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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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Rahul Gandhi’s latest theatre act might be a ploy by the Congress Party to do a one-upmanship on the BJP, which had woken up only a little earlier than him to the grossly undemocratic nature of the Ordinance.  Or, it might be a last minute course correction urged on him by some younger members of his party who are believed to have been silent objectors to the Ordinance (with the exception of  Milind Deora’s public posturing), while at the same time projecting him as the youthful, fearless and iconoclastic future face of the Congress party.  Sycophants are already likening Rahul to Mrs. Gandhi’s mid-1970s rebellion as leader of the “young Turks” of the Congress and her break with the old guard, using the slogan of Garibi Hatao.  They are hailing him as having gone from next-P.M.-in-training to next-P.M.-in-readiness.

Even if the theatre results in aborting the the Ordinance pushed through by the dirty tricks department of the Congress and its allies, nothing can gloss over the fact of the Bill itself.  For, the Bill was the result of most of India’s Parliamentarians belonging to most  of the political parties implicitly closing ranks to protect themselves. If the BJP developed doubts and then adopted the stance of conscientious objector,  the objection was only towards the Ordinance that came at the end of a drama that had unfolded over weeks and months, in which the BJP,  too, had been complicit.

The Parliamentarians, in proposing the Bill meant to protect the large numbers of their kind facing criminal conviction, put forward many arguments.  That India is a litigious country and that politicians stand the constant risk of having fictitious charges framed against them due to vendetta among political rivals.  That, since judgements by lower courts can be appealed against in higher courts, convicted politicians stand the chance to clear their names in due course.  That, if politicians were to step down following a conviction, pending their journey through the legal system,  they stand to lose in the political race. And, finally, that  since the judicial process in India is highly protracted and inefficient, cases might go on forever, which would unfairly impact on the career of the politician concerned.

In other words, the law that applies to  the ordinary citizens of India cannot be applied to the politicians because the political class are a special breed who require a different set of laws for themselves.  While citizens charged with criminal offences may languish in jails interminably, often as mere undertrials, and in the process lose their jobs and livelihoods, the same cannot be allowed to happen to politicians.   Which raises the question: what is the nature of the investment that politicians make in their careers that sets them apart?

Whatever the eventual fate of the Ordinance,  we as citizens need to be cautious about embracing Rahul Gandhi’s “…all nonsense…deserves to be torn and thrown…” speech of September 27th., and believing that our politicians have suddenly undergone a complete change of heart, and that the profession of electoral politics will be beautiful and clean in the future.  The very fact that the political class was capable of dreaming up such a Bill in the first place could mean that our politicians actually believe that in the course of their “democratic” roles,  they  (and their kin) deserve to have the licence to bribe, accept bribes, forge, pilfer, embezzle, riot, impersonate, rape, murder, vandalise public and private property, beat up citizens who are lawfully doing their jobs (in order to avoid something as paltry as paying highway toll taxes, e.g.,),  threaten to strip and violate women for merely doing their jobs, abduct and/or gangrape women working for social change, etc.

And, that while engaging in all these exciting activities in the pursuit of expanding their own personal fortunes and raw power,  politicians should remain unaccountable:  whether or not they attend Parliament or  Assembly, whether they stay awake or sleep or watch porn films while attending Parliament/Legislative Assembly sessions, whether they go through years of  tenure as elected representatives without ever raising a question for debate or speaking on a matter of national or state importance, whether they shout abuses / scuffle with / hurl missiles at political rivals, snatch away and tear up vital documents from the hands of Speaker of the House, use intemperate language, lower the dignity of the House, etc., etc.

For, our politicians also seem to believe that the crowning success of becoming “elected representatives” is that they may do all of the above without regard for the fact that their salaries and perks come from the taxpayers’ money:  fat monthly emoluments;  daily allowances for attending Parliament sessions;  free houses;  free phones, free electricity, free water,  free cars with drivers and lal battis and unlimited petrol/diesel for themselves and their kin;  free airline and railway miles and privileges for themselves and their kin, etc..  And, that in the course of their political careers, they may give themselves periodic additional privileges:  hefty raises in pay packets and perks, special security and police protection for themselves and their kin from unspecified threats, etc. And get V.I.P. or V.V.I.P. status, surely a uniquely Indian invention to further skew an already highly hierarchical society.

The politicians’ story does not end with becoming V.I.P.s or V.V.I.P.s.  At the end of five years of having the time of their lives – during which they and their kin are known to make unimagined fortunes through bribes, real estate deals, ownership of gold, and other forms of property and power, such as charitable religious, educational, health,  “cooperative” trusts, politically appointed offices such as heads of government corporations, etc., – they have the means to re-enter the political system once again, this time  with even greater muscle and money power.

Are these then the kind of “people’s representatives” that we will be voting for all over again at the coming elections?

When the Anna Hazare movement  raised the above anti-corruption issues, members of the UPA, even while stooping to every means to discredit the movement and besmirch the personal reputations of those at the forefront,  derisively declared that only those entering electoral politics had the right to speak of changing the way the political system works.

The Aam Aadmi Party came into existence in response to this challenge, and their experience of negotiating the unreformed political system remains to be seen.  During the last general elections a few idealistic young people – taking Plato’s adage to heart that those who are too smart to engage in politics end up being governed by those who are dumber – had already bravely sought to enter politics as independents.  But all of them lost, and went back to their professions.  Because they did not have what is required for entering politics.

So what does it take to enter politics?

From where I live presently – in the heart of an agrarian community in the heart of northern India – I have had the opportunity to watch politics play out at the grassroots.  You can’t get more aam aadmi-like than where I am.  And what I see going on around me challenges all the holy cows of electoral politics in this country, whether it is  gender (pro-women), or poverty (pro-poor), or caste (pro-backward and scheduled castes),  or the primacy of Indian heartland (pro-rural, pro-agriculture), or ideology (pro-secular), or panchayati raj institutions (pro-grassroots democracy).  It demonstrates that for all that our politicians in and out of government may pontificate in front of T.V. cameras, it is their consistent venality that has trickled down right to the grassroots with the message that politics is not public service, but the surest route to making huge money and acquiring massive power.

