Sarita’s story: Nearly murdered by in-laws, she awaits relief from court & cops

Sarita’s story: Nearly murdered by in-laws, she awaits relief from court & cops

Sarita’s story: Nearly murdered by in-laws, she awaits relief from court & cops

Lack of awareness and understaffed legal aid services have made it harder to deliver justice to rural victims of domestic violence.


Cooch Behar: Sarita Biswakarma (35) shudders at the mention of August 17, 2016. That is the day her husband, Arun Biswakarma (55), and his family beat her up, stripped her, tied her to a tree and then tried to burn her alive at her marital home in Kalabagan in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar.

Sarita remembers the assault like yesterday. “I was putting my daughter to bed around 9.45 pm when he called me out. He was waiting in the courtyard with six women and three men from his family. He pulled my hair, locked our daughter inside and then held my hands. The women started hitting me. They stripped me and tied me to a tree. When he poured kerosene over me, I screamed and neighbours came to my rescue,” she says.

A day later, Sarita filed a police complaint. Arun was charged with Section 498A (any wilful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health) of the Indian Penal Code at the local women’s police station. Police came to the house a day later, warned her in-laws and arrested Arun. He was released a month later.

Though police told Sarita she and her daughter, then aged 7, could live in the same house, she moved in with a neighbour for a month to nurse the wounds from the assault. On advice by women from her locality who had faced similar abuse, Sarita approached a lawyer who advised her to file an application under the Prevention of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005.

The long wait

After she met the lawyer and filed a court case, Sarita moved back with the in-laws. Sarita, who grew up in Shakotla village of Assam’s Dhubri district and has studied up to Class VII, still does not have much of an idea of what happened to the FIR or the court case.

Her only demand at the moment is maintenance from her husband for taking care of their daughter but feels her lawyer has been exploiting her for money. 

The first five times Sarita got pregnant, Arun and his family assaulted her, so she would suffer a miscarriage. The sixth time, she convinced him to allow her to have the child, but he said it would be her responsibility. She says he has never spent a rupee on their daughter. Her parents refuse to help too.

Sarita claims to have procured a residential order from the court that allows her the right to live in her marital home but does not have its copy. “The order came a year after the assault with the help of the application,” she says.

Sarita continues to share her home with her husband's family who had attempted to kill her (Picture credit: Purnima Sah)

Sarita, a maid who earns Rs 4,000 a month, says her lawyer, Debalok Sarkar, charges her Rs 500 every time she visits him and the commute from Kalabagan to his office in Harish Pal Chowpatty costs her Rs 50 for a to-and-fro trip. “Earlier, he would ask me to be patient; now, he says the case is old. When I ask for a copy of my files, he asks for Rs 2,000 for regenerating them,” she says.

Sarkar, who practises in the Cooch Behar district court, calls the case old and says he is not sure whether it has been dismissed or is active because of COVID-19 lockdown. “I may have dumped the documents with files of dismissed cases. I helped her get the residential order. If she needs maintenance, she should reach me,” says Sarkar.

Sarita is yet to apply for maintenance as she does not have the money to do it. She admits to finding the entire process confusing.

Rural women out of reach

For district officials, Sarita’s case is similar to thousands of women from rural areas. Though Sarita now lives in a town, she grew up in a village. Women in rural areas (36%) are more likely than those in urban areas (28%) to experience one or more forms of spousal violence, according to IIPS 2017.

Spousal violence, according to the same study, has more acceptance in rural areas.

Suparna Roy Bandyopadhyay, who is attached with the Cooch Behar district child protection unit and is the protection officer-in-charge for cases under the 2005 law in Cooch Behar, rubbishes the lawyer’s argument of the case being too old. “Our courts get new cases every day; that doesn’t mean a case filed is buried indefinitely. There’s a lot of fieldwork required once the case is filed. Accessibility is a major concern for those from rural areas. Witnesses do not turn up on time. Also, collecting evidence takes time,” she says.

Many rural women like Sarita are left in limbo, unaware of how to tap into help against domestic violence (Picture credit: Purnima Sah)

Officials with Cooch Behar district child protection unit say many cases under Domestic Violence Act were not reported last year because offices were shut during the COVID-19 lockdown and travelling to report cases was challenging for the rural population. On average, the department records 80 domestic violence cases every year in the district, but this could be much higher as they are first reported under Section 498A of IPC, says Bandyopadhyay.

The IPC section only provides for criminal punishment as opposed to the Domestic Violence Act, which guarantees marital rights and protection to the pleader. Bandyopadhyay blames lack of awareness of legal aid services for few women opting for it. “People also assume that if they pay in cash or kind, we will work faster. But it is a free-of-cost service meant for the people. We want to raise awareness, but are understaffed,” she says.

Before Bandyopadhyay, the post had been vacant for three years. Three social workers are required to work under her for fieldwork and case follow-ups. However, there is only one Group D staffer, whose job is to collect and transfer files. She adds the Rs 14,000 salary and Rs 200 communication allowance are not enough.

For Sarita, it is the same old story: divorce is not an option because she feels she needs a husband. “They don’t hit me anymore, but the harassment continues. I have stopped going to the police. I don’t want to live with him, but do I have a choice?”

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