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Women’s Democracatisation and Democracy in India

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Published: Tue, 20 Feb 2018

Problematising Democracatisation and Democracy in India

Visions of political development demands/desires democracy and participation as innate to its discourse. Development in this sense thus needs democratic decisions making, informed and active civil society and inclusive political structure to reach its goal. In the Indian context the process of democratization with inclusive participation is desired through the 73rd- 74th amendment Act of Indian constitution, 1992. The Act fosters the strengthening of local government by creating opportunities for inclusive participation. It provides rights to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and women, the most marginalised in the hierarchical Indian society to participate in local government. Aiming to redress the gender and caste inequities the Act provides 33% reservation to the aforementioned categories to participate in local bodies.

Post implementation of the Act that has now passed sixteen years, women’s participation has been remarkably visible. This has recently resulted in Union cabinet approving a proposal of a constitutional amendment bill for increasing quota (50%) for women in Panchayats at all tiers (DNA 29th August, 2009). Media reports estimate more than 1.4 million women to occupy 2,52,000 Panchayat seats in future. It also states, at present out of the total elected representatives of panchayat numbering around 2.8 million, 36.87% are women. The Panchayat raj ministry report indicates a significant role played by reservation in bringing women into mainstream (ibid). According to this report, about four-fifth of all women representatives in panchayat elections got elected from reserved seats and about 83% of them entered politics through quota. Positive impact of entering politics and working as a panchayat raj functionary is visible as 79% of women representatives reported better self-esteem, 81% reported confidence building and 74% stated increase of decision-making abilities (ibid). Such a positive report gives a picture of better and inclusive governance that India is moving towards by applying ‘gender and development’ approach. This step foresees increased active-participation of women in public sphere and their empowerment.

However, we need to look critically at the political participation that is envisioned and the actual implementation. Would political participation also facilitate women’s participation at decision-making? What would ‘participation’ entail especially for Dalit women in terms of the dire consequences of their earnest assertion to realize their rights? What is the role that the 73rd Amendment Act envisages for Scheduled Caste and what is the role they end up playing? At the backdrop of increased efforts from the state for inclusive governance these are the lines of enquiry I intend to draw upon. 

Dr. Ambedkar in the constituent Assembly, 1948 expressed his views on Indian villages ‘What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism?’ (Mathew,G. Nayak,R.1996: 1). He questioned the why should the village become the locus of the political structure?(Palanithurai 2003: 27) Villages ruled by its dominant elites and upper caste have been very conservative and are based on traditional caste structure. Local self government thus would reinforce the villages as unites of elite captures exploiting the downtrodden at grassroots.

Problem Statement/Justification/Purpose of research:

Sixteen years of the passing of the 73rd constitutional amendment Act has brought about a remarkable change in local governance. The formal participation and involvement of Dalit and women has increased in local politics. At this juncture there is a need to undertake a reality check. Does formal participation means actual representation of Dalit women? Is the process of political participation inclusive and empowering? Does assertion of Dalit women leads to violence against them as they are not meant to participate actively?

The paper looks at Dalit women’s experiences of political participation in panchayat raj and its impact on their empowerment. My interest in the issue of Dalit women comes from a number of different sources.

First, from a personal experience as inter alia a Dalit woman. I, see several facets to the Dalit women’s experiences having been brought up with this identity and being from the same background.

Secondly, experience of working with civil society organisations on Gender Justice and rights of Dalit women during the graduation as a part of field work, internship with CHR and volunteering in Dalit movement in India drew my attention to Dalit women’s issues more prominently. During the process I met Dalit women activists from rural Maharashtra working at grass-roots and saw the constant problems they faced for they challenged the systemic oppression. The intersectionality of caste and gendered hierarchy that gets intensified as Dalit women enter the public sphere came forward as a new learning. The socio-cultural positioning and significantly the caste-class-gender interplay make Dalit women’s experiences specific. I therefore wanted to document the experiences of Dalit women who enter the public sphere for the first time through formal mean such as political participation.

