Archive for February, 2015

The foregoing story says a lot about the gender scene in this region, a landscape that is increasingly dominated by men’s alcoholism and delinquency.  When combined with the grossly unequal gender norms rooted in culture and tradition, these factors are making for widespread domestic violence against women, something that is becoming the new normal.  Alcohol abuse is rife, and  men’s withdrawal from the workforce is becoming an ever-commoner phenomenon.  Its visible evidence is abundantly available in the huge numbers of women who now go out to work regularly, and the clusters of idle men lounging in tea shops and along the road side in every village in the region.  These men have become the public prosecutors of the reputations of the working women of the villages: passing comments on them, spinning stories about alleged misdemeanours, and egging each other to assert their masculinity and chastise ‘errant’ or ‘potentially-errant’ wives. These features are more common in villages that are relatively more ‘developed’, i.e., have roads that connect them to the highway, markets and nearby cities and villages,  and that are also relatively prosperous with symbols of modernity like cars, jeeps, tractors, TV sets, refrigerators etc.

The story says a lot about the deep roots of the patriarchal family and the fundamental inequality that it imposes upon women.  For women, inequality sets in at birth, and their unequal status in the family gender-and-age-hierarchy only intensifies when they marry.  Through the long early years of their married lives spent at the bottom of the conjugal family hierarchy, they work hard to try and craft a closeness with their husbands.  But much of the rest of their interactions within their conjugal families is devoid of even a notional closeness.  What sustains them emotionally is their bonds with their distant natal family, bonds that they are extremely reluctant to jeopardize by stepping out of the severe boundaries of approval and disapproval that have been drawn for them since childhood.  In this region, girls are still taken out of school at puberty to be married off soon after they enter their teenage years, by parents who feel a compulsion to wash their hands off them at the earliest.  Once married, their natal homes become for them just temporary halting places for the occasional visit, with no real practical support forthcoming except perhaps of an episodal or symbolic nature.  Women therefore know that it is up to them to make their peace within the husband’s family.

It is thus hard to over-emphasise how much the prevailing social formation shapes women’s consciousness and their life conditions to place the highest value on the husband as their source of self esteem, and on their natal family as the ultimate emotional bulwark.  Socialised into living their lives by these two lodestars, they remain unequipped to face eventualities that might force them to fend for themselves, were things to go wrong in their marriage.  Without meaningful education, employable skill sets, financial savvy, or understanding of how the real world operates, they are therefore in no position to detach themselves from dependence on men and their worlds.  There are those among them like Sita who learn to play the game from within, by skillfully subordinating themselves to powerful men and manipulating others in their immediate environment.  And there are those like Susheela who lack the savvy to operate within the predatory and mercenary materialistic aspirations that are fast becoming the basis of competitive relationships within the joint family, dooming them to remaining mere pawns.

The story also says a lot about the absence of women’s solidarity for each other, whether within the same neighbourhood or even within the same family.  Why is it that such solidarity for Susheela was nowhere visible?  Not from her own sister who was also her sister-in-law. Not from her sister-in-law who was also the Sarpanch of the village, and who had won her seat by virtue of being a woman.  Not from her mother-in-law or mother.  Not from her women neighbours. Not from her women colleagues at her workplace.  All of the above were witness to – or at least in the know of – the steadily intensifying violence that Susheela faced daily, which culminated in the death threat on that fateful day.  Stories abound in the region of widespread domestic abuse fuelled by male alcoholism, and women whose husbands are alcoholics and do not go out to work but do not beat their wives, actually consider themselves fortunate.   Given that women operate under severe ideological controls that could easily tip into physical violence, the whispers among the women in the village  following what happened to Susheela was that her fate could become theirs were they to speak up for her.

Under what conditions, then, would women be willing to take steps to change their life circumstances, and also help those of their sisters who are in need of support?

The story demonstrates that the home and the world are mirror images of each other.  Having a Constitutionally instituted Panchayati Raj  (system of local self governance based on democratic elections), or affirmative action for women in electoral politics, does not by itself bring about a progressive change in  the mind-set of and towards women, or in the way politics works at the grassroots.  And least of all does it magically transform the women who become the elected beneficiaries of seat reservations, since they merely go on to become instruments for their husbands’ ambitions, ambitions that further strengthen the prevailing masculine norms.  In an earlier post I had told the story of two sisters Rekha and Vinita who were victims of domestic violence (https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/indian-political-economy-a-worm%E2%80%99s-eye-view/).   There, the constitutionally elected village panchayat had denounced the sister who had filed a police report against her violently abusive husband.  The panchayat had led the village in passing strictures against her, and had thrown its weight behind her husband’s family in restricting the sisters’ mobility and choice of workplaces .  One could have argued that the panchayat did what it did because it was composed of men and led by men.  But what about Susheela’s case where the panchayat was led by a woman?

