September 23, 2013, 10:31 p.m. ET
In India, Rapist’s Wife Faces Harsh Judge: Tradition
In Conservative Hinterland, Women Without Husbands Face Destitution
By Krishna Pokharel and Aditi Malhotra
Ms. Devi expects to be cast out by her in-laws and face ostracism and destitution here in India's conservative hinterland—not because she is married to a convicted murderer, but because she is a woman without a husband. "As a widow, my honor will be lost forever," she says.
Her husband's relatives say they can't afford to feed her. Her parents say they are too poor to take her back. The customs of purdah practiced in the region make it almost impossible for her to work outside the home.
"I am not educated. Our traditions are such that I cannot even step out of the house," Ms. Devi said. "Who will earn money to feed me and my son?"
In the village where Ms. Devi lives in eastern Bihar state with her husband's family, women are kept veiled and largely secluded. They can't leave home without a male relative. Ms. Devi must wait until dark simply to go into the field behind her house to defecate.
"A woman going out for work is not in our tradition," says Vinay Singh, Mr. Singh's older brother. Ms. Devi's mother-in-law, Malati Devi, is blunter. "In our family, women die at home. They never venture outside," she says.
Such attitudes may seem out of character in a country that had its first female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, in the 1960s, and that today boasts high-profile women politicians and executives. But India's countryside, home to nearly 70% of its 1.2 billion people, can be a stifling place, where women live highly circumscribed lives and lack freedoms their urban, middle-class counterparts are starting to enjoy.
It can also be a hostile place. In villages crimes against women often aren't reported to police, and cases are settled by elders enforcing custom rather than law.
Ms. Devi's misfortune to be married to a notorious convict makes her situation seem extraordinary. But in fact, the basic difficulties she now faces are a reality of life in the Indian countryside. For the poorest, a single setback—loss of a breadwinner, lackluster crop, illness—can propel a family into crisis. For rural women, it can be especially dire.
Ms. Devi grew up in a small village about 80 miles from Karmalahang. Her family farms a one-acre plot in a perennially drought-stricken district of Jharkhand state. Ms. Devi says she is 21 years old, although school records in her home village give her age as 24.
She has three older sisters and a younger brother. She was pulled out of school after the sixth grade by her parents so she could cook and clean after her mother became ill. Her sisters all had either left home or were about to, and her parents decided it was more important for their son to be educated than a daughter.
Across India, literacy among women lags behind that of men. In rural areas, less than 60% of women can read, according to Indian census data, compared with 80% of men.
Ms. Devi says she can write her name and a few Hindi words, and read a bit. She knew from an early age, she says, what was expected of a woman: to raise children and take care of household tasks.
"I learned how I had to behave when I got married and went to my in-laws' house just by watching my mother," says Ms. Devi.
Her mother, Lilavati Devi, says she was a child when she was married to her husband, Raj Mohan Singh, who was a few years older. Now 60, Lilavati Devi has spent most of her adult life within the confines of her small, mud-walled home.
Many women in this part of India use Devi as their last name. The word means "goddess" in Hindi. But it isn't a sign of the relative status of women. "To us, husbands are our gods," says Sudha Devi, a government health worker in Karmalahang and no relation to Punita Devi. "We can't think of being equal."
Ms. Devi's parents arranged her marriage to Mr. Singh in 2010. The connection was made through a woman from a neighboring village who was married to one of Mr. Singh's older brothers.
"I wasn't forced into it, but it was a decision taken by my parents. This is how it works here in the countryside," Ms. Devi says. "In a woman's life, marriage and her husband are everything."
Both families belong to the relatively high-ranking Rajput caste and are farmers. "It was a fine match," says Lilavati Devi. In May 2010 she sent her daughter off with a simple dowry: a wooden bed and some kitchen utensils.
"I told her to live well and peacefully with her family—her new family," Lilavati Devi says.
The first two years of marriage went smoothly. Her husband Mr. Singh, 28, is the youngest of three brothers. So Ms. Devi settled into a household that included not just her parents-in-law, but also Mr. Singh's siblings and their wives and children.
Her new village, Karmalahang, is about 18 miles from the Grand Trunk Road, a commercial route since ancient times that connects Kolkata in eastern India to the Afghan capital of Kabul, and sits at the foot of the Kaimur Hills.
The mountains block water-laden air and create what is known as a rain shadow over Karmalahang, making farming for the 1,500 people here a precarious existence. That, combined with a lack of industry, drives many young men from the area to head to cities for jobs.
Mr. Singh and his brothers, none of whom finished high school, were no exception. From their earnings, each would send about $30 to $45 a month to support the extended family.
"I never asked him where he was or what he was doing," says Ms. Devi. "I knew he went to earn money."
In June 2011, Ms. Devi gave birth to a son. The child was prone to lung infections, but Mr. Singh's earnings were enough to pay for monthly doctor's visits and medicine.
During a visit home in August 2012, Mr. Singh brought his wife a mobile phone so they could speak while he was away. He said he had been working at a liquor store in the Jharkhand city of Dhanbad.
Before he headed out again—this time to Delhi—he gave her $20, which she used to buy a shirt for their son as well as fruit from the local market for the child, among other things.