Finally and most importantly my focus on Dalit women’s political participation in Panchayat is because at policy level although the introduction of reservation to marginalised groups (Women, SCs, STs) at local body envisions inclusive democracy and better governance, in practice the local level politics is a crudest unit of oppression.

Thus the need to study Dalit women’s experiences of political participation arose from my own understanding and experience of the issue as well as

Specificity of Being Dalit Women: Intersectionality

Dalit women in India today number 80.517 million or approximately 48% of the total Dalit population, 16% of the total female population and 8% of the total Indian Population (Irudayam et al., 2006:1). Dalit women face discrimination on a daily basis, as a Dalit, as women and as a poor they are in extremely vulnerable position (National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights 2006:1). Dalit women make majority of unorganised labourer in urban settings and landless labourers in rural. Systemic violence against Dalit women can be seen as a mechanism to keep Dalit in a subordinated position. It is built in to the structure of the dominant society, which does not acknowledge the basic human rights of Dalit in general and Dalit women in particular. There is a clash between the expected role of Dalit women and the role they achieve because of the differential ways in which they negotiate their social status and gender norms. The new public role that the 1992 Act assigns them generates a clash between ‘traditional’ norms and the ‘achieved’ political rights of Dalit women. Dalit women who have the ambition to occupy a political position frequently encounter resistance from the society. General discouragement becomes violence as soon as they show too much initiative, speak up and gain support from the larger community. Political participation for Dalit women is seen as a threat by the dominant caste groups. Dalit women’s entry in politics is perceived as them securing entitlement to public resources. Strong Casteist and patriarchal biases against Dalit result in violent attacks, restraining Dalit women from exercising their rights through various mechanisms. There fore at academic level, I believe there is an urgent need to study the experiences of Dalit women participating in politics. It is at the village level that caste and gendered hierarchy plays out in crudest forms)

With this premise I form objectives of my study the broad objective being:

  • Study the experiences of Dalit women’s right to political participation in rural Panchayat Raj system.

I have following specific objective for the study:

  • Explore the factors that restrain or facilitate participation of Dalit women in rural Panchayat Raj.
  • Examine the impact of political participation on Dalit women in Panchayat Raj.
  • Study the empowerment process of Dalit women through the political participation in Panchayat Raj.
  • To suggest recommendations for effective participation of Dalit women in Panchayat Raj

Research Question:

Based on the objectives of study I formulated my research question for the enquiry

  • What are the experiences of Dalit women participating in panchayat raj?
  • Has the political participation impacted Dalit women’s empowerment?
  • What have been the attributing/restraining factors for the empowerment of Dalit women?
  • What are the achievements of their political participation for themselves and for the Dalit community they represent and for the society in general?

Feminist approach:

Within feminist social science research, qualitative data, in particular in-depth interviews have ´held a prominent place in the history of feminist inquiry´ (Rabinowitz and Martin, 2001:44 in Kitzenger2003:126). Focus groups methods are also employed along with such talk about experiences. These are self-report methods. My choice of topic and feminist orientation required to utilize this method.

This goes back to second wave of feminism (1970s) that emphasized the reclaiming and validation of women’s experiences through listening women’s voices (Kitzenger, 2003:125, Kirsch, 1999:4). The personal experiences of women have also been recognized in political context since then. Further Feminist social science researcher made it general to base their studies on women’s voices and experiences. In fact feminist researches aimed at listening to women’s ‘different voices´ (Gilligan, 1982 in Kitzenger, 2003:126) and ´to address women’s lives and experiences in their own terms, to create theory grounded in the actual experiences and language of women’ (DuBois, 1983: 108 in Kitzenger, 2003:126). With this historical reference I decided to apply feminist approach a most suitable analytic framework in my study of Dalit women sharing their experiences of Political participation.

Methodology:

This section methodology brings out the processes through which data is collected, collated, analyzed and interpreted. This is aimed at increasing the reliability of the study for the further validation as research is performed in order to be used. The study primarily adopts a qualitative approach as it helps to understand the subject of study through the experiences of the Dalit women.