One is tempted to conjecture at this point that absence of exposure to modern education among women in general in Rajasthan, and in rural Rajasthan in particular, might be a factor in keeping them shackled or inhibiting initiative towards gender solidarity.  The region meets the bottom line;  the village in which Susheela and Sita live has four schools and all the children from the village attend these schools, fresh-faced and neatly dressed in smart uniforms.  And there also colleges in the neighbouring villages. But education is more than simply ‘going’ to a school or college.

Other factors are at play here, both in the home and the world.  Even today, families continue the practice of pulling girls out of school by age 12 (class 6 or so), to be married off and sent to their husbands’ homes by the time they are 13 or 14 or, at the most, 18.  They go on to spend the rest of  their lives shouldering the responsibilities of housework, marriage, motherhood and care of  families-in-law, with nothing to open up their narrow and circumscribed worlds.

The fact also is that even where girls/women have ‘access’ to education beyond class 6,  the abysmal state of school and college education,  plagued as it is by low standards and rogue educational institutions, ensures that even those who do spend years at these institutions achieve little by way of developing critical intellectual abilities and the ability to take independent decisions about their own life choices.  These institutions never afford students the exposure to the diverse social and intellectual stimuli that are such an integral component of education, modernity and the whole discourse on rights. There is also the phenomenon of ‘correspondence’ schools and colleges that abound in the villages and small towns of the region.  As institutions that students never even have to visit and that provide no instruction whatsoever even of the third rate variety, these places offer an easy option for aspirants  who are only looking to acquire a ‘degree’.  Their questionable academic standards and exams – it is even possible to hire someone else to sit and write your examination on your behalf masquerading as you, for a fee – ensure that ‘graduates’ are turned out that are barely literate.   Many families permit daughters to go through this kind of education where, basically, they never have to leave home or seriously read a book.  My previous post on how Panchayati Raj actually works had an ‘educated’ young woman at its centre in willing subservience to her husband and family.  She had been through such a correspondence college.  Education – without minimal quality – is thus no guarantee for the emergence of sisterhood around common social issues.

Would the weakening of the traditional family structure create conditions for women’s individuation, particularly by postponing the age at marriage of girls which in turn helps them to stay on in school? Perhaps.  In an earlier post, I had told the story of Sonu, a relatively free spirited girl who was able to get some control over her own life because her family was somewhat ‘dysfunctional’, i.e., her father did not oppose her wishes, even if he did not actually facilitate them. And her elder sister had opted out of a bad marriage and was looking to remarry  (https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/for-girls-in-rural-india-even-token-education-is-better-than-no-education-at-all/).  I had argued there that for girls in rural and small town India, even a token education is better than no education at all (Michelle Obama reportedly recently advised black girls in her country that it was important to go to school, even if it was a bad school; that even a poor education was better than no education at all as it opens up opportunities and choices).  But cases like Sonu’s are one-off.  For change that can impact ever-larger numbers of women, not only must the ‘home’ liberate girls so they can access education, the ‘world’ must create possibilities for them to access good quality education.

But what of the boys in the region?  Every new generation of boys socialized in the values of the extreme form of patriarchy – and masculinity – described in these posts retards the possibility of women to come into their own.  More important than the default weakening of the traditional family structure is its purposeful and fundamental transformation into a more gender equal institution, where boys are brought up to be gender sensitive and respectful of women as equal actors, and girls are brought up to be more aware of and committed to their own personal growth  needs and aspirations.

For this to happen, in addition to good quality education, gender sensitization and persistent counseling must happen all the way through school and college for both boys and girls, because educational institutions are the only available environments we have for nurturing new generations in democratic values.  Education in the region – as in large parts of India – is presently sunk in the pits of unregulated private enterprise which has come to fill the yawning non-functioning of the government school system.  This area of gender sensitization requires concerted action.   Energy, focus, resources and imagination are required to train and continuously re-train ever-newer generations of teachers and, equally importantly, counselors, who can transform schools and colleges into nurseries for moulding newer generations of citizens into sensitive, compassionate and democratic human beings. Until that begins to happen, Susheela’s story and countless other untold stories will continue to haunt the silence that hangs over women’s lives in this region.


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The story I tell is about women’s condition against the backdrop of growing economic prosperity, political emancipation of lower castes, the coming of age of Panchayati Raj,  and reserved electoral seats for women for their purported political and social empowerment.  The story is about dalit women belonging to the relatively higher echelons of the dalit hierarchy,  in a region where dalits in general and the creamy layer among them in particular are numerically large and politically powerful, land owning and therefore not economically disadvantaged overall  and, due to all of these reasons, not victims of social discrimination.  It is a region that is in the backyard of the state capital where the state  legislature houses are located, where dalits play the games of competitive electoral politics just like any other politically aware social group/caste.

