Democracatisation and Democracy in India 2

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Problematising Democracatisation and Democracy in India

Visions of political development stress on 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 of the marginalized sections of society. It provides rights to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women to participate in local government. Aiming to redress the gender and caste inequities the Act provides 33% reservation[1] to the aforementioned categories to participate in local bodies.

Post implementation of the Act that has now passed sixteen years, women's participation in panchayat[2] 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)[3]. 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[4] 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[5] women in terms of the 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. 

Problem Statement/Justification/ Purpose of research

Dalit Women: Dalit among Dalits

According to the "broken man" theory of Dr. Ambedkar, Dalits (ex-untouchables) are those who were out of the Varna System[6] of the Hindu Society (Agarwalla, S. 1994: XI). Dalit is not a caste, it is a constructed identity (Bharati, S. 2002)[7] the term Dalit (oppressed or broken) was used in the 1930s as a Hindi and Marathi translation of "depressed classes". The British used for what are now called the scheduled castes. In 1930 there was a newspaper published for the depressed classes in Pune called "Dalit Bandu" (friends of dalits) (Pradhan 1986:125 in Bharati, S. 2002). In the 1973 manifesto Dalit panther movement in Maharashtra expounded and revived the meaning of Dalit. The definition Vivek Kumar thinks is a class definition (Kumar,V. 2009:64). It includes members of scheduled caste (SCs), Scheduled tribe (STs), the landless and poor peasant, women and all those who were exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion (Murugakar 1991:237 in Kumar, V.2009:64).  The term Dalit is emerging gradually. There is a large discourse and discussion in Dalit literature on the term. For my study purpose, I am defining Scheduled castes of Maharashtra as Dalit. Dalit specifically in village India suffer severe forms of humiliation, stigmatization and exclusion even today. Caste prejudices and discrimination against Dalit is a social fact (ibid).

Vivek kumar locates Dalit women on the basis of their structural location, occupations performed by dalit women and the societal treatment. He argues out the specificity of Dalit women. Dalit in general are treated in an inhumane ways. Dalit women suffer violence, subjugation as a caste based act. Dalit women are raped, beaten up and paraded naked to break morale of the whole community. This Intersectionality of caste-based patriarchy makes Dalit women, Dalit among Dalits. 

Historically Dalits have been excluded from enjoyment of social economic, cultural civil and political rights, rights denial and violations have been due to the customary restrictions imposed on them under the stratified social hierarchy, born into particular impure, polluted caste.

The supposed impurity polluted nature of the Dalit coming from the lowest rung of caste hierarchy operates as a tool for social exclusion and exploitation of the community. Dalits themselves are not a homogeneous group. In a caste-ridden social order, Dalits too have their caste divisions, and arising from them hierarchical ordering too. Understandably, the distinctions arising from these tend to be region-specific, which makes it difficult to have a Dalit movement for the State as a whole.

Dalits most socially and economically vulnerable communities , lack of access to land ownership, lack of significant political participation and lack of free employment, over half of dalit workforce are landless agricultural labourers dependent on the dominant caste Ambedkar and Phule view that Caste hierarchies and patriarchies are intrinsically linked.

In a study report "Dalit women speak out" the dalit women's description of social conflict in their communities, autonomous dalit participation in electoral politics and local self governance emerges as a point of conflict with the dominant castes.

Attempts by Dalit women to participate independently in elections by contesting for office without dominant caste backing, or by simply voting, often provoke retaliatory violence, example Lata Jogdand 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.

Sixteen years of the passing of the 73rd constitutional amendment Act has brought about significant changes in terms of increased political participation of women. Formal participation and involvement of Scheduled Caste, Scheduled tribe and women has increased in local government. 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 atrocities[8] 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. Keeping specificity of Dalit women's situation on board what are the changes. 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

Efforts Globally for inclusive participation

Any society that categorically excludes half its members from the processes by which it rules itself will be ruled in a way that is less than fully human. The Beijing Declaration and platform for action adopted by 181 UN member states underlined 'women realities and perspectives are central to all issues of global development' (United nations division for the advancement of women, 2000).