The paper focuses on the political participation and its impact on Dalit women.  It attempts to look critically at political participation of Dalit women and the trends of political participation at local level since the 73rd amendment Act, 1992. It does it so by documenting experiences of Dalit women and analyzing the complexities involved due to caste-class-gender interplay in the political participation process of Dalit women.

These questions will only be answered by talking to Dalit women who have participated in the political processes. A systematic and comprehensive documentation of Dalit women’s experiences at local governance is thus needed. For this purpose I decided to conduct a focused study based on qualitative primary data collected through field work.

Methodology is one of the important sections of my research paper as the process of qualitative enquiry through field work has taught me more about my research topic along with the literature. After a considerable thinking process I decided that the method should be suitable to the research questions that I intend to address. As the research focuses on Dalit women’s experiences the best method was to record their experiences through in-depth interviews. I intentionally kept the interviews unstructured as its being qualitative in nature, provides greater breadth. In-depth unstructured interviews allow researcher to explore a theme without being restricted to a series of questions. I being from a Dalit community and having worked on the Dalit women’s issues came to my advantages as the discussions with Dalit women were focused at the same time gave scope to them to talk out their experiences without any hindrances. The rapport building and trust was achieved very easily. I lived in the field place with respondents and in special cases (there are three main cases) I stayed with the respondents for more than two days in order to understand and document the various dimensions involved in political participation of Dalit women. I used a question guideline that was formulated through the discussion with the expert in the field of research methodology and local governance[1]

Sampling: The purposive (non-probability) sampling was utilized based on focus of my study to document and assess the experiences of Dalit women’s political participation in local politics. Intentional and directed selection of Dalit women at grassroots politics was employed.  CHR, SPMM activists helped me identify data. Only one woman declined to give interview. The reason she declined itself interprets the problem faced by Dalit woman, I was informed by the activists that she

Eighteen Dalit women in total were identified from three blocks of Beed district out of ten blocks and one block of Latur district. I selected ten out of eighteen Dalit women on the basis of sampling objectivity and representation of differences within Dalit women. Also, their diverse experiences of political participation were considered.  The sample was based on following interconnecting criteria.

Panchayats at village level (Gram-Panchayats)

newly elected Scheduled caste women President at village level

SC women who had been Ex-Presidents

Dalit women serving more than one tenure

Dalit woman who tried but not succeeded in accessing panchayat post

Cases where no-confidence motion was exercised on the Dalit women presidents

Cases where abuse, beating up and atrocity inflicted

Success-stories of active participation

Finally 9 Dalit women from Beed District and one from Latur district of Marathwada region were selected. Three cases emerged as a main focus during my field work due to the special experiences of respondents. Though the sample was purposive I balanced sub-castes within scheduled castes by having respondents from Mahar and Mang (major scheduled castes of Maharashtra). Efforts were taken to include respondents with wide range of age in this study.

Data collection:

In the month of July, 2009 I visited the identified field place, Beed District, Marathwada region, Maharashtra. I already had established contacts with a human rights organization Campaign for Human Rights in Beed and its sister organization, Savitribai Phule Mahila Mandal (SPMM) which works on the issue of gender justice and women’s empowerment through self help group.  With the consultation of Manisha Tokle (The founding secretary of SPMM) and Ashok Tangade (National secretary of CHR) I identified potential respondents from the selected blocks of Beed Distict. They also put me in contact with the field workers of CHR who handled these blocks. Manisha, Ashok and field workers gave me enriched information based on their field work experiences. Being well-versed with the area made them experts in the psycho-social behavior of people and the cultural challenges. Their guidance and discussions after interviews has been very important as something new would always emerge out of these discussions which I might not had thought during the interview. Their interpretations of the cases gave me crystallized views.     

CHR field activists from respective blocks accompanied me for every interview. They worked as informants. Their good rapports with the respondents, understanding of the region and the cultural meanings made my task easier. My own background being a Dalit woman was helpful in getting support from the respondents, establishing rapport and gaining their trust.