This story is a sequel  to stories I had told in earlier posts about two women, Susheela and Sita:




Both Susheela and Sita are related to each other;  their husbands are brothers, and the two families live in adjacent compounds.  Recently, Susheela’s already unfortunate  life, riddled with domestic violence, became further interlinked with Sita’s in tragic ways.   Seeing her own life descend dramatically from bad to worse, Susheela  attempted in one brave move to change her life condition.  But she failed.   Not only did Sita not show solidarity with her sister-in-law in her struggle for a better life,  she manipulated her misfortunate to her own benefit.  She also failed to use her public office as elected Head of the Village Council (a Constitutional body) to stop violence against her sister-in-law and thereby highlight the scourge of domestic violence that is rampant in the village.  Through her actions, Sita chose deliberately and cynically to align herself  with the powerful male norms that dominate the social ethos of this rural region.

To recap briefly:  Sita and Susheela  were both formerly agricultural labourers. Their husbands – two of four brothers all of whom live next to each other –  inherited agricultural land from their father in their joint names.   The husbands of these two women preferred to sell their respective shares rather than continue the hereditary profession of their forefathers.

Sita’s husband – the older brother –  opted for  a job as a driver to a rich jeweler in the city, and sat tight on the money earned from the sale of his share of family land,  while Sita continued to earn wages as an agricultural labourer.

Susheela’s husband  – the younger brother – chose to become a layabout and alcoholic, drinking away his share of monetary assets from the sale of his share of family land, leaving his wife to single-handedly run the home with her earnings from agricultural labour.  Unable to make both ends meet in addition to having to finance her husband’s daily  liquor expenses, Susheela was forced into a state of indebtedness.

Five years ago, both women  ceased to be agricultural wage labourers, and transited to roles that brought  them more income and local public visibility.  Sita successfully entered the field of politics as the elected head (Sarpanch)of the  village council (Panchayat), when the seat came to be “reserved” for a woman who was also a dalit.   Together with her husband  – who used part of his land sale assets to finance her election campaign, campaigned for her, and after her victory promoted her among powerful individuals in the area,  and acted on her behalf in her political role since she is illiterate – she used her five year term to  learn to use and manipulate the levers of power to enhance her family’s economic status.  She has since become an adventurer,  consciously looking to build patron-client networks with powerful property sharks and politicians in the area, as a long-term measure to not let go of the gains she has made in political office these past five years.   As head of the village council, Sita (and her husband)  also built enormous wealth by appropriating a share of every land sale in the village as her ‘commission’.  Sita’s story shows how even dalit women can use the system to their advantage, particularly when actively assisted by their husbands.

Susheela’s progress – unsupported by anyone in her family – was less dramatic economically, but had other positive fallouts.  She was promoted from agricultural labourer to salaried domestic worker and then to housekeeper-cum-manager of the estate where she worked, with  responsibilities that entailed managing a largish domestic and gardening work force. This opened up opportunities for her to learn new skills in managing things and people within an organizational framework that was both modern and ecologically responsible,  something  whose  import she does not fully understand and cannot explain to others, but which she vaguely knows to be more elevating than what almost everyone else  in the village does.  As an elementary school dropout she felt motivated to try and advance her schooling as a private student. She was also able to build a relationship of trust with her employers which made her eligible for a flexible work routine so she could attend to her young schoolgoing children,  as well as for periodic interest-free loans.  Her employers put her through driving lessons and gave her exclusive use of an old car, both to run local errands relating to the management of the estate and to drive herself to her home and back and do her own local errands, making her the first woman in the village to drive a car.  In comparison, Sita remains illiterate.  Nor  does she drive.

At the time of the last writing of her story, Susheela still owned a tiny plot of land in the village that her father-in-law had made out in her name as a social security measure, knowing that his youngest son’s alcoholism might jeopardize his family’s welfare.   The house in which they live was also  in their joint names, thanks again to the father-in-law’s foresight. In that story, I had written about how Susheela’s  husband was pressuring her to allow him to sell that piece of land, and Susheela was resisting that pressure, knowing that it was her final bulwark against possible destitution.  Susheela’s resistance had set off a trail of psychological manipulation by her husband that oscillated between loving congeniality and drunken violence.

Since the writing of that post,  that final remaining parcel of land, too, has been sold. Fatigued by the constant struggle with her husband,  Susheela  caved in to the pressure.   The buyer was brought in by Sita who was still the Sarpanch at the time, and therefore the first port of call for every land deal.  It was she who set the price,  on which she claimed her own commission of 30 per cent.

Even as she saw herself being manipulated by her husband and sister-in-law, Susheela  consoled herself that she would try and get a few things out of the sale for herself. While her husband took away the lion’s share for himself, she used a part of the money to make some improvements to the house like adding a latrine, and building two shops in the front.  Her long-range plan was to rent out one shop and to covert the other into a women’s fancy goods store; these shops  would be her long-term economic security.  She also naively imagined that she would keep her husband gainfully employed in that store.   Finally,  the sale afforded her the possibility to simply enjoy herself a little,  after years of want.