The story I tell below spells out the DNA of those in politics, old or new.  If this  story of a novice in politics who started from a position of relative social vulnerability sounds depressing, I leave you to imagine how much worse the stories of  powerful political families and political mafia must sound.

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The story of Sita: Background

It is a little over two years since I first wrote about how I witnessed  Sita’s impressive rise from farm labourer to successfully elected grassroots politician. (https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/the-changing-rural-scene-in-eastern-rajasthan-%E2%80%93-4-dalit-women%E2%80%99s-lives-some-cameos-4-4-sita/).  In the last two years I have continued to watch Sita’s further integration into the political ethos of this country, and the aspirations and style that she has begun to develop for her political future.

My observations show that politics at the grassroots takes its cues from the way national and state level politics works, so powerful is the demonstration effect of the macro dynamics. Fundamental change for the better, therefore – the assertion of the value of public service, and unequivocal demonstration that probity in public life is non-negotiable in a polity that professes to be democratic – must necessarily come from the top.

My observations further show how, behind the façade of declared universalistic norms of development, democracy and  inclusion,  affirmative actions based on gender or religion or caste are deliberately subverted by the way our system of electoral politics works, until both the social identities of gender/religion/caste, and the universalistic norms themselves, stand totally debased.

Sita: The Story Rolls On

Sita won the election for Sarpanch (Head of the Elected Village Council) while contesting on a “reserved” seat, i.e., one that sought to empower a woman who is also a dalit, by creating an entry point for her into electoral politics.

I live in a dalit majority region, and both the Congress and BJP have been fostering dalit candidates here for the state legislatures.  Usually these politicians have been males.  But whenever the seat is recast into one reserved for a woman,  it is inevitably the widow, wife or daughter-in-law of the male candidate who gets the seat.  Dynastic imperatives that govern thinking in political parties – based on familiarity of a candidate in the eyes of the voting public, and his/her winnability – do not work at the political top-end alone.  Parties foster them at the grassroots as well.

This was the first time that the Sarpanch seat in particular had come under the reserved category, i.e., specifically for a woman and a dalit.  Partly because she was an unknown quantity and perceived as being docile and pliable, and more so because both her political rivals (dalit women who had earlier held office as Panchayat members and were now aspirants for the higher post) had built up unfavourable reputations for highhandedness, Sita won the election by a close margin.  The fact that her husband had been able to sell some inherited land and there was ready cash available – running into a few lakhs of rupees – to influence/buy votes, helped.  Also, her husband – a man with a few years of schooling, and familiarity with urban ways, having worked as a driver to a  merchant in the city –  worked solidly for her success.

Sita has been in office for a little over three years now.  As early as a few months into office, Sita had started making serious money from the then newly-sanctioned government road construction project, for the  improvement of the approach road to the village.  That was the beginning.  Since then, it has been open knowledge that she has also been making money through other ways.  She has been urging every one who owns homestead land to get their ownership deed registered with the Panchayat within the next two years (i.e., the duration of her tenure).  And for each of these registrations she has been charging a cool commission, often  running into several lakhs.  She has not been sharing this money with the other elected members of the Panchayat, which is how this fact has become public knowledge.  She has also become a major land broker in the area, since she now expects every land sale or purchase to go through her.  This is a region where land prices have been rising due to proximity to the capital city, and real estate developers have been busy offering to fill coffers of political parties in return for government facilitating their access to land to build “townships” along the state highways leading out of the capital.    Those locals who have not already sold their farm lands to real estate developers are eager to keep their land records in good shape as they wait for future windfalls.  So there has been a rush in response to Sita’s urging.

Within less than a year into office as Sarpanch, Sita began preparations for her next political step:  candidature for elections to the next higher level of local self governing bodies.  In this case, the Zilla Parishad (district-level elected body) and the Mandi Samiti (the wholesale vegetable and grain market prices committee, which has power over a huge constituency of farmers in the area).   Doing the rounds of biggies in the area, making herself appear a winnable candidate on grounds of caste and gender, and spending the monies required to facilitate all these efforts, all came from the use of her office of Sarpanch.

Sita sadly lost those elections.  It was a huge blow for her, but it did not deter her in her even bigger ambitions and her bigger greed to make money.  The elections had at least ensured that she got noticed – as also her ambition  – by local power brokers.   Along the way, she has acquired friends with questionable connections who hold out hopes that they might be able to guide her in her onward political career. These political fixers, who are from outside her jurisdiction as Sarpanch, take her around to introduce her to other power brokers and land mafias  connected to both the Congress and BJP at the district and state levels.  For, Sita  has set her next sights on standing for the coming elections to the state Legislative Assembly,  and is now exploring where she might successfully put forward her candidature.

In her entire tenure as Sarpanch, all that Sita has done to merit her monthly government salary and elected office is to install one hand pump for the village hunter.  But her efforts to become a powerful controller of land in the area have been bearing rich fruit.  She has already taken steps to reward her new political friends by allocating Panchayat-owned land (public commons) in the village in their private names.  Hundreds of acres in this land-rich panchayat were set aside by the former jagirdar of the area for school playgrounds, pastures, woodlands, river banks, etc., in the wake of  the jagirdari abolition act and the setting up of village panchayats by the government in the early to mid 1950s.  In the decades that followed, these commons began to be privatized by unscrupulous state and central level government bureaucrats and politicians engaging in benami transactions to benefit kin and hangers-on, leaving villagers to look on helplessly.  Until Sita’s time, local villagers themselves had not brazenly resorted to land grab.  Sita’s recent initiatives have set off a competition among the more unscrupulous elements in the village to further privatise what common lands still remain,  under the guise of goshalas (cow orphanages), temples, shops, and colonisations that mimic urban slums.   As Sarpanch, Sita is the appropriate person to check this form of grassroots level corruption.  But as the initiator of such corruption herself, she has neither the interest nor the moral authority to stop its trickle down.

