very bad shape. They have thrown us back four-to-five years in our work. So the award is God-given.

It was only after the last Assembly elections when the ruling party was voted out of power that the cases against Garg and her associates were reopened by the investigating agencies. The four cases alleging rape, sexual exploitation and attempt to murder were dismissed by the court. The rest of the cases too were withdrawn by the police.

Ashamma, on the other hand, is 35 and works as an agricultural labourer. She is also a jogini, forced into ''marriage'' to the village deity when she was only seven, and sexually exploited by the men in the village in the name of tradition. A jogini also has to dance in front of dead bodies and at religious melas, where money is thrown at her.

While still in her teens, Ashamma gave birth to a baby girl. Soon after, she decided to leave the village. But that did no good. She was constantly hounded by men for sexual favours, reminded at every point that she was a jogini and could not withold consent. It was at this time that the Andhra Pradesh Mahila Samatha Society (APMSS) started working in Mahabubnagar. Influenced by the various issues discussed at a forum they had set up, she decided she would never again do what was required of a jogini and neither would her daughter. She had to face a lot of hardships but remained firm that she would not give up and go back.

Impressed with her resolve, the Sangham elected her as their leader. In 1997, another nine-year-old was due to be made a jogini in the village. Ashamma took the lead and tried to convince the girl's parents against it by quoting the example of her own life. When this failed, she tried to gather support from nearby villages and threatened to stage a dharna if the police did not help her. The police finally did intervene and the girl did not become a jogini. Since then, Ashamma has worked hard to put an end to this practice and the number of cases have dipped substantially.

Referred by:Balram Sampla
Published on: April 6, 2001
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