There’s a reason we’re calling it a dhakosla — look it up, it’s a loaded word that rises above its English counterparts of farce, sham, tamasha, something intended to fool you, and encompasses all of it too — the woman pradhan figure of hinterland UP.
We’ve seen it over and over. In 2015, we met Munni Devi in Banda who had won the Zila Parishad (ZP) elections from Mahua block. But when we say met, we mean we were up-front with the idea of meeting Munni Devi alone. But it was her husband Gorelal who came along for the meeting, in the flesh. “What work do women have here,” he questioned us. “I’m the one who does everything around here anyway.” Needless to say, nobody found it even the slightest bit strange that Gorelal had come along to pick up the papers certifying Munni Devi as the elected official. Or that he was now posing for photographs with janta. Upon asking around, we heard that Munni Devi was indeed last seen in these parts during campaign time, but even of that, we can’t be too certain.
We also met Geeta Singh in Niralanagar, Faizabad around the same time, who had also won the ZP elections by a good 77 votes, in fact. And this time, we actually met her — after practically hounding everyone in the village, all of whom claimed ignorance of where she lives. A bit stunned, she told us she needs to find her husband for the interview we’re keen on, because he “handles media types”. Gradually Geeta warms up to us, but is constantly shushed by her mother-in-law, asking her to wait for the man to arrive. We all eye each other angrily and nervously as Geeta’s young daughter eyes us amused.
It’s not all so dire, of course. Women have increasingly been more and more present in politics, not just globally, but in India’s most populous state as well. They have been candidates at the state-level, some even running for the elections held in UP earlier this year. Sampat Pal, Commander-in-Chief (her preferred title), of the uber popular Gulabi Gang, contested from Manikpur in Chitrakoot, the hot seat of electoral attention this year. Others like Kiran Verma who party-hopped from BSP to BJP in a bid to ride on the Dalit-pandering vote quota, didn’t manage to procure the much-feted “ticket”. Neither did Rani Kanojia who once told us she’d slapped an official right across his face because he’d been acting fresh. “A tehsildar put his hand on my shoulder while I was talking to him, and I asked him to remove it. When he laughed and said, ‘Oh! Maybe I should put both my hands’, I slapped him. Hard. Twice.”
We also hear of stories from other states, where the reservation for women at the panchayat level does amount to actual empowerment, where it’s a real step towards equal rights even. It’s an arduous path, but women are taking it, more and more often.
There are more names in UP too. Besides Munni Devi and Geeta Singh, 2015 also gave us Anshu Shivhare and Javitri Devi, both active contestants and campaigners for the panchayat elections. They couldn’t be more different: One a well-off Gupta, brought up in Kanpur and married into a rich and well-educated Mahoba; the other a Chamar who had barely ever stepped outside her home, so much so that even her exam papers travelled to her marital home. And yet there was a palpable energy and will in both of them to engage, connect, and change status quo. Things we need of our pradhans to transform in rural India, where ‘Make in India’ goes deeper than any smartly-packaged initiative at the Centre.
A few days ago, we got excited when he heard of not one, not two, but three women pradhans in Barabanki’s Haidergarh itself. Off we went to report, but were swept over with nausea and disappointment soon after.
“Ma’am, what’s your name,” we asked. A quick glance came as an answer, directed to the man sitting by her side, who promptly said, “Her name is Mahejvi and my name is Mushir. I am her husband.” Mushir then went onto congratulate the “aarakshan” for women. Manju Devi informed us that it’s her “devarji” who’s actually into “all this”. Why, we ask? Because it’s “baahar ka kaam”. Madhavi Devi insists that she will try to attend all the panchayat meetings if she gets the time, and lauds the support of her family, after spewing a well-learnt script on how backward her village is, and how girls need to be educated. What does she do all day that she’s unsure about time-management vis-à-vis her duties as an elected official, we ask? “Housework,” she says, nonchalantly. Mahejvi is all praise for Mushir too, “We both do the work, I would say,” she says, after Mushir has left. “But he does it more than me, he can really connect with the people.” She seems so convinced you’d think it was an in-built knack in Mushir, which came along with his penis.
Of course, good can, will and should come out of reservation for women. As Javitri Devi told us, “At first, I laughed that there was a seat for a woman. But then it made sense.”
This piece was originally published here on Khabar Lahariya.