In India, Lower-Caste Women Turn Village Rule Upside Down
May 3, 1999
A WOMAN'S PLACE: SPECIAL REPORT
In India, Lower-Caste Women Turn Village Rule Upside Down
By CELIA W. DUGGER
HIJARASI, India -- Rani, an illiterate woman from the washermen's
caste, changed into her prettiest sari one recent morning. Heavy with child,
she boarded a series of crowded, ramshackle buses for the dusty, 2 1/2-hour
ride to the bureaucrat who has become her teacher in the art of governing.
Scorned by the upper-caste Brahmins who have long dominated this
small village, Rani -- who like many lower-caste women goes by only one
name -- is now head of the village council, or panchayat. "I am the boss,"
she said boldly.
She is one of almost a million women who have been elected to
village governing councils since India adopted a constitutional amendment in
1993 that set aside a third of all panchayat seats and village chiefs'
positions for women and set aside a percentage of those for women from the
lowest rungs of the caste system.
This epic social experiment is playing out in more than 500,000
villages that are home to more than 600 million people -- about 1 of every
10 people on earth. In many North Indian villages like this one, women who
are expected to veil their faces and submit to male elders are now
challenging centuries-old, feudal hierarchies.
"The government has turned power upside down," said Alam Singh, a
Brahmin farmer who was village head before Rani took over. "The government
is making these people sit on top of us. We are the rulers, but now she is
"She's stupid, she's illiterate, she doesn't listen to anybody,"
he said, angrily poking the air with his finger.
A new government-financed study, based on field work in 180
villages in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and
coordinated by the Center for Women's Development Studies in New Delhi,
found that while a third of the new women panchayat members are just rubber
stamps for their husbands, two-thirds are actively engaged in learning the
ropes and exercising power.
Like men, women panchayat leaders, too, are now involved in
obtaining village land for schools, selecting families who will qualify for
government housing and deciding how to distribute brick lanes, latrines and
But changing deep-rooted social attitudes cannot be accomplished
by legal fiat.
In Chijarasi, Rani has assumed the mantle of village chief -- but
whether she can hold on to it is another matter. While a third of the seats
on each panchayat are permanently reserved for women, the panchayat-head
slots for women -- one-third of the total -- rotate to different villages
every five years, when new elections are held.
In the next election, Rani's seat will no longer be reserved for a
low-caste woman. If she seeks re-election, she will have to run against
candidates from the land-owning Brahmin elite who have always been in
charge. Brahmin men, even those who believe she has done a good job, say
they will vote for one of their own next time.
Generalizing about the experiences of villages -- each as
individual as a thumb print -- is risky, but government officials say the
new rules are having their greatest effects in states where women have
already made strides, for example in Kerala, where 9 of every 10 rural women
Change will come more slowly in a state like Uttar Pradesh,
India's most populous, where only 35 percent of rural women can read and
write, compared with 66 percent of the men.
During six months of periodic visits to Chijarasi and Khoda, two
villages in Uttar Pradesh that are a mile apart, the subversive nature of
the change was apparent in Chijarasi, while the serious obstacles were
visible in both places.
In Khoda, Munni Yadav is the pradhan, or village head, but her
husband, Bir Bal Singh Yadav, held the job for three decades before he chose
her to stand for election when the position was reserved for a woman. Yadav,
regally ensconced on his charpoy -- the traditional Indian cot -- shooed his
wife away to make tea and declared that he would answer all questions. Each
time she attempted to speak, he cut her off.
"My lady is illiterate," he said, as his wife -- like a ghostly
shadow in a pale lavender sari -- walked around the courtyard, her silver
ankle bracelets tinkling softly. "Shet has to attend the meetings, but
besides that, I do all the work and I explain matters to the authorities."
When the panchayat members gathered for a meeting in January, Mrs.
Yadav was sitting on the sidelines, holding her 3-year-old granddaughter on
her lap. The only woman in the center of the courtyard with Yadav and the
male panchayat members was wordlessly pouring tea.
Yadav, who belongs to the middling caste of cowherds, puffed away
on bidis -- hand-rolled cigarettes -- and accepted the greetings of members.
They said, bowing respectfully, "Namaskar, pradhanji," which, roughly
translated, means "Good day, mayor." Even Mrs. Yadav, herself the pradhan,
called her husband by that title and scolded visitors for failing to do so.
"I'm not an educated woman," said Mrs. Yadav, who won election in
a field of a dozen women candidates. "I am a village woman. So most of the
work is done by my husband. We village women are not supposed to come out of
the house and speak with strangers."
