A panchayat president of a village in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district was allegedly forced to sit on the floor during a meeting last week, sparking off outrage in the state. The vice-president and the ward member were booked for being discourteous to her under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act for offences including humiliation and obstructing her official work.
Two days later, in a village in Pudukkottai district, a newly built bus stand shade had the names of local panchayat officials who were instrumental in getting it constructed. But the name of the woman Dalit union chairman was conspicuous by its absence. Again on Tuesday, another panchayat president in Mayiladuthurai district was not allowed to sit on a rolling chair that she had bought for her office.
The reason for the three instances of alleged humiliation in a week was the same: the panchayat presidents and officials were Dalits, and what is more, they were women. There have been a number of incidents where Dalit women presidents have been treated shabbily by caste Hindus in villages because of their position in the social hierarchy, validating the opinion of B R Ambedkar, the founding father of our Constitution, that it would be dangerous in a nascent democracy like India to vest the powers at the grassroots level.
Mahatma Gandhi, on the other hand, had strongly championed the cause of decentralising power and decision-making to strengthen the country’s democratic fabric. But Ambedkar felt the country’s rural belt was not ready for such a power structure, given the deep-rooted caste system that would only fortify such stratification at that level.
The incidents of ill-treatment of Dalit women local body chiefs are not new and point to the fact that they are prevented from taking part in the decision-making. If this is allowed to continue, then the quotas in local bodies put in place for empowering them will serve no purpose. As a starting point, the state government needs to get its act together, promptly registering complaints and acting on them. A complacent response will only perpetuate such blatant discrimination and violations of constitutional principles.