Sita’s hunger for money is not only a function of her newly-aroused ambition.  It is also dictated by the structure of electoral politics as it operates today in the country.  In order for her candidature to be accepted, Sita has not only to be perceived by political parties as “winnable” (currently all she has to commend her are her gender, caste identity, and recent exposure through the district level elections).  She has also to be able to pay a sum of at least Rs. 4 crores to whichever Party is willing to accept her candidature.  In addition to this purchase money for being selected as a candidate, Sita must be able to demonstrate that she has the money for her election campaign and actual vote winning, yet another ball game altogether.

Sita’s current challenge, thus, is how to put together that initial Rs. 4 crores.  To this end, she is constantly on the road, led by her new political fixer friends, looking for rich sponsors.  No doubt, she will be making promises to her sponsors of rewards that she will deliver if elected.  If she is able to swing it this time, Sita will become unstoppable.

It is interesting how economic power and political ambition are releasing women like Sita from the bondages of social constraints like purdah and limited physical mobility that rural women like her in this region still have to endure.  But the flip side of this is that the rest of her family have become dependent on her staying in politics as the family’s golden goose, for their own sense of personal wellbeing.  Without her husband’s support, of course, Sita would never have been able to launch on this political journey.  The day she decided to stand for Sarpanch, he resigned his job and began escorting her around and campaigned on her behalf.  Since she is illiterate, it is he with a few years of schooling who attends all her meetings with her, speaks on her behalf, and acts as her scribe doing all the writing that her work as Sarpanch involves, to which she merely affixes her signature (a recently acquired skill).

Naturally, Sita’s husband partakes of her financial success.  Within six months of becoming Sarpanch, Sita and her husband bought a new car that he drives her around in. They did a several week long vacation through the length and breadth of India, that included both pleasure and pilgrimage. Two years down the line, they have bought yet another new car. Sita’s eldest son whom she is trying to educate in the city (which includes putting him into a hostel)  has already run away from school twice in order to be home to enjoy the perks of his mother’s office.  He has taken to drinking and driving rashly and has already become a  menace as a sexual predator to the young women in his own home and around, activities that he undertakes under the assumed immunity that he believes his mother’s office gives him.

Also interesting is that Sita’s baptism into politics started with the flouting of a law, and a lie.  Sita has three grown children. Under a rule that debars anyone – man or woman – who has more than two living children from standing for public office, a rule that harks back to Indian democracy’s stated political commitment to upholding the two child  norm,  Sita was not eligible to become Sarpanch in the first place.   When Sita won, one of her failed rivals challenged her election on these grounds.  So what did Sita do?  She simply got a false certificate made stating that the second birth had resulted in twins (even though the so-called “twins” are several years apart; she also got their ages on their respective school certificates modified accordingly).  While I do not necessarily subscribe to the two child norm nor the penalties accompanying it in the political sphere, it could be a delicious pastime to imagine what strategems  our national level politicians like the famous Yadavs – and, no doubt several others like them – must have employed to make themselves eligible to enter and stay in politics.

As I said at the start,  Sita is a woman, a dalit, and a former agricultural labourer.  She started political life at the absolute grassroots in a Panchayati Raj institution, and has since gone on to dream big.  This in itself should earn her public commendation and support. However, she is now coming to the end of her five year term without  having done anything at all for her constituency by way of constructive work.  Rather, she has used the access afforded by her elected office to boost her family’s finances and to build her own political future.  She  has no ideological leaning to speak of,  and is eager to be affiliated with any party that will accept her.  The parties that she is considering, in turn, look for no ideology or vision on the part of their candidates, other than that they be  “winnable”,  pay up the entry fee of Rs. 4 crores, and demonstrate their capability to finance their election campaign.  In all of the above, Sita’s case has been true to the institutional processes of which she is becoming an increasingly compliant cog.

As Sita roams the hinterland looking for financial backers and an ‘easy’ constituency from where she can stand for elections to the state legislative assembly, and dreams with her family of the lal batti on her car besides untold financial windfalls that her success will bring her  – inspired  no doubt by her political role models in Delhi and the state capital who  think in terms of nothing less than 1000s of crores of rupees  as the gains of political office – voters like me will have to ask the question:

What kind of political future would we be voting for in the coming elections that would  be different from what Sita at the grass roots, or her more suave and educated counterparts in Delhi and the state capitals represent?

Is the ongoing theatre around the infamous Ordinance enough to assure us that the good boys (and girls) are back in the driver’s seat after a short period of excusable delinquency?

The impulses to corruption and criminality would seem to be too deeply embedded in what the present electoral process demands of a political aspirant.  And no one who aligns themselves with any of the existing established political parties can get away from the imperatives of these impulses.   Nor, indeed, can any one hold one’s own any longer as an Independent candidate within the electoral system.  It would be interesting to see the fortunes of the Aam Aadmi Party in the coming elections, and what chances they have for clean and principled participation in the electoral process as it presently obtains in India.

In the meanwhile, with elections just around the corner, ordinary citizens like me must continue to engage with the dilemma before us.  Is “voting to reject” – the right recently granted us by the Supreme Court – then the only option left open to us?

Non-cooperation,  Gandhiji’s style?

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2.  Traditional agricultural communities v/s the foreign direct investment (FDI) paradigm

Walking to Fatehpura, a village about 4 km from where I live, is like an idyll.  The first and lasting impression is of the great and unspoilt beauty of the landscape, and I almost envy Prabhati her daily walk to work and back.  Probably as a result of a combination of the sheer passage of time and Narega operations (the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme of the Government of India that guarantees 100 days of work with wages for at least one member of every rural family), a fairly smooth kuccha (unpaved) walking path is in existence and facilitates my progress. 

We hardly meet anyone as we walk along comfortably; the only visual evidence is of nature and industrious agriculture.   On either side of the path stretch well cultivated fields showing the early tender green presence of wheat, garden peas, mustard and barley growing on  soil that looks dark and richly moist despite the generally sandy nature of the terrain.  Interspersed among the fields and along the pathway  are trees – mostly thorny sturdy babool, a tree suited to semi-arid soil conditions –  which provide shelter to busy birds exploring what the fields have to offer.  

