Editor’s Note: The following is a real firsthand account of unfortunate events involving someone I know, which happened in summer 2018. I have watched her grow up since she was born, and this story has filled me with anger. Even worse, she was not the only one. But her response deserves attention. She has courageously fought back against the holy priest and the management of the otherwise outwardly beautiful Mangueshi Hindu temple pictured above, visited by no less than former US Defense Secretary Ash Carter himself (!)
The story has received national media attention in India (links below).
It is high time that India sees the rise of its own powerful #MeToo movement and we are beginning to see the saplings grow as victims bravely engage the patriarchal and supposedly religious systems stacked against them. Ultimately, there is an uplifting future embodied below, if others are inspired to act.
A monumental victory was achieved yesterday, all thanks to my family for fighting tirelessly over the last month for my rights, a lot of strangers for their support, the media all over India who shone light on this issue, and the Indian legal system for ensuring that justice was served against a perpetrator who wronged me. I’m not one for sharing intimate life details with everyone on Facebook, but by my sharing this experience, I hope that others can avoid the same situation.
This past June when I was in India, my family and I made a day-trip by flight to Goa to visit our ancestral temple, as we have been doing at least once a year for as long as I can remember. Single women are not allowed in the innermost sanctum, so I have always sat and watched my parents and brother perform the rites inside. On this particular trip as I was sitting outside the sanctum, our family priest in his 50s, Dhananjay Bhave, beckoned me to the side, grabbed me, and attempted to kiss me. I turned my cheek and body away just in time to avoid him. I told my parents what had happened, and they confronted the priest who then admitted it and requested us not to escalate the matter.
Finding this to be completely repulsive and unacceptable, and yet wanting to preserve the reputation of our family temple, I sent a formal complaint to the management committee of the temple charging Bhave for his behavior, demanding he be fired, and pointing to the CCTV security footage from that area of the temple as evidence. THREE WEEKS later the committee responded saying they would not be taking any action and we were free to take up this case with the ‘relevant authorities’. During this time, we found out by chance that another 20-year old girl from Mumbai had filed a complaint against the same priest for a nearly identical incident 8 days prior to my visit, and had received the same noncommittal response from the temple management. The day after we received their response from the management, my mom filed a police report/ FIR on my behalf with the Goa Police, and a few days later the other girl also lodged another FIR.
Around this same time, the formal complaints which the both of us had written to the temple management went viral on WhatsApp to everyone in the community, and news sources picked it up. Overnight every regional news source in Goa and every national paper all over India was carrying the story. 10 days ago the matter went to court for the first time for Bhave’s bail, where his defense argued that me and the other girl must be conspiring together for publicity and to tarnish the reputation of the temple, and we had mistaken his gentlemanly affectionate behavior for something more sinister. Our public prosecutor argued that me and the other girl had never met (and have still never met) and could have no ulterior motives, and Bhave was already a HABITUAL offender and would possibly target many other girls while out on bail. Yesterday, the judge in Goa gave her verdict of DENYING Bhave’s bail. As of now, Bhave is ABSCONDING from arrest and is yet to go to jail where he now legally belongs. I don’t know where this case will go in the years to come, but for now this court ruling is a big victory for everyone who has been fighting for me and the other girl, and for all the girls who have undoubtedly faced similar experiences at his hands in silence, and the many more who would have suffered in the future if not for this ongoing case.
A few points that I want share about this entire experience for other girls who hopefully won’t, but one day may find themselves in a position similar to mine:
1. A lot of people asked why I didn’t yell or even hit him right when it happened. Or why my family didn’t file a police report in Goa the same day. In the moment, I reacted with shock because I have been raised to have utmost respect for the temple and our priests, and not question many practices associated with them. I was genuinely shocked about what was happening given that this is someone I have seen once a year while growing up. I needed time to process the incident, and my family needed time to decide on the best course of action. In hindsight while I could have reacted differently, I also believe that the actions that have taken place in the last month will have a more permanent impact on the running of the temple and putting a stop to such behavior.
2. “Is this honestly really even a big deal? These things happen all time. Why don’t you just forget about it and move on, that’ll be much easier.” This is actually what makes me the saddest, and is something I’ve heard mostly from women. The bottom line is that nobody can touch me ANYWHERE without my permission. Yes, it would have been easier for me to forget about this incident and move on, but the complacency we’ve come to have as women from facing these sorts of incidents regularly from passersby on commutes etc. is truly depressing. As a result, many women have become desensitized to being taken advantage of, and because most of the time no action is taken at all, repeat offenders continue to get away with it. In this case, Bhave’s perverted behavior stops with me, and I hope in due time, that we develop a no-tolerance policy to such behavior.
3. I have been very fortunate with a lot of factors in my favor: the good judgement to recognize that what was happening that day was in every way wrong, the education and support to take steps to stand up for myself, and that my family has taken this forward. I recognize that not everyone who experiences these things has these resources, but I HIGHLY encourage everyone to at least tell someone they trust. Information is power, and it is only because the secretary of the temple confused our two cases and accidentally told us about the other girl’s complaint that we were able to connect with her family and our case became twice as strong with our joint police reports. It was also by reading the Facebook post of another acquaintance a few years ago, that I remembered that perpetrators are discouraged from doing such acts not by harsh punishments, but by the fear of being caught. It is imperative to trust your gut about how a situation is going and call out such behavior.
4. “It’s a pure reformist attitude and these girls have links to America, and are broad-minded. They are not village girls. This is the new generation of girls” — If you can believe it, this was part of Bhave’s defense attorney’s statement AGAINST me in court. I never imagined these words would be used in a negative connotation, because honestly they sound like the biggest compliment anyone could have paid me. However, what he was implying was that we were too educated and too bold for our own good. Little did he expect that these are the very factors that have now determined that his client belongs in jail.
5. This point should not even bear mentioning, but since it has become a point of debate: A lot of people have questioned what I was wearing that day. Just to clarify, whether it was a prom dress or a saree, Hindu priests never, ever touch any part of a woman’s body. As it happens, the priest’s traditional dress is a simple silk cloth around his waist, and I was wearing a traditional salwar kameez and was covered from head to toe as I am when I visit any holy place, but as I said this detail is totally irrelevant to the case. On a similar note, many (including Bhave’s defense) questioned the caste of the other girl and whether she should have been allowed into the temple in the first place. I can’t even bear to get into how it doesn’t change the actions that the managing committee should have taken when they first received our formal complaints.
6. Lastly, although I took the first step of writing a formal complaint to the temple committee, every step taken in this process since then has been by my parents, my dad’s brothers, and the rest of my extended family in India who have been working round-the-clock to ensure justice. I have been back at med school for the last 3 weeks, and if it wasn’t for their indignation on my behalf and unconditional love, I would probably have given up a long time ago. Countless others have been instrumental in working towards this. Also, in every article about this incident, I have been referred to as a “victim” or the “U.S. based medical student”. Part of the reason I am sharing this whole experience is because I refuse to be the anonymous victim to someone else’s wrong doing. Instead, I will claim ownership over this incident, have ensured that the guilty party has been shamed and punished, and then move on with my own life.
Once again, I am writing this to raise awareness that unfortunately incidents like these are commonplace, even when you least expect it and from people you least expect it. Some people have reacted to my story with disbelief because the perpetrator was a holy priest in the most famous temple in Goa. Many people also expressed doubt that this case would go anywhere because of the power and money behind the temple (ironically donated by many families like ours over many decades). Unfortunately evil can lurk anywhere, but regardless of who it is, you ALWAYS have a voice, options and the rights to never let anyone take advantage of you.
photo credit: alchetron