Despite her submissive posture, Mrs. Yadav, who is 40, showed
flashes of spirit, when she was allowed to speak. She said she would like to
do more to educate girls, to attract a bank where women could deposit their
own money and to bring flush toilets to the village.
With her husband listening impatiently nearby, Mrs. Yadav said the
most remarkable thing that had ever happened to her since she became pradhan
was taking place at that very moment: someone was listening to her views.
"Even my husband has not asked me these things," she said.
Here in Chijarasi, Rani, who is 30, is also a traditional village
woman. She grew up in a hamlet where only boys were educated. She drops her
voice to a hoarse whisper and covers her unflinching, hazel eyes with a veil
in the presence of older village men.
But she is nobody's fool. Her whispery voice was loud enough to
put a stop to what she and others in the village say was her predecessor's
habit of collecting money from peddlers on behalf of the village, then
pocketing it for himself.
After the long bus ride, Rani strode into the office of Kamlesh
Kumar, the state official who oversees development in 54 villages including
hers without benefit of even a telephone. Rakesh Gaur, her husband and
inseparable teammate in running the village, was there to support her, but
Rani did all the talking in her usual animated fashion.
She leaned forward intently with her elbows resting on her knees.
The scarf that would have normally shrouded her face was tucked behind one
ear as she explained her latest suspicions to Kumar: A group of influential
villagers, in league with a former petty bureaucrat, had told her to hand
over the basta -- a book that records the panchayat's business.
She suspected they might be planning to jigger the records so they
could personally profit from selling some of the village land that had just
been chosen as the site of a new school.
"Do I have to give them the basta?" she said.
Perched on the edge of her chair, Rani awaited Kumar's reply.
In India, the states are often laboratories of democracy, and it
was the southern state of Karnataka that pioneered the use of a women's
quota on village councils in the early 1980s as a means of giving village
women, who had lagged badly in many statistical measures of well-being, a
political toehold in the electoral system.
In the late 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, son of Indira
Gandhi -- the first and so far the only woman to be prime minister of
India -- picked up the idea and proposed it on a national level. It was part
of a broader constitutional amendment intended to institutionalize
democratically elected village councils and decentralize authority to them.
The idea of affirmative action for oppressed, low-caste groups had
a long tradition in independent India. The innovation was to apply the
approach to women.
It was not until 1992, a year after Gandhi was assassinated, that
Parliament -- then 93 percent male -- passed a version of the panchayat
amendment that retained the one-third set-aside for women, with lower-caste
women represented in proportion to their percentage of the population. A
year later, it went into effect.
Several recent national governments have sought to extend the
women's quota to Parliament. But such proposals have gotten bogged down in
caste and religious politics, as some parties have pushed for quotas, not
just for women generally and low-caste women specifically, but for Muslim
and intermediate-caste women, as well.
Under the leadership of the Congress Party president, Sonia
Gandhi, Rajiv's widow, the party decided last year to set aside a third of
all party positions for women, who now fill fewer than 10 percent of them.
In villages, panchayats have turned into training grounds for
women who had been excluded from a role in village politics for millennia.
"It has given something to people who were absolute nobodies and
had no way of making it on their own," said Sudha Pillai, joint secretary in
India's Ministry of Rural Development. "Power has become the source of their
Other governments and political parties -- in Peru and Argentina,
Germany and Belgium -- are also experimenting with quotas for women's
political participation, but India's effort is by far the largest.
"This is one of the best innovations in grass-roots democracy in
the world," said Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the U.N. Development
Fund for Women.
Rani, a cheerful, talkative young housewife who follows all the
proprieties of her village, seems an unlikely rebel. When she meets an elder
woman, Rani falls to her knees, wraps her arms around the woman's legs and
touches her feet.
When guests arrive at her home, she disappears on her callused
bare feet, silver rings glinting on her toes, and returns to put aluminum
pitchers of steaming, sweet tea and frothy cups of buffalo milk on the
battered coffee table. She nurses her baby daughter, Parvati, at the
But when it came time for Chijarasi, a village of 2,500 people, to
elect its first woman village head a year and a half ago, it was she who was
As is common in north Indian villages, politics is dominated by
caste-based voting. Chijarasi is divided into thirds: upper castes, middle
castes and lower castes. The only way to win a majority is with an alliance.
The male Brahmin elite of the village say they supported Rani as
the least of the evils when it was announced that Chijarasi would have to
elect as its village chief a low-caste woman. The Brahmins are the village's
biggest landowners and dominant caste.
In the caste ranking, Rani came from the upper rung of lower
castes. She and her husband are dhobis, people who wash and iron clothes.