Between stretches of fields we pass a couple of homesteads. It would feel strange, indeed, if  in India there were not even such a minimal encounter with human presence.  A few young women busy with weeding or looking after their buffaloes look up and smile briefly.  A few small children, chubby and relatively clean and well clothed, look at us with curiosity.  “Going for a walk?”  remarks one of the woman in a friendly voice, and we tell her that we are going to Prabhati’s village.  She nods and goes back to her work.  No further questions.  No small talk.  It is still 4 in the evening and any older children must be still at school.  The men are probably away at work.  There are no idlers to be seen;  so different from the more urbanized villages that abound in the area.  Occasional patches of marigold, clearly being cultivated for the market,  add a splash of brilliance to the deep browns, greens and yellows on the ground and pale blue in the sky.  Little vegetable gardens hug the homesteads, from across the thatch housing the buffaloes;  I can see thin green fingers of garlic, spring onions, fenugreek, potatoes, aniseed, spinach and turnips.  All this is evidence that the families in these homesteads are eating reasonably well.  Cowdung cakes are stacked to dry against the walls of the buffalo shelters.  These are families self-sufficient in grain, vegetables, milk and fuel.  Their men and women work.  Their children go to school.

We have reached Fatehpura.  All along one side of the pathway,  beautifully-tended fields covered with crops reach for  the horizon.  The village houses are ranged along the other side of the pathway, large compounds shielded by high walls of thorny twigs.  The one striking memory that will always remain with me about this walk – even more striking than the unspoilt and uncrowded beauty of the landscape – is the spotlessness that we have encountered so far along the path.  The blessed nature of sparse populations; the  homesteads along the route do not seem to be generating visible litter.  Another striking impression I have is the air of quiet industriousness.  In Fatehpura village too, people are relatively invisible, and those whom we glimpse through the compound screens seem to be vigorously going about their work.  If they happen to be at the entrance to the compound,  and we greet them with a Namaste, they respond with a quick smile and are gone.  No shops.  No blaring music coming out of radios or cassette players.  No sound of TV movies renting the air with the clatter of dialogue, music or advertisement jingles.  No teenage boys dashing around crazily on motorbikes.  No adult men lounging around in groups around a chai shop or playing cards under trees.    

The feeling of being in an idyllic bubble begins to give way when we get to the end of the village and closer to the main road that runs past it.  That road leads to  the slightly larger village of Begas and an occasional passing motorbike breaks the silence.  The landscape is still relatively empty of people, barring a shepherd and his wife in traditional dress leading a flock of goats and sheep, and two farmers on a motorcycle, also in traditional attire, crossing the main road like us and going on to the next village along the road.  But plastic bags and plastic tea glasses – evidence of modernity and prosperity in village India-  can be seen piled up by the roadside.   Traditional knowledge does not equip people with the means to dispose of synthetic wastes.  And nobody is giving them the new knowledge either.   Apart from this, the idyll is still  intact, but we are reminded of how tenuous this is.   

I am with a friend who is staying with me, and we have come to visit Prabhati who works for us.   There has been a new baby in Prabhati’s family;  her younger son’s wife has given birth to her third baby.  And a new baby has been born to one of Prabhati’s buffaloes.  Both babies are about one month old today.  Two babies in one house is occasion enough for a visit.  Prabhati has just offered the first of the milk she will market and use for herself  at the Shiva temple closeby, with a prayer for rich yields and more fertility for both mother-and-daughter-buffalo.  Every day she will sell the milk of one yield;  the   second yield of the day will be for the family.    

Prabhati comes from a family of hereditary agriculturists who used to be our family’s hereditary tenants until land reforms happened.  Her husband and his four brothers now jointly own and till their land.  And as Prabhati sweeps her arm across the landscape  indicating the extent of the family farm, I am impressed by the gracious expanse in front of me with its alluringly fertile and well-tended look.  Prabhati’s homestead – a compound that accommodates all five brothers and their families – is spacious and has several small single storied structures in clusters, each cluster belonging to one of the five brothers.  There is plenty of space between structures  and between clusters to ensure privacy for each cluster. Prabhati’s cluster has what seems like one building for each son and one for Prabhati, a granary store, a kitchen, and a water storage tank with tap.  Close to the water tank is a vegetable garden, and beyond the buildings is a spacious area where her milch animals are tethered along thatch shelters.  A few buffaloes and a sweet looking cow.  We duly admire the new baby buffalo  whose mother stands by chewing contentedly.  As Prabhati’s  daughter-in-law makes us milky tea, we admire the new grandchild and meet the rest of her grandchildren.  They all look bright, and the older ones have just trooped in from school.  Prabhati is clearly the proud matriarch, and in charge.   We have dropped by unannounced.  But her home is spotless, her grandchildren neat and well behaved, her granary full.  We know her to be a good worker on our farm – arriving on time for work every morning, completing her work schedule without having to be supervised or scolded, a non-tea drinker and therefore not lurching from tea break to tea break in a quest to while away the work day like some of the others.   As we talk, her husband walks up smilingly.  I have met him before when he has come on his motorbike to our farm to help Prabhati carry away the grass she has cut for her cattle.  I had been impressed that he worked shoulder to shoulder with her and did not leave it to her to carry headloads home.  I learnt then that he was a diligent earner and did not drink, nor did he abuse or beat his wife.  This, I now learn, is the trait of a traditional agricultural household  – stability and decent behaviour within the home.  He and his brothers  work for daily wages on construction sites – they are hereditary masons who also do agriculture – and when the land calls for their intensive involvement, they work full time on the land.  Cash earnings through wage labour is an important source of capital for meeting social obligations, school fees, and making capital improvements to the property.  It also enables them to hire a tractor for all significant agricultural operations.  

The sun has already gone down as we say our goodbyes to Prabhati’s family and begin our walk home.  She insists on walking us back, and accompanying her are two of her older grandchildren who will in turn walk her back!  The social landscape has changed somewhat around the little homesteads we had passed by earlier.   School children are back home as are the men of the family, women look busy around the house and cooking fires are already sending up little spirals of smoke into the sky.  Our little group creates a buzz, and we have to decline invitations to stop for chai on grounds that it is getting dark and we have to get home, while Prabhati  gives rapidfire answers their questions on how we had enjoyed our walk to her village. 

