Elections in India, one of the world’s most populous countries, evoke images like a social gathering or  a fun fair, in part due to the overwhelming numbers that participate in the process. In this country of over a billion people, 714 million voters will decide who heads the world’s largest democracy for the next five years. To ensure political representation for historically marginalized groups in the lower house of the parliament, the Indian Constitution stipulates that each state reserve seats for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (formerly known as the untouchables, lowest in the country’s stratified social order) in proportion to their population in the state.

This means only candidates belonging to these groups can contest elections in reserved constituencies. In the 2009 elections, eighty-four seats for candidates from scheduled castes and forty-seven for scheduled tribe members were reserved, 24 percent of the total seats in the parliament’s lower house. A pending Bill seeking a 33 percent reservation for women in the parliament and state legislatures has been the subject of intense debate for over a decade.

Indian women became politically active in 1889 when some elite women started to attend meetings of the Indian National Congress.

In India, nine out of 10 legislators are men, still Indian politicians are eager to talk about women’s empowerment and the political legacies of India’s female politicians like Sushma Swaraj, Indira Gandhi or Pratibha Patil, largely remain anomalies in the Indian political landscape rather than the actual norm.

For Dalit women who observe and understand the complexity of such a reality, it can be extremely frustrating to do everything that one can possibly do, and still be left behind. What one needs are not just sponsors and solidarity, but an immediate and an urgent redressal of the Indian political space, which still continues to be casteist and sexist.

As of 2014, women make up only 11.8 percent of the Indian Lok Sabha and 11.4 percent of Indian Rajya Sabha, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Let us know the first Dalit woman who made an impact in politics

The year was 1946. On the wintry day of December 19, India’s newly formed Constituent Assembly was in session, debating and drafting a constitution for the soon-to-be independent nation. The woman was Dakshayani Velayudhan, the first and only Dalit woman in the Constituent Assembly. The youngest participant of this august congregation, she was one of 15 women members who etched their mark on the making of the Indian republic.

Despite her contributions in the framing of the Indian constitution — an experiment that would go on to determine the country’s ability to govern itself — Dakshayani’s story has unintentionally been dwarfed for years by the larger national personalities of her time.

The Struggle To Lead From The Front

As per the reports issued in 2012, there were 117 Dalit women elected representatives who visited government and other officials in connection with their panchayat responsibilities, positive indications are that 39.3% of women had their invitations accepted by officials to visit their panchayats; 36.8% mentioned how officials implemented schemes requested by them or otherwise supported them in implementing schemes; and 34.2% stated that officials took prompt action on the women’s requests or complaints.

On the other hand, officials also harassed Dalit women elected representatives by making them frequently visit government offices to deal with the same matter, or delayed the implementation of schemes despite repeated requests from the women, as mentioned by 23.1% of women. Linked to this, 17.9% of women had to wait for a long time to meet these officials to discuss official panchayat matters. A further 2.6% of women also mentioned how government officials expected bribes in order to render any service to the women. 

“Sustained systemic change requires multiple state and non-state actors at the state and national levels working together to influence formal and non-formal local institutions of power and to strengthen Dalit women’s sense of confidence, skills, power and support networks. Creative ways must be explored, with Dalit women as well as Dalit men and non Dalits, to capitalise on the success stories of Dalit women’s political leadership, and cultivate their growth. Inspiring examples of Dalit women elected representatives speak of the great potential for further political and social reform through active participation in panchayat governance. Ultimately efforts must lead to create a supportive environment for these women’s political participation in order to transform access to and control over resources and benefits in society, as well as promote a human rights culture that itself demands accountable governance and equality for all,” says the above stated Dalit Women’s Right to Political Participation
in Rural Panchayati Raj report.

What can be done

* In order to improve the economic conditions of Dalits in rural areas, necessary to facilitate their political participation, develop a national perspective plan with explicit short- and long-term goals for overall development of Dalit women within fixed time bound targets and allocate separate funding for this plan (as per recommendation of National Human Rights Commission).

* Mandate the National and State Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Women’s Commissions with sufficient powers, funds and staff to specifically inquire into acts of political obstruction or violence committed against Dalit women, Dalit men, Adivasi women, Adivasi men and other women elected representatives.

* Provide free legal aid for Dalit women panchayat representatives who seek access to judicial redress for obstructions in the performance of their official duties, and review the reasons why Dalit women are unable to access legal aid in many cases.

* Initiate a political awareness campaign on the right to political participation by Dalit women and men, in order to highlight the importance of political unity across Dalit sub-castes and their participation for community development. As part of this campaign, facilitate and support discussions among Dalit elders, men, panchayat members, husbands and male family members about the importance of Dalit women’s free and independent political participation.

Let us also analyze, why participation of women from marginalised groups is so low.

Firstly, it is very important for any constitution to have people representative of  various castes; then the question arises- why? The reason is simple- until we have representation from them we cannot address their issues. Why is it so important to have someone from their caste only? It is obvious only the ones belonging to that group can understand their issues well and suggest solutions to their problem well and of course we often trust people from the same community more than someone else.

Meira Kumar, daughter of Jagjivan Ram, arguably the tallest SC leader that the Congress has produced. She quit the Indian Foreign Service on Rajiv Gandhi’s suggestion to contest a by-election in 1985 from the Lok Sabha constituency of Bijnor, UP, which wasn’t her home state.

We have such great examples of Meira Kumar and Dakshayani Velayudhan, women who entered the field of politics from a backward class. They have often been victims of discrimination and harassment more than men, irrespective of their caste. Lower caste women are generally the victims of harassment cases; hence a powerful stand for them is very much needed. Political strength will ensure not only them but also their upcoming generations equality in the right terms.  The lack of participation is because of the lack of political know-how among women especially among the Dalits and adivasis and even if these women have enough knowledge they get suppressed in a men-centric world.

It is very important for women to take stand for themselves, because it not only motivates the upcoming generation but also initiates a good revolutionary change with motives of equality and if this starts happening in reality then I think they wouldn’t be addressed as minority but rather considered as a part of the same community.

Picture By: Indian Express

Also Read: SC Advocates Body Expresses Reservation In CJI’s Harassment Case

Debarati Bhowmick, part of Safecity’s #WritersMovement, is currently pursuing her post- graduation from Mumbai University. Dancing and writing are her passion. She writes short poems in her spare time and she loves to interact with people from diverse backgrounds. The views expressed are author’s own.

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