Women constitute nearly 50% of the population of the world. But when in comes to the representation at higher levels of political positions in the government, they account for only less than 10% (Singla, 2007: 1). Marginalised status of women is an established historical phenomenon in the world.

Gender discrimination leads to the inequality against women in decision-making. United Nations is a key forum for women's advocacy that upholds women's rights. Its charter (1945) calls for equality of sexes and enjoins on the member states to eliminate discrimination based on sex (Dhaka, 2005: 2). In 1979 the 'Convention on all forms of discrimination against women' (CEDAW) was formed. There were several international conferences held to discuss issues concerning women's development, the four very important were at Mexico City (Mexico) in 1975; Copenhagen (Denmark) in 1980; Nairobi (Kenya) 1985; and Beijing (China) 1995.

Through the UN decade of women (1976-1986), and the international conferences and summits of the 1990's women participated actively to shape economic, social and political development.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) issued by UN Secretary General in 2001, reflects a global acknowledgment for the empowerment of women and the achievements of gender equality. they are treated as a matters of human rights and social justice. Goal 3 of MDGs talks specifically about promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women and all the other goals have incorporated gender equality (Women's Environment Development Organisation (WEDO, 2004). On the other hand women are still vulnerable entities in war and conflict areas, victim of ethnic crimes, human trafficking, are malnourished and under represented in social political and economical realm. Majority of the world's poor are women. Of the 150 million children aged 6-11 who don't attend school, over 90 million are girls, of the world's 876 million illiterate people over 15 years two-thirds are women; working women have less social protection and employment rights; a third of all women have been violently abused; over 500,000 women die each year in pregnancy and childbirth; and rates of HIV/AIDS infection among women are rapidly increasing (WEDO 2004). In such a situation political empowerment will ensure women's development. Active political participation from the masses, from grassroots and within it from women is mandatory for their political empowerment and development.

Women in India

Women constitute about 49% of India's population. Their position in a patriarchal society has never been equal to that of men. There have been number of social reforms and efforts since pre-independence which tried to improve the status of women, but within the set customs and norms. Improving their status only to the extent to which women can serve as better housewives, mothers, Social reformists who carried out the reforms to improve women's status were limited to the mainstream women, women who became part of reform were also those who had their male counter parts in reform movements and were educated elites.

The Constitution of India addressed the issues of women's development through special provisions for women in fundamental rights and directive principles of the state policy. Article 14 for instance talks about equality before law, and Article 15 of no discrimination on the grounds of sex, specifically in the matters of gaining free access to public places, Article 16 gives equal opportunity to public employment, Article 42 ensures humane conditions of work and maternity relief for women. Such legislative measures continue to be an important mode to safeguard against women's oppression. There are several laws to protect women's rights and interests, the maternity benefit act, the medical termination of pregnancy act, the dowry prohibition act and marriage law are some such legislations. Besides these, the Department of Women and Development was formed in 1985 as a part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development to ensure the development of women and children. This department undertook many activities to benefit women, including the setting up of committees and commissions (Sujaya, 1995 cited from Singla, 2007: 36). There were also programmes introduced for the benefit of poor and asset-less women such as economic programme for women in 1982, launched with assistance from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), Support to training and Employment Programme for Women of 1987 (STEP) and the policy framework also includes efforts of The Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of Women & Child Development, and Govt. of India which circulateanti Gram Swade-jure and de-facto enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedom by women on equal basis with men in aRashtriya Mahila Kosh in 1993 (RMK)

01, is an Integrated Programme for Women's Empowerment with objective of the all-round empowerment of women, especially socially and d The National ha 20, by ensuringtheir direct access to, and control over, resources through a sustained process of mobilization. The Swarnjayeconypolicy for Empowerment of women 2001. The goals of this policy are  to bring about the advancement, development and empowerment of women, the omically

