In the nomadic Kanjarbhat community, a group of activists are quietly leading a campaign against 'virginity tests'

Editor's note: This story, originally published on 1 May, 2018, is being re-published in the light of the Maharashtra government announcing that the state government will soon make virginity test a punishable offence. *** On her wedding night, a bride from the Kanjarbhat community undergoes a ‘virginity test’. After the ceremonies are complete, the bride accompanies her husband to a lodge; they’re given a white bedsheet, and a stipulated time within which to consummate their marriage. The next morning, the groom must display the bedsheet to members of the local panchayat. “Tula dilela maal kasa aahe (How were the goods you received)?” the panch asks the groom. If his wife bled during intercourse, and the sheet shows proof of this, the groom replies with: “Khara. Khara. Khara. (True. True. True.)” If she didn’t, and the sheet remained spotless, he must say: “Khota. Khota. Khota. (False. False. False.)” The bride who doesn’t bleed on her wedding night is believed to have engaged in premarital sex, and that’s when her ordeal truly begins. ** Welcome board outside Bhat Nagar, colony of Kanjarbhats, in Pimpri, Pune The Kanjarbhats — also known as ‘Sansi’ or ‘Kanjar’ in North India — are a one-time nomadic community from Rajasthan. Under The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, the British branded the Kanjarbhats as ‘criminals’ and the tribe itself was denotified post-Independence. In the years since, the Kanjarbhats have settled mostly in the urban and semi-urban areas of Maharashtra. However, the community still holds on to many of its old practices — including the ‘virginity test’. Community elders defend the practice; they say it’s a 400-year-old tradition. They do not believe it’s demeaning to women; nor do they think the ‘test’ itself is unscientific and flawed. ** Attempting to change that mindset is a campaign called ‘Stop The V-Ritual’, spearheaded by Vivek Tamaichikar, a member of the Kanjarbhat community, and a student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Tamaichikar resides in Ambernath, about 50 km from Mumbai. The Supreme Court’s landmark judgment on Right to Privacy marked an epiphany of sorts for Tamaichikar, who realised that not only were the virginity tests conducted in his community morally wrong (as he had previously held), they were also in clear violation of the SC ruling. Beginning by airing his views on Facebook, Tamaichikar soon reached out to scholars, doctors and like-minded people from within the Kanjarbhat community. They formed the group Stop the V-Ritual (a name carefully chosen to underscore the misguided notions of ‘honour’ associated with certain rituals, and the need to abolish them). The ‘virginity test’ in particular — Tamaichikar says — is even more sinister than it seems: Stop the V-Ritual is campaigning against virginity tests To ensure that there are no cuts/scratches or other wounds that may stain the sheet, the bride is stripped by her relatives, and examined. Once the newlyweds enter the bridal chamber, the relatives keep watch outside, ensuring the couple engages sexually. If the bride and groom are unable to immediately consummate their marriage, the relatives ‘help’ — showing them pornography, offering ‘medicines’ and even a ‘demo’. If the bride doesn’t bleed during intercourse, it is assumed that she has been sexually active before marriage. An interrogation ensues — often accompanied by beatings — and she is made to ‘reveal’ the name of the man she has been intimate with. If the man she names happens to be from the Kanjarbhat community, he is also thrashed. “There is a glaring lack of sex education in our community,” says Priyanka Tamaychekar, at the forefront of the Stop The V-Ritual campaign, along with Vivek Tamaichikar (and another student, Siddhant Indrekar). Priyanka works at a real-estate firm in Pune, alongside her community activism. “The majority of the people in our community are unaware that a woman’s hymen can rupture because of a number of reasons unrelated to intercourse,” Priyanka adds, explaining that often, new brides ‘admit’ to things they haven’t done, or ‘reveal’ a random man’s name to stop the humiliation that ensues if they “fail” the virginity test. Often, the girls believe simple acts of intimacy from their past — like hugging or kissing — have led to ‘loss’ of virginity. This premium on virginity means that parents don’t allow their daughters to pursue further studies, or a job, for fear the girls will get ‘spoiled’. “They (parents) have to make sure their daughter shows a positive result on her wedding night,” says Priyanka. ** Stop The V-Ritual began with about six members; its ranks have now swollen to over 50. While the group has made some headway in bringing the regressive rituals of the Kanjarbhat community to light, there’s still a tough fight ahead. Vivek Tamaichikar (28), Siddhant Indrekar (22), and Priyanka Tamaychekar (26) are spearheading the campaign against virginity tests On the morning of 26 March 2018, hundreds of Kanjarbhat women went on a protest march to the district collector’s office in Pune. Their demand? Action against those trying to stop the virginity tests from being conducted. There had been similar protests on 10 March as well. Some of the protesters say that the campaign against the virginity test has led to young girls from the community being teased — reportedly, boys from other castes wave napkins blotted with red ink at them. Supporters of the virginity test say it is not as bad as it is made to appear; that it is carried out in private and certainly not in the presence of community elders. Seema, a Kanjarbhat woman who resides in Andheri, Mumbai, says the virginity test is an honour. When a girl passes the test, her father and grandfather are made to wear a ‘shera’ (a type of turban) as a mark of respect. “I am blessed to be born in a community where I could make my elders proud by passing such a test,” Seema says. Another resident of the Kanjarbhat