As I lift my face to memorise the delicate blues and pinks in the winter sky, and exult in the sudden coolness that accompanies the setting sun,  I reflect with wonder at the contrast between Prabhati’s village and some of the other more “prosperous” and urbanized villages of the area (that I have described in some earlier posts).  I can only describe Prabhati’s village as a sort of Shangri La…  probably on the verge of extinction.      And I wonder how committed farming families like Prabahati’s would be able to weather the 51 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail backed by the government’s policy promise that farmers would realize a greater value for their produce.  

The newspapers and TV talk shows in the last few days have been full of the storm and fury raging in the country over the opening up of the consumer retail sector to 51 per cent Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).  Soon Walmart and other giant foreign retail chains will be selling groceries and vegetables and just about everything else to the people ofIndia, instead of the little shops and markets that now perform this role.  This is part of the paradigm wherein Monsanto and other giant seed companies are already selling seeds to Indian farmers who have thousands of years of skill in generating their own seeds behind them,  creating the conditions for their entrapment  into concentric circles of debt, impoverishment, and suicides. The new and controversial FDI policy claims to do justice to farmers, eliminating middlemen who presently prevent farmers from realizing the full value of their products due to the opacity with which they operate.  It promises direct buying of farm produce by the giant retail chains, their safe transportation to technologically advanced cold store facilities, their efficient processing and packing, and the affordable sale of multiple processed products to urban and rural consumers through chain retail outlets belonging to the giant brands. 

How, I wonder, would this process change the lives of Prabhati and her family?  It is true that agriculture is hard unrelenting work and that farmers do not feel recompensed for their efforts.  It is true that farmers are easily beaten down in the prices for their produce and that middlemen and retailers make the maximum profits.  But what is the guarantee that Walmart and its ilk will not also beat down the price?  Now, with the entire family working the land, and bringing in extra cash through periodic resort to the abundantly available opportunities for wage labour, Prabhati’s family is able to generate enough grain to meet its annual food needs. The vegetable garden and careful tending of cattle by the women of the household add nutrition to the family’s diet.  Prabhati and her daughters-in-law process the grains – into wheat, bajra and chickpea flour, dalia (burghul) etc. – from which they prepare all their meals.  True, it is all hard work.  But, equally true, they all get to eat full nutritious meals,  and there is no time or leisure for the men to get drunk.  And if the monsoon rains are abundant, as they were this year, the family granary is full.  For their market needs, Prabhati’s family does not need expensive air conditioned malls or fast service counters manned by people in smart uniforms.  The mandis (local markets) and little shops that presently exist can satisfy their needs just as well.  I shudder to picture Prabhati’s family going the way of the other rural families in surrounding villages who have sold off their land (whom I have described in stories from “the Changing Face of Rural Eastern Rajasthan”), or ending up as slum dwellers in the nearby city. 

The industrialization of agriculture was suited to western countries with their sparse populations and abundant reserves of land.  Colonies brought in the capital and resources to develop other sectors of the society and economy.  As agriculture supported fewer and fewer people, cities and industries grew to absorb the surplus population.  By contrast, in India, given our teeming population and scarce land, our overcrowded cities and armies of poorly educated youth with no visible future, can we afford to destroy the small opportunities for self sufficiency among the small people who still count for most of the population in this country?

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1. The Demographic Dividend Tipping Point – Not There Yet

Rekha and Vinita are two Regar dalit women of Prithvipura in rural eastern Rajasthan who are in their mid-20s. Both are illiterate, two sisters married to two brothers also in their mid-20s who are barely literate themselves. Their lives illustrate something of rural dalit women’s disabilities. In larger terms, they typify how already-skewed gender relations in this region are becoming further distorted in the wake of the new prosperity that has come to eastern Rajasthan.

This story is about Rekha and Vinita’s discovery of the amazing power conferred on them by the Domestic Violence Act of 2005. And about how they voluntarily ceded this opportunity to start making a change in their lives.

It is also a story of how patriarchy not only operates at the level of the family, but is also backed by the Panchayati Raj system. You don’t need rabid Khap Panchayats when democratically elected village panchayats can themselves be coopted by patriarchy.

Finally, it is a story that raises many issues regarding the complex dynamics of economic growth and social change. Particularly the issue of: what is required for a set of positive circumstances for change to reach a tipping point? In this case, the demographic dividend.

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The story of Rekha and Vinita has been recounted in an earlier post (June 26 2011). Here, I talk about their brief dalliance with the Domestic Violence Act of 2005 and the possibilities and obstacles to its implementation, and some of the implications that gender relations have for a discussion on political economy.

When Rekha and Vinita came to work for us as farm labourers and, in time, graduated to doing housekeeping work, they came with the baggage of daily domestic violence. Purple cheekbones, torn eyes, scratched faces, painful arms, red welts on their arms, back and abdomen starting to turn black…. Either coming to work every day sobbing heartrendingly, or asking for permission to sleep through part of the afternoon because the husbands had either singly or jointly not allowed them to sleep in the night.

Gradually, we found their stories becoming too painful for us to listen and not do anything about. We asked them if they wished us to intervene on their behalf. They said yes, tearfully. They seemed grateful that there was someone to listen to their story, but it was clear that they had no idea of how the intervention might come to be, nor its consequences. And, to be honest neither were we in a position to predict what kind of turn events might take.

The intervention evolved slowly. In our own wisdom, and keeping in mind the local cultural context, we took two steps.

First, we adopted the two sisters as our “daughters”. In other words, we would henceforth be their “parents” (what anthropologists call fictive kin). They would enjoy special status in our home, and it behoved their husbands and in-laws to recognize that the women were no longer alone in their marital home, but had protectors who lived within calling distance. Mystified by what this might do for them, the women sought their parents’ permission for this new relationship. Equally mystified, the latter gave their consent.