The Indianll spheres - political, economic, social, cultural and civil; Equal access to participation and decision making of women in social, political and economic life of the nation. Swaymsidrojgar Yojna (The Rural Self Employment Scheme) 1999 aims at establishing a large number of micro-enterprises in the rural areas, building upon the potential of the rural poor, self help groups by women is one of the successful activities under this programme. These are some of the recent efforts aiming at women empowerment in general and rural women in particular to ensure direct access control over resources. The new approach focuses on improving women's own understanding of national issues and their contribution to the economy and policy. This is a very important shift in contemporary India which has potentials to 'de-marginalize' women. One miles

Despite all these efforts discrimintone of its kind is setting up of Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2006.

atin India. Political empowerment by the means of 'space creationgiving women capacity to influence the decess by integrating theion againse strong hold of caste-class and patriarchy. It wae. ssed section of society that the resecision-making prorvation policy was introduced m into the political system was the main concern of Panchayat Raj. Political participation implied the empowerment and equality of women and marginalised. indicated that women and Dalit women in reality have not been given proper representation at rural local government levels, their rights are threatened at every level of participation due to the criminalisation of politics, patronage of dominant caste and corruption entrenched in the system.

Intersectionality may be Intersectionality defined as a theory to analyse how social and cultural catet women stills to 'de-marginalise' women and the oppre', i. persists. These efforts have very little scope to get translated into reality with thgories are intertwined. Discrimination based on gender does not exist in isolation; it is mediated by factorsline. Intersectionality was first used to denote ways in which people of colour experience gender discrimination (Crenshaw 1989, cited in Knudsenwomen in India in general is structured by relationship of power embedded in caste, class and gender discrimination. Specificity discourse. under inflecting caste red essential in understanding such participation. The women from upper caste dominant families might come ahethat whe). In my researchparaded naked or a Dalit youth or men were being punished, women of upper caste community acted in support of male memad and such as race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, class, caste and nationality. The word intersection refers to how one line cuts through another be assertive aste, and gender is considehich they are partmen as on, marginalising Dalits and Dalit women and the general welfare of their society. Here comes the que I use this concept as an analytical framework to explain the discrimination faced by Dalit women as women and also as Dalits, here ge, cidarity overpowers the notion of identifying with gender and that is why it is crucial to use an intersectional iolence against n Dalit women were stion of 'universal sisterhood' which homogenises woe category, My interview with Jayshree Mangubai also revealed bers. Her caste solin exercising their rights but they would do it to benefit their community and would limit their work for the personal gain of family, or the community of w

Interrelation between class

Vabout Dalit women is their socio-economic positioning at the bottom of caste-class-gender hierarchies, social exclusion. Intersecting caste-class- gender factor entail vulnerability to coercive violence utilized to maintain caste norms, caste-based gender norms vis-à-vis Dalit women. 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. Violence functions as constrain to their agency and voice, to subjugate both women and through them their community.

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 against 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 the empowerment of Dalit women 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?

What are the factors that facilitate or restrain political participation of Dalit women?

What are the achievements of their political participation for themselves, for the Dalit community they represent and for the society in general?

Has the political participation impacted Dalit women's empowerment?

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.


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[9]

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 as a president/Member more than one term
  • 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.

Gaya Awhad, 49 years old, hasn't attended school but is a self-learned, well-read the Dalit literature. She has been a president of a village unanimously for 15 years (Three terms). All elected representatives were women during these three terms. She is now a member of Zilla Parishad (District level panchayat). These 15 years have brought in several developmental changes in village Dukadegao. Gaya herself feels very confident.

Nilutai Kamble, 40 years old, Sitatai Bansod, Though the sample was purposive I balanced sub-castes within scheduled castes by having equal respondents from Mahar and Mang castes (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[10].

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. 

The structural oppression is an outcome of gender based inequalities perpetuated by patriarchal power relation. Also shaped, compounded and intensified by caste discrimination. Oppression acts as a crucial social mechanism to maintain Dalit women's caste-gender subordination to men and that of the dominant caste men. It thereby subjugates both Dalit women and through them their community.