They do not handle the substances the Brahmins of the village believe
exceedingly impure: animal skins, dead bodies and human feces.
Also, the Brahmins knew that the dhobis were neither numerous nor
politically assertive in the village. And Rani was illiterate and, they
In the election, 10 low-caste women sought to be elected pradhan.
Two were dhobis and eight were chamars, from a caste of leather workers
formerly considered untouchable. The chamar vote fractured, and Rani
prevailed with support from Brahmins and Yadavs, an intermediate cowherds'
caste -- an alliance that has made her unpopular with other low-caste people
in the village.
At dusk one evening, a group of low-caste women gathered in a lane
to heap calumnies on Rani. "We want land and houses!" they shouted angrily,
and "She has not given them to us!"
Rani replied wearily that 12 government-financed houses have been
built for low-caste families, but there is no money for more. "And we don't
have land in the village to distribute to the landless," she said.
On the opposite side of the caste divide, Rani has made an enemy
of the former pradhan, Alam Singh, whom she believed was corrupt. Singh --
who denies that he ever did anything dishonest -- can barely contain his
rage when her name comes up.
"Women should be confined to the household and men should be
village heads," he said one afternoon, as men crowded around, drawn by the
raucous harangue of this almost toothless old man. "The work of a woman is
to cook the food and clean the clothes."
So Rani is caught in a sandwich of critics, with the contemptuous
former pradhan, a Brahmin, on one side and distrustful lower-caste people on
But people from within and outside the village say she is an
honest woman who has done a good job.
On a walk through the quiet lanes in October, past herds of
snoozing water buffalo and carts pulled by teams of oxen, Rani pointed to
the village hand pump she had gotten fixed. She showed off the new brick
lanes, electrical poles and street lights installed on her watch and checked
on the progress of a new community hall, being built for 90,000 rupees, or
Mahendra Singh, a Brahmin from another village who has taught in
Chijarasi's elementary school for 36 years, said he has seen the local
Brahmins try to sabotage her.
"They find it difficult to digest that a lower-caste woman is the
village head," he said. "But she's doing a better job than the others. When
the village got 90,000 rupees for a community hall, any other pradhan would
have taken a cut of the money. She did not."
She has also paid attention to the problems of women. Manju, a
28-year-old factory worker, came to her last year to say that her drunk
husband was beating her. Rani asked her own husband to talk to Manju's
husband. And Rani called the police and asked them to go to the places in
the village where men gather to tell them they must not abuse their wives.
Manju said that her husband has since stopped hitting her. "I had
complained to the previous village head, but he didn't do anything," Manju
And Rani has lobbied state officials for a medical clinic. She
watched helplessly as five of her seven children died of diseases she only
vaguely understood -- a curse that she believes might have been avoided had
there been a convenient, reliable place in the village to take them for
checkups and vaccinations.
"The officials have promised to help," she said. "But they have
done nothing yet."
Rani herself says she has learned how to operate as a pradhan in
her year-and-a-half on the job. She has gone to meetings in state offices
she never knew existed, watched as other pradhans raised their voices to win
more resources, then followed their example.
"I have gained a lot of confidence," she said.
But she has not tried to do it alone. She relies on her
10-year-old son, Vikram, to read documents aloud, his finger tracing the
lines of script as he haltingly says the words. She sends her husband to
speak on her behalf to village men.
She asks the Brahmin elementary school teacher for advice about
how to deal with officials. And she has cultivated Kumar, the state official
who oversees her village.
"The good thing about Rani is she asks for help," Kumar said.
Most recently, Rani turned to Kumar with her worry that a group of
villagers were trying to tamper with the panchyat record book for their own
gain. They had demanded she give it to them for five days. She was unable to
read the book's well-thumbed pages, but it was a point of honor with her
that they not be falsified.
"They're trying to get my basta," she said.
So she waited fearfully that day for Kumar's reply to her
question: Did she have to hand it over?
"Do not give the basta to anyone," he told her. "And do not sign
any paper. They can do nothing to you unless they have a two-thirds
Relieved, Rani smiled. With business out of the way, she, her
husband and Kumar chatted about village matters and the former pradhan's
efforts to undermine her.
Then Kumar grew serious. And as he spoke of her honesty and her
pluck, it seemed that Rani sat up a little straighter and held her head a
"I'm impressed by her courage," he said. "She's fought head on
with a very influential man of the upper caste who was head of the village
for a decade. And he has been defeated by the grit of this low-caste woman."
With her resolve fortified and her rights established, Rani caught
the bus back to Chijarasi to take on her social betters once again.
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