In-depth unstructured interviews

were recorded on the digital voice recorder. I maintained notes during and after every interview which helped me over come the problems in data analysis. The documentation of experiences of women was backed by my notes and suggestions from the field workers who discussed their interpretations after every interview.

Informed consent:

Before using the recorder I fully informed the respondents about the purpose of my study and the necessity to use the recorder

Pictures of the respondents and the evidentiary documents wherever needed were taken for documentation.

Interviews with expertise/ Key-Informants:

I also consulted my ideas and paper with expertise as well as I interviewed key informants to gather their experiences in the field, on the issue

FGD

Area of study:

The area of study was identified based on the characteristics of the region. The Marathwada region of the Maharashtra state was selected for the very peculiar reasons. First, Marathwada region being one of the most backward, feudal and atrocity prone regions of the Maharashtra state, second, a very special history of Dalit movement and violence against Dalits in the region and very importantly the right based work of Human rights organisations such as CHR, SPMM for the Dalit and women’s upliftment. According to the first hand investigation and identification of cases I selected the following Blocks in Beed District and I took one exceptional case from Latur district that comes in Marathwada region itself. 

1.1 Introduction

The paper looks at how Dalit women, compared to women in general, are a ‘different entity’ when they participate in India’s local self-governing institutions, known as Panchayat Raj Institutions. The 73rd Amendment of the Constitutional Act 1992, came into force in April 1993, providing an opportunity for Dalits and women – the most marginalised in the hierarchical Indian society – to participate in local-body elections at the village level. The Act, seeking to redress gender and caste inequities in rural India, provides 33% reservation to women, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes in local bodies. Within this 33%, Dalit women are provided reserved seats on a rotating basis (meaning, every five or ten years the constituencies reserved for dalits and women are changed). After more than 15 years of the Act, Dalit and Dalit women’s participation has been remarkably visible. However, we need to look critically at the term ‘participation’ and what it entails—especially in terms of the consequences dalit women face when they earnestly assert their rights. What is the role that the 73rd Amendment Act envisages for women and what is the real role they end up playing? There is a clash between the expected role of women and Dalit women because of the differential ways in which they negotiate their social status and gender norms. The new public role that the 1992 Act assigns them generates a clash between ‘traditional’ norms and the ‘achieved’ political rights of Dalit women.

Violence exercised against women, and specifically against Dalit women, when they participate in political work, in indicative of the stratifications that obtain in the Indian social order. Vulnerably positioned at the bottom of India’s caste, class and gender hierarchies, Dalit women experience endemic gender and caste discrimination and violence as the outcome of severely imbalanced social, economic and political power equations (Irudayam et al 2006, pp.3). Within the oppressive social structure Dalit women become victim of violence if they transgress their rights and try to challenge their lower status. As gender violence, like any violence there are contexts, in relation to violence against Dalit women, the nature and dynamics of these contexts, relating to power and force, make them vulnerable and functions as a constrain to their agency and voice. This structural violence is an outcome of gender based inequalities perpetuated by patriarchal power relation also shaped, compounded and intensified by caste discrimination. Violence acts as a crucial social mechanism to maintain Dalit women’s caste-gender subordination to men and that of the dominant caste men thereby subjugating both Dalit women and through them their community.

‘Violence against women is gender-based and gender biased’ (Irudayam et al., 2006: 17) in the sense it the devaluates women’s status in social order perpetuated by patriarchy and justified on the basis of perceived differences between male and female sexuality. In Indian context the caste ladder descending from purity to pollution, purest Caste men being on the top of the ladder whereas the polluted caste placed on the lower rung women are pushed even further down to the lowest rung. It works against their integrity as an individual; this is a violation of women’s rights, such as their identity as a woman and dignity as an individual. Therefore violence in this sense means denial of rights as an individual and hindering woman’s development at various levels of integrity, as an Individual, as a woman in a family, a woman belonging to certain community and culture. Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung defines Violence as ‘avoidable insult to basic human needs’; he identifies the basic human needs as survival, well-being, identity, and freedom (Galtung 1990 pp 292).