For about a year following the land sale, Susheela did go through a phase of happiness.  Her husband was now socially  active, holding regular drinking parties in their  house, and distributing large chunks of money – in tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands (lakhs) – as unsecured ‘loans’ to all and sundry, in order to boost his own prestige in the area.  In this euphoric state he also willingly took Susheela to places that she wanted to visit on his new motorbike – social occasions in the kin group, pilgrimages and temples – and for a few months Susheela was able to bask in the glow of his attention.  Susheela also found that she had suddenly become everybody’s darling; her  social  popularity soared, her house now had a regular stream of visitors and house guests, and she got invited to marriages and all manner of social occasions. With such an active social life and more disposable cash than ever before,  both her job and  salary seemed a needless distraction and she virtually stopped going in to work.   She rapidly gained weight – a socially accepted sign of prosperity – and took to wearing high heels and make-up and plenty of jewellery and sequined saris.

By year’s end there was virtually nothing to show for all the money that had come in apart from the investment in house upgradation  and the shop space.  While Susheela’s husband had drunk up most of it,  a large chunk was tied up in the ‘loans’ to his drinking companions (who had probably never intended to repay the money to begin with).  In fact, even the shops remained only half constructed, since the money ran out before the doors and windows could be put in.

Not to be done out of his buzzing social life,  Susheela’s husband now began  prodding her every day for money with which to keep up with his drinking parties, suggesting that she return to her former employers and ask if she could have her job back.  Susheela did return to work.  But salaries do not physically accrue from the first day of rejoining a job, and very soon he took to beating her every day – even more viciously than even before – when she came home empty-handed during the initial month of being back at work.  His rages also led him to frequent and often violent quarrels with neighbours and relatives,  and  soon these neighbours were calling in the police to have him arrested, since it was now clear that he was on the road to pauperization  and there was little to be gained from tolerating his mercurial behaviour.

The first few times that he was arrested, Susheela paid the bail amount, each time with borrowed money.  Soon she was borrowing to treat his illness episodes brought on by over drinking, followed by  episodes of hospitalization, visits to holy men, pilgrimages…all in a desperate attempt to boost his  sagging morale, and to restore him in the eyes of the people around him.  But nothing brought back that brief flash of social acceptance.  Instead, the debts mounted. When there were no more creditors left for Susheela to take recourse to and his desperate behavior deteriorated further,  his drinking buddies started paying  the bail amounts to get him released whenever arrested,  telling him that they were repaying  the money that he had loaned them, and making him feel additionally obligated to them for the favour.  They bought him his daily fix of liquor – and bought their own quota as well  – and sat and drank with him,  again toting up the expenses as going towards loan repayment.

Through all of this, Susheela continued to struggle to keep the house going, while fending off his unceasing demands for liquor money,  and caring for him each time he fell sick with over-drinking.  She had her old job back which was what kept her household running .  But now she had to also prove herself worthy of retaining it, and restore some of the trust and self esteem that she had earlier enjoyed with her employers.

Frustrated that he was now becoming dependent financially on the same people  whom he had until recently  grandly patronized – his fellow villagers – Susheela’s husband now tried to sell off the last piece of property he still owned, the  house.  But Susheela, as the joint owner,  refused to comply.   The daily violence against her grew steadily to an extreme where she often went to work with bruises to show for it.  There were days when he would lock her up in the house,  and accuse her of being disloyal to him and more loyal to her job, days when he would come to her workplace and insist that she return home with him to minister to his needs.  With  no money in the house anymore to pay for even the daily food expenses, and loans piling up everywhere, giving up her job was a luxury that Susheela could barely contemplate.  Gone was the extra weight on her body, the strings of gold, the glittering saris.  She was back in her village woman’s skirt and veil.

The final blow was yet to come.  The four brothers still owned – jointly – a small parcel of land.  With Sita’s term as Sarpanch drawing to a close and regular access to commissions about to disappear, Sita and her husband hit upon the idea of engineering the sale of the land so that they could pick up the  commission for Sita’s role in authorizing  the sale and drawing up the deed.  They also eyed Susheela’s husband’s share; in his state of extreme alcoholism and Susheela’s  consequent vulnerability, he presented an easy target for fraud.

Sita took to pampering and coddling Susheela’s husband providing him with his daily liquor and generally making him feel special, and taking his side when he turned against his wife in his rages.  Her home now became an alternative refuge for him.  Emboldened by her show of support,  he began to urge Susheela to leave his house forever.  He no longer needed her, he taunted, she could go where she wished with the children. What he needed was money and she was not bringing in enough.   Besides, he wanted to sell the house as Sita’s house was now available to him. Susheela was alarmed and hurt.  But she did not see any need to retaliate.  The house was the one anchor that she still had for herself and her children.  And she had always known anyway that she was in for the long haul.

The only way now was to shame her into leaving.  Besides occasionally intercepting her on the public road as she walked back from work and thrashing her in the presence of the men clustered at the teashop, for supposed sexual misconduct, he now took to offering her for ‘sale’  to anyone in the village who was willing to buy her – for the price of Rs. 8 lakhs – and take her off his hands.   Susheela had to suffer the ignominy of people in the village speculating on how much she was ‘worth’ to her husband.