basti in Andheri, Keval Chandan, feels that if the ritual is discontinued, the girls of the community will “start misusing this freedom and overstep the bounds of propriety”. “Patriarchy is so deeply entrenched within our community that women themselves are not able to see the cruelty they are being subjected to. They believe that these rituals protect them, keep them in check,” says Vivek Tamaichikar. Stop The V-Ritual’s members take recourse in deterrence: they ensure virginity tests are not conducted in the marriages they are invited to; they record all the ceremonies on video; if the ritual is still carried out, they file a police complaint. Sourabh Machale, along with two of his friends, was attacked on 21 January, for his work with Stop the V-Ritual. Sometimes, the community’s resistance to change takes the form of violence against the group’s members. On 21 January, three youth opposing the virginity test in a wedding (being held in the Pimpri area of Pune) were thrashed. A few days later, their vehicles were vandalised. Priyanka Tamaychekar and Siddhant Indrekar have been threatened with violence and social boycott. Priyanka says here’s already an ‘indirect’ boycott — they are not invited to community events or weddings anymore, neighbours have turned a cold shoulder, and their immediate families have been ridiculed. ** Dissent isn’t welcomed in the Kanjarbhat community. When Krishna and Aruna Indrekar wed in 1996, they refused to submit to a virginity test and chose to have a court marriage. The backlash from the jaat panchayat was swift: The Inderkars were ordered to pay a heavy fine and seek forgiveness from the community elders. Krishna’s family succumbed to the pressure, although he and Aruna didn’t abide by the panchayat’s decision. In the time since, the Inderkars have been distanced from their families. The panchayat denies it had any role to play in this alienation, but Aruna Indrekar points out: “They only call us when they have some work. When it comes to inviting us for events/weddings, the panchayat says we’re a nuisance. They won’t even let our family members include our names on wedding invites. Does that not mean they’ve boycotted us?” Krishna and Aruna are both part of Stop The V-Ritual. Krishna certainly doesn’t regret the decision the couple took over two decades ago. “How could I have let my wife be subjected to such humiliation?” he asks, simply. “It didn’t matter whether or not she was a virgin. I didn’t have the right to ask her that question.” ** Krishna and Aruna Indrekar were boycotted by the community in 1996, for refusing to submit to the virginity test The prominence of the jaat panchayats, especially in nomadic and denotified tribes, isn’t arbitrary. The discrimination these communities faced at the hands of upper caste groups, forced them to fend for themselves. This is one of the main reasons for the Kanjarbhats’ enduring loyalty towards their local council. “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 the courts to solve our problems,” Kavichand Bhat, a Kanjarbhat community elder, had told Hindustan Times. Today, jaat panchayats may have been reduced to purposeless gerontocracies, but they still hold sway over the community. Priyanka points out that the panchayat members are invited to be part of all important occasions by community members, or if feuds/conflicts need resolution. Vivek Tamaichikar says it is the jaat panchayat that enforces the continuance of rituals like the virginity test against the threat of a social boycott. The panchayat enforces a slew of other customs as well — agnipariksha (an ‘accused’ woman picks up a coin from boiling oil; if she suffers burns, it indicates that she lied); shudhikaran (purifying ‘errant’ women) etc. Krishna and Aruna Indrekar described a recent shudhikaran in Nandurbar, where a woman who married a man from the same gotra (lineage) was made to undergo a ‘purification’ ritual and convert to another gotra before the community leaders would approve of the match. “The girl was stripped in public, made to wear a white sari, then walk a distance while the community members threw dough-covered stones at her back. The ritual was complete once she made an animal sacrifice,” the Indrekars say. Cover page of Kaali Kitab, rule book of Kanjarbhats. It lays down the community's customs and rituals, including the virginity test These rituals aren’t just oral traditions. In 2000, community elders organised a maha panchayat in Shirdi, where they prepared a rule book that set down all of the community’s customs and traditions. Called the ‘Akhil Bharitya Sahansmal Kanjarbhat Samaj, Kayda Kanoon’, the document comprises 122 sections covering paap (sin), adultery, divorce, virginity tests etc. The Indrekars, however, feel these rules are just a cover for the panchayat to extort money from community members: Every marriage must be approved by the panchayat, for which they demand a token fee between Rs 10,000-20,000. Fees must be paid for resolving disputes. The Nandurbar shudhikaran cost the families of the concerned parties Rs 5 lakhs. ** On 28 February 2018, Ranjit Patil, Minister of State for Home, Maharashtra, raised the issue of the virginity test in the Assembly, assuring that criminal action would be taken against those forcing brides to undergo the ritual. Meanwhile, even though many in the Kanjarbhat community are against Stop The V-Ritual, this voice of change is resonating with a few. Pune resident Lila Indrekar is among those who approve of the group’s message. She says the panchayat’s insistence on following rituals has come at the cost of meaningful progress. “The panchayat members should be investing their time in helping the community. Most women in our community our bootleggers; when the police raids our shops, why doesn’t the panchayat come to our rescue? Why are they only concerned with virginity tests and other such rituals?” she asks. “The women of the community need to come forward. We fight drunkards daily in our bars. If one woman can fight 50 men, imagine what all of us can achieve together!”