1.2 Being a Dalit and a Woman:  Caste-Gender Nexus

Dalit women face collective and public threat or act of violence which discourage them from demanding their rights, it is effects of structures on individual agency that results in the gap between potential and actual fulfilment of rights. Retaliatory violence is exercised in response to dalit women’s assertions for their rights by defying caste, untouchability norms or asserting their rights to cultural, economic and political resources. Dominant caste women tend to be subjected to violence more within the family due to strict control over their sexuality and freedom of movement again due to the caste factors, in order to preserve the purity and status of their caste.

There have been movements through out the country making Dalits aware of their rights and also there have been feminist movements in India which took up issues of women subordination however looking at Dalit women as an ‘imagined category’ (Rao, 2003: 1) and analysing the premises which prevent them from exercising their agency is yet the area of exploration. Imagining ‘Dalit women’ as a different category as Bhagvat mentions is needed, because these feminist movements and Dalit movements lack a critical dimension from Dalit woman’s standpoint. Guru emphasises on this Point while he talks about ‘politics of difference’ to bring out the specificity of Dalit women’s subjugation. ‘This subjugation is characterised by their experience of two distinct patriarchal structures a Brahmanical form of patriarchy that deeply stigmatizes Dalit women because of their caste status, as well as the control by Dalit men over the sexual and economic labour of ‘their women’ (Guru in Rao 2003: 1).

Political Participation for women means securing their entitlement to public resources, the economic resources they will avail as a result of participation for them and their community, the social and political benefits such as Development of the Dalit community in village, implementation of government schemes for Dalit more democratically due their representation.  With the strong patriarchal biases against women and marginalised Dalit, the dominant caste male members would not want these sections to equally enjoy the resources over which they had monopoly since long.

There has a lot been written and debated around political participation of women and Dalits, conclusions are made that there has been fairly good representation in terms of number but the mere participation doesn’t help these sections to exercise their rights. Nature of participation and effectiveness of the act has been assessed too, although with limited vision of looking only at the quantitative aspect of political participation. Very little has been studied on the gender-Caste nexus which denies the right of economic, political, social liberties to Dalit community as a whole and Dalit women within it. Political participation through Panchayat Raj Institution has given space for women to come out and talk about their grievances. The reservation has limited itself to space creation even though it implied the empowerment of women and there by making them equal partners in enjoyment of political, social, economical resource.

It is seen that the oppressive social structures have reaffirmed their superiority by attacking women through new ways of oppression such as criminalisation of politics, starting right from the election process to making women mere proxies of their male counterparts. Violence in the process of Political participation to ensure women’s non- participate and exercise their agency is a crucial aspect to study and to enhance policies which will cut across the structural inequalities of caste-class-gender and give dalit women an equal status. I want to study Violence experienced by women at different levels of participation and look at the specificity of violence experienced by Dalit women being trice oppressed due to their marginalised status as a Dalit, as a woman and as a lower class.

Doing so my focus is at specificities of violence, Violence faced by women in general which is within their families and is built around the family prestige, there by controlling women’s sexuality for the purity of their lineage and superior status. whereas dalit women not only face violence from their own family and community also from the dominant caste forces who ensure their superiority and control over resources by keeping the Lowest strata at its place who according to them are worth no social, economical and political rights.

1.3 Problem Statement

According to the 2001 census there are 167 million Dalits (referred to the census as ‘scheduled castes’) in India, who remain vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation, and violence because of their socially marginal position assigned by Hindu social order. India’s ‘hidden apartheid’ relegates Dalits to a life time of segregation and abuse. Caste-based divisions continue to dominate in housing, marriage, employment, and general social interaction—divisions that are reinforced through economic boycotts and physical violence (Hidden Apartheid 2007).