In the sense it 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.

(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 Bhagwat 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).

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.

1.3 Problem Statement

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 Amendments 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.

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.

An intersectional caste based 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 impediment 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 atrocities.

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.

Rationale: Being a Dalit and a Woman

Ambedkar states in castes in India Women are gateways of caste system maintenance of caste system by controlling women's sexuality women's subordination is located in their being gateways of caste system (Ambedkar 1994:).

Local Self Governments and Panchayat Raj in India

In most parts of India the panchayat system was based on the caste system, social status and family. During British rule in India, in 19th century the local self government (decentralised government) was introduced first in town and later in villages, it took more than 100 years for Local self government to become part of Indian Constitution. These bodies are called Panchayat Raj system. Although the Local self government functioned in India, it was highly based on 'Jat Panchayat' where in the lower caste and women didn't have place to voice their grievances nor could they take part in decision making. Panchayat was held and monitored by the dominant caste male members.

During 1869, the British institutionalised these local bodies into quasi-official committees, but inadequate financial resources and provincial governments' oppositions made them fragile and ineffective. There were attempts to revive Local governments by few British viceroys such as Lord Ripon. He led the foundation of modern local government through his resolution in 1882. There were several legislations passed thereafter to democratise the local institutions.

Mahatma Gandhi had strong faith in rural India, and his view was to achieve village Swaraj. Gandhi strongly supported decentralization of economic and political power through the organization of Village Panchayats Masses who live in rural India should be decision makers of their own local bodies. He questioned the possibility of such a democracy in a country with tight and centralised government which would be replaced by Indian elites after the British elite rule. He was of the definite view that panchayat system in India, if worked on scientific lines, could not only build up the social and economic strength of the countryside but also strengthen the forces of national defence against the risk of foreign invasion (Narayan, S.)

Ambedkar, a steadfast constitutionalist worked within the state and sought solutions to social problems with the aid of the state. He knew the of the pernicious caste system. Ambedkar argued that local elite and upper castes were so well entrenched that any local self government would only mean the continuing exploitation of the downtrodden masses of Indian society. He argued that the village was "a cesspool, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and communalism". (Vayasulu, 1999: 3678). Panchayat Raj was incorporated in Article 40 of the Constitution, and is one the Directive Principle of State Policy. Despite the contradicting perspectives between strong leaders of independent India Panchayat Raj found its place in Constitution and has developed further. In practice the setting up of village panchayats stayed ineffective since there was no pressure on any state to establish such a system. Later the provision relating to the establishment of Panchayati Raj under the Constitution was relegated to advisory status leading to few states initiatives to implement panchayat elections.

b) Balwant Rai Mehta Committee

The initiation of community development programme in 1952 established institutionalised Panchayat Raj. Objectives of community development programme were to promote self-help and self-reliance amongst rural people and to generate direct process of integrated social, economical and cultural change through transformation in social and economical life of village. Recommendations by the Balwant Rai Mehta committee in 1959 observed lack of people's participation and suggested a set of institutional arrangements. The three-tier system was thus introduced to organise and manage the rural development activities and to make participation meaningful and effective.

The committee on the status of women in the year 1974 strongly recommended the establishment of statutory women's panchayat at village level. Aim of this initiative was to remove the cultural and social inhibitions and ensure initiative of women's participation through the exclusively women's bodies. It was recommended that the transitional measure be taken to break the traditional attitudes in rural society, by being integral part of panchayat raj system and claiming autonomy and resources of their own for management and administration of welfare and development programmes for women and children (Santha 1999).

c) Ashok Mehta committee

Ashok Mehta committee was set up again to revive the Panchayat Raj in the 1977 during the Janata Government[11] at the centre. It recommended the creation of two-tier systems, Zila Parishad at district level and Mandal Panchayat for cluster of villages.

