“Sign here, kezhavi... And stop asking for reasons...” That is how the office bearers of Athupakkam village in Tiruvallur address their panchayat president Amurtham. “As a Dalit woman, I am used to being insulted, and ignored,” says the sexagenarian, as a matter-of-fact. “But, when I contested and got elected as the panchayat president I thought, rather hoped, that things would begin to change.” Her villagers proved her wrong.
On the one side, a few panchayat officials and members were allegedly committing financial frauds right under her nose, without even bothering to cover-up. On the other, the public humiliation and insults continued, or rather intensified once she assumed office. “I am called into the office only for my signature,” Amurtham tells Express.
“They would not even explain anything. Later, I realised they were getting my signatures on blank cheques.” It was not just about panchayat officials. The attitude of the public was no better. “I used to visit workers in farmlands or construction sites to understand if they needed any official assistance. They would just shrug and walk away,” she says.
She took it all in her stride. “Being ignored and humiliated was not new for me, being a Dalit woman,” she says. The matter, however, reached a tipping point in August.
On the 73rd Independence Day, Amurtham was invited to the panchayat school to hoist the Tricolour.
It was a matter of pride and recognition after a lifetime of ordeals. However, at the last minute, the invite was rescinded. The dominant castes in the village were allegedly upset with Amurtham being honoured with the opportunity to hoist the National Flag. Two journalists, who got a whiff of this incident and visited the village to report the matter, were beaten up.
With this, the issue gained widespread attention. On August 21, the District Collector and Police Superintendent visited the village and gave Amurtham an opportunity to hoist the flag.
“Today is my real Independence Day,” she was quoted as saying after the incident. It took the intervention of the two senior-most officials in the district for Amurtham to enjoy her “Independence”. There are many others like Amurtham, whose stories are hardly reported and go unnoticed.
The ugly truth
Take for instance the story of the woman who presides over J Krishnapuram – a quaint little village near Pollachi that exudes rustic charm. But, behind the scenic beauty of the village is a sordid tale of caste discrimination.
The Dalits of Krishnapuram have to travel a good six kilometres if they want a haircut, because they are denied that privilege in their own village. “There are five salons in my village, but in all these years I have not been inside any of them,” says 29-year-old A Santosh.
“They don’t want business from us Dalits.” It’s not just about haircuts – tea shops here continue to practice the infamous two-tumbler system, a ban on temple-entry is alive and kicking, and even the dead have different places of resting. It was in this scenario that the village recently got reserved for SC candidates. When 34-year-old Dalit woman V Saridha decided to contest the panchayat elections, little did she know that things were about to get worse for her and the 1,200-odd Dalits in her village.
“During campaigning, my supporters were told not to enter the streets where dominant castes reside,” she says. Later, when she was elected as the president, she was even denied that chair, and not just metaphorically. “They stopped me from writing my name outside my office. They stopped me from sitting on the official chair,” she says. In February, a painter brought in by her to write her name on the office board was shooed away. “They did not want a Dalit woman’s name there.” Finally, last week, Saridha mustered the courage to report the abuse to police. As per her complaint, the caste-based abuse primarily came from one Balasubramaniam, who holds no position or office in the panchayat.
“If I don’t get up from my chair when Balasubramaniam visits my office, he would hurl casteist slurs at me in front of everyone,” Saridha told Express. “Till he leaves office, I was told not just to sit on the panchayat president’s chair but also on any other piece of furniture.” “The tussle with Balasubramaniam began after I fired a few watermen belonging to his caste,” claims Saridha. “They were responsible for the water supply to Dalit inhabitations. But, they hardly supplied us any water. I was among those who suffered without access to water. As they were found neglecting their duty, and them being temporary staff, I fired them and hired a few Dalits to do that job.” Express tried to reach out to Balasubramaniam for a comment, but his house was locked. His neighbours last saw him on September 13.
While Balasubramaniam has been booked under the SC/ST Atrocities Act, the police suspect the complaint could be the result of a political rivalry. Saridha denies that theory outright. A visit to any teashop in the village is enough to understand that Saridha’s allegations are not unfounded. Though subtle, it’s hard to miss the signs of casteism practiced here – they have two types of tumblers, stainless steel for dominant castes and glass for Dalits; the benches are also separate, one for Dalits and one for the rest.
Seven decades back, a national leader foresaw the problems that those like Amurtham and Saridha would face in Independent India.
While the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, considered Panchayati Raj to be the “foundation” of India’s political system, the idea was fiercely opposed by BR Ambedkar, Father of the Indian Constitution. Ambedkar was not in favour of decentralising power all the way down to villages.
He considered villages to be “caste-driven” and lacking in institutions of self-governance. Through his personal experiences, he felt that empowering village-level administration systems would result in the continued exploitation of the downtrodden. “Villages are nothing but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and communalism,” he had said on November 5, 1948, while presenting the Draft Constitution.
“…there are others who do not want any Central or Provincial Governments. They just want India to contain so many village governments. The love of intellectual Indians for the village community is, of course, infinite if not pathetic (laughter),” he had said.
“I hold that these village republics have been the ruination of India. I am therefore surprised that those who condemn Provincialism and Communalism should come forward as champions of the village.”