The dalit woman faces Caste, Class and Gender discrimination because she is an untouchable, of a poor class and is a woman.  (National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights 2006) Dalit women in India today number 80.517 million or approximately 48% of the total Dalit population, 16% of the total female population and 8% of the total Indian Population (Irudayam et al., 2006). They make majority of unorganised labourer in urban settings and landless labourers in rural. They face discrimination on a daily basis, as a Dalit, as women and as a poor they are in extremely vulnerable position. Systemic violence against Dalit women can be seen as a mechanism to keep Dalit in a subordinated position. It is built in to the total structure of the dominant society, which does not acknowledge the basic human rights of Dalit in general and Dalit women in particular.

The 73rd -74th Amendments, former being for rural local bodies and later for urban local councils brought about radical changes in women’s representation in local bodies. The method of co-option where women are elected for the reserved seats on the consensus of the members of local panchayat body or nomination, Balwant Rai Mehta committee report proposed two women representatives each from Scheduled caste and scheduled tribe to be co-opted, these two procedures through which women’s representation was ensured hitherto in the local bodies, has changed. Under the previous system, women’s representation in local bodies was low and most women nominated to these bodies could hardly perform any functions. All the states except for Bihar (Santha, 1999) had conducted the elections to the local bodies in accordance with the 73rd-74th Amendments act, 1992 and almost one million women have been elected to the Panchayat Raj institutions and urban local bodies (I am focusing only at 73rd constitutional amendment act 1992 and PRI’s and not on urban councils covered by the 74th Amendment, where he dynamics are different). This brought about a social change in terms of the traditional role of women; which used to be to take care of house hold chores and raise children and be inside the four walls all her life. Women’s political empowerment finally seemed to be receiving some attention from both government and non-government organisations. Serious efforts are being made towards documenting women’s political participation although it is limited to the Local self government. Questions of feasibility remain unanswered such as women’s active participation, hidden domination (gender blindness) for instance in the budgeting process but also even in considering women as political entities, many treated women elected through reservation as a temporary members in Local body. The consequences of assertion resulting in discouragement, fragmentation and discrimination inflicting violence are yet to explore.

Violence against Dalit women is utilised to deny them opportunities, choices and freedoms at multiple levels, undermining not only dalit women’s dignity and self respect, but also their right to develop.

An intersectional caste violence and atrocities against Dalit women occur at two levels: as an inherent part of the caste system whereby violence is utilised to reinforce caste norms and Dalit women are seen as legitimate target for all forms of violence, especially sexual violence, and when they transgress caste norms, such as caste endogamy or untouchability norms, or assert their rights over resources, public spaces or cultural spaces. In other words, the process of Dalit women’s empowerment itself is perceived as a challenge to caste and patriarchal structures, and provides fertile ground for punitive violence committed by dominant castes. (Irudayam et al., 2006)

Factors such as socio-cultural notion of women’s role act as impediments in effective political participation hindering political empowerment of Women; When it comes to Dalit women these factors play much intense role and are specific for Dalit women due to their social status, denial and even no recognition to Dalit women’s political rights result into violence.

Cases such as denial from villagers’ for flag hoisting by Dalit women councillors on Independence Day, not being allowed to sit on the chair along with other members let alone talking in the meeting, Ignoring while they talk, use of abusing and discriminatory language, and humiliation on daily basis are experienced by most of the Dalit women who participate as elected members in local political arena.

After encountering this reality one would question that would the thousands years old socially, culturally, economically and most importantly politically entrenched patriarchal caste system ensured the representation of disadvantaged groups in politics? 

1.4 Rationale: Being a Dalit and a Woman

My interest in the issue of Dalit Women comes from several different sources; first and foremost me being a Dalit woman. Being brought up with this identity and background, I got exposure to the problem faced by elders of the family and community. I feel my study would contribute in critically assess structural inequality causing Dalit suppression and specifically of the Dalit women in local politics.

In the name of social discipline, ‘social balance’ and to maintain this ‘social balance’, Dalits in general and Dalit wom


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