Finally, on the evening of Diwali 2014 after darkness had set in and people in the village were celebrating the festival, he dragged her out into the street and threatened to strip her publicly and set her ablaze. By now enraged beyond control, Susheela phoned  her brother to come to her aid and together they beat up the drunken husband with a stick.

For Susheela, there was no question of staying on after this turn of events.  By his threatening to kill her and her own retaliation with violence, both of them had crossed the line.  Also, Susheela now genuinely feared for her life; it was not beyond the realm of possibility that she might be trapped and killed – perhaps while she slept – if she stayed on, and there was no one whom she could see coming to her aid.  Escorted by her brother,  she left with her children that very night for her parents’ home, with just the clothes on her back.

At no stage in the run up to Susheela’s traumatic departure did anyone from among her husband’s family members or her neighbours come to her help, despite her cries of terror.  The brothers and their wives – including Susheela’s own sister who is married to another brother, and Sita the Sarpanch of the village council – were all present when he screamed out his threat to strip and burn her,  but had looked on with indifference.

In fact, village sympathy on the part of both women and men was in support of the husband in this ‘private’ matter; they drew the line at a woman beating her husband  whatever the provocation.  Also, knowing that the husband was being backed by the village Sarpanch, the neighbours were keen to be on the right side of the prevailing power structure in the village.   The husband’s sisters to whose homes Susheela’s husband then fled to nurse his wounds and stay out of the public eye,  declared that had they been present at the time they would have urged and even assisted him to pour  kerosene over Susheela and set her alight,  thus driving her out of his life forever.  In such a manner was patriarchy and its upholders on both sides of the gender divide ranged against Susheela.

In the weeks following the episode, Susheela’s husband ran amok.  Unhampered by his wife’s stubborn presence,  he sold off the motorbike, refrigerator and TV set that they had bought, and resumed his social life with his drinking companions.  When he again ran out of money he wrote promissory notes about the house to many buyers, in lieu of some token money to meet his alcohol requirements.  Once again, the drinking companions reassembled in his house.  And neighbours came to squat,  to use up Susheela’s grocery stocks that she had painstakingly garnered, invade her cooking and sleeping space, and  ransack her trunks of all her personal effects.

Sita and her husband, too, did not waste any time.  They found  a buyer for the plot of land jointly owned by the four brothers.  Of the sale price of Rs. 60 lakhs,  they gave Susheela’s husband only Rs. 2.5 lakhs out of what should have been his share of Rs. 20 lakhs.

As news of these developments reached Susheela, her parents began to urge her to return to her husband, whatever the terms.  They told her it was imperative that she secure at least the jointly owned house.  They reminded her that in any case, she could not think of staying with them forever.  Her place was in her husband’s home and they made it clear to her that she was an unwanted embarrassment for them. If her husband did not come on his own – and indeed, he showed no signs of wanting to, since he had a supply of money for liquor and the support of his eldest brother and sister-in-law – they would go and plead with him to take her back.

Alarmed, Susheela turned to her employers for advice.  They urged her to look ahead and remake her life on the basis of dignity and independence.  They had witnessed her caving in in silence for far too long.  Now, by walking out of an irremediably abusive situation, she had opened up the possibility of another chance for a better life for herself.  They assured her that they would give her all the financial, legal and emotional support that she would require to fight for her rights to the house, the security of her job, a home for her and her children on their own estate, and physical and social security once she had obtained legal separation from her abusive husband.  They reminded her that she had the option to complete her school education and skill herself further.  They arranged  legal aid so that she could explore the option of divorce or at least a legal separation in the interests of her own and her children’s physical and mental well being. The lawyer in turn assured her that under the provisions of the Domestic Violence Act,  she could not be legally thrown out of her marital home, and could exercise her right to sell her portion of it to be able to buy a new house for herself and her children which would be under her exclusive name.

Susheela’s parents, however, refused to permit her to follow up on the legal advice that she had received.  They reminded her of her duty to them; their family’s honour and her reputation required that she surrender to her husband’s authority.  If she failed to heed their advice, she would lose her natal family forever.  They took away her cell phone and cut off any communication she might have with persons outside their house.

Finally, at the end of three months of waiting, Susheela returned to her husband.  Although he had earlier threatened that even if he took her back he would never again permit her to return to her job – which seemed to be giving her more ideas than was good for her – she did eventually go back to her employers without any opposition from him.

She spoke nothing at all about all that had transpired.  It was as if nothing had actually happened.  She seemed to have had made her peace.  At least for now.

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Some time ago – quite some time ago – I told a few stories about the condition of dalit women (women belonging to the lowest castes in the Hindu social hierarchy) living in rural eastern Rajasthan (see the category Rajasthan Village Diary).  My stories were based on close observation and interaction with people over a considerable length of time, living as I currently do in a village in this region.  The main theme of those  stories was the  daily – and often brutal – psychological, verbal, and physical violence suffered by a majority of dalit women at the hands of their husbands, violence that is often abetted by the sisters or mothers of these husbands.  In some of the cases that I had described, patriarchy had closed ranks behind the abusive husbands in the form of democratically elected Constitutional bodies like elected village councils (Panchayats),  most of whose members tend to be male or males acting on behalf of women.  Nor did women in the village – family members, neighbours –  either individually or in groups free themselves of the hold of patriarchy to express support or engage in action in favour of the rights of the abused women to lead violence-free lives.