Both the Balwant Rai Mehta committee and the Ashok Mehta committee gave less emphasis on women's participation. The former provided for the co-option of two women members in the constitution of panchayat one from general category and one from SC/ST. Only two women were co-opted/ nominated for their reserved seats alongside the male members in the group of 15 to 19 members. Besides gaining a symbolic space, women couldn't exercise participatory rights. They were still largely under-represented. The co-opted few, participated as they were relatives of the rural elite. They were thus kept out of the day to day functioning of the PRIs. Co-option or nomination of women was not democratic, and served as a drawback. Dalit women, if they got elected would mostly be the employees of the dominant caste members and their economic dependency would circumvent their potential to be assertive. It still meant protecting the interests of the dominant political and social groups as if women were not capable of running the Village government and they were treated as temporary members in local politics.

73 Amendment and Women's entry in Panchayat Raj

The 73rd Constitutional amendment act enacted on 24th of April 1993 provided an opportunity for involving women, SCs and STs in mainstream political, social and economic decision making process. The 73rd amendment provided 33% reservation for women, article 243 D of the constitution provides for reservation of Scheduled caste (SC) and Scheduled tribes (ST) in all tiers and levels of Panchayat in proportion to their population in the region, at least one third seats reserved should be for women of SC, ST community. Following the provisions of 73rd amendments state government amended their state panchayat Raj act. The 73rd amendment resulted in to participation of a significant Dalit proportion into panchayat system.

There was a drastic change in women's representation in 1996 election after 73rd amendment was enacted.  Overall participation in Karnataka was 46%, Kerala 37%, Haryana and Gujarat around 33% the trend was the same through out the country.

Ambedkar and Phule the histories of exploitation, ritual stigmatisation and political disenfranchisement as constituting the lives of marginalised (Omvedt 1995).

the noble ideas of self-government would not translate into reality with the existence of the inequality. Panchayat Raj would be ineffective on the canvass of stringent caste system, gender inequality and feudal values. But we can not wait until these preconditions are fulfilled, the 73rd amendment and consequent state acts guarantee reservation so as to lead to the empowerment of Dalit and women. (Mathew,G. Nayak,M. 1996:3)

73RD Amendment act enactment is a major step towards women's empowerment. Recognize their equal rights to participate. The statistics showed in the beginning of this section suggested participation of women. Government reports brought out the success stories of 73rd amendment; though they failed to see that women's rights to participate equally were being violated by making them mere dummies and proxies by the village dominant male members. Dalit faced different challenges such as their economical dependency on the land owning upper caste, caste as their social handicap didn't allow them to ask for their equal share in democracy.

Gender-caste nexus vis-à-vis Panchayat Raj

Descent and work-based discrimination, untouchability and violence is arising out of caste system, historically Dalits have been excluded from enjoyment of social, economic, cultural, civil and political rights. Rights denial and violations have been due to the customary restrictions imposed on them under the stratified social hierarchy, born into particular impure, polluted caste.

The supposed polluted nature of the Dalit coming from the lowest rung of caste hierarchy operates as a tool for social exclusion and exploitation of the community. Dalits themselves are not a homogeneous group. In a caste-ridden social order, Dalits too have their caste divisions, and arising from them hierarchical ordering too. Understandably, the distinctions arising from these tend to be region-specific, which makes it difficult to have a Dalit movement for the State as a whole.

Violence and atrocities against Dalit women occur at two levels: as an inherent part of the caste system whereby violence is utilized to reinforce the caste norms and Dalit women are seen as available for all forms of violence, especially sexual violence.

Second is 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 word process of Dalit women's empowerment itself is perceived as a challenge to caste and patriarchal structures, here we can see the political participation of Dalit women may put them into vulnerable situation (Irudayam, et al 2006).

United Nations report on violence against women has also noted that Dalit women 'face targeted violence, even rape and death from state actors and powerful members of dominant castes, used to inflict political lessons and crush dissent within the community.