The day we visited them was a winter afternoon. The evening sun shone weakly on us as we stopped outside their homestead on the main road running through the village. As we walked into their space, I was feeling a little nervous; this was a first time “adoption” experience for me. We were walking through an open courtyard into what looked like a pucca (brick and concrete) house. A large ‘porch’ sort of structure open from the front, that led sparely into two rooms. One, a floor level kitchen, with shelves on the walls that displayed a very small number of utensils. The door to the other room remained closed for the time we were there. Some broken steps led up from the porch to what looked to be the roof. The sandy courtyard had a straggly – but not dirty – look about it. A large khejri tree stood in the centre with a built platform underneath it… a socializing space, particularly for men. A motorbike was parked prominently nearby…a male symbol…males who were mobile.

The women’s husbands, parents-in-law and older brother-in-law were waiting in the porch to meet us. A few children (five noisy boys ranging from 3 to 9, and one silent girl of about 10 (she was the one who “went dumb” mysteriously)) were playing, running between the courtyard and the porch. We were carrying presents of clothes for the sisters and sweets for the family. The adults looked wary. But nothing was talked directly about what had led to our visit. The two sisters were invisible; it took them most of the time we were there to make two cups of tea for us. We drank the tea and left. It was a strange visit.

The husbands immediately tested out the strength of the new development by swaggering up to our house a few days later, announcing that they had come to spend the day there. Ostensibly, it was a return visit. But in reality it was to check on whether their wives’ work environment was a “respectable” one, respectability defined as absence of opportunity to come into contact with other men. The husbands were clearly amazed by the sense of freedom and comfort in the social environment enjoyed by our staff. They returned home that evening announcing that they had seen women staff talking with their male colleagues, therefore opening up the possibilities for liaisons.

As time went by, the husbands continued to feel irked by the totally unfamiliar sight of the many perks that their wives and, occasionally by association their children as well, enjoyed at our expense: winter clothes, a car and driver to make short day-pilgrimages and go to family weddings, escorted visits to doctors and monitored administration of medical treatments etc, perks which they wanted to enjoy as well, but which we strictly barred them from. They contented themselves with at least appropriating their wives’ winter clothes.  But equally, the husbands seemed to feel smug that their families were now being cared for total strangers, and that there was nothing to come in the way of their own total enjoyment of their earnings on liquor and eating out, supplemented by periodic raids made on their wives’ earnings. They even sent out demands for money gifts from us, which we ignored with the contempt that they deserved.

The next step of our intervention was to hire a lawyer with the sisters’ consent. During his visit, the lawyer explained the Domestic Violence Act to the women, its provisions, and the protections and rights that it guaranteed. He then ascertained from them the facts relating to their experience of abuse; these would form the basis of the brief. It was agreed that the next time there was an act of violence, the women would phone us and we would arrange for the lawyer to accompany them to the local police station to lodge an FIR under which the offending husband would be taken to task. The hope we all shared was that this would deter future acts of violence by these men.

The women sounded excited. Vinita, the younger of the two (barely 22 yeas old), couldn’t keep things to herself. She also felt duty bound to warn her in-laws that she was not going to tolerate any more abuse at the hands of her husband. She informed her mother-in-law and anyone else who cared to listen that she was now protected by a lawyer. Overnight, the women found that the tables had turned. An aura seemed to have enveloped them; after all, in India, to have a lawyer at one’s beck and call is associated only with a position of social privilege. The parents-in-law started talking to them in softer voices. Neither of the husbands dared come anywhere near them, nor did they ever come home drunk. And for the next month or more the women enjoyed peace and quiet, were able to sleep uninterruptedly every night, and arrived for work every day looking happy and smiling. We all celebrated what we thought was the beginning of our women staff’s empowerment. Some of the other women, too, timidly asked if similar opportunities might be made available to them, since domestic violence was familiar to them all. We told them that this was going to be a pilot. If it worked…who knew… a lot of change might be in store… for them and others like them.

But our celebratory mood was short-lived. One day, two months after the lawyer was hired, the husbands started drinking again. Days went by and they did not go out to work but continued to drink steadily using up their accumulated earnings. The tension began to build in the sisters’ homes around what might happen; it seemed a matter of time before the violence might resume.  Then, suddenly one night, the peace was breached.

With no provocation whatsoever the storm broke over the head of Vinita, the younger of the sisters. After a whole night of the worst violence she had experienced in her married life, she came to work the next morning beaten black and blue, running a fever, totally traumatized and in a state of complete shock. Obviously, she was in no condition to work – her body ached all over and she could barely speak – and merely slept through the day. But she accompanied the lawyer to the local police station and filed an FIR against her husband, describing the events of the night before. Some men from her village happened to be present at the police station at the time and tried to dissuade her without success. The news of her action flew back to her marital home.

For the next fifteen days, for reasons unknown to us, the police made no arrest (they later told us that they had been called away to do “VIP duty” elsewhere). During that period of delay and suspense, Vinita continued to be beaten every day through the evening and night. And every morning she was allowed to go ‘to work’; more accurately, she was thrown out every morning to go to her workplace, bearing the physical evidence of her husband’s complete power over her. It did not seem to matter to her parents-in-law that she was crippled by pain and trauma, and that her children went neglected. The husband of course, in keeping with the social convention of the region, was oblivious to the children’s needs.

Vinita continued to be in our pay in the safe haven that our home afforded by day, assured that she had our support for herself and her children, come what may. Every day as she lay crouched in bed through the day trying to sleep her way to recovery, we all wondered why the police had still not made an arrest. Would these women who had put a hesitant foot forward to bring change into their lives, receive the support of the State? Or would the police let them down? Would the women be able to go on to reap the provisions of the progressive Domestic Violence Act? Or would it all end in jubilant loss of respect for the rule of law on the part of the village community, which was no doubt watching the unfolding of this drama? During these nail-biting days, Vinita’s mother-in-law taunted her ceaselessly at home, launched a smear campaign against her in the village, and declared that some employers – us – were putting subversive ideas into the heads of young women and causing them to defy male authority. She also accompanied her son to the police station to show fictitious proof of how it was he who had been a victim of domestic violence perpetrated by his wife, and not the other way around. After years of accommodating to her mother-in-law, Vinita found herself treated as an enemy of the family.  They were taking every measure they could think of to irrevocably break her will.