In taking up stories of dalit women, I  was not trying to imply that the weight of either patriarchy or domestic violence sits heavily only on women of the lowest castes. Far be it.  Patriarchy in this region is all-pervasive, and is ever-present whether in subtle or overt ways.  My reasons for focusing on the condition of dalit women were three-fold.

In this region, dalits – belonging to a wide range of communities, all of which coexist in nuanced hierarchical relation to each other –  are numerically the largest social group.  Affirmative policies over the last few decades since Independence have brought them into the social and political mainstream and have given them a public voice.  Changes in patterns of behavior  among them, therefore, take on significance.

Secondly, dalits in this region almost universally own agricultural land.  Due to historical reasons of feudal modes of landownership (jagirdari), small communities of high caste (Rajput) big landlords needed  armies of tenant-tillers for revenue generation.  When land reforms were enacted and implemented in the 1950s following on the country’s Independence,  all the hitherto-landless tenant communities acquired property rights.    The rising prices of land in recent years have motivated many to seek  dramatic economic prosperity through land sales.  This has resulted in unprecedented consumerist behaviours,  a feature that dalits share with intermediate and higher castes in the region.

Finally, dalits have a long tradition of hiring themselves out as wage labourers.  Today, with the growth of urbanization, spread of industry, and launching of road and other infrastructural projects in the region, there has been an  explosion of non-farm employment opportunities for semi-skilled and unskilled labour.  Both men and women go out for wage labour,  making them the largest ‘working class’ in the area, in both agricultural and non-agricultural spheres.

For all of the above reasons, dalit women are more accessible to an observer like me.  They also tend to be relatively more articulate about their lives than women of higher castes who are invisible and whose ideological conditioning makes them more reclusive about their views.

A dominant strand of academic thinking has for long held that while poverty carries its own disabilities for both men and women belonging to historically disadvantaged groups,  the compulsion to go out of the house to work for wages gives poor women a double-edged advantage over their better-off sisters belonging to higher social echelons.  It brings them into contact with the outside world, which is the pre-requisite for self awareness denied to cloistered women.  And their tangible economic contribution to the family in the form of wages  enhances their social value within the family, i.e., it gives them  a greater say in decision making regarding budgeting and allocation of resources, children’s education and their futures etc., and also confers on them the self esteem required to negotiate greater autonomy for themselves.   A lot of economic analysis, policy initiatives and social activism have, therefore, focused on how to create conditions for increasing women’s ‘gainful participation in the labour force’  with its attendant ‘visibilisation’ of women as economic agents.

My observation in rural eastern Rajasthan is that stubbornly-persisting cultural factors rooted in feudalism continue to militate against women’s autonomy even within the current changing economic and political scenario.  And under the weight of consumerist aspirations and men’s sense of entitlement to these aspirations, these cultural factors take on added forms.  Women’s employment outside the home, far from enhancing the family’s economic base and conferring higher status on the women wage earners, is actually causing the reverse.  Men’s  heightened sense of entitlement has also gone hand in hand with the weakening of extended family structures, most notably the authority of the supreme patriarch and traditional norms that upheld men’s role as providers. There has been a distinct generational shift in this regard.

The net effect is that men are dropping out of the labour force – or working only fitfully – leaving their wives to single-handedly support the family on their sole incomes.  When men do work, their tendency is to keep much of their earnings for their own pleasure and recreation rather than contribute to the family’s  expenses.  In addition, men are using violence to ensure that their wives’ apparent economic value and greater mobility due to employment does not translate into greater autonomy for them.  The surveillance of working women by men in general – in collusion with their female allies in the family, neighbourhood and village –  can take many forms.  Clusters of men idling at street corners and in ubiquitous chai and liquor shops along roadsides, or playing cards under clumps of trees,  have become the new symbol of women’s collective oppression by the male gaze.  ‘Stories’ about the imagined misdemeanours of local working women as they travel to and from work are spread via these idle clusters, as parables that advise men to control their wives.  These  culminate in violent domestic  abuse of women by their  men,  who feel their ‘honour’  and  marital rights wronged in the public eye.

Women, thus, not only do the double shift of domestic work plus paid labour; they also do a third shift where they become punching bags for the daily doses of domestic violence doled out by their men.  This has its own negative health fallouts, both  physical and mental, which add to the burden of disease and chronic debility already carried by women.

The obvious questions that arise are:  why do women put up with these conditions?  Why do they not fight back? Why do they not simply walk out of abusive situations to rebuild their lives on their own terms? If most women are facing domestic abuse, what comes in the way of women making common cause to work out ways of dealing with such problems? Is this a problem of all women in eastern Rajasthan,  or only of rural dwelling women?

I try to address some of these questions through the next story.