Political Participation and Empowerment Dalit women

Participation: Theory

Several authors have argued that there cannot be a universal definition for participation in the context of development. A working definition put together by Oakley and Marsden (Singala, 2007: 62) summarizes participation with following features: voluntary efforts, sensitization, response, and involvement in decision-making processes, programme implementation, sharing benefits and evaluation, assessment of need, initiative and control. 

Participation is fundamental to social life. From a socio-psychological standpoint, Warr and Wall have defined participation with terms like 'involvement', and 'influence' (Chell, 1985: 1, cited from Singala, 2007: 63) Vrum, as quoted by Chell, considers the amount of psychological participation as the amount of influence that an individual feels he has in decision-making'. Thus three elements are central to participation, which are inter-related due to non-unitary nature of the concept of participation: influence, interaction and information sharing.

Participation, at the local level of governance, pertains to the involvement of people of diverse backgrounds pursuing a particular or common objective, though people may have different reasons to participate. There can be several reasons for women to contest a local-body election. It could be for respect, status, popularity, satisfaction, or the opportunity to solve the issues affecting their village. There can also be monetary expectations, the scope for breaking away from traditional roles, or even the possibility of escape from the rigors of daily chores. These reasons could be categorized into three types: existence, relatedness, and growth as explained by Alderfer (Robbins 2002: 161, Singla 2007: 65) The 'existence' needs can be psychological in nature such as payment, food, clothing, shelter and safety. 'Relatedness' has to do with those concerning interpersonal issues such as esteem and belongingness. 'Growth' denotes one's personal development. The major hurdle of theory when applied to the actual context of participation of women in PRIs is that if the needs because of which they participate in this institution are not met, they are likely to discontinue such participation. This could take the form of non-attendance of meetings or reluctance to contest the next election.

Sustainable economic and social development requires that people participate in the political process. India's enabling legislation made it mandatory for local government to include women, lifting the barriers and impediments that curtailed the full participation of women in the political process. Taking our theory into account, we see that with the political participation in the context of Indian women, and Dalit women in particular, the interaction of sexes in the process of decision-making, and especially the differences due to caste dynamics hinder and discourage Dalit women, thus forcing them to discontinue.

Kaushik (1993) prefixes the word 'political' before participation and associates political participation with the concept of power. She says politics is a study of an exercise of power and there for political participation means exercise of power.

Furthermore, she says that analysis of political participation of women would have to combine a few components, such as, extent, level and nature of women's participation in the political processes by way of both formal and informal institutions. Thus the process of political participation is complex, and it's not clear that it is comprehensively inclusive. Reasons for non- participation could range from apathy, a sense of helplessness or denial of rights to participate altogether.

The impact and significance of such participation is women's rights, better living conditions and the articulation of a range of feminist issues that are raised in the course of such participation. The point is quantity is not important they are a means to achieve something more fundamental. There are several factors which impede the participation and keep it at a mere representation level. A substantial proportion of women don't receive support from their families in the discharge of their political function. The addition of public sphere responsibilities hinders women's role in domestic work and thus curbs their active participation.


The term "empowerment" first used in the 1960s in the context of political mobilization by activists of the Black Panther Movement in the US.

Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM)an indicator developed by The Human Development Report 1995 (UNDP). It is a measure of agency evaluates progress in advancing women's standing in political and economic forums. It examines the extent to which women and men are able to actively participate in economic and political life and take part in decision-making. The GEM measures political participation and decision making power, economic participation and command over resources. (HDI, 1995:73)[12]

Singh and Titi (1995) identify following elements or necessary conditions for empowerment amongst the other

  • Participation to decision-making processes by all people, in particular women and Youth
  • Local self-reliance, autonomy in the decision-making processes of communities at village level, and direct participatory democracy in the larger process if representative governance.


ByBush and Folger'sdefinition, "empowerment means the restoration to individuals of a sense of their own value and strength and their own capacity to handle life's problems."