Feeling the need to widen the support base for the women and deflect attention from ourselves as employers (since we might be seen as having a vested interest in retaining our staff), we approached a city-based women’s rights NGO to act as a source of organizational support. The NGO visited us and talked with the sisters, and promised to help them. They outlined their proposed actions: they would visit the village to talk to village elders and ordinary people, collect further evidence for the case in court, demonstrate outside the family house and thus make the issue public, shame the husbands, and assist the sisters in their onward dealings with the police and the courts. But they also made it very clear that the path would be long and rocky and uncertain, that the sisters would have to be prepared to travel more than half way, stand by their actions, and be consistent in their behaviour even in the face of emotional and other pressures from their marital and/or natal families, give evidence in court, make the necessary trips to lawyers, courts, police as the case might be. The Domestic Violence Bill gave Vinita the right to her marital home for herself and her children; so nobody in the family could throw her out. She thus had the security of accommodation and, with our commitment, the security of employment and income. Additionally, she had our emotional support and that of her brother, and the organizational support of the NGO. She would, in all probability lose social/community support, at least in the short run. But that was a price she may have to pay for ending her life of abuse.

Through all these developments, all was quiet on Rekha’s front. She seemed to gather some boldness from this. When Vinita went with the lawyer to file her FIR at the police station, Rekha had been eager to go too, and file a similar FIR against her own husband. But we had held her back, explaining that there had been no immediate provocation by way of abuse, and that we needed to first try out the efficacy of one case. In the meanwhile, her husband who had hitherto remained aloof, now became increasingly conciliatory in his behaviour towards her. He urged her to give up any thought of rebellion that would condemn her to becoming a pariah like her younger sister. He even offered to start financing her household expenditure, on the condition that she give up her job and become a stay-at-home wife, and sever her links with us. Feeling swept up into the sky and smirking at the prospect that her husband would henceforth be treating her “like a princess” as she described it, Rekha proceeded to distance herself from what was happening to her unfortunate younger sister. Abruptly, one afternoon, she grandly announced that she would no longer be working for us; she would henceforth be a full-time homemaker as her husband wished her to be. She also expressed her disinterest in having anything to do with the women’s rights NGO.

Since their marriage to the two brothers, the two sisters had always been like two peas in a pod, a source of support to each other. Suddenly, now, Vinita found herself totally alone within her family. Only her brother still stood by her, going with her to the police station to file the FIR, absenting himself from work every now and then, and travelling several hours  to visit her at our place as often as he could,  comforting her and expressing solidarity, staying in touch with the lawyer…Her resolve was still intact, but she was beginning to feel terribly vulnerable and fearful of what lay ahead in her life. We on our part continued to assure her of our support for her and her children and urged her to remain strong, stressing that she would not humanly be able to absorb such abuse much longerand therefore must act to stop it.  But we could understand her heartbreaking sense of betrayal and loneliness given that in traditional Indian society all of a woman’s life is lived within the family.

After repeated phone calls by the lawyer, the police finally arrived at Vinita’s house one morning to arrest her husband. It was perhaps insensitive on their part that they should have chosen the morning of Rakhi, a popular social festival that symbolizes the renewal of family bonds, especially that between brothers and sisters. Since it was a public holiday – even for daily labourers and agriculturists – the arrest became a public event.  The police later told our lawyer that they had intended it that way in order to arouse social disapproval against the family.  Indeed the family did face humiliation, as did Vinita.  But her husband spent only one night in the police lock-up. By the next morning the mother-in-law had got him released on bail and brought him home.

On arriving home from the police station, mother and son sat down under the khejri tree in the courtyard, while Vinita cowered in the kitchen in a state of total terror. As if by design, Rekha’s husband  dragged her out of the house by her hair and into the courtyard. There, in a wild fit of anger and drunkenness and in full view of the neighbourhood, he set upon her, jerking her head almost off the neck and thrashing her with an iron rod until she fell down senseless. The two brothers then locked up the sisters in one room and made off with the keys. The watching and confused children of both were left to fend for themselves outside. Before leaving, the men announced to the watching crowd – mainly male in composition that, incidentally, had done nothing to stop the violence – that the sisters would no longer be permitted to go to work for us. Some of the spectators let out a general loud warning that any women of the village who came to work for us – and filled their minds with ideas of independence – would be similarly punished.

None of our other women from that village came to work for us that day, nor the day after. Two quit the job, feeling intimidated by the public condemnation of the brief show of resistance to abuse. But three of our women – all victims of domestic violence themselves – defied the diktat of the crowd and resumed work. They told us that the village panchayat had met and declared that if Rekha’s and Vinita’s husbands did not want their wives to go work for us, they would have to give an undertaking to the panchayat that they would henceforth financially support their wives and thus obviate any need for their wives to go out to work. It was also decided in the presence of the panchayat that the two sisters would henceforth be separated – the family owned two houses close to each other – and not be allowed to meet each other.  Their mutual support system was thus taken away, as well as our support.    These decisions were taken under the leadership of the Village Sarpanch (the Head of the Panchayat), who also used his position to approach the police station to say that the village elders were taking care of the situation and outside intervention would not be necessary: the husbands would no longer beat up the sisters; Vinita and Relha would no longer have to go to work because their husbands would henceforth support the families; and Vinita would be withdrawing her police complaint.

For one week following the episode, the two husbands bought minimal quantities of cooking oil and tea leaves and a couple of vegetables for their wives. Rekha received no medical treatment. Traumatized physically and mentally, neither woman was in a condition to care for herself or her small children. Vinita called us a few days later and gave us her version. We asked her if the sisters would be willing to take further steps along the path of resistance; if so, we and the NGO would support them. She expressed uncertainty. Given her ostracism by all in her marital family, and her own sister’s show of withdrawal of support, her fragile world held together by kinship ties had collapsed. Her parents and brother were advising her to make peace with her fate. They were willing to stand by her, but doubted their ability to sustain repeated practical deterrent actions against her marital family. Vinita admitted to us that she felt defeated. She had been cajoled by the Panchayat to go to the police station and take back her FIR. She could see her life stretching ahead of her as a saga of unrelenting abuse. She so wanted to run away from home. But she couldn’t bring herself to abandon her children. There was no recourse but to simply wait for eventual death.

