The morning of 15 January 2005 heralded the annual village festival of Magha Parab. For Minati and other members of Orissa's Munda tribe, the occasion is a chance to be gifted new clothes and knick-knacks, coupled with lots of dancing and merriment. Minati, adorned in a new dress and flower ornaments, went to the festival ground with her friends. At midnight, she along with other girls started dancing to the beats of dhol. Steadily, as the beats turned faster, the skies turned red with the sindoor that men threw at the dancing girls. Minati's life took a dramatic turn when 50-year old Suna Hembram threw sindoor at her and it settled on her forehead. The next moment, senior members of the community declared it a 'marriage' in accordance with a bizarre tradition of forced child marriages. That was when Minati stood up and said 'No'.
Amidst a crowd of dumbstruck onlookers, with her head held high, Minati walked up to where the village elders sat and refused point-blank to give in to the ridiculous custom. She accused them of trying to control her life, and warned that they had no business imposing their decisions on her. She firmly asserted that she would not accept a man fit to be her grandfather as a husband. Having said so, Minati went back home and locked herself in her room.The next morning, and many such mornings after, her entire family accompanied by Hembram tried to convince her but failed. The bruised ego of Hembram was further riled by Minati's 'attitude', and he cornered her when she was alone at home one day. When Minati later complained to her mother that she had been raped, the entire family took it upon themselves to shame Minati for what was in no way her fault. The gritty girl gave her family one smoldering look and walked out of the hut she used to call home. Her family searched far and wide for her, while she slept peacefully in the forest for seven nights of hard-earned freedom.
Support came in the guise of a friend, whose husband helped Minati lodge complaints against her family and Hembram with the local police. Fortunately for her, they were all arrested. Later, while her mother and sister-in-law were released on bail, her father and brother awarded their sentences. As for the groom, he was booked for rape, and as Minati says with her impish smile, was good riddance.My heart swelled with pride as I wished there were more girls like Minati who can make a difference. She has not changed the world, or the country, or even her village. She stood up for herself. By standing up to and against injustice. By not accepting anything just because it is religion/ tradition/ culture/ etc. By showing her friends the courage to do the same. By showing what is right and what isn't in our society. By having a mind of her own and using it.
I firmly believe that any individual who can't stand up for himself/herself will fall for anything on earth. Minati showed the world how standing up for yourself is bravery, not impudence or disrespect. She also showed us that all individuals, and women too, have a right to decide what is best for them. In India, this right is constitutional and irrevocable. How many women know that? How many women would use that right? Sadly, a woman in India may have her constitutional rights, but not her humanitarian rights - to happiness and to a mind of her own.