Will women in panchayats change Bengal?

West Bengal is making what could be another step towards village self-rule, where villagers, including women, will decide what is best for them, but hunger for power and male hegemony may set things back.

By Amit Mitra
Published: Thursday 15 July 1993

Will women in panchayats change Bengal?

-- (Credit: Photographs: Amit Mitra /CSE<s)MAY 30, 1993, was a historic day in West Bengal. For the first time, voting was held for a panchayat system that endowed villagers with the right to set their own priorities for development. And more remarkable, one-third of the panchayat seats were reserved for women. But the more things change, the more they are the same.

In Berugram, a village of about 300 households on the banks of the Damodar in Burdwan district, country liquor flowed and crackers were set off as election victory celebrations continued well past midnight. But the winner of Berugram's gram panchayat seat, Mamata Basu of the Marxist Forward Block, was nowhere in sight.

Basu justified her absence the next day, asking, "How could I join the celebrations with those drunken chasas (peasants)? Ami bhadro gharer bou (I am the daughter-in-law of a respectable family)." Earlier, Basu had refused to go on door-to-door campaigns for the same reason.

Mamata Basu's candidacy and attitude are typical of most women who contested the elections. She was nominated for the seat virtually by default -- her husband Satyananda Basu, a member of the previous panchayat and a one-time Congress supporter, could not contest because of the new policy that reserved seats for women. Although Mamata Basu won, the revellers cheered for "Satya Babu" (Satyananda Basu): Even under the influence of liquor, they could not overcome centuries of etiquette drills that forbade them from shouting aloud a woman's name in public.
Unfamiliar role Not surprisingly, Basu is totally unaware of what to do as a panchayat member. The change in the functioning of the panchayat and the presence of women in it have transformed the system (See box). Besides, ideologies, issues and election procedures are as vague to Basu as the Indian Constitution. A woman of few words, she can barely sign her name. "My husband will do whatever panchayat work is necessary and I will endorse it. But at least now I can ensure that my sons will be able to find a suitable occupation," she says.

Her sons Biswajit, 25, and Prosenjit, 22, do most of the talking for her. Biswajit is matriculate, while Prosenjit has failed class 10, but both are considered educated. They say they will get a gravel road built to their village and an embankment constructed on the river, which eats away land every year. And, although Berugram, barely 25 km from Burdwan town, is not electrified yet "because of internal feuds", neither Basu nor her sons intend to do anything about it.
One of a kind The West Bengal panchayat poll was unique in many ways. "For the first time in any election in the world, there were several women candidates," says Ajay Kumar Chanda, joint director in the panchayat secretariat, who was also the special polling officer (See chart). The CPM, the ruling party in West Bengal, was the big winner in the panchayat elections and projected the large-scale female participation as an example of its belief in the dictum that "power grows from the kitchen." But the fact is most women candidates contested only because the male members in their family could not. The women showed hardly any interest in politics or in crossing over to public life.

Reba De, CPM candidate for the Matiari Banpur gram panchayat in Chandpur village in Nadia district, took part only because she could not disobey her husband, a CPM sympathiser. But she said, "If I had my way, I would have organised demonstrations against the CPM-dominated panchayat for giving loans to only their workers."

This sort of candidacy was not restricted to the CPM. In Chandpur, Binapani Biswas admitted she became the Congress candidate at her husband's insistence. In Kantabene village in South 24 Parganas, the Socialist Unity Centre Of India candidate Protima Koyal, 27, was also nominated for the same reason.

In Kantabene, Congress candidate Monika Chakraborty is only 22 but looks younger and rushes to change from her frock into "something that makes me look older in front of the camera". She abandoned studies two years ago after failing to clear the class 10 examination. She says, "I don't know much about the party I represent or, for that matter, any of the other parties. I stood only because my uncle and cousin insisted."

Monika's father Shailen Chakraborty is quite unhappy. He says, "This reservation business is ridiculous. I had to give in to family pressure. My daughter is of marriageable age, which is why I didn't want to allow her to campaign. Once she is married and goes away, do you think her in-laws will allow her to attend to panchayat business here?" Monika's mother, too, complains, "How can such a big girl go around the village like a low-caste person?"

That political understanding was hardly a criterion in the selection of women candidates is quite apparent. In several cases, women were chosen because they were more educated than the others or because they were involved in literacy campaigns. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate in Berugram was Krishna Porel, a 23-year-old scheduled caste girl who knows little about the party's ideologies or even the core issues of the Babri mosque debate. Although she hasn't passed class 12, Krishna said, "I was chosen because I am the most educated person in my community. I had been involved in the saaksharta abhiyan (literacy drive) in this area." She can barely conceal her deep hatred for the CPM who, she feels, has not done anything for the landless lower castes.

Selima, a Muslim candidate of the CPM in Raina village in Burdwan, openly states, "I am not interested in politics." But she feels strongly about oppression of women, the purdah system and polygamy. The local CPM leadership chose her to stand because of her work as a literacy campaign volunteer.