Thus did the incipient case under the Domestic Violence Act challenging the right of men to subject women to domestic violence, fall through. Patriarchy in the form of family and elected panchayat had won.

Within a week of Vinita withdrawing her FIR, both the husbands resumed their drinking and philandering. They stopped giving the promised housekeeping money and told their wives to go look for employment… any kind of employment, as long as it had nothing to do with association with us.  No censure was forthcoming from the panchayat. Nor was there any wider social support for the sisters from others in the village. The two young women have, since, gone back to square one, hiring themselves out as daily labourers on farms and in local industries. They have gone back to their triple burden: being subjects of domestic violence, the sole breadwinners for their families, and bearing complete responsibility for housework and child care.

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What does this story tell us?

Here is a case of primordial socio-economic disadvantage (a dalit identity) suffered by both men and women of this particular community. But there is the new possibility of this being offset by two major developments in the region. One, is the mitigation of caste-imposed social disabilities for this numerically strong and increasingly politically self conscious community due to the emergence of a new-found political relevance through the democratic electoral system. The second is the opening up of multiple farm and non-farm employment opportunities with decent wages for both men and women.

Regars – most of them at least – have already sold most of their land, taking advantage of the widening land market, and now own only their homesteads; so employment for wages is the only option. Money from the land sales and from occasional jobs have brought men good houses, cell phones and the motor cycle, and a television set and a source of film music for families – symbols of modern living. Children (both boys and girls) go to school. Pilgrimages are frequently undertaken. Weddings and social festivals (including modern ones like birthday parties) are more lavishly celebrated than ever before.

Yet, in qualitative terms, there is little prospect for inter-generational family advancement and, particularly, for the playing out of the famed Indian demographic dividend. The main reason is that women are becoming even more disadvantaged in this changing scenario. The men of this community willfully refrain from taking advantage of the available opportunities for upward economic mobility in the form of regular and well-paying jobs, preferring instead to earn just enough to finance extended bouts of epicurean pleasure. Regional prosperity is thus leaving families effectively supported by only one earner (the wife). And, unlike in the days when men were the main earners and women carried out subsidiary occupations like working on the family farm, doing occasional wage labour, tending to the family’s domesticated cattle and benefiting from the milk production, processing food for family consumption etc., today this sole woman earner labours under many additional burdens.

One is that of pre-existing undernourishment and anaemia during childhood born out of low social status arising from their being unwanted daughters (and not sons). Married in their early adolescence and now in their 20s as mothers of an average of three children each, the women are thin and anaemic adults having borne the extra burden of childbearing  in a state of nutritional vulnerability. As young wives, daughters-in-law, and mothers, they are expected to take responsibility for the entire housework : cook and clean for the whole family, meet their children’s basic needs, fill drinking water, secure a supply of firewood, milk the occasional goat or cow in the house, look after parents-in-law, and meet family religious and social expectations.  In addition they go out every day to do a full day’s wage work. For all this, they have to draw on their own scarce energy levels, time, effort and monetary resources. In addition, there is the burden of regular domestic violence at the hands of their drunken husbands who continually seek to demonstrate their social and physical power over them, even as they take away their wives’ little bits of carefully collected savings to fund their drinking habits.

Under these circumstances, the prospects for the next generation (of both boys and girls, but even more so for girls whose social devaluation remains unchanged) seem bleak. With no presence of the father in the lives of the children except as negative role models, and with mothers in a permanent state of work, exhaustion and the compulsion to be  responsive to social demands (periodic day-long fasts for the husband’s well-being being the most notorious, followed by pilgrimages, performance of rituals, and cooking for communal celebrations), small children face manifold disadvantages.

Children grow up barely supervised – nutritionally, health-wise, and in terms of behaviourial and mental/emotional stability and development. Their educational development is even more totally unsupervised. Sure, they all ‘go to school’. But what does this mean in qualitative terms for their educational advancement, when school teaching is of poor quality and there is no culture of regular homework or exposure to books or informed communication/discussion with adults at home to offset that?  Daughters can at best hope to be barely literate before they are pulled out of school (well before they reach 10th. grade) and married off. Sons, pampered at home and often playing truant from school,  most likely drop out.  Then, like their fathers, they look for intermittent work, interspersed with long periods of drinking and fun (we have tried employing young men, but it has not worked due to the above reasons). Young adolescent boys in the region are quick to begin chewing mild narcotics laced with tobacco, joining adult men in carpeting the village streets and commons with empty shining foil sachets of the stuff. Drinking, too, begins early, financed by occasional wages taken in from doing temporary jobs. As early as 14 or 15 years of age, they start dreaming of motorcycles. And marriage. Given that girls are not allowed to finish school,adolescent  spouses are readily available.

In such a scenario, it was a brave step indeed when Vinita and Rekha undertook to file FIRs against their abusive husbands. And some of the conditions were propitious. Both sisters had stable jobs, with informed and progressive employers who financed and identified a dedicated lawyer to take up their case. Thus, they had knowledge of and access to the Domestic Violence Act, itself a crucial factor. They also had access to a willing NGO which offered to take up their case and start the work of social mobilization in their village. The police acted on the FIR and arrested the wrongdoer.  The crucial missing link was the willingness of the women to take the next step of defying social convention and risking their reputation as socially compliant women. This, at the present moment, was the most critical step towards breaking the vicious cycle of abuse.  And possibly setting off new gains in their lives.   But one can also sympathise that the women know that they are illiterate and unskilled for anything more than unskilled labour; what would be their future were they were to give up their village and family moorings?

Conditions on the ground, such as the ones described in this story, have implications for the demographic dividend at the macro level. How and when will the tipping point present itself?  At this point in time, I cannot say.

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