Ms. Devi didn't see her husband again until December. The date is a matter of dispute. In an interview in early August, Ms. Devi and her father-in-law said Mr. Singh returned home on Dec. 21, a day after police had come looking for him in connection with the Dec. 16 gang rape in Delhi.
The crime was already making headlines across India. But Karmalahang has no electricity to power televisions, and newspapers aren't available here. When Mr. Singh came home, he "didn't look noticeably worried or tense," Ms. Devi says, though he had grown a beard.
Since then Ms. Devi and Mr. Singh's other family members have changed their account of his homecoming. They testified in court later in August that he actually returned to the village on Dec. 15, before the Delhi attack occurred. Mr. Singh's lawyer, A.P. Singh, no relation, made that the cornerstone of his defense.
The trial judge, Yogesh Khanna, rejected the alibi. In his judgment, he cited inconsistencies in the family's testimony, a contradictory version of events from the police and witnesses and physical evidence linking Mr. Singh to the crime scene—a bus on which he served as a helper.
Since Mr. Singh's December arrest, his family has been thrown into upheaval. His brothers, Vinay and Abhay, who had also been working around Delhi, left their jobs for three months to help out at home, straining household finances. The family's reputation has been damaged.
"They treat us as untouchables," says Abhay Singh, who works in a paint factory in a Delhi suburb.
"We have gone back from where we were, and from now on it will be an endless slide backwards," says Vinay Singh, who works in a textile-dying plant.
In April, Ms. Devi took an overnight train trip to New Delhi, her first visit to the capital, to see her husband in jail. When she caught her first glimpse of him through the glass partition in the visitors' area, she says, she started to cry.
"Keep yourself and the child well," Mr. Singh told her, according to Ms. Devi. She says he told her: "I will come home. I am innocent."
But without her husband's wages, Ms. Devi says, she hasn't been able to get medical treatment for her son. The child's diet is also suffering, as mother and child subsist on handouts from Mr. Singh's brothers and their wives.
"I feel weak," says Ms. Devi. "Nobody thinks well of a woman whose husband isn't with her for support."
Some people blame the December gang rape and similar attacks in part on a collision of traditional social expectations—commonplace in rural areas—and the modernity of India's cities, where rural migrant workers encounter the values of urbanites living by a different set of rules. During the brutal Delhi assault, for instance, the attackers accosted the woman and the young man she was with, asking why they were out together in the evening, the young man told the court.
Speaking about the events of that night, Ms. Devi says she doesn't understand how a woman could be out for the evening with a man who wasn't her husband.
That night, the two victims had been to a movie at an upscale shopping mall. They were attacked after they boarded a bus. The woman was raped and sexually assaulted with a metal bar, resulting in numerous injuries to her internal organs. The two were dumped, naked and bleeding, by the roadside. The young woman ultimately died of her injuries.
It is too simple to say, however, that there is an urban-rural values split. Mr. Singh's lawyer in New Delhi, A.P. Singh, said after Friday's sentencing that if his daughter insisted on having premarital sex, he would "burn her to death." When asked about the comments, he said "any Indian household in the right frame of mind" would feel the same about premarital sex.
A.P. Singh said he would appeal the guilty verdict against Ms. Devi's husband. That process could take years.
In a written statement from the convict, Mr. Singh, provided by his lawyer, he said of his wife: "She should be strong and fight. She should seek employment. I want her to live. I want her to educate our son and make him a good man. When he grows up, I want him to know the truth about me, that I am innocent."
But Ms. Devi herself worries that time is running out. Her in-laws, Sarju Singh and Malati Devi, say they don't have enough savings to continue supporting Ms. Devi and her son. Mr. Singh's brothers say their earnings are barely enough to support their own wives and children.
Using the cellphone her husband gave her last year, Ms. Devi calls her mother. "What can I do?" she asks, according to Lilavati Devi. Her mother, in tears, says she has no answer to give her.
"Had she been educated, she would have earned for herself," she says, sitting near a picture of her daughter, dressed in a green sari. In the photo, she is standing before a garden backdrop, wearing a half smile.
Ms. Devi's father, Raj Mohan Singh, says his daughter can't return to the home he and his wife share with their son's family. "We won't be able to look after her," he says. "Her brother can't support her, either. He isn't able to look after himself. How can he look after Punita?"
Ms. Devi doesn't know where to turn. "Is there anyone who is thinking of me?" she asked, crying after learning of the death sentence. "I am alive and I have a small child who is still breathing."
—Preetika Rana and Tripti Lahiri contributed to this article.
There were so many horrific things in this article, I hardly know where to begin. I feel so outraged about the treatment of this woman and her son at the hands of her own family - her own fricking family! And they all are just shrugging and saying "oh well, too bad, so sad, go away somewhere and die quickly, please." And you know what's going to happen to this woman if she doesn't "disappear", and maybe her son, too, she's going to die in an "accidental" kitchen fire, burnt to a crisp. There are thousands of such "accidents" that occur in India every year. None ever result in a conviction for murder. Everyone will just shrug and say "oh well, too bad, so sad."