Sometimes, it was a personal feud that set the election agenda. Raina's Congress candidate, 60-year-old Rupia Kazi, was deserted by her husband Golam Asnia, a CPM supporter who lives in the same village with his second wife and children. By standing against the CPM, Kazi sought justice against a system that left women like her to suffer.

Voluntary association women workers were also popular as candidates. Kohinoor Begum, 20, of Deganga block's Kalsur village in North 24 Parganas district, contested on a CPM ticket. She passed her matriculation examination after getting married, thanks to the initiative of Swanirbhar, a Barasat-based NGO. At one time, the local CPM cadre was opposed to Swanirbhar setting up a unit for rural development in the village, but Kohinoor Begum has been actively involved in the NGO's activities for the past 18 months. Apart from the vagaries of women contesting the elections, a surprising feature was the absence of local issues in the campaigning. The main parties in the fray were the CPM, the Congress and the BJP -- all of which campaigned on national issues. The usual mudslinging that occurs at national-level elections was replicated at the village level, too, making little sense to even the candidates, leave alone the average villager.

And, even though there were several women candidates, issues such as dowry -- on the rise in Bengal's villages -- or women's education weren't taken up in most constituencies. Electoral promises were confined mainly to building roads. No candidate even mentioned the problem of water hyacinths that is plaguing village ponds and water bodies. According to the Panchayat Act, local panchayats are supposed to initiate the cleaning up of ponds.

Upper-caste dominance
Details of the election, such as the caste and sex of candidates and the number of votes polled, are being tabulated. According to special polling officer Chanda, when the results are made available, they will probably bear out a suspicion harboured by some scheduled caste people: that most elected candidates belong to the upper castes. Trishna (not her real name), a scheduled caste woman of Kantabene, says, "Reservations or not, the stranglehold of Brahmins and kayasthas (the trader caste) remains. For the general seats in our panchayat, both the CPM and the Congress put up Brahmin candidates. There are two seats reserved for scheduled castes, but they are totally dominated by the upper castes. They will never speak up for us."

Brahmins and kayasthas own most of the land and wield tremendous clout in south Bengal's villages. In Berugram, for instance, Mamata Basu won the election because of the explicit diktat of Muktipada Ghosh, estate manager of former zamindar Jogendra Chandra Basu's family, which controls directly or indirectly most of the village's 50 ha of agricultural land. Said one labourer, "Ghosh warned us of dire consequences if Mamata Basu lost. How could we disobey him? Beyond a point the party doesn't matter in a village. You cannot anger the babus. They might fight among themselves, but when it comes to dealing with us, they unite."

However, the CPM's major worry was the inroads made by the BJP, which had wooed the disillusioned scheduled castes, most of whom are landless. Krishna Porel's remark that the CPM had done "nothing for us" seemed to hold some truth. After Operation Barga, a programme to give sharecroppers their rights, was successfully launched in the 1980s, the CPM rested on its laurels but the expectations of the landless were not fulfilled. Part of this group joined the "dissenting CPM" and later the BJP.

The question that remains to be answered is whether the induction of women in panchayats will transform rural Bengal. CPM leaders and the bureaucracy are optimistic, but critics point out the party had no alternative. Nominating women was just a way -- and probably the only way -- to get rid of corrupt elements without arousing protest and dissent within the party. In principle, no man could actually oppose giving power to women.

Teething problems
But when the elected women try to take policy decisions or implement them, there will undoubtedly be teething troubles. A lot will depend on how the male functionaries of the system cooperate and educate the women in the intricacies of running panchayats. Only the more articulate and assertive women will be able to resist male hegemony over the panchayats.

The Union government has already announced its willingness to finance a major part of a Rs 2.5-crore training programme for panchayat members under the aegis of the State Institute for Planning Panchayats in Kalyani.

Much of the credit for the reforms in the panchayat system must go to Benoy Chowdhury, the state land reforms minister, who was instrumental in initiating many progressive measures in rural areas. Chowdhury has envisioned the reservation of seats for women in panchayats for many years, but many of his policies have been hijacked by party panchayat functionaries for personal gain.

Even in this latest endeavour, there is every possibility that the more unscrupulous elements, whose sole ambition is to remain in power by hook or crook, will defeat it. As Berugram's Muktipada Ghosh says, "We were in the Congress, but now we have become Marxists. The important thing is to retain power so that the people obey us."

But his power, though absolute, is now being challenged. On election day, his sisters-in-law Minati and Chaina left to vote in the morning, but came back because the queues were too long. In the afternoon, their husbands returned and shouted at them for not having voted. As the two women left the house, one of them screamed, "We won't vote for your candidate."

Such defiance was unheard of earlier. Perhaps West Bengal is on the threshold of an era which will witness women truly coming into their own.

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