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The state of Rajasthan has just concluded its elections for all local level bodies at the village, block and district level.

A week before the elections, in the little corner of rural Rajasthan where I currently live,  we had some unexpected visitors.  A man leading his aged sister and young veiled wife walked in, all of them bowing low with hands folded in namaste.  They were introduced to me as being from our village, and that the visit was to solicit our votes for the young woman in question.  I perked up instantly.  I had heard that this time round, the seat of the Sarpanch in our village was  reserved for a woman.

In a long line of thinking on the subject of grassroots democracy in independent India that started with the 1948 Constitutional debates on Gram Swaraj (“Self Rule”), followed by the enactment of Village Panchayat Acts by different state governments in the early 1950s, and  the many Committees that sat through the decades of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s to “remove inherent weaknesses” and “strengthen decentralized democracy”, the Constitution of India was amended  in 1992 (73rd. Amendment) to institute elected bodies at the village, intermediate and district level as Constitutional bodies, and strengthen them with financial resources and decision-making powers.  Further, the Amendment ensured that these bodies would have sufficient representation in them of “weaker sections” like Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Women.

The system is that once every five years, a system of lotteries determines for which villages and wards within villages seats for Sarpanch and Panchayat members will be “reserved” exclusively for candidates who are Women or who belong to a scheduled caste (SC), or scheduled tribe (ST).  The Women category is further subdivided into “women general”, “women SC”, and “women ST”.

The young woman before me was a beneficiary of this affirmative action in favour of women in general.

After having ‘shown’ her to us the husband rose to leave folding his hands, and the two women accompanying made to follow suit.  I couldn’t believe that this was all that an electioneering visit consisted of.  In all my years of living in Mumbai, no candidate had ever come to my door, and I was determined to make the most of this visit. I invited them to stay on for a cup of tea, excited by what seemed to be an opportunity to engage with the candidate and find out what her agenda for the village was going to be should she win the election.

To my great surprise, the young woman said that she had no agenda at all.  She laughed a tinkling laugh and looked at me playfully through her veil, as if to imply what a silly question that was. I stared at her pretty face in disbelief and asserted that surely she must have some “vision” for the village?  Hadn’t she walked around? Hadn’t she met the people of the village?  Hadn’t they told her stuff? Hadn’t they wanted stuff done by their political representative?

She heard my questions with respectful indifference and silently glanced towards her man. He in turn now looked in a definite hurry to leave.  The older woman –  her sister-in-law – glanced at me in alarm as if I was being preposterous. Clearly they were all being called upon to go beyond the call of duty.

Aware only of the sudden freezing of the atmosphere in the room, but still continuing in my characteristic metropolitan, bookishly ignorant manner – the kind of attitude you encounter in English language TV political talk shows every evening, the kind of shows I watch -, I asked the young candidate to tell me why I should not have asked her the question.   “My vote is precious”,  I said, thinking I sounded cute and coy like her although I couldn’t quite bring out the same kind of tinkling laugh.

Her response this time was more spirited with an undertone of sarcasm.  “Everybody’s vote is precious”, she said.

I blundered on.  “Then you will have to convince me that you are the right person for me”.

By now she looked as if she really didn’t care about what I thought of her. “I don’t even live here”, she exclaimed.  “How would I know anything about this village?”

“Where do you live, then?”, I asked. “ If you don’t live here, why are you a candidate from here? What brings you to politics anyway?” I tried to show a kinder interest in her.  Besides, I was really curious.

“I thought I’d make a career for myself”, she said.  “My children have grown up.  I am literate and want to have something for myself and this is a good field to be in.  If I win, then I will think of what to do”. The honesty of a novice.  Once she became seasoned, she would know the right things to say.

Then, a little aggressively she went on, “And so what if I live in the city? I am from this village.  We have a house here”.

“Which belongs to her husband’s family and is kept locked up!” my husband laughingly injected.  He turned to me, “Surely you don’t think that they are going to leave their city base where her husband works, to come and live here!”

They all smiled and nodded as if a great joke had just been cracked. A little bit of bantering with some kind enquiries thrown in. A few smiles. A few bows and namastes.  That was all that this encounter was meant to be, something that both they and my husband – who was familiar with the local culture – had understood from the start.

But none of them had reckoned with me and my unwillingness to give up!  My simple mind which had kicked in and its simple bookish reflexes did not grasp the subterranean political consciousness that was on subtle display before me.  I was being kindly, politely, asked to mind my own business. And I didn’t get it.  I was already thinking that what the young woman needed was some assurance of moral support.  A boost to her self esteem.  I thought I could be of help in this.  “Why don’t you come to live here, at least for the next week before the election.  Walk around, talk to people.   You could talk to the women, take up their cause plagued as they are by their mens’ alcoholism.  And the cause of their children, who are having to witness domestic abuse everyday in the home.  There are so many issues in this village crying out to be addressed which even I, as an outsider who lives on the periphery, can see. But even if you take up the cause of only women and children, you will be making a dent.  The previous candidate from this village who won on a reserved seat for a “woman SC” did nothing for the village during her five year tenure…”

“But I am a Rajput,” she protested feebly, “and Rajput women are not expected to be seen outside the house nor are they allowed by their families to do so.  I cannot very well go around the village.  First let me see if I win.  Then I will think of something to do”.