Empowerment is a process where women are able to change from a state of

powerlessness („I cannot") to a state of collective self-confidence („we can").(

The Concept of empowerment is pertinent to this study.

Empowerment entered into development lexicon some three decades ago and has been widely used since then. It is important to see if Dalit women have scope to experience this dynamic process and its end results in acquiring social, political and economic power at a political, social and personal level. Empowerment for Kabeer is closely rooted in the notion of power and its reverse, powerlessness. (Kabeer, N.  Barua 2006) Power could be attained through several different sources. The dominant castes in India have legitimised their monopoly over power, and thus Dalit women are rendered powerless. This powerlessness may not be observed by the dominant caste male members or Dalit women also for that matter due to the gender biases.

'To be disempowered is to be denied choice while empowerment refers to process by which those who have been denied the ability to make choices acquire such ability. Empowerment thus implies a process of change' (Kabeer,N. 2003: 3).

Bachrah and Baratz's points out that power is not only the result of an open, decisive processes but it can be obtained in ways that are unseen and hidden. Lukes takes this idea further by not only looking at how people make decisions or who or what gets left out but is also about how power is able to operate without being perceived at all. In brief, the women are discouraged to put forth their views by constantly being told they are not good enough. Soon, they come to believe that they indeed have no value.

Kabeer explores the concept of empowerment through three closely interconnected dimensions of agency, resources, and achievements.

Agency in her view represents the process by which choices are made and put into effect. Resources are the medium through which agency is exercised and achievements refer to the out comes of agency.

Kabeer states that 'agency in relation to empowerment implies not only actively exercising choices but doing this in ways which challenge power relations' (Kabeer, 2003: 2). Resources refer to the various materials, human and social resources that are distributed throughout society and positively influence the individual's ability to make choices and 'the term on which people gain access to resources are as important in the process of empowerment as the resources themselves' (Kabeer, 2003: 3) Thus, resources and agency combine to invest people with the capabilities to live the lives they want and 'their achievements refer to the extent to which this potential is realised or fails to be realised, i.e. the outcome of their efforts' (Kabeer, 2003: 4).

Kabeer also emphasises individual empowerment should lead to some form of structural change if systemic inequalities are to be addressed.

Women's empowerment is seen as a key strategy for gender equality. Though literature shows there is much discussion over what empowerment means, how can it be measured since the current strategies are seen ineffective, considering the intertwining of two crucial factors such as caste and gender.

Empowerment may have come to mean different thing to different people but broad support for idea that women need to be empowered indicates a general agreement that they lack power and that power relation act to their disadvantage.

In the case of Dalit women one would be critical about the 'empowerment' aspect in the whole process of political participation of Dalit women, which is crucial and questionable. Even though the policies and acts have been enforced to encourage the participation there has been a little attention towards the implementation. Powerlessness of women is not merely because of their dependency on their male counterparts for material reasons, or them being illiterate but there are systemic inequalities led by social, cultural and structural factors. At the individual level these factors could be self-confidence, awareness of self image of women and it relates to them being educated. But the societal structures play crucial role in women's nurturing, and keeping them ignorant, thereby naturalising and routinising the marginalisation. Caste stratification in Indian society is one of the main reasons for backwardness of and deprivation of the marginalized sections of the Indian society. Women are the weakest amongst the weak, caste stratification when accompanied by gender inequality adds further to the already worse situation. While the affirmative action has brought women into decision making position, the 'empowerment' still is a question.

The culture of oppression has such an impact on Dalit community, making them feel inferior and so susceptible for discrimination, that discrimination becomes part of their everyday life.  'Women's Empowerment acts at a series of levels, from the cultivation of power within an Individual such that she has both the will and capacity to change, to the cultivation of power and solidarity within the community of women to confront structural obstacles to societal change and struggle for equity.'

Women who are assertive are denied nomination using threats. When they do contest elections and are empowered, their assertive use of agency brings them face to face with violence, resulting in other women exercising caution over stepping into the political arena.  While empowerment through policies and strategies is important at the same time it is important to also see complex nature of action that implies change in status quo. The extent of women's formal participation is an important indicator of women's empowerment.

