Cog in the veils: The tale of two women sarpanchs

The practice of husbands and father-in-laws fielding the women in their households as proxy sarpanch candidates to wield control in panchayats hasn’t changed

Published: 11th June 2019 04:02 PM  |   Last Updated: 11th June 2019 08:39 PM   |  A+A-

Zubeida Bano, former sarpanch of Dhanuri village in Jhunjhunu | EPS

Four decades, unequal educational background and a few metres separate Mamta Sihag from Narayani Devi. But there is a connection between them. Both served as panchayat leaders of Sahwa in Rajasthan’s Churu district due to the social and political dominance of the men in their families.

While 80-year-old Narayani was the first woman sarpanch of Sahwa, 32-year-old Mamta is the current sarpanch and only the second woman to hold the position here. Yet, their lives changed little despite being the first citizens of their village communities.

The first few tasks Mamta does after waking up at 5 am everyday is feeding and milking buffaloes in her huge house, which she shares with her husband and his family. As the day progresses, she cleans the animal pens, then cooks and cleans, sends her seven-year-old son to school and dutifully shines and passes on the shoes to her husband as he gets ready to leave the house to take care of “village responsibilities”.

Mamta is the elected sarpanch of this village, but her daily routine is barely any different from the other 7,000 women in Sahwa. A few metres away from Mamta’s house lives Narayani, who was elected as the first woman sarpanch from this village back in 1995, and who, unlike Mamta, used to cover her face with a long veil when attending to her official tasks. That year the sarpanch’s position in Sahwa was reserved for women owing to the mandatory 33 per cent reservation to women in Panchayati Raj institutions introduced by the government. Sahwa is one of the largest village in Churu district. According to Population Census 2011, it had a population of 14,841 of which 7,769 are men while 7,072 are women. In 2011, the literacy rate of Sahwa village was 66.57% compared to 66.11% of Rajasthan.

The village has seen considerable progress over the years, with the founding of 40 private schools, five colleges and some health centres as opposed to 1995, when there were no colleges and only a few private schools. However, it cannot boast of the same progress in the mindset of men.

Different, yet same

Mamta and Narayani are again very different from each other. While Mamta holds a Master’s degree in Sanskrit and has cleared BEd, Narayani is illiterate. In these 20 years — from 1995 to 2015 — when the village got its second woman sarpanch, a lot has changed. The veil has mostly disappeared. Many women have surpassed their husbands in education as is the case with Mamta whose husband only managed to finish his school.

Mamta Sihag is the sarpanch of Sahwa currently | EPS

Yet the phenomenon of sarpanch’s husbands and father- in-laws wielding control in panchayat by fielding the women in their households as proxy candidates haven’t changed. This is evident from the conversations with villagers who, when asked about directions to the sarpanch’s house, take Mamta’s father-in-law’s name, instead of referring to her.

Mamta’s limited role as the sarpanch becomes evident when a number of villagers gather in the evening at the sarpanch’s house — to raise issues such as poor drainage system and scarcity of water — but Mamta is not part of these discussions. The place of discussion is her family’s drawing room whose walls adorn big portraits of Nathur Ram Sihag, her father-in-law. The problems are discussed with Mamta’s husband Sanjay Sihag and her father-in-law, who has in the past made an unsuccessful bid at contesting sarpanch elections. Such discussions mostly take place on the verandah or in the drawing room which sport two big portraits of senior Sihag with local politicians.

By proxy alone

Mamta admits that it was on her father-in-law’s insistence that she contested panchayat elections. “He knows the problems and people of the village. He advised me to contest and I did. Being sarpanch is a big responsibility. I meet people and attend as many functions as I can but my husband and my father-in-law do a lot of work as well,” Mamta says.

Asked to elaborate on the kind of functions she attends, Mamta cites Republic Day and Independence Day functions — underscoring the ceremonial nature of her involvement in village responsibilities. The supremacy of Sanjay andNathu over Mamta is such that sometimes the documents that require the sarpanch’s signature are also signed by them and not Mamta. What is more shocking is that often, these documents are accepted by higher authorities, locals say.

A sarpanch is involved in tasks, including recommending names of beneficiaries for government schemes such as Saubhagya (government’s project to provide electricity to all households), Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (project to provide affordable housing), Ujjwala (project to distribute 50 million LPG connections to women of BPL families)

“The good thing is that more and more women are getting educated now but the sad part is that education has not really empowered them. Men continue to dominate. It is the men who decide whenever there is an important issue — involving police or government officials. The list of beneficiaries of various government schemes, which is to be prepared by the sarpanch, is decided by men in case the sarpanch is a woman. That is the case in most villages. In my village, an educational hub, this is the scenario. Children from nearby villages come here to study,” said Nirmal Sarawagi, one of the patrons of government girls senior secondary school, Sahwa.

Better educational qualification of women sarpanches also comes from the fact that the SupremeSupreme Court had in 2015 mandated “minimum” qualification for candidates contesting panchayat elections. The Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government had introduced education criterion in 2015 which required a candidate to pass Class X for contesting zila parishad, panchayat samiti and municipal elections.

Sultana currently heads the panchayat in Dhanuri (L) and  Narayani Devi, the first woman sarpanch of Sahwa | EPS

Recently, the Congress- ruled government decided to end the minimum education criterion for panchayat and civic poll candidates. Recalling her tenure as the village sarpanch, Narayani Devi says, “My winning margin has been the highest that the village has ever seen. I defeated Saroj Devi, a lawyer’s wife. She was seventh-eighth pass. I was illiterate but won because my husband knew the village, its people and their problems. Those days, girls were not allowed to study. Nowadays that’s not the case. The scenario has improved.”

Unequal everywhere

Narayani’s son Karam Chand doesn’t let her complete her thought. He says, “Had the seat not been reserved, my father Khyali Ram Nain would have contested and won. He was a manager at a tea garden in Assam where he lived for two years and then he worked as a teacher in the city, but he gave all that up to serve the village. He made my mother contest because the seat was reserved for women and then he did a lot of good work in those five years. The village got more schools and a primary health care centre.”

Chand says he will contest the next sarpanch election which is due in 2020. Sahwa’s story of women sarpanches is replicated in Jhunjhunu’s Dhanuri village, which, too, has just seen two women sarpanches owing to these seats being reserved for women. Dhanuri, too, has a young woman sarpanch — 28-year-old Sultana — a mother of two young children. Unlike Mamta, Sultana openly admits that her role as village sarpanch is titular.

“My husband manages everything. It is the men who mainly perform the tasks,” says 10th pass Sultana, sitting in her small two-room house. Her husband Mohammad Idrees says, “You can ask me anything you want to understand on the issues of the village.”

Sultana’s predecessor and the only other woman sarpanch of the village Zubeida Bano was a namesake sarpanch, too. The 70-year-old Bano became the first woman sarpanch of Dhanuri in 1995 at the insistence of her husband Mohd Hafeez Khan, a six-time sarpanch of the village. Bano says, “My husband and I are equal on many counts. We are both matriculates but when it comes to sarpanchgiri, he is better. He used to do all the work of sarpanch even during my tenure. I contested because the seat was reserved for women in that year.”

President of the Union of Sarpanches in Rajasthan Bhanwar Lal admitted that women sarpanches in the state were mostly nominal and it is their male family members who take all decisions. Lal said, “In most cases, women sarpanches are figureheads. The villages are still very patriarchal and the job of the sarpanch requires him/her to interact with villagers at public meetings. Women are usually reluctant to do so and it is their male family members who do the job. This situation will hopefully change.”


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