I eagerly offered help in framing a manifesto, in defining issues, in helping brainstorm.  My husband, who could see my suicidal journey into nothingness, nevertheless felt compelled to support my stand.  “We will both help you,” he said.  “Become a candidate worthy of an election.  One of your opponents is a formidable Jat family and they might well win, and you must be prepared for that.  But even if you lose, go down honourably as a thoughtful candidate, as a person who did her best. As a woman who tried to make a difference.  As a clean person who did not try to buy votes with money or liquor.  Then you can make a comeback the next time when elections come around, on the basis of better familiarity with the issues in the village, with better contact and communication with the women of the village. But let the village know that there are people in it who want to work to set high standards for public office.”

By now the visit had extended to an hour.  It was a Sunday, probably the only day that the husband had earmarked for such visits.  They patiently heard us out, we who sounded far more passionate about the election than any emotion that the candidate or her husband were able to bring to their faces or words.  Finally, they bowed low with folded hands and left.

Ten days later the election results were announced.  The young Rajput woman had won.  The real story behind the whole thing was unraveled for me helpfully by Gopal who lives in the village and who hires out his camel cart to those who need things transported – grains for the market, bricks and gravel for house construction, etc.

The reason why she had sauntered into the village just a week before the election was not due to any neglect or near-sightedness on their part.  She just needed to be ‘shown’ to some influential households – and presumably we were one of these –  like the decorated bulls that are shown to people on the streets by mendicants when soliciting for alms.  For, it is not the women who are elected, but their husbands.

I learnt that the lowest common denominator for acceptability as a candidate is that the man must be seen as a decent sort.  It is he who has to work for the elections if his wife is to get elected.  After an election, it is again the husband who performs all the functions of the elected office, with his wife in mock attendance.  When important politicians visit the village or when elected representatives are expected to present themselves at the district or state headquarters, the women are escorted by their husbands and are generally expected to be visible but remain silent.  We learnt that our new Sarpanch’s husband was known to be decent.

Also, of all the candidates from the cluster of four villages in the constituency, he had spent the most money –  Rs. 14, 00, 000 or fourteen lakhs – on buying votes.  He had paid Rs. 4000 per vote across the four villages in the constituency, plus liquor for men who looked stubborn or who had an alcohol addiction (which must have accounted for a sizeable section of the constituency).

Thirdly, there was the caste factor.  The previous term had seen the election of a dalit woman, since the seat was then reserved for a woman who was from a scheduled caste.  And the term before that the Sarpanch had been a Brahmin.  Both belonged to our village, which has had a tradition of unspoken agreement that every caste must get its turn, since elected positions are seen, pragmatically, as nothing more than avenues to reap the spoils of office.

This time round, the two main contenders had been  a Rajput and a Jat.  Even before a rough consensus could be worked out, a powerful Jat from the village had gone over to the neighbouring small village – also part of our constituency – which had put up a Jat candidate, and promised to bring him all the Jat votes from our village in return for a payment to him of Rs. 400,000 (four lakhs).  When news of this deal leaked out, our village apparently decided to close ranks behind the Rajput candidate.  So, the notion of competitive village supremacy also played a role alongside caste.  With our village presenting a united front, the Rajput candidate was able to win over the undecided votes from the other villages in the constituency, where the presence of multiple candidates was splitting the votes.

One distinct trend in Panchayati Raj dynamics that is becoming clear with successive elections, is that the margin of victory is getting steadily thinner. This year’s Sarpanch election in my village,  for example, was won by a mere margin of 250 votes, illustrating that the overarching and unreformed framework of our national political elections, with caste (ever-widening concentric circles of competitive caste identities) and money (in burgeoning volumes)  at its core, has taken firm root at the grassroots.  Any romantic notion that might have existed, of villages as oases of relative innocence, is forever dead.

What is reverberating more distinctly as an outcome of the unreformed political ethos is that women’s invisibility is intact, even from the seats that are “reserved” for them.  Everybody in my village talks about the young woman’s victory as her man’s victory.  The woman’s name and her face on the posters on every wall in the village were – and are – the only connections with her.  She has no intention to move to the village and will remain an absentee Sarpanch.  Her spoils will come to her and her husband mainly from the finances that the Panchayat receives from the government, and from the contracts that she will periodically be called upon to give out for roads and other public works including MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme).

So much for those who believe that the way to women’s empowerment is paved through their token participation in village-level political institutions like Panchayati Raj.  Patriarchy, ever-present, trumps again and again.  Whether it is through the dowry they bring in, their physical labour at home, their income from employment, the sons that they bear, or their candidature in elections under the protective political umbrella of “reservations”, women still remain instruments for men’s sense of entitlement.

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