Indian woman's 24-year fight to prove she is alive

Asharfi Devi Asharfi Devi was declared dead in 1988

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This is the story of an Indian woman who married at the age of 12, became a mother at 19, was deserted by her husband at 23 and was declared dead at the age of 40.

Asharfi Devi, now 64, fought a 24-year-long battle to prove that she was alive and her efforts paid off finally in May 2012 when a village council court ruled that she was indeed alive.

Asharfi Devi's parents married her to a local farmer, Ram Janam Singh, of Barun village in Rohtas district of the northern state of Bihar in 1960.

In rural India, weddings are almost never registered and Asharfi Devi doesn't have any documents to prove her marriage, but she vaguely recalls that she was around 12 when she married.

What she remembers well though is her delight at being dressed in the bright red bridal sari and the loud Hindi film songs blaring from a loudspeaker perched atop a tree trunk outside her parents' thatched house.

Shock

Her happiness, however, was short-lived.

Soon after her wedding, she discovered that she was her husband's second wife - Ram Janam Singh was a widower whose first wife Jhalakia Devi had died sometime before his second marriage.

At 19, Asharfi Devi became the mother of a baby girl.

But, by now, she says, her husband had started abusing her physically and mentally.

"Four years after my daughter was born, my husband deserted us so we went to live with my parents," she says.

As time passed, Asharfi Devi married off her daughter Bimla Devi to a vegetable vendor, Anil Kumar Singh, while living at her parent's house. Her father and brother paid for the wedding.

Asharfi devi Asharfi Devi says her husband declared her dead to prevent any claim on his property

But Asharfi Devi's troubles were far from over.

Her world fell apart when she found out that her husband had procured a fake certificate of her death from the Sasaram district municipal council and also taken another wife - his third.

The death certificate was issued on 30 December 1988.

"At the age of 40 I was declared dead, officially," says a distraught Asharfi Devi.

Lonely battle

She then began her long fight to prove that she was alive.

She approached the police, the politicians and even the courts.

"I knocked on every door, from police to the court, but no-one could prove officially that I was alive, despite being convinced that I was alive. I was crestfallen," she says.

To continue her battle to prove that she was alive, she moved in with her daughter and son-in-law into a hut in the village, barely half a kilometre from her husband's home.

She says she was threatened by her husband and his new wife, Subhago Devi.

Asharfi Devi with her daughter and son-in-law Asharfi Devi lives with her daughter and son-in-law

"He even had me sent to jail after implicating me in a false theft case in 1993-94," she says.

"He was transferring all his property in the name of his third wife after proving me officially dead," Asharfi Devi says.

In desperation, she filed a petition before the village council last year, claiming that she was alive.

For eight months, the council examined all the evidence and in May, it invited Asharfi Devi, her husband and family members, villagers, local police, administration officials and journalists for the judgement day.

"After examining all the facts and evidences, the village council delivered justice to Asharfi Devi by proclaiming that she was alive," council chief Sandhya Sinha told the BBC.

The order has brought some relief to Asharfi Devi: "Now I have papers to prove my existence. I am not dead."

"It's like the rebirth of my mother," says her daughter, Bimla Devi.

But Asharfi Devi's husband, Ram Janam Singh, continues to deny her existence.

"Asharfi Devi died in 1988," he says. "I don't know why this woman is claiming to be my wife. Ask her, what can I say?"

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