Empowerment according to Kabeer is a contribution from grassroots; the perspectives evolved from grassroots experiences shows even though participatory development rhetoric the power remains in the hands of a small dominant minority.

A Way Forward

The invisibility of Dalit women's existence is so deep that we are unconscious when we refer to marginalisation of women in development process we actually refer to Dalit women. In women's movement there has been tendency to play down the caste factor while uniting women as a victim of violence control over women and control over lower caste as their subordinated status connection could be understood but question of untouchability thereby specificity of Dalit women should be confronted.


It's now when they are entering into the politics the deep-rooted interconnecting factors impeding women's development and Dalit women's development in particular are critically observed and mechanisms should be formed for development and empowerment which is inclusive.

Constrain and experiences of Dalit women in political participation democratic political development and social development of an individual freedom are a lengthy process. 

Gendering Caste notes

Coercion, exploitation and violence are aspects of caste system.

Differences between the Dalit castes: I observed in almost all the villages S.Cs Mahar, Maang, Chambar would not come together, even N.Ts the Vanjari who are lower to SCs in caste hierarchy are a dominant lot and they would exercise oppression on the Maang communities.

Even though collectively recognized as Dalit the untouchable communities who are traditionally stratified exercise their differences in rituals and dealings in.......   The discourse on caste given by Uma chakravarti makes it very clear Caste as a specific and unique stratification, characterized by hierarchy or gradation according to ritual status. In economic terms most of the lower caste groups are exploited by landholders from the upper caste, in cultural terms each caste group would experience discrimination from and discrimination against other caste groups depending upon where they are placed in hierarchy of the caste. (Uma Chakravarti p.16)

Internal divisions of oppressed and oppressors induced by caste system makes it difficult to fight oppression by all the caste groups coming together.  Example of Mahar Mang dynamics I experienced in Beed District. The vanjari vs Mang  

Caste system division of laborers and not a division of labor (B.R. Ambedkar Annihilation caste)

'Caste institutionalized inequality' which guaranteed differential access to the valued things of life: Berreman in Uma Chakravarti, Gendering Caste p.p 12

Unequal access to material resources and power

Human meaning of caste for those who live it, power and vulnerability, privilege and oppression, honor and degradation, plenty and want, reward and deprivation, security and anxiety: Berreman the Brahmanical view of caste p.88  

Two Hierarchies operative in Indian society based on ritual purity, religio-Cultural:

Brahmana vs Untouchable

Political and economic status:

Landlord vs Landless labourer

Survival of this unequal system and it governing the lives of lower strata

The role of violence and coercion in the origin and functioning of the caste system needs to be stressed (V.T. Rajshekharan Uma Chakravarti)

Dominant Castes Dominance 

Recourse to violence persists and increased today as the constitution ensures formal equality but the social inequality still remains. Attempts to translate the formal equality into substantive equality become cause of violence against Dalits.

Structural subordination of women within the caste

Every interview I felt women wanted to be heard. They wanted to tell their stories,         


  • 'The Hague Declaration on the Human Rights and dignity of Dalit Women' (2006)

  • Ambedkar, N (2000) New Panchayat at work, ABD Publishers, Jaipur, India

  • Barua, P. (2007) Making Inroads: Women's Participation in Panchayat Raj Institutions in Assam. Department of education and health promotion, faculty of psychology, University of Norway, Thesis Submitted for the partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Philosophy in Gender and Development.

  • Batsu, Amrita (???) Two faces of Protest: Contrasting modes of women's activism in India, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 15, No.3, pp. 532-535

  • Baviskar, B. (2003) Impact of women's participation in Local Governance in Rural India, paper presented at the rural network conference

  • Brah, A. Phoenix, A. (2004) Ain't I a Women? Revisiting Intersectionality, Journal of International Women's studies Vol. 5# 3  <