The improbable agents of hope

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A new book offers proof of why cynicism is no way to greet women grassroots leaders. Divya Gupta details the arduous journeys of India’s sarpanch sahibaans

The good fight (from right) Kenchamma, Chinapappa,Maya, Maloti and Veena Devi
Photo: Vijay Pandey

FOR AN EVENING, it seemed as though the gap between the two Indias’ had truly narrowed. A group of 26 women panchayat leaders from across the country descended on Delhi’s India International Center – the capital’s veritable intellectual haunt. Clad in bright yellow, red, turquoise, green and pink saris, they were guests of honour at the release of Sarpanch Sahib – a collection of seven unique stories of women panchayat leaders by seven seasoned women authors.

The story of women grassroots leadership really began 15 years ago with the 73rd Amendment, which reserved 33 percent of the seats in panchayati raj [local self-government] institutions for women. Since then, an estimated 30 lakh women have become politically active and 10 lakh women get elected to political office every five years. “It’s a staggering statistic for any nation,” writes Manjima Bhattacharjya, a sociologist commissioned as the book’s editor by the Hunger Project, an NGO. Yet, massive cynicism persists and it is against “this uneasy backdrop of public perception,” that she transports the reader into the world of seven women grassroots leaders to judge for themselves.

‘I, a beggar, a widow, a woman, won elections twice. The person who had one lakh rupees didn’t’

VEENA DEVI
Mukhiya of Loharpur, Bihar

Twenty-eight-year old Deepanjali, an adivasi, gingerly navigates caste landmines in Kalahandi in Orissa, only to find that the “ultimate, albeit predictable, turn of the knife” — malicious rumours of sexual waywardness — still awaits her. But it was a direct result of her efforts that more women now come to the panchayat office than drunk men, that information under the Right to Information Act was made more accessible to her constituents and that there is more accountability in the public distribution system. “At times, I’m sure she thought ‘what the hell am I doing? It’s not that much fun anymore,’ ” says Indira Maya Ganesh, who profiled Deepanjali. “But the nature of what is difficult for women in politics at the grassroots needs to be told,” she says.

Thirty-one-year old Chinapappa, a dalit woman from Tamil Nadu was educated only till class 3, but as sarpanch, she fought impossible odds to secure education for the children of an outcast tribe in her district. “That was intuitive. It was the mainstay of her campaign,” says author Tishani Doshi. But she admits that Chinapappa didn’t turn out to be an “absolute shining star”. Her ignorance — and fear — of finance kept her dependent on others for accounts and left room for finger pointing. And yet, Doshi was forced to reassess her judgment. “Different rules apply. She will not eat with the higher caste members of her ward, but she will fight for her ward members. It’s a strange mix: being feisty and submissive at the same time. Yet, she embodied a very distinct kind of woman power that is different from what we see in cities.”

SARPANCH SAHIB
Edited by Manjima Bhattacharjya
Harper Collins
152 pp; Rs175

BHATTACHARJYA WAS struck by similar stark dichotomies. She profiled Kenchamma, a 43-year-old illiterate, scheduled caste woman from Karnataka. “I was most surprised by how power and powerlessness can co-exist,” she says. Kenchamma’s first election campaign in 1993 was scarred by violence. She had to be confined to a compound with 16 dogs and a dozen supporters acting as guards. On polling day, she required police protection and was “dumbfounded by her victory”. Then came the humiliation from upper-castes. Timely intervention by the Hunger Project put her back on track. Her confidence grew and the achievements piled up – literacy, curbing alcoholism, paving roads. Grudgingly, even her detractors acknowledged the change she brought about.

Veena Devi, 36, belongs to the economically backward Adrakhi Mahto caste in Bihar. She joined politics to literally protect herself from criminal elements. As a child widow with a poor background, she couldn’t fathom her victory. A combination of innate leadership qualities, support from the Hunger Project and some well-meaning local administration leaders ensured that Veena Devi learned to float and eventually, swim, instead of drown in the riptides of village politics. “These things cannot take place in the normal course. Interventions are critical,” says veteran journalist Kalpana Sharma, who profiled Veena Devi.

‘It is one thing to win and another to lead. It’s the hardest thing i have ever done’

DEEPANJALI
Sarpanch of Rupra Road, Orissa

Sunita, an adivasi from Madhya Pradesh, was only 22 when she entered politics, five years ago. It was an accidental entry, manipulated by upper-caste men in her village. Along with other detractors, they entangled Sunita in a web of legality requiring her to visit court eight times a month. In the end emerged a strong woman who took the upper-castes head on and called the bluff of their death threats with reciprocal ones of her own. “If democracy, in a finer sense, is giving everybody an opportunity then she saw one and took it,” says Manju Kapur, author of Difficult Daughters, who profiled Sunita. Forty-five-year old Maya from Uttarakhand went one step ahead to internalise democracy. As a Rajput woman, she took pride in her roots and even admits it helped her win. But Maya’s good reputation during her five-year stint as sarpanch was built on the sheer dint of her hard work and unending energy. She lost the next election by just 50 votes, but gained invaluable insights. “Progress can be made only when people making up society decide to walk with you, in agreement with your ideas,” she says. Unlike many others, 42-year-old Maloti had encouraging circumstances to begin with. But she broke new ground, too, and with “the delicate tread of a ballet dancer,” as author Sonia Faleiro puts it. She conducted daily cycle tours of 18-36 km to “increase efficiency”, managed development projects worth lakhs and found subtle, ingenious ways to include Christians, Muslims and tribals in local development.

As one exits Sarpanch Sahib, the undeniable feeling is that the Mayas and Veena Devis are not perfect. Yet, they are the last women standing in the face of violence, illiteracy, caste venom and deeply-entrenched patriarchy. They may not have arrived fully yet but we should celebrate how far they have come.

WRITER’S EMAIL
divya@tehelka.com

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