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Hunted women
Relatives talk about Siyadulari Savita, the woman whose death inspired Lajja, Raj Kumar Santoshi etches a sensitive picture of the oppressed sex

Lajja is a woman's honour, her most prized possession which is meant to be guarded with her life. Rarely, though, has history seen so brutal an assault on a woman's honour than in the case of Siyadulari Savita, the woman who inspired film-maker Raj Kumari Santoshi's Lajja. Her honour and life were cruelly sacrificed at the altar of family pride and caste politics that still prevails in her village, Bhawanipur, Kanpur.

"I read about the case and then went to the village. The story shocked me, but her strength left an impact," said Santoshi. Siyadulari's tragedy had finally found a voice.

SIYADULARI Her death inspired Lajja; (right) A still from the film showing Rekha who plays a Dalit woman (above, Siyadulari)

Beaten. Tortured. Raped. And finally burnt to death. Her crime? Siyadulari was the unfortunate mother of Surendra, who dared to love Usha, the next-door Yadav girl. A Savita or Nai (barber community) by birth, Siyadulari's social status was way below the Yadavs' in the caste hierarchy. "No Yadav will allow such a marriage. The only answer is death," said a villager. Fearing the eventuality, Surendra, 17, and Usha, 14, eloped. And it was Siyadulari who paid the price for their love story with her life.

Siyadulari's story was no different from that of a typical woman in rural India. Married at 14 to Rajendra Savita, a truck driver, she managed home and hearth, tended the cattle and supplemented the family income by selling the surplus milk. "She was strong but wilful. A good woman, very pretty," said Rajendra. Caste discrimination and atrocities were something they lived with, every day. "It was difficult for us women, especially since the men were absent for long periods," said Ramkishori, her sister-in-law. Siyadulari's terror-stricken screams haunt her even today.

RAJENDRA Siyadulari's husband with his sister-in-law Ramkishori under police protection at his house in Bhawanipur

June 29, 1999 was the day when Siyadulari's God stopped smiling, the day when Surendra eloped with Usha. "The same day my younger son and I went in search of them," said Rajendra. But the police said he ran away to escape the wrath of the Yadavs, leaving his wife to face them all by herself.

"The girl's father, Rambabu, and the others caught Siyadulari the same day and locked her up. She was kept in chains in Usha's house," recalled a horror-stricken Ramkishori. She rattled off the names of the accused, Rambabu and Shyambabu Yadav, Om Narian Yadav, Bijay Narain Yadav, Harichand Yadav and Mahendra Yadav. Om Narian who is the village headman is absconding today.

Siyadulari was beaten up with iron rods, and was raped repeatedly. She was not given any food or water. Crazed with pain and hunger she drank her own urine. Blood flowed from her wounds. She screamed in agony, begging for help. "And I could only watch," wept Ramkishori.

Siyadulari's screams grew weaker as her pleas went unanswered. The village looked on, silent and terrified.

According to police sources, most of the Yadavs in the village had a hand in the incident. "In Bhawanipur, the Yadavs dominate and few would raise their voices against them," said C. Bhardwaj, the station officer at Chovepur under whose jurisdiction Bhawanipur falls.

An angry, but fearful Ramkishori said, "What could we do, we were helpless. The police also turned a blind eye. They came, wrote some report and went off." Two policemen, station officer D.K. Sharma and inspector Mohan Singh Verma, were later suspended for their negligence.

Siyadulari's torture continued for seven days. The ghastly tale ended on July 7 when she was burnt to death. "They dragged her to the courtyard of the house and burnt her," said Rajendra. "Her private parts were savagely burnt so that the medical examination would not show evidence of rape."

And the police said that there was no concrete evidence that Siyadualri was murdered. "She could have committed suicide and the medical reports do not show any evidence of rape," said Bhardwaj. It is alleged that the police may have succumbed to pressure from the Yadavs, who have strong political affiliations.

Today, Siyadulari's dilapidated house is like a fortress, surrounded by the police who fear that the family could be targeted by the Yadavs any day. "Santosh Savita, the main eyewitness, who testified in court was murdered on March 20, 2001. The other witness has run away from the village," Bhardwaj said.

Meanwhile, Surendra and Usha are in Agra living under protection, the police said.
Rajendra lives like a prisoner, his movements curtailed by the heavy security that surrounds him. For him, there is no life after Siyadulari, except to hope that her death will be avenged one day.

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