Ambedkar’s statement led to a huge debate among the constituent Assembly members. Finally, on November 28, 1948, Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar and K Santhanam proposed a new article (31-A) to allow States take steps to form Panchayats. Years later, a large part of what Ambedkar said still holds true.
The road to nowhere
The ordeals of elected representatives are an indicator, say experts. If leaders are subjected to such treatment, the situation of people at the grassroots is likely to be much worse.
This is ironic as Tamil Nadu is a frontrunner in abolishing untouchability, with a landmark legislation as early as in 1939, a decade before the Indian Constitution did the same.
“Amurtham’s story itself seems to have come out because she showed the courage to speak up,” says N Janakiraman, Chief Operating Officer of Dhan Foundation.
“There could be many more. Elected representatives from reserved wards, especially women, are made to compromise a lot for acceptance. In many panchayats presided over by Dalit women, the vice-presidents, hailing from dominant caste groups, wield excessive powers.
"They become the decision-making authorities.” It’s because the problem is two-pronged – one is the caste dynamics and the other is gender. “Active and periodic intervention by the government, social support groups, and the judiciary, is the only way to slowly break these barriers,” says writer Stalin Rajangam.
“Despite social reform movements and progressive politics, Tamil Nadu has not yet managed to resolve this issue at the grassroots.” He blames it to a large extent on “caste-based vote-bank politics” of the last few decades. Another reason why the oppression continues is because it begins from home, say experts. Scholar S Anandi, who authored the book ‘Dalit Women: Vanguard of an Alternative Politics in India’, recalls the story of Ranganayaki, who was elected in 1996, after the 33 per cent reservation was implemented in the State.
“Ranganayaki was discriminated against not only by the dominant caste groups, but also by the men of her own community,” says Anandi.
“She, however, did not give in. She stood her ground and fought a legal battle. And, that made a difference.” It’s important for women to report the discrimination they face, says Anandi. It is important because the abusive and discriminatory attitudes stem from a patriarchal point of view that refuses to acknowledge legal and constitutional powers, says Ramu Manivannan, Professor and Head of the Political Science department at the University of Madras. “Unless the larger society comes together, this issue cannot be solved.” Political parties and governments, Manivannan says, must not just focus on addressing this issue through legal and constitutional channels.
An attitude-shift is needed in the society to ensure that basic Constitutional rights of any group are not hindered. C Lakshmanan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies explains how it should work.
“There are two different types of identities for any group or individual – ascribed and achieved. Ascribed identity is a social and cultural identity assigned at birth or by social status. An achieved identity is what we achieve in our life through our education or hard work. Our society is still conditioned to follow our ascribed identities.”
As a result, change requires a major shift in public attitudes, by beginning to “acknowledge and accept the reality of caste discrimination that still exists in our country without normalising it,” adds Lakshmanan.
“Unfortunately, even the progressive voices in this country fail to consider caste as a threat to secularism in the same way as religion.” The results of this identity crisis are visible across all strata of the society, not just in the rural and underprivileged groups.
For instance, a few months back, the US media made shocking revelations about the prevalence of caste-based discrimination in Silicon Valley, the technological headquarters for the world’s biggest companies.
Meanwhile, India’s rank in the Gender Gap Index of 2020 slipped to 112th from 108th in 2018. The report says India will take a good 100 years to bridge the pay-gap in areas such as politics, economy, health, and education.
Considering these factors, the road to equality for those like Amurtham and Saridha is likely to be long and tedious.
A wind of change in the state
- Women leaders in Tamil Nadu have been influencing policy decisions at the state level over several decades. In 1997, they organised themselves into the Tamil Nadu Women Panchayat Presidents Federation, the first-ever in the country, to lobby for important policy-level changes
- In 2001, they lobbied with J Jayalalithaa, who was then in the opposition, to fix the panchayat president’s term for 10 years. Tamil Nadu was the first state in the country to do so
‘Women leaders invest 48% more’
Reservation for women leaders in panchayat, introduced in 1996, has changed the face of rural governance in Tamil Nadu. As per a report on Indiaspend.com, women leaders invest 48% more money than their male counterparts in building roads and improving access, and tend to concentrate on not just improving the supply of water in dry districts but also its quality.
KARUR: K Niladevi, president of Anjur village panchayat, was shocked when she found out her office had been occupied by the vice-president. “Even before the office was handed over to me, the vice-president occupied it and refused to vacate,” she tells Express. “Left with no other choice, I met the BDO with a written complaint. Only after that did I get access to my own office.” That, however, did not make things any better for Niladevi. To get anything done in the panchayat, she needed the help of her subordinates. They would rather not see any development in the village than take orders from a Dalit woman.
‘Secretary gives me Rs 200 for thumbprint’
VILLUPURAM: 70-year-old M Renganathan, an Irula, was elected as the president of Rettipalayam village panchayat, Gingee, in 2011. However, illiteracy and his “caste status” were used by members to bully him to get their work done, he says. “The panchayat secretary would pay me Rs 200 to Rs 300 daily to put my thumbprint on documents. She never cared to explain details in the documents.”
(Reporting by Sahaya Novinston Lobo, and Nirupama Viswanathan from Chennai, Krithika Srinivasan from Villupuram, Shobana Radhakrishnan from Madurai, Aravind Raj from Karur, and MP Saravanan from Tirupur. Written